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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1218

Angoulême is divided into two classes: the aristocrats of fashionable society and the bourgeois. David Séchard and Lucien Chardon are scarcely aware that they belong to the less privileged class. Lucien is the brilliant, handsome, unstable son of a chemist. David is the sober, kind son of a printer.

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David’s father sends him to Paris to learn all the latest innovations in the printing trade. The illiterate father, avaricious and mean, hopes that David will learn how to extract more money from the old-fashioned print shop of Séchard and Son. When David returns from Paris, his father quickly sells him the business at a high price and retires to his vineyard.

Partly because of his friendship with poetic Lucien and partly because of his temperament, David does not prosper. He is always discussing a grand project with Lucien or dreaming of Eve, Lucien’s beautiful sister. Lucien writes some verses that attract attention. Even the aristocrats of the town hear of him, and Madame de Bargeton, a thirty-six-year-old woman married to an old husband, invites him to one of her famous evening gatherings. Eve scrimps to buy Lucien the proper clothes for the occasion. The evening is not an entire success. Few except Madame de Bargeton listen to Lucien’s poetry, but he makes a real conquest of his host.

While Lucien does his best to break into society and win the heart of Madame de Bargeton, David and Eve are quietly falling in love. David strains his resources to the utmost to furnish rooms over the print shop for his wife-to-be, a room at the rear for his mother-in-law, and a comfortable room on the street for Lucien. David is determined to promote Lucien’s literary talent by supporting him. Two days before the wedding, Lucien is surprised in Madame de Bargeton’s boudoir. Her husband, old as he is, fights a duel with a man who gossiped about Madame de Bargeton. Not wishing to face the scandal, Madame de Bargeton decides to go to Paris, and Lucien is to follow her. With a heavy heart, for he knows Lucien’s weaknesses, David drives his friend at night along the Paris road. Safely away from Angoulême, Lucien joins his mistress.

David and Eve marry and settle into their new rooms. Eve is a devoted wife, although foolishly fond of her scapegrace brother. Before her child is born, she begins to grow uneasy. Lucien writes very seldom, and David pays little attention to his business. He is too busy working on an experiment to find a new way to make paper without rags. If he can invent a new process, they will all be rich. Meanwhile the family is desperately in need, for Lucien’s demands for money keep them poor. At last Eve herself takes charge of the print shop.

She has her first small success when she thinks of the idea of printing a Shepherd’s Calendar, a cheap almanac to peddle to farmers, but the firm of Cointet Brothers, rivals in the printing trade, give her so much unfair competition that she makes only a small profit from her printing venture. After her baby comes, she gives up her efforts for a while. David is more than ever wrapped up in his attempts to find a new process for making paper.

Meanwhile, Lucien fails completely to make his way in Paris. He quarrels with his rich mistress, and they part. He can find only odd jobs as a journalist. He borrows continually from David to lead the dissolute life of a man-about-town. Finally, when he goes to live openly with Coralie, an actress, he loses all chances for any real success.

Pressed for money, Lucien forges David’s name to notes for three thousand francs. When the firm of Cointet Brothers, acting as bankers, present the notes to David for payment, he is unable to raise the money. The lawsuit that follows disturbs Eve so much that she has to hire a wet nurse for her baby; in the eyes of the people of her small French town, she is disgraced. Cointet Brothers promise a profitable marriage to Petit-Claud, David’s lawyer, if he will prolong the suit, increase the costs to David, and eventually force him into debtor’s prison. During the delays, Eve and David both appeal to his father for help, but the old miser refuses aid to his son. He is mainly interested in collecting rent for the building in which David has his shop. With all help denied, David goes into hiding and works feverishly on his paper process.

In Paris, Coralie dies, leaving Lucien without a place to live. Having no money, he begins the long walk home. One night he catches a ride among the trunks of a carriage and goes to sleep on his precarious perch. When he awakens the carriage is stopped. As he gets off he sees that he is riding with his former mistress, Madame de Bargeton, now Madame la Comtesse Châtelet, wife of the new prefect of the district. She and her husband laugh openly as the disheveled Lucien stalks away.

A few miles from Angoulême, Lucien becomes ill and seeks refuge with a miller. Thinking Lucien is near death, the miller sends for a priest. When Lucien begs for news of his family, the priest tells him of David’s troubles. Lucien hurries to town to see what he can do for the brother-in-law he helped to ruin. In Angoulême, Lucien is sorrowfully received by his sister. To add to the distress of David and his family, Cointet Brothers publishes in the paper a glowing account of Lucien’s successes in Paris. There is a parade in Lucien’s honor, and the Châtelets even invite him to dinner.

Realizing that he still has a hold over Madame de Châtelet, Lucien tries to get David released from his debts through her influence. Meanwhile, after seeing some samples of David’s work, the Cointets offer to pay off his debts, buy his print shop, and develop his invention for him. The offer, however, is intended to bring David out of hiding. Then a letter from Lucien to his friend is intercepted and a forged note substituted, appointing a place of meeting. On the way to the meeting, David is arrested and thrown into prison. Lucien, after a despairing farewell to his sister, leaves Angoulême. He intends to kill himself, but on the road he is picked up by a Spanish priest, an emissary traveling between Madrid and Paris. The envoy sees promise in Lucien and offers him fifteen thousand francs in return for Lucien’s promise to do as the priest wishes. The Spaniard means to acquire power through Lucien’s attraction for women and his poetic fervor. The bargain sealed, Lucien sends the fifteen thousand francs to David.

The money arrives just after David signs away his shop and his papermaking process to the Cointets. David and Eve retire to the country and in due time inherit money and a vineyard from his father. Petit-Claud, the double-crossing lawyer, becomes a famous prosecutor. The Cointets make a great fortune from David’s process, and one of them becomes a deputy and a peer.

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