Vipers’ Tangle is Louis’ record of the social and psychological forces which have shaped his solitude. The first part of his account is prompted by an explosion of hatred and vengeance resulting from his wife’s forty-five years of silence and separation. His need to be understood as more than merely a miser set upon disinheriting his children and to probe the sources of his feelings sets him upon a spiritual adventure of discovery and change. What Louis begins as a letter to Isa, his wife, to be read after his death, subsequently becomes a diary and, more important, a defense, a confession, and a self-revelation to be passed on as a part of the family inheritance.
Louis’ rage confusingly leads him from an account of the day of his solitary sixty-eighth birthday to a report of his youth, his training as a lawyer, and his meeting and marriage with Isa. Interspersed with observations on the hypocritical religious practices of the bourgeoisie and on the power which money and property afford, Louis’ thoughts gradually focus on the major incident that destroyed his faith in love and set off his fury with Isa: her confession of love for a man named Rodolphe. Louis discovers that he had been deceived into a marriage created only to save Isa’s reputation. He feels not jealousy but horror at the confirmation that he was, after all, one of those whom others cannot love.
The Easter season provides Louis with an opportunity to depict his family’s long-term conflicts: the contesting of his liberal, anticlerical attitude and the attempts to secure money for the family—this time for a business project of Genevieve’s son-in-law. Then, Louis slowly reveals further sources of his rage against Isa: her complete focus on the children, even to the extent of ignoring works of charity; her indifference, especially to his notable success with the Villenave case; her battles with him over the religious training of the children; her not loving him, thereby forcing him to turn to infidelity and financial gain as the only sources of satisfaction; and her inability to believe that the soul of their daughter, Marie, lives on after death.
To complete this indictment of Isa and her religious practices, Louis interweaves depictions of those who have served as models of faith and love and who have, consequently, contributed to his spiritual development: Marie, who prayed sincerely and loved the poor; Abbot Ardouin, whose belief in Louis as “very good” gave Louis sufficient strength to resist temptation with Marinette, Isa’s sister; Marinette, who elicited tender feelings of comfort from Louis and who relinquished a fortune for love; and finally, Marinette’s son, Luc, whose piety and prayers inspired Louis with an awareness of an “unknown substance” and his first experience of offering money out of genuine concern. The dramatic climax of this section of the book occurs during a hailstorm, when Louis recognizes his heart as a “vipers’ tangle” and turns from a preoccupation with property and gain toward a blind force which he senses may be Love: “I can no longer harvest anything in the world. I can only learn to know myself better.”
The second part follows a long night and day of a family conspiracy to find Louis’ wealth and to secure the patrimony, “the sacred rights of the family.” During his conversations with Isa, he experiences their first real communication and gains new faith in the possibility of love. His paranoia and fury over the conspiracy, however, are so powerful that Louis flees to Paris to find a new heir, his illegitimate son, Robert. His efforts only lead...
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to despair, for Robert betrays him by plotting with Louis’ son and son-in-law; yet in the midst of the treachery at Saint-Germain-des-Pres, Louis remembers Abbot Ardouin and Marie and senses “an unknown world of goodness” just beyond his reach. His consuming loneliness leads him to contemplate the existence of God. Although Robert has become a part of “the enemy,” Louis makes a second effort to detach himself from his possessions and provides Robert with a yearly income surpassing that which the family has offered.
Finally, after his ultimate despair at being deprived of a final communication with Isa before her death, Louis releases his fortune to his offspring. This action is, in part, prompted by an understanding of Hubert’s sincerity in securing the family honor. When Phili, the husband of Louis’ granddaughter, Janine, runs off with a singing instructor and his wife’s fortune, only Louis and Janine perceive the role which the others have played in shaping Phili’s character; they alone acknowledge his potential for good. During his final days, Louis urges Janine to consider faith beyond the mechanical gestures of religion. He dies knowing that he has been understood and hoping that he has touched another’s life. The last entry in the diary indicates that Louis has found that Love which he has so long sought.
Attached to Louis’ notebook are a letter from Hubert to Genevieve, in which Hubert casts doubt on their father’s spiritual change, and a letter from Janine to Hubert, in which she testifies that her grandfather had held three interviews with a priest and had intended to take his first communion at Christmas. Janine pleads with her uncle not to destroy the diary, for it is proof of the true object of Louis’ heart.