The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis

An impossible dilemma by Dr Jennifer Minter (English Works)


Time and place (the political, religious and social context of the 16th century feudal society) are critical to the denouement of Lewis’ plot and the understanding of her main protagonists. The feudal structure is “maintained so strictly and upon so large a scale by these peasants of Artigus” (pg. 13) that it determines the social hierarchy and influences all relationships. It also determines the pattern of relationships between Martin and his father and Martin and Bertrande that will have a significant impact upon the married couple’s life.

During his father’s lifetime, Martin remains  “legally a minor” and subservient to the “absolute head of the house” and the “cap d’hostal”.  Any liberty that he might enjoy “was to be enjoyed only under his father’s rule”. The father, who resembles “some Homeric king”, “some ruler of an island commonwealth who could both plough and fight”  is the bedrock of this social, religious and political system and represents “both authority and security”. The entire household, including servants, wife and children depend upon him for their livelihood, and if the “farm is safe” then the “whole world was safe and as it should be” (17). In such a hierarchical order, the father’s absolute authority should not be questioned and he expected “strict obedience and reverence” from those in his charge. He is at times bold and violent, but also kind and authoritative.

In his turn, Martin “resembled his father” and members of the household, and indeed readers, expect him to follow his absolute rule.  In this regard, Martin exhibits a degree of “smothered resentment” as well as “impatience” but Bertrande instinctively knows that he “will make a protector for this family as like his own father as two men well may be, and for that thanks to God”. Thus his subsequent departure comes as a shock.

In such a strict patriarchal society, women are treated as second class citizens. They are dependent on their husbands, who protect them, provide for them and take responsibility for them. Legally and socially, men were in charge. The French philosopher, Montaigne, reflects this view when he claims, “a man had the right to beat his wife and could get away with murder in the case of adultery.”  He cites an example of a women in Bergerac who threw herself off a bridge because she could not bear her husband’s mistreatment.

The marriage between Bertrande and Martin is a marriage of convenience. They are both married as children (Bertrande is 11 years old) and Bertrande had never spoken to Martin. In fact, she didn’t even know of the marriage. During the affair, the “small bride received very little attention.” The marriage has been prepared for the two youngsters, two generations ago. Their main aim is to ensure ‘dual prosperity’ between the families. The marriage is governed by economic considerations. “Marriage was not a sentimental affair… marriage was a means of productivity: of crops, goods, and children for the future.”   The union between Bertrande and Martin conveniently settles the “intense hatred” and the longstanding feud that had developed between the two families (de Rols and Guerre) and peace is eventually restored.

Not only is Martin a stranger to Bertrande prior to the wedding, but she is at first scared, frightened and unsure of her relationship with him. As time unfolds, she is grateful that “he leaves her alone”. There is no love and scarcely any affection between them.  Her mother-in-law teaches her the affairs of the household. Note that she only “directs”. She does not have any authority.

The strict social order limits women’s choices and opportunities and for Bertrande, it is not only restrictive but, as she will gradually discover, inherently unjust. At the outset, Bertrande is aware of her limitations. She works within the confines of the system and becomes aware of her place in a social and political system that perpetuates the place, the prosperity and the honour of the family. “More than ever she understood her position in the household, part of a structure that reached backward in time towards ancestors of whose renown one was proud and forward to a future in which Sanxi was a young man”.

At first, dawning upon Bertrande that her life is dependent upon his authority, (it “lay beneath his jurisdiction”) , she becomes overwhelmed and alarmed.  Typically, Lewis describes the setting in the kitchen in such a way as to reflect Bertrande’s feeling of entrapment.  “The door closed behind him. The unglazed window was also closed, but between the leaves of the shutter a draught came which shook the flame of the torch. Otherwise the air was still and dead. The floor was bare, and the room was unfurnished …” (8).

The only time she does try to break out she is scolded. For example, on her wedding night she explores the Guerre household and enters a corridor that seems to be prohibited (7). Martin reprimands her. “He cuffed Bertrande soundly upon the ears.” She learns that she is not entitled to roam freely and that Martin can control her, even violently, with impunity.

Whilst she gradually becomes more comfortable and accepts her role, there is a degree of joy and security. But as Lewis, suggests, in a foreboding tone, “the estate which was to bring her so much joy” also brings “such strange and unpredictable suffering” as Bertrande is thrust into a position wherein she must question the secure and safe authority of the establishment.

