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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716

As Zoé and Lucien Bergeret reminisce about their childhood in Saint-Omer, Zoé asks her brother if he remembers Putois. His enthusiastically affirmative reply leads to a recital, by sister and brother speaking alternately, of a complete physical description of Putois. Lucien’s teenage daughter, Pauline, listens to this recital in amazement and asks why they have memorized this curious piece of prose and why they recite it with such pious solemnity. Amused by Pauline’s question, Lucien and Zoé explain that the description of Putois is a revered text in the Bergeret family because Putois was the most familiar figure of their childhood, even though he did not exist—or rather, had a special kind of existence. Putois was “born” at a mature age, invented by their mother when Lucien and Zoé were young children and the family was living quietly in the northern French town of Saint-Omer. Their peaceful life was interrupted when they were “discovered” by a great-aunt of Madame Bergeret, named Madame Cornouiller, who insisted that the Bergerets must dine with her every Sunday, as is done in the best families. This social obligation quickly proved to be so boring that the Bergerets began to look for polite pretexts to decline the imperious Madame Cornouiller’s standing invitation.

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After exhausting such obvious excuses as illness, the desperate Madame Bergeret one day blurted out that they could not come the next Sunday because they were expecting their gardener. Asked who their gardener was, Madame Bergeret invented the name Putois. Certain that she knew this person, Madame Cornouiller cautioned Madame Bergeret to beware of Putois, because he was considered a lazy good-for-nothing and a vagabond. That was how Putois came to exist, and how he acquired a distinctive character.

Zoé and Lucien are interrupted by the arrival of two disciples of Professor Bergeret, Monsieur Goubin and Monsieur Marteau, who are given a rapid summary of the origin of Putois so they can join the family discussion. Told that Putois came into existence when Professor Bergeret’s mother named him, and that he at once became an active influence in the town, Monsieur Goubin objects, arguing that because Putois’s existence is only imaginary, he could hardly have had any influence on others. To this, Professor Bergeret replies that mythical figures, though imaginary, have always had a profound influence on people, and that Putois was obviously a mythical figure, though a very minor and local one.

That point settled, the disciples ask Bergeret to tell them more about Putois and his reputation in Saint-Omer as an evil spirit. Monsieur Bergeret recounts for them the role of Madame Cornouiller in developing still further the bad reputation she had initially assigned to Putois. Reflecting that the gardening services of Putois would cost her less than those of her own gardener, Madame Cornouiller insisted that her grandniece send Putois to her. Madame Bergeret promised to do so, but when, as expected, Madame Cornouiller complained that he had not appeared, Madame Bergeret explained that Putois was a strange and elusive person, and that he was probably hiding. Feeling challenged, Madame Cornouiller asserted that she would find Putois, and she went about asking relatives, friends, neighbors, servants, and merchants if they knew him. Only two or three admitted having never heard of him; the rest claimed to know him, but not where he could be found. One day, Madame Cornouiller arrived breathlessly at the Bergerets’, saying she had just seen Putois and had called out his name. Putois had turned around briefly, but then had hurried away. She added, triumphantly, that now she knew what he looked like. He had an evil countenance, just as she expected.

Soon thereafter Madame Cornouiller accused Putois of stealing three melons from her garden and gave a detailed description of him to the police. Her description appeared in the Saint-Omer newspaper and was promptly adopted as a sacred text by the delighted Bergeret family. Next, Putois was accused of having seduced Madame Cornouiller’s cook. Before long, all of Saint-Omer suspected Putois of every evil deed reported. Putois thus became the talk of the town. His nefarious exploits were legion. Public belief in Putois’s existence had become so strong that even Madame Bergeret wondered whether her “white lie” might have been divinely inspired truth.

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