Mauprat is, in a sense, an allegory of the last days of feudal France as it yielded to the new ideas brought in by the French Revolution. Sand did not dispute its fairy-tale trappings and format. The Mauprat family, consisting of a father and seven brothers living in lawless isolation in their great medieval castle of Roche-Mauprat, has from time immemorial lorded it over the surrounding countryside. The days are gone when the Mauprats could legally confiscate from the local peasants; the Mauprats now survive by outright robbery. These men embody every vice: laziness, lechery, drunkenness, arrogance, deceit, cruelty, and ignorance. Their only redeeming quality is boldness, inherited from their knightly ancestors. For Sand, Roche-Mauprat represents a crucible in which to test Rousseau’s doctrine of humankind’s innate goodness.
Into this den of thieves is brought Bernard Mauprat, their orphaned cousin, an uncorrupted child of seven. Can his essential nature and early rearing survive ten years of indoctrination in the Mauprats’ vices?
The wicked Mauprats deceive the beautiful young woman Edmée, who has become separated from her hunting companions, into seeking shelter in their lair. Bernard is charged with guarding her. Edmée believes that he is redeemable, if he can be reeducated. She notices that Bernard is falling in love with her. They conclude a bargain: If he will help her escape, no other man will have her before Bernard. Bernard does not wish to marry her, but he knows she is too proud not to keep her word. They both agree to keep the bargain secret. Edmée foresees a loophole, which she keeps to herself: She may decide to marry no one.
The reeducation of Bernard is conducted by Edmée, her father, Patience (a homeless peasant philosopher), and the Abbé Aubert. The sow’s ear is turned into a silk purse. The reeducation, conducted with love, is more than successful.
Edmée remains stubborn. Bernard concedes that he is ready for a civilized life and is ready to marry the woman he loves. Edmée hints that she loves him, yet he cannot win her. Nor will she marry anyone else, saying that her father needs her. Feeling at a loss, Bernard goes off to America to fight in the Revolutionary War. For five years, he fights, brooding over the occasional letters that he receives from Edmée.
At last, there is a joyous homecoming. Even Edmée’s father is now impatient to see the two young people married. Edmée presents Bernard with a conundrum: He must unconditionally release Edmée from her promise, and then she will decide whether to marry him, if at all. Bernard has devoted years to making himself worthy of her pledge; the pledge was his motive and inspiration. The more that he loves her, the less able he is to release her.
Fate resolves this problem. The authorities raid the wicked Mauprats. Most are killed, but two survive and go into hiding. They resurface in disguise, with plans to destroy Bernard’s life. Edmée is to be killed in an apparent hunting accident, which will appear to be Bernard’s fault.
Not one but two trials are recounted in considerable detail. At the first, Bernard is condemned to be hanged. At the second, Edmée miraculously recovers and testifies on his behalf. Her testimony—in order to be convincing and thus save his life—must include a public confession of her love for him. Edmée finally professes her love unambiguously. The jury and the public are won over, and the long self-denying lovers are united at last, to live happily ever after.
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