Last Updated on August 25, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647
Guy du Maupassant’s first novel, originally published under the title Une Vie, chronicles the life of Jeanne de Lamare, the daughter of a reasonably wealthy family. The novel begins as she leaves the convent that served as her home for five long years and returns home to her family’s estate, The Poplars. Newly seventeen and teetering on the precipice of adulthood, Jeanne’s return home is punctuated by the arrival of Julien, the Vicomte de Lamare, who has inherited a neighboring property after his father’s death. He and Jeanne are instantly smitten and soon begin to formally court. Julien promises to marry the young Jeanne, and she is overcome with joy. Little does she know that the early days of their romantic entanglement will be the happiest days of her life.
In one memorable passage, Julien and Jeanne return from a midnight walk in the gardens after Jeanne’s parents have retired for the evening. Jeanne’s spinster aunt, Lison, awaits their return and is overcome with sadness when she overhears Julien asking Jeanne if her feet are cold. Before retreating to bed, Lison remarks that no one has ever asked her such a personal question. This scene, though seemingly offhand, is important because it illustrates the differences in the women’s lives and foreshadows the despair Jeanne will eventually experience for herself.
After Julien and Jeanne are married, they travel to Corsica for their honeymoon. At first, Jeanne is less than enthusiastic about her new role as a sexual plaything for her husband. His appetites seem excessive to her, and she struggles to cope with his unfamiliar expectations. However, after experiencing an orgasm during a mountain excursion, she becomes satisfied with her sexual obligations. Shortly after returning home, Jeanne falls pregnant and realizes that everyday life with Julien does not measure up to the perfection of their courtship and honeymoon. Julien is equally controlling and detached. His sexual desire for his wife declines precipitously due to a series of extramarital affairs ranging from their maid to a countess. Jeanne grows lonely and miserable, and she briefly considers returning to the convent from her girlhood to escape her unhappy life.
Julien engages in many extramarital affairs. The husband of one of his mistresses discovers his misdoings when he catches his unfaithful wife alone with Julien in a secluded hut in the woods. Blinded by rage and betrayal, he murders the pair. Immediately after Julien’s death, Jeanne delivers a stillborn baby girl. Forced to raise her son alone, Jeanne returns home to live with her father and Aunt Lison. She soon becomes disillusioned with religion and refuses to attend church, dedicating all her time to raising her son, Paul, until he leaves for college. Despite her efforts, her son proves to be willful and spoiled; at twenty years old, he abandons college and runs away to London with a prostitute he claims he loves. Rather than making his way in life independently, Paul entreats his mother to forward his inheritance plus some of her own. She acquiesces to his demands, and he soon squanders their fortune on gambling debts and ill-fated business decisions.
After the death of her father and aunt, Jeanne is forced to sell the family chateau to avoid bankruptcy. Rosalie, the servant with whom Julien had an affair and an illegitimate child many years ago, returns to take care of Jeanne. She helps Jeanne get her finances and house in order and helps her resist sending more money to be wasted by her manipulative son. Some years later, Paul relinquishes his infant daughter to Rosalie, as her mother died after childbirth, and he has no way of paying for the baby’s care. Back at Batteville, Jeanne is renewed by the presence of her grandchild, as the baby girl provides a sense of love and hope she had long since lost.