In this regard, Martin’s insubordination becomes the source of her suffering and the two parallel acts of disobedience precipitate the chain of events that will undermine any solace she will ever experience.  Martin took from his father’s granary, without his father’s permission, “enough seed wheat to plant the half of his field”  Martin believes this was a sensible act as the seed would go to waste but it is an act that undermines his father’s authority. Just as the had joined the bear hunt previously, and experienced the father’s brutal response, he decides to absent himself for at least “eight days”. Remembering the injured jaw, the spitting blood and the broken teeth, Martin decides his absence is preferable. Bertrande is also aware of a split in her allegiances as she sides with Martin, rather than with the admirable harsh and just authority of the father.  Thus begins the sequence of events that have “singled out Bertrande de Rols from the peace and obscurity of her tradition”.

Bertrande’s solitude and Martin’s absence

When Martin leaves, Bertrande’s life changes as she struggles to cope with her solitude and raises her child, Sanchez.  Still in the full beauty of her youth, she has to suffer with the father’s displeasure because he believed that she shared in Martin’s plan.  She copes with the fading of her hope and learns to live with despair.  After the death of her in-laws, she starts to realise that she is capable of running the household and performing responsible tasks.

  • Martin’s absence weighed upon the whole family (27)
  • His mother died and then in the fourth year after his departure, the father died (28)
  • Death is not just a vague possibility; it becomes real. “Death was something that not only could happen but that did happen.” Previously she was “too young to believe in the reality of death”.  (29)
  • Bertrande sees a stranger and imagines Martin; she is filled with emotion and then disappointment (30)

At first Bertande was joyful at the return of her “husband”. Everyone is in good spirits and it seems fortuitous that he is “better” and “nicer”.  “When she sees him working in the field she is filled with a piercing joy” (45). She experiences “a vividness of feeling” because of her “love for this new Martin Guerre and because of the delight and health of her life-giving body”.

Increasingly, Bertrande struggles with her emotions as she gradually falls in love with her new husband, Arnaud du Tilh.  After an absence of eight years, she rejoices in his love and companionship. “Gladly she surrendered the responsibilities of the farm to her husband’s care and surrendered herself to his love.” “From having been a widow for eight years, she was suddenly again a wife.” Bertrande enjoyed the lively conversation and the music in the house. She also loved to watch her son, Sanxi as he enjoys having a father: he “grew manly in the companionship of a hero.” For a while, Bertrande enjoys her husband’s newfound kindness and gentility. However, she is intuitively worried.

Sometime after the imposter settles into the household, Bertrande gives birth to a daughter who dies an hour after birth.  Bertande suffers both physically and emotionally. Her almost still-born child symbolises the death of her relationship to the imposter.  It signalises a change from joy to despair, and from happiness to guilt as she begins to examine her conscience.

Confronted with an impossible dilemma, Bertrande knows she must challenge the patriarchal authority but she also knows from conditioned behaviour that this can be self-defeating. She becomes isolated and depressed.  The still-born birth of her daughter symbolises the deterioration in Bertrande’s relationship with the new “Martin” and her belief in his imposter status.

When she confesses her worst fears to the priest, Bertrande realises that the priest values Arnaud more than Martin. He believes it is possible for a person to change for the better and Martin deserves this chance. He wants Bertrande to think carefully about her accusations.  For Bertrande, a shadow of suspicion, the “shadow of sin”, lurks behind her love. If he were an imposter she has unknowingly committed a sin and her sin weighs heavily upon her conscience .  “I am imposed deceived, betrayed into adultery. (47) ” She relies solely on the strength of her convictions. Her search for the truth is very difficult because no one, except Uncle Pierre, believes her.She challenges the priest and the sisters, who are angry that she wants to take him to court. They believe that it is only “the truth for her” (73)

The imposter/ mistaken identity

Upon “Martin’s” return, Bertrande is plagued by mixed emotions. She recalls the stranger , then her “loved husband”  and then someone who was not the young Martin Guerre (35).

