Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1199
Ferdinand, an indifferent student of medicine in Paris, is anarchistic in his reaction to authority and emphatically pacifistic. Immediately prior to World War I, he is expounding his cynical disregard for nationalistic pride in a café. Down the street comes a colonel at the head of a military band. The music and the uniforms capture Ferdinand’s fancy, and in spite of his declarations he rushes off to enlist. During the fighting he is a runner, constantly exposed to scenes of savage brutality and to great danger on his errands. On one mission he meets Léon.
When Ferdinand suffers a slight wound in his arm, he is given convalescent leave in Paris. There he meets Lola, an American Red Cross worker who idolizes the French. She romanticizes his wound, becomes his temporary mistress, and fills him with stories of the United States. When she comes to think of Ferdinand as a coward and a cynic, she leaves him.
The thought of losing Lola is more than Ferdinand can bear. When his mind gives way, he is sent to a variety of mental hospitals, where he quickly learns to ingratiate himself with the psychiatrists by agreeing with everything they say. His tactics at last procure his release as cured but unfit for active duty.
In Paris, he leads a precarious life, but he betters his existence by acting as a go-between for Musyne, a dancer who is greatly sought after by rich Argentine meat dealers. The thought of all that beef to be sold at high prices is too much for Ferdinand, and after some months with Musyne, he leaves for colonial Africa. During the voyage, he becomes the scapegoat of the passengers but flatters them shamelessly to avoid being flung overboard.
In French West Africa, he is assigned to a trading post far in the interior. He makes the ten-day trip by canoe into the hot, lush jungle, where his trading post turns out to be a shack anchored by two big rocks. The mysterious trader he comes to relieve is, frankly, a thief, who tells Ferdinand that he has no goods left to trade, very little rubber, and only canned stew for provisions. The rascal gives Ferdinand three hundred francs, saying it is all he has, and leaves in the direction of a Spanish colony. Only after he leaves does Ferdinand realize that his predecessor was Léon.
After several weeks of fever and canned stew, Ferdinand leaves the trading post, which he accidentally burns, and his only baggage is the three hundred francs and some canned stew. His overland safari is a nightmare. His fever rises dangerously high, and during much of the trip he is delirious. His porters steal his money and leave him with a Spanish priest in a seaport. The priest, for a fee, delivers him to a captain of easy scruples. Ferdinand, still sick, is shanghaied on a ship bound for the United States.
When he attempts to jump ship in New York, he is caught by the immigration authorities. Pretending to be an expert on flea classification, he is put to work in a quarantine station catching and sorting fleas for the Port of New York. After gaining the confidence of his chief, he gets sent into the city to deliver a report, although technically he is still under detention. In New York, he looks up Lola, now older but still attractive, who gives him a hundred dollars to get rid of him. With the money he takes a train to Detroit. Soon he is employed by the Ford Motor Company.
In Dearborn he falls in love with Molly, who lives in a brothel. Each day, he escorts her to the bordello in the early evening. Then he rides streetcars until she is through for the night. On one of his nightly trips, he meets Léon again. Léon is unhappy in America because he cannot learn enough English to get along. He has to be content with a janitor’s job. Ferdinand learns that Léon also wishes to return to France.
Although he loves Molly very much, Ferdinand leaves her and Detroit to go back to Paris. Completing his medical course, he is certified as a doctor, and he settles down to practice in a poor neighborhood. His patients rarely pay him. Mostly he is called for abortion cases.
One day, the Henrouilles summon him to attend the old grandmother who lives in a hut behind their house. They hate to spend the money necessary to feed the old woman, and Madame Henrouille offers Ferdinand a thousand francs if he will certify that the grandmother is insane. Through conscience or fear, Ferdinand refuses. Then Léon is called on the same case. He agrees to set a bomb next to the old woman’s hut so that she will kill herself when she opens the door. Clumsy Léon bungles the job; he accidentally detonates the bomb and loses his sight.
With the help of the Abbé Protiste, the family works out a scheme to get rid of the old woman and Léon. They propose to send the two to Toulouse, where there is a display of mummies. Léon will be a ticket seller and old Madame Henrouille will be the guide. For persuading Léon to accept the proposition, Ferdinand receives a thousand francs.
Ferdinand’s practice grows smaller. At last, he goes to the Montmartre section of Paris, where for a time he is pleased with his job as supernumerary in a music hall. The Abbé Protiste looks him up after some months and offers to pay his expenses to Toulouse, where Ferdinand is to see if Léon is likely to make trouble for the Henrouilles on the score of attempted murder.
In Toulouse, Ferdinand learns that Léon is regaining his sight. He also is engaged to Madelon. The old lady is a vigorous and successful guide. Ferdinand dallies a little with the complaisant Madelon but decides to leave before their intimacy is discovered. Old Madame Henrouille falls, or is tripped, on the stairs and is killed. It is a good time for Ferdinand to leave—hurriedly.
Dr. Baryton runs a genteel madhouse. By great good luck Ferdinand is hired on his staff. He ingratiates himself with his employer by giving him English lessons. Dr. Baryton reads Thomas Macaulay’s History of England from the Accession of James II (1849-1861) and becomes so enamored of English things that he departs for foreign lands and leaves Ferdinand in charge. Shortly afterward, Léon shows up, broke and jobless. He ran away from Madelon. Ferdinand takes him in and gives him a job.
Madelon comes looking for Léon and haunts the hospital gate. Hoping to appease her, Ferdinand arranges a Sunday party to visit a carnival. In the party are Léon, Madelon, Ferdinand, and Sophie, Ferdinand’s favorite nurse. After a hectic day they take a taxi home. On the way Léon declares he no longer loves Madelon. The spurned woman takes out her revolver and kills him. Ferdinand knows that it is time for him to move on once more.