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The Ogre Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Ogre may be one of the most disturbing books ever written. It follows a simple-minded man into the heart of the Jewish Holocaust and dramatizes his confusion so thoroughly that the reader may find it impossible to escape. By the time Abel Tiffauges realizes the terrible extent of his predicament, he is lost—and the reader is lost with him. This accomplishment accounts for the book’s reputation as Tournier’s most powerful novel but also explains the dismay it has caused.

As a sickly child, Abel was placed by his parents in a foster home called St. Christopher’s. By the time the reader meets him as an adult, he has developed into a strong but emotionally underdeveloped mechanic whose interests in children and photography are easily misinterpreted. When a young girl incorrectly identifies him as a molester, he is arrested, but he escapes prosecution because France is mobilizing for war. He eventually finds himself working with carrier pigeons in the French army but is captured by the Germans and assigned to a labor camp.

Abel comes to love wartime Germany, a nation whose many rules and regulations leave no room for the troubling ambiguity of civilian life in France. From ditch digger he is promoted to driver and eventually to gamekeeper on Field Marshal Hermann Göring’s hunting preserve, Rominten. He discerns the elements of a grand plan in everything that has happened to him and is convinced that events, large and small, revolve around him. He sees the fall of France as retribution for the wrong done to him by the incorrect accusation, and he interprets his rise to a position of some authority in Germany as tacit avowal of his central importance.

An odd event confirms Abel’s sense of destiny. While he is delayed on a mission, an unidentified corpse is pulled from a bog, and at first Abel’s superiors believe it may be him. On closer inspection the corpse turns out to be that of a man who died two thousand years ago and whose body was preserved in the peat. The scientist examining the body refers to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s haunting and beloved ballad, “The Erlking” (handily neglecting to mention the poem’s sinister subject), and suggests that the find be named in its honor. This Erl-King’s resemblance to himself is not lost on Abel, and when a second, smaller body is found in the bog, it merely confirms him in his identification. His subsequent reassignment to the Kaltenborn Napola, a Nazi military training camp for boys in the eastern forests of Germany, convinces him that fate is preparing him for a special purpose.

Events develop rapidly. On a mission to gather “recruits” for the camp, Abel discovers a Jewish boy, Ephraim, who makes him realize the extent of the Nazi predations against the Jews. Abel’s delusional world totters. Is he Saint Christopher, who carried travelers on his back? Is he the Erl-King, who carried away children’s souls? Christ? Adolf Hitler? As Russian troops break through German lines to the east and Kaltenborn Napola is consumed in flames, Abel lifts Ephraim to his shoulders and tries to escape, but the two sink into a bog. The last thing Abel sees is the Jewish six-pointed star revolving in the sky.


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Michel Tournier’s The Ogre is an unsettling work that relies on a range of narrative strategies to achieve its effects. Notable among these is the alternation between first-and third-person narration. The book opens with the “Sinister Writings” of the protagonist , Abel Tiffauges, a first-person narration, switches in sections 2 through 4 to a nonobjective third person, and in sections 5 and 6 alternates between first and third person. The very opening of the work is intended to shock:January 3, 1938: You’re an ogre, Rachel used to say to me sometimes. An ogre? A fabulous monster emerging from the mists of time? Well, yes, I do think there’s something magical about me, I do think there’s a secret collusion, deep down, connecting what happens to me with what happens...

(The entire section is 1,655 words.)