  • Martin appears surprised at her beauty.
  • Uncharacteristically, he is not anxious at her outburst and rapprochement (37)
  • She enjoys Sanxi’s growing and spontaneous attachment (39)
  • The estate prospers (40)
  • Bertrande is pregnant (41) Her fears increase: she worries that he may not be the “true Martin”; she stifles her fears and rejoices,  but the shadows keep returning.
  • At first the “better/ nicer” Martin makes Bertande happy as she enjoys a more fulfilling and happier relationship.
  • She realises he would never have spoken so “gaily to his own son” (42).
  • She fear’s God’s punishment, but “this is also punishment in itself”
  • She asks him for “proof of his identity” (42)
  • She finds that he only resembles his father in “flesh”.
  • The imposter challenges her: why does she dismiss his change, his wisdom and his kindness: “A man can change” (43)
  • She is suspicious of his “gift of the tongue” (43)
  • She tries to rationalise her suspicions as confusions arising from her pregnancy; it could be a “delusion” (44)
  • Her happiness is constantly tinged by suspicions; she is plagued by a shadow of sin and danger (46)

Unknown (Inadvertent) deception and betrayal;

Gradually she becomes convinced that the new Martin is an imposter. (47) This has serious consequences for their relationship.

  • She asks him to leave (52) – and he becomes rather angry just like the true Martin. He appears to have learnt well.
  • She experiences mixed emotions: both passionate hatred and fear (53)
  • The soldier from Rochefort accuses Martin of being a fraud (55)
  • She refuses contact with Martin.
  • At the court, Bertrande rehearses the three  conversations: of the priest, the sister and the housekeeper (75)
  • She believes that Martin must be dead.
  • She worries whether it would have been better just to live with her shame (76)


She broaches the question of his identity with sisters who are affronted (49)  and ask that she does not consider it again.

  • The sisters also are angry that she wants to take him to court. They believe that it is only “the truth for her”. (73)
  • There is a great deal of dissent among the sisters after his arrest. (64)
  • The sisters urge her to reconsider (“how can i deny the truth”). They say, “it is only the truth for you, not for us;  for the truth that none of us believe, you would destroy us all. We shall never be happy again. The farm will never prosper again. (73)
  • Housekeeper and the dove – Nothing “goes well for us” (74); the blood dripping from the bird becomes a symbol of their demise. “I would have you still be deceived”


Bertrande shows enormous courage in challenging the priest’s view which is reflected by those in the household. He clearly does not approve of her quest to expose the imposter. (50) The Priest praises Martin’s kindness and defends his change of spirit. (49).  During her discussion with the priest after Martin’s arrest,  the priest urges her to withdraw the charges. (72)

The Imposter confesses to the Priest that perhaps he it would have been better to leave. (59) The priest gives him permission to leave (otherwise it would seem an admission of guilt) and advises him to take the “sum of money” that was left “with your uncle when you were a boy”. (60)  With a “wry smile”, Martin prepares to leave and to purchase the gift. (60)

Uncle Pierre

Uncle Pierre, whose authority is simple and direct, is the last defender of the old authority of her husband’s house (77); it is devoid of the subterfuge of superfluous charm and keeps them “in a secure and wholesome peace”. Uncle Pierre begins to believe her, especially regarding the sums of money. The money had been used for the fields. (61). He asks permission to accuse this man of his crime.

The trial

The deliberations of the trial proceed at first in Arnaud’s favour. But upon the appearance of Martin Guerre, who lost his leg before St Quentin in the year ’57 (88) all is lost.  Martin is typically severe and harsh in his judgement (*91) and accuses Bertrande of bringing his name into disrepute.

Martin proves to be prophetically similar to the father when his intransigent character is revealed at the trial. He tells Bertrande that her error of judgement is her fault and has been caused by “wilful blindness.” She is responsible for the “dishonour which has befallen me”.  Unfortunately, Bertrande is the one always at the mercy of a cruel and heartless world which is ruled by successive cap d’hostal  figures.

Arnaud testifies to her beauty that brought about his change to an honest man. Arnaud’s heavy spirit clearly reveals his later comments that his transformation was to be accredited to her beauty and love.   “Can you not marvel now that the rougue, Arnaud du Tilh, for your beauty and grace, became for three long years an honest man.”

Exploring her soul, Bertrande “feels great emptiness but a sense of freedom”.  She is free of both passions for both men: the love which she had been forbidden and the love which had rejected her (92), but truth costs her dearly. She cruelly suffers the rejection of Martin whose name she had tried to clear (92).  Lewis foreshadows Bertrande’s decline: “but when hate and love have together exhausted the soul, the body seldom endure for long.” (93)

Accordingly, Lewis invites readers to witness the significance of Betrande’s moral and religious dilemma that promises no happy ending for the main protagonist. She is dammed by both the imposter who subverts the strict patriarchal system and seeks to set her free, and by Martin who tragically perpetuates the Old Martin Guerre’s harsh regime that delivers a harsh judgement.