Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 791
Xavier Dartigelonghue (zhah-VYAY dahr-teezh-LOHNG), a middle-class young man intending to enter a seminary in Paris. Sensitive and intelligent, he is interested in human nature and, by aspiring to the priesthood, hopes to touch the lives of others. On the train to Paris, he meets Jean de Mirbel, who is separating from his wife, Michèle. Through a series of questions on the value of the priesthood, Jean intensifies Xavier’s self-doubts about his vocation and convinces him to return to his home in Larjuzon. This temptation, forcing Xavier to reconsider his plans, is followed by sensual conflict. Attracted by Dominique’s beauty and kindness, he replaces spiritual vocation with passionate desire. Her departure requires renunciation of this love; a higher love for the orphan Roland impels him to make a sacrifice that enables him to perceive the earthly presence of Christ. Through self-sacrifice, he restores dignity to Roland’s life. By recognizing the force of divine grace that sustains his suffering, Xavier resists the third temptation of earthly pleasure proposed by a cynical priest. Financially and psychologically, Xavier ensures Roland’s well-being, but on returning to Jean’s villa on bicycle, he is killed by the car driven by Jean. In dying, Xavier becomes an instrument of divine grace and, like Christ, endures self-sacrifice that leads to self-knowledge and the actualization of love.
Jean de Mirbel
Jean de Mirbel (zhah[n] deh meer-BEHL), a landowner in the Landes, near Bordeaux. A handsome but bitter man, he suffers from an impotent relationship with his wife, Michèle, and seeks separation from her. Worldly, self-centered, and calculating, he exploits and twists for his own demonic purposes Xavier’s intentions to become a priest. His cruelty extends to verbal and physical abuse of the orphan Roland, whom he intends to return to public assistance. After learning of Xavier’s intention to entrust Roland to Dominique, Jean is frustrated in his desire to hurt. To prevent Roland’s escape, he rushes to the rectory and accidentally kills Xavier. Through Xavier’s death, Jean learns shame and remorse; now requiring the support of others, he returns to Michèle and seeks reconciliation.
Michèle de Mirbel
Michèle de Mirbel (mee-SHEHL), Jean’s wife. A large-boned, strong woman, she suffers from loneliness and depression in an unfulfilling marriage, which Jean wants to dissolve. Fearful and anxious, she hopes to keep the marriage intact and, therefore, acquiesces to Jean’s demands. In assuming responsibility for Roland, she knows and experiences love; however, weak in resolve and uncommitted in principle, she agrees with Jean to return the child to the orphanage. The love that is unanswered as wife and mother then extends to Xavier. She becomes jealous of Dominique, who enjoys a reciprocal relationship with Xavier and who also directs her attentions to Roland. Xavier’s death eases her tensions between unrequited love and emotional weakness: By consoling Jean after Xavier’s accident, she restores her marriage.
Brigitte Pian (bree-ZHEET pee-AH[N]) Michèle’s stepmother. A pallid, elderly lady with yellowish-white hair, she wears black-tinted glasses to hide her eyes and wrinkles. She practices Catholicism devoutly but schemes to injure others. After discovering the relationship between Xavier and Dominique, she informs Xavier’s parents of his desire to disobey their wishes and instructs her secretary, Dominique, to leave with her for Bordeaux. She shatters their love, and, through her efforts, Xavier’s parents present their son with an ultimatum: He must turn to the study of law or be disinherited. After Xavier’s death, she offers Masses. She uses the accident to accuse Jean of murder and Xavier of suicide.
Dominique (doh-mee-NEEK), Madame Pian’s secretary. She is a withdrawn young lady who needs income and is, therefore, controlled by Madame Pian. Her innocent, considerate nature draws her to Roland, who is physically and verbally abused. Despite her affection for Roland and her passionate love for Xavier, she obeys Madame Pian’s command to leave the Mirbels’ villa. She assumes custody of Roland, however, and uses 150,000 francs inherited from Xavier’s will to accommodate earthly pressures of survival with spiritual impulses of love.
Roland, an orphan placed in the Mirbels’ custody. A victim of physical and psychological abuse, he is frightened of Jean but becomes resigned to his situation and to his return to the orphanage. Through Roland’s presence, Xavier discovers the resources of compassion and the means to actualize love.
Curé de Baluzac
Curé de Baluzac (koo-RAY deh bah-lew-ZAK) a cynical, materialistic priest. Although he discourages Xavier from entering the priesthood, he serves as an intermediary, allowing Xavier to bring Roland to Dominique at the rectory. At the end, he continues to celebrate Mass, but he prefers earthly pleasures.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411
Because of the fablelike nature of this short novel, the reader is given little insight into the psychological complexity of the residents of Jean’s villa. Jean himself is a cynical, somewhat sadistic, figure who plays the satanic role of trying to seduce Xavier away from his plans to enter the priesthood. He seems incapable of love and interested only in destroying those around him. Michele is even less fully delineated; like Jean she seems primarily dominated by the need to possess others and by her own petty jealousies.
Brigitte Pian is perhaps the most possessive of all, determined to control her young secretary Dominique and cynical about the relationship between Xavier and Jean. Dominique is little more than the object of Xavier’s romantic and sexual attraction. Roland, although unloved by Jean and Michele, is a relatively unlovable character who is jealous of Dominique’s attraction to Xavier. The Cure of Baluzac is, like Jean, jaded and cynical and lacking in faith. All in all, these characters are fairly flat and stereotypical, existing more for the sake of the role they play in the death of Xavier than as individualized characters.
It is into this nest of pettiness, cynicism, jealousies, and ennui that the young and innocent Xavier is drawn. Xavier is primarily characterized by his initial doubt about entering the priesthood and then by his desire to help the helpless. After he meets Dominique he begins to feel that she is the key to his life as a man, and he has second thoughts about his seminary plans. Although his priestly motives are scorned by Jean and he is suspected of homosexual desires, first by Mme Pian with Jean and then by Jean with Roland, as the novel progresses he seems to be characterized by nothing more than a pure and selfless love.
The mystery of his death revolves around the question of whether he committed suicide because of his apparent failure at becoming a priest, whether Jean murdered him, making him a sacrificial victim of a Christlike love, whether he was pushed by Satan himself, or whether he willingly died to make sure that Roland would have his estate. This final question is never resolved; the answer to it depends on whether one reads the story as a psychological novel of the young innocent, or whether one sees it as a symbolic novel of Christlike sacrifice. The tone and characterization of the work suggest this latter symbolic reading.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 25
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