Time and place (the political, religious and social context of the 16th century feudal society) are critical to the denouement of Lewis’s 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 Artigues” (13) that it determines the social hierarchy and influences all relationships. It also determines the pattern of relationships between Martin Guerre and his father and Martin and Bertrande de Rols 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”.
Bertrande’s relationship with her in-laws is set out from the outset. When Martin’s father, the embodiment of authority and feudal law, he stands in the doorway to “wish his children a formal goodnight”, his features become “exaggerated in the flare of the torch” which reflects her awareness of his power. He has an “expression of great seriousness” and she comes to realise that “henceforth her life lay beneath his jurisdiction” (8) She also learns through her relationship with Madame Guerre to show unquestioned allegiance to this male embodiment of power. She does not dare to question his actions even if she thinks they are extremely harsh, such as the violent asault. “She did not protest against her husband’s severity”.
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. Although Martin clearly feels obliged to follow in the footsteps of the cap d’hostal, his acts of insubordination work against him. While both acts differ – one being of an individual nature and the other socially motivated – both compel him to make his life-changing decision. Firstly, his adventures with the bear hunt clearly undermined his farm duties, and went “against paternal authority”. Without telling anyone about his plans, Martin “had risen early and gone off to join the hunters”. He returned, and “depositing his booty before his father” made excuses for his absence. Although conditioned to accept his father’s authority and the “justice” that is meted out to him, there is a sense that he is startled by its severity. The fact that Madame Guerre also “caught her breath” suggests that the punishment is harsher than expected. However, both mother and son believe that, no matter how harsh it was, it was also “just”, which shows the general acceptance of paternal authority. Despite his two “broken” teeth and an aching jaw, Martin realises that it was the father’s right to deal out punishment because “I didn’t ask him if I might go”. At the same time, he realises that he joined the bear hunt in a spirit of exuberance, and he was prepared to take the punishment because of the thrill of the hunt. “(It was well done, was it not to kill a bear?”).
This first act influences the second, as Martin does not want to suffer the same brutality after planting the remaining wheat. 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, which is to “put aside whatever grain I need from my own harvesting” (23). Although Martin’s actions would benefit the community, he knows his father will be outraged, and he is not prepared to stay and suffer what he believes are the undeserving consequences. Martin hopes that his father will eventually recognise the wisdom of his decision and that he will prove his own worthiness. “It is done for the good of the house – he will see that” (23). He decides to absent himself for at least “eight days”.
These acts of insubordination also cement the emotional bonds of the young lovers who become “a camp within a camp”. Bertrande is 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.
Lewis uses antithesis to draw attention to Bertrande’s conflicting emotions as she watches the imposter playing so gently with Sanchi. Lewis notes: “passionate as had once been her love for this stranger, so passionate became her hatred of him”.
Lewis also uses antithesis to show a difference between Bertrande’s attitude towards the stranger and the priest’s and the children’s attitude. Bertrande develops an ambivalent attitude towards the stranger whose kindness she finds disconcerting. On the one hand, it is precisely his kindness that earns the support of the priest and the community. And the more he earns their support, the more Bertrande resents these qualities. “These virtues of his which entrenched him with those who should have supported her, (but) made her the more bitter against him”. Lewis draws attention to Bertrande’s emotional conflict by suggesting that outwardly she gives an impression of calm and normalcy. However, underneath she is hiding her hostile feelings and “dissembled her hatred”. Lewis contrasts her inner and outer selves: “She enclosed in her heart a single fierce determination and outwardly her life went on as usual.”
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 and his 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 Bertrande 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 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)
Bertrande broaches the question of his identity with Martin’s 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, 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.
Fighting against the resistance on the farm, Lewis suggests, is critical to Bertrande’s personal growth. It tests, strengthens and determines her resolve. Killing the dove, the housekeeper makes Bertrande aware of just how much is at stake – the loss of peace. Bertrande realises that that in exposing the imposter she will be disturbing the peace and the bliss of the family and possibly killing a “peaceful” imposter. As Bertrande watches the dove dying in her housekeeper’s hands, she realises just how hard it is to fight against the desires of the family. She learns from the housekeeper that it is preferable to continue with the way things are. Killing the innocent white dove, and watching the “blood drop by drop leave the weakening body” Bertrande also feels her own “strength drop slowly like the blood of the dove”. Looking into the “affectionate brown eyes of her housekeeper, Bertrande becomes aware of her desire for peace and its symbolic loss. “Madame, I would have you still be deceived. We were all happy then.” Lewis notes that the housekeeper “laid the dead dove with the others and stopped to pick up the dish of blood”.
The Tribunal in Toulouse
Bertrande and Pierre Guerre pursue their case to the tribunal in Toulouse and as she heads towards the council chambers of the Parliament at the Chateau Narbonnais Bertrande experiences considerable emotional turmoil. Bertrande is clearly disoriented which is reflected in her inability to comprehend the “mountain patois” dialect which adds to the “desolating strangeness” of the place and reflects the gravity of her mission. Lewis describes the language as harsh. She uses alliteration to depict the sounds which are “curiously clanging” and have a “hard resonance”. The impression that the sounds are being re-echoed in “metallic vigour from the dusty walls” also reinforces Bertrande’s sense of alienation. Her discomfort with the language reflects her own sense of confusion as she grapples with the seriousness of her accusations. Her questions, “What am I doing here