Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1250
Golaud, Arkël’s grandson, gets lost while hunting, and as he wanders through the forest he comes upon Mélisande weeping beside a spring. She, too, is lost, her beautiful clothes torn by the briars and her golden crown fallen into the spring. She is like a little girl when she weeps. Golaud tries to comfort her. Although she will not let him touch her or reach for her crown, which he could have retrieved easily, she follows him out of the forest.
Afraid of Arkël, who wants his grandson to marry the daughter of an enemy to bring peace to the land, Golaud writes his half brother Pelléas that he has married Mélisande and wishes to bring her home if Arkël will forgive him. He will wait near the castle for Pelléas to signal that he and Mélisande could enter. Their mother, Geneviève, persuades Arkël, who is now too old to resist, to give his permission. Pelléas wants to visit a dying friend before Mélisande arrives, but Arkël persuades him to stay for the sake of his own sick father.
When Pelléas takes Mélisande to see Blind Man’s Spring, a delightfully cool place on a stifling day, he realizes that Golaud had already found Mélisande beside a spring. As Pelléas asks her about that meeting, Mélisande, playing with her wedding ring, lets it fall into the water. As the ring falls, the clock in the castle grounds strikes twelve.
At this time as well, Golaud is hunting. When the clock strikes twelve, his horse bolts and runs into a tree, throwing Golaud. He is recovering from his accident when Mélisande comes to tell him that she wants to go away because the castle is too gloomy. He notices that her ring is gone. She says that she had lost it in the grotto by the sea while picking up shells for Little Yniold. Golaud sends her back immediately to find the ring before the tide comes in. Pelléas takes Mélisande to the grotto so that she can describe the place where she claims to have lost Golaud’s wedding ring.
Whenever Golaud is away, Pelléas spends as much time as he can with Mélisande. Usually, Little Yniold is with them. Once, when the little boy was unable to sleep because he said Mélisande would go away, Pelléas takes him to the window to see the swans chasing the dogs. Little Yniold sees his father crossing the courtyard and runs downstairs to meet him. Returning to the room, Little Yniold notices that both Pelléas and Mélisande had been crying.
One night, Mélisande leans from a tower while she combs her beautiful long hair. Pelléas, coming into the courtyard below, entwines his hands in her hair and praises her beauty. When Golaud comes by shortly afterward, Pelléas cannot let go of Mélisande’s hair. Golaud scolds them for playing at night like children.
On some days, the castle has a smell of death. Golaud, convinced that an underground lake in one of the crypts beneath the castle is responsible for the smell, leads Pelléas down into the crypts the next morning to see the lake and smell the overpowering scent of death there. Golaud swings the lantern around, which propels Pelléas toward the lake; Golaud, however, catches his arm and keeps him from falling into the water. When the half brothers come out on the terrace, Golaud tells Pelléas that Mélisande is young and impressionable and that she must be treated more circumspectly than Pelléas had treated her the night before, because she is with child.
Golaud tries to find out from Yniold how Pelléas...
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and Mélisande act when the child is with them, what they say and what they do. When he cannot get the child to answer any of his questions satisfactorily, he lifts him so that the boy can look through the window of the room in which Pelléas and Mélisande are standing. Even then he does not learn from Yniold what Pelléas and Mélisande are doing.
A short time later, Pelléas’s father is so much better that the prince decides to start on his delayed journey the next day. He asks Mélisande to meet him that night near Blind Man’s Spring.
Arkël tells Mélisande that happiness ought to enter the castle now that Pelléas’s father is recovered. He wonders why she had changed from the joyous creature she was when she entered the castle to the unhappy one she now seems to be. Although Mélisande disclaims being unhappy, Arkël senses her sadness. Golaud, coming to look for his sword, suddenly begins raging at Mélisande, and he drags her on her knees until Arkël intervenes.
That night, Mélisande meets Pelléas, and as they make love in the shadows, Pelléas feels that the stars are falling. When they move into the moonlight, their shadows stretch the length of the garden. Pelléas thinks Mélisande’s beauty unearthly, as if she were about to die. As the gates clang shut, they realize that they are locked out of the castle for the night. Suddenly, Mélisande sees Golaud. Knowing they cannot flee from his sword, Mélisande and Pelléas kiss desperately. When Golaud strikes Pelléas at the brink of the fountain, Pelléas falls. Golaud pursues Mélisande into the darkness. An old servant finds Mélisande and Golaud at the gates early the next morning. Mélisande has a slight cut under her breast, not enough to harm a bird. She delivers a tiny, premature daughter. Golaud had tried without success to kill himself.
Golaud drags himself to Mélisande’s room, where Arkël and the physician are attending her. The physician tries to convince Golaud that Mélisande is not dying of the sword wound, that she had been born without reason to die, and that she is dying without reason. Golaud cannot be convinced. He feels that he had killed both Pelléas and Mélisande without cause—that they are both children and had kissed simply as children do—but he is not sure.
When Mélisande wakes up, she seems to have forgotten her hurt and Golaud’s pursuit, and she thinks her husband has grown old. Hoping to hear her confess to a forbidden love for Pelléas, Golaud asks the physician and Arkël to leave him alone with her for a moment. When he questions her, however, Mélisande innocently exclaims that she and Pelléas were never guilty. She asks for Pelléas. Because Golaud begs her to speak the truth at the moment of death, she asks who is to die. She cannot answer his questions any better than Little Yniold had done when Golaud lifted him to the window to spy for him.
Arkël shows Mélisande her tiny daughter. Mélisande pities the child because she looks sad. While Mélisande is looking at the baby, a group of women servants comes into the room. Mélisande stretches out her arms and then lays as if weeping in her sleep. Suddenly the servants kneel. The physician looks at Mélisande and sees that she is dead.