Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 845
Woman of the Pharisees is a complex weave of troubled and fallible characters, of suffering and redemption, both secular and spiritual. Above all, Louis Pian’s story is a study of his self-righteously religious stepmother, Brigitte Pian, and those whom she victimizes and destroys before she finally faces the truth of her loveless, vindictive “piety.”
The story opens at Louis’ school, at the end of the term and the beginning of his friendship with Jean de Mirbel. Jean’s brutal uncle has decreed that Jean, because of his poor performance at school, may not spend the summer holiday with his mother. Instead, he is to be sent to live and study with the Abbe Calou at Baluzac, a few miles from the Pian country estate at Larjuzon. Louis is excited that his friend will be so near, though when Jean and Louis’ sister, Michele, meet and fall in love, Louis becomes angry and jealous, inadvertently causing disastrous repercussions later for the young lovers.
Also staying at Larjuzon during the summer is M. Puybaraud, a teacher at Louis’ school. He has been invited by Louis’ stepmother supposedly to tutor Louis during the holiday; in fact, Brigitte wishes to break up an attachment Puybaraud has formed with Octavia Tronche, a delicate young woman who teaches at a Free School sponsored by Brigitte. She has learned of the love between Octavia and Puybaraud because of Louis’ betrayal of his teacher’s trust: He has told his stepmother of a letter to Octavia that Puybaraud asked him to post privately.
Brigitte fails to persuade either Octavia or Puybaraud to give each other up for what she sees as a higher calling to God in the convent and priesthood. When they marry, Brigitte punishes them by using her influence to deny them any employment, thus forcing them to live in poverty on her charity. Octavia later dies in childbirth, lacking even the basic comforts and the help that might have saved her child.
Meanwhile, Jean, living with the Abbe Calou, falls into difficulties of his own. His mother, the Comtesse de Mirbel, whom he adores, comes to visit him at Baluzac but firmly refuses to allow her son to spend the night with her at her hotel in Vallandraut. Undaunted, Jean slips out at night, borrows the priest’s bicycle, and rides to the hotel, only to discover eventually that his mother is really at a different hotel in Balauze, a few miles away, and that she is with a lover. After Jean catches a glimpse of the two of them at their hotel window, he turns back in despair to Baluzac, falls ill along the way, and loses consciousness. He is later found by the Abbe Calou, returned to the kindly priest’s house, and nursed back to health.
Brigitte, however, has learned about Jean and Michele’s love and their secret meetings—she has been led to the discovery by Louis’ indiscretion during a jealous outburst—and, in a rage, she forbids Louis and Michele to visit Jean while he recovers. For good measure, she gets her husband to agree to send Michele to a girls’ school, away from any contact with Jean. The Abbe Calou, attempting to help Jean, has the girl secretly send him news of herself which is to be passed on to Jean. The correspondence is discovered and cut off, however, and Brigitte moves to destroy the priest by complaining of him to the archbishop. When Jean, in desperation, briefly elopes with the local chemist’s wife (a woman who has deliberately seduced the boy in order to settle a grudge against the priest), Jean’s mother also complains, ultimately causing the Abbe to lose his parish.
When the school term begins, Brigitte separates from her husband, taking Louis to live with her in town. It is at this point that the disasters begin to accumulate which force Brigitte to see herself for what she is. The first to occur is the death of her husband, Louis’ father. Left alone at Larjuzon, he discovers a letter that Brigitte had found and “accidentally” left behind proving his first wife’s unfaithfulness, and he drinks himself to death. Octavia’s death during childbirth and Jean’s elopement, two incidents which arouse both Louis’ and Michele’s hostility toward their stepmother, follow. Brigitte begins to suffer intensely, as her conscience condemns her for her heartless actions in the name of piety. In an effort to atone, she encourages Jean and Michele’s engagement and begins visiting the Abbe Calou, who is living in disgrace with relatives. It is the priest who gives to Brigitte the absolution that she craves, and when he dies, it is in her arms.
Brigitte’s new spiritual awakening culminates in an intense, loving relationship with her Protestant doctor, over the objections of his family. Though he is killed in an accident, Brigitte’s love transcends his death, leaving her quietly serene. In contrast, Jean and Michele, who have married, live troubled lives marked by bickering and reconciliations. Louis, the observer-narrator, never marries.
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