Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609

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Jean Giono projected a sequence of novels which would deal both with the Angelo of The Horseman on the Roof and with another Angelo, the grandson of the first Angelo and Pauline. These novels would establish parallels not only between the characters of two generations but also between the eras of the 1840’s and the 1940’s. This Angelo, grandson of the hero of The Horseman on the Roof, becomes the narrator of Mort d’un personnage (1949), a novel which describes the death of Pauline de Theus in powerful detail.

At the time of his own death, Giono had finished four novels in the Hussard Cycle: Mort d’un personnage, The Horseman on the Roof, Le Bonheur Fou (1957; The Straw Man, 1959), and Angelo (1958; English translation, 1960). Mort d’un personnage deals with the most recent time period, even though it was the first of the four to be published. Angelo, the last of the novels published, was, according to Giono, the first written, a quick sketch made when he first envisioned the characters of Angelo and Pauline. The Straw Man takes Angelo (the hero of The Horseman on the Roof) back to Italy, where he finds himself involved in the war with Austria. Perhaps because Giono was unable to complete the sequence as originally planned, the connection between the published novels is not always clear, nor are the plot lines consistent. Nevertheless, Giono insisted before his death that these four works be published together as the Hussard Cycle when his writings were collected.

Much of the power of The Horseman on the Roof lies in its devastatingly realistic picture of the cholera epidemic of 1838, which Giono researched thoroughly before he began work on the final version of the novel. Angelo is a compelling character: naive, accomplished, generous, always willing to help, and as devoted to liberty as he is to health. More than one critic has pointed out that for a novel filled with corpses, The Horseman on the Roof is, ultimately, a novel which celebrates life.

Part of the life of the novel is Provence itself. Giono was born and grew up in the village of Manosque. When he was able to support himself as a writer, he bought a house in the village and spent his working life there. Giono’s descriptions of the geography, the hills and forests, and the villages and towns of Provence make the region come alive for the reader. Nature in the Provencal countryside takes on almost the quality of a character. This love of the area with which he was so familiar, and his return to it in book after book, have caused some critics to accuse Giono of being a regional novelist. If he was, however, he was a regional novelist in the same way that William Faulkner was, or in the way that Herman Melville was a novelist of the sea.

Some critics call The Horseman on the Roof an epic, and in many ways it does resemble a long heroic poem. Nevertheless, Norma L. Goodrich makes a strong argument that the literary form uppermost in Giono’s mind as he worked on The Horseman on the Roof was the roman courtois, and to read the novel in the light of this suggestion makes it clear that Angelo most resembles a medieval chivalric knight. In this character, the novel celebrates the medieval ideal of courtesy as maintained by a modern hero within the context of horrifying conditions. To have created so modern a work from a form so ancient (and so ignored by most other modern writers) is a remarkable achievement. With this novel, Giono’s literary reputation seems safely established.