Mouchette is the brief story of a humble girl’s last miserable hours. It is a tale told with a marvelous economy of words and in a limpid style, taking the reader through the series of encounters the child experiences in her misery. The tale begins as Mouchette slips away from the singing class at the village primary school, where she has been rejected both by the teacher and by the other students. She takes to the road. Having cut across the taillis (a stunted wood, periodically cut back for charcoal making), she takes refuge between two trees to shelter from a rainstorm. By this time, she has lost both a shoe and her scarf. (Even the finest of details Georges Bernanos makes reverberate meaningfully in subsequent stages of her wandering and loss.)
Mouchette is then found by a friend of her smuggler-father, the drunk poacher Arsene, who takes her to his hut. There he gives her a drink from his small remaining stock of alcohol. He boasts graphically of having saved her from the “cyclone” raging outside, confesses in detail to killing the gamekeeper, Mathieu, and falls unconscious in an epileptic fit. Mouchette cradles his head and, though she hates music at school, sings lovingly and beautifully to him. When he recovers, Arsene rapes her. A brief glimmering of hope is thus extinguished. The small fire in the hut has become ashes. Mouchette takes to the road again.
At dawn, she arrives at the hovel where she lives only to find her father and brothers snoring drunkenly, the neglected baby crying, and her mother lying mortally ill. Mouchette succors the baby as she did Arsene and learns from her mother that the poacher lied to her about the storm the previous night. Mouchette’s mother dies before she can hear her daughter’s confession of her secret, however, and the girl again flees, alone, any dream of happiness or even of tenderness gone.
A Sunday-morning encounter with the gamekeeper, Mathieu, and his wife confirms Arsene’s deception. A savage in the eyes of the close-knit villagers, a miserable outcast in her own fumbling imagination, Mouchette defiantly announces to Mathieu that Arsene is her lover and then leaves.
The girl is invited into the house of the ancient, macabre Philomene, the professional watcher over the dead in the community, who has had her eye on Mouchette for some time. Philomene, it seems, thrives on death. She gives the fragile dress of a long-dead young lady whom she looked after in her early days of domestic service to Mouchette as a present.
Mouchette, now filled with ideas of her own death, goes to a local pond alone, where she leaves a strand of the torn muslin dress. A farmer, Menetrier, observes her and then goes on his way. Mouchette realizes that no caresses are ever going to come her way here, not from her family, not from Arsene, not from the village community, not from the Church. A voiceless voice speaks in her head, and she slides into the water, glances once at the sky, and drowns. Such is Georges Bernanos’ view of man’s inhumanity to man, or here to a young girl, on the road of life.