Mouchette (mew-SHEHT), a fourteen-year-old peasant girl living in northern France. She is a highly sensitive and perceptive young girl who is desperate for attention and exhausted with being brutalized by the adults in her life. She is raped by the drunken poacher Arsène and tries unsuccessfully to tell those in authority about the experience. Isolated and completely friendless, she is overwhelmed with feelings of disgust but finds a strange kind of consolation even in the brutal rape. She announces to Mathieu that she is Arsène’s lover. The growing consciousness of the depth of her despair drives her to suicide by drowning.
Arsène (ahr-SEHN), a young, alcoholic, epileptic poacher. He warns Mouchette that there is a devastating cyclone destroying the countryside; the fabrication is his means of getting her to stay with him in his forest hut. He also tells her that he may have killed the game warden, Monsieur Mathieu, thus gaining her trust and loyalty. As he becomes progressively more intoxicated, he has an epileptic seizure, after which Mouchette tenderly cradles his head and sings to him. After coming to, he brutally rapes her.
Mouchette’s mother, a middle-aged woman dying of tuberculosis. She is from a family of alcoholics and is dying an early death because of her weakened hereditary background. She is emaciated, malnourished, and in severe pain, because her lungs have virtually ceased to function. A bitter woman whose life has been nothing but grinding poverty and abuse from her family, she endures her last moments by drinking as much gin as possible to anesthetize the pain. Just as Mouchette begins to tell her of the rape, the mother dies. Mouchette cannot remember even one affectionate touch from her mother.
Mouchette’s father, a smuggler and sometime poacher in his mid-fifties. The product of an alcoholic lineage, he shows little feeling when he learns of his wife’s death, having just come home from an extended drunk with his equally unmoved sons. He upbraids Mouchette, though, for staring at him. He has beaten her regularly throughout most of her childhood.
Philomène, an ancient woman of indeterminate age who keeps watch over the dead and prepares them for burial. She comes from far up in the mountains and is a mysterious yet compassionate crone who intuitively understands Mouchette’s plight. Although weakened with tuberculosis when she was young, she became a servant of a beautiful, young, and healthy woman who immediately declined into early illness and death. As her mistress’ health declined, Philomène’s physical condition improved.
Monsieur Camille Mathieu
Monsieur Camille Mathieu (maht-YUH), a game warden in his thirties. After Mouchette is raped, she wanders into the village and is shocked to see Mathieu alive and well. After she tells him of the rape and then calls Arsène her lover, Mathieu deftly attempts to calm her and disengage himself from any association with the situation, even though he admits to having a drunken fight with Arsène. He instructs her to come back the next day when she is in more control of herself.
Madame Mathieu, the wife of the game warden, who feels pity for Mouchette. Having lived in Amiens for most of her life, she is shaken by the battered appearance of Mouchette and gets an unnerving insight into the damage that rural poverty can do to sensitive young girls.
The music teacher
The music teacher, an aging woman, increasingly debilitated with rheumatism, who sadistically abuses Mouchette by humiliating her in front of the entire class. Even though Mouchette is the senior girl in the class, the teacher calls her singing disgusting and violently forces her face down on the keys of the harmonium, while the other students laugh derisively at her poverty, awkwardness, and rural Picard accent.
Madame Derain (deh-RAYN), a middle-aged grocer. She initially takes pity on Mouchette because of her battered appearance, even though she half believes old stories that Mouchette has taken revenge on local farmers by killing their livestock. She offers the famished girl some three-day-old croissants that Mouchette quickly devours. Because of her nerves, Mouchette accidentally breaks Madame Derain’s bowl; Madame Derain then verbally abuses her and chases her out of the store.
The summary of events, sketched above, gives a most inadequate rendering of the power of this elegantly crafted tale. It also does little more than suggest the complex responses aroused in a reader by Bernanos’ rendering of his innocent heroine’s death following a series of rejections on all fronts. The book’s focus is exclusively on the inarticulate Mouchette in her few moments of joy and in her lifetime of suffering. At least (such is Bernanos’ skill), it seems like a lifetime; in fact, however, it cannot be more than eighteen hours from the start to the finish of the action. No other characters’ motives are examined by the omniscient narrator.
The reader follows with increasing sympathy Mouchette’s growing confidence in her abductor, her half-desirous, half-terrified involvement in her rape, and her painful realization that she has lost her virginity to a liar. Such is the potent effect of the stunted landscape, the incessant downpour, and the closed rural society that the reader comes to sympathize deeply with Mouchette and even to feel like something of an accomplice in her suicide. People do not understand her, she is unable to express herself adequately, and so she is rejected. Her life is miserable. With all the stubbornness, timidity, and incomprehension of a small animal, she is hunted from place to place, from person to person, increasingly degraded with each encounter. From the potentially life-giving meeting with Arsene, she travels to her ominous encounter with a devotee of Death (in the person of the wake-goer, Philomene).
The minor characters in the story are developed only insofar as they have an impact on the “chase,” to use Bernanos’ hunting metaphor; they are the dogs who pursue the game to its death.
Asti, F.D. “Failures in Communication in La Nouvelle Histoire de Mouchette,” in Nottingham French Studies. XX (1981), pp. 42-62.
Bush, William. Georges Bernanos, 1969.
Hebblethwaite, Peter. Bernanos: An Introduction, 1965.
Speaight, Robert. Georges Bernanos: A Study of the Man and the Writer, 1974.