Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894
In The Woman of the Pharisees, François Mauriac recounts the life of Brigitte Pian and her influence on the lives of her stepchildren Louis and Michèle, her husband Octave Pian, Jean de Mirbel, Monsieur Puybaraud and Octavia Tronche, and Monsieur Calou, the curate of Baluzac. Mauriac tells his story through the voice of Louis Pian, Brigitte’s stepson.
The story opens with an incident of mistreatment at the boarding school where Louis is a pupil. Louis’s friend Jean de Mirbel is under the guardianship of his uncle, Colonel Comte de Mirbel, a brutal man who regularly visits the school to discipline Jean in the most cruel ways. Determined to maintain discipline over Jean and keep him away from his mother, whom he loves obsessively, the colonel arranges for Jean to remain at Baluzac for the summer under the tutelage of Monsieur Calou, the local curate who has a reputation for reforming boys such as Jean. Monsieur Calou’s methods, however, are the exact oppositive of his reputation for toughness. At his home, Jean experiences kindness and understanding. Jean also experiences romantic love with Louis’s sister Michèle.
During this summer, Jean is cruelly disillusioned by his mother. The colonel has finally permitted Jean’s mother to visit him. Jean insists on spending the night with her, but she absolutely refuses him. Jean stubbornly sneaks out of Monsieur Calou’s house and goes to her. Although she is not staying where he believes she is, he eventually finds her: She is with her lover. Jean’s discovery leaves him not only emotionally devastated, but also gravely ill with pleurisy from the rigors of his journey.
During Jean’s illness, Brigitte Pian takes measures to thwart his love affair with Michèle. After being informed of secret meetings between Jean and Michèle, she forbids her stepchildren to see Jean. Brigitte arranges for Michèle to go to boarding school and forbids even written communication between her and Jean. Monsieur Calou attempts to help Jean and Michèle. He delivers a gold locket to Jean, which the young man always wears around his neck. Seriously worried about Jean’s physical and emotional health, the curate arranges for Michèle to write to him so that Jean will have news of her. A letter addressed to Jean but sent to Monsieur Calou is intercepted, and all correspondence is stopped. Eventually, the despondent Jean becomes the victim of Hortense Voyod, the wife of the local pharmacist. Hortense does not believe in God; yet she hates him and his church. She seeks vengeance against Monsieur Calou because some years earlier, he thwarted her attempt to seduce a young schoolmistress. Jean becomes the instrument of her revenge. He succumbs to her seduction, quarrels bitterly with the curate, steals money from him, and runs off with her. Her revenge accomplished, she abandons Jean.
The love affair between Jean and Michèle is not the only one to come to the attention of Brigitte. Louis reveals to her the plans of Léonce Puybaraud, the assistant schoolmaster, and Octavia Tronche to marry. Monsieur Puybaraud is a member of a celibate lay order and has devoted his life to charitable work and teaching children. Brigitte cannot accept the marriage and sets about convincing Monsieur Puybaraud and Octavia of their error, even going so far as to imply the devil may be playing a trick on them. Unable to stop the marriage, she manages to prevent either of them from being employed. Monsieur Puybaraud is forced to accept the most meager allowance from her. The hardships imposed on them result in Octavia’s having a miscarriage and dying. Monsieur Puybaraud severs all ties with the Pian family, is for a time editorial secretary of an anarchist weekly newspaper, and finally retires to a Trappist monastery.
Brigitte becomes a controlling force in the life of Octave even before she becomes his wife. She is the cousin of Octave’s first wife, who had given Octave reasons to suspect her of infidelity. Brigitte became his confidante and adviser in regard to his marital difficulties. After the supposedly accidental death of his first wife, Octave marries Brigitte but the memory of her cousin remains alive and constantly preoccupies Octave. Brigitte eventually leaves a letter that corroborates Louis’s illegitimacy where Octave may find it. Octave, left alone in the country house, begins to drink excessively and is found dead; the letter is no longer in the drawer.
Brigitte also interferes in the life of Monsieur Calou, who makes the very serious mistake of not only approving of but also encouraging the love affair between Michèle and Jean. She is convinced that Calou is no longer fit to fulfill his office and sends a damaging letter about him to his superiors. This letter results in his removal as the curate of Baluzac. He is also forced to leave the parish.
After the deaths of Octavia Tronche and her husband Octave, Brigitte begins to have self-doubts. She questions her motives in controlling the lives of others and is tormented. She follows Louis’s advice to consult Monsieur Calou. A reconciliation occurs between them, and the former curate is able to help her find through confession the forgiveness of sins that she seeks. She also meets Dr. Gellis, with whom she experiences a reciprocal love.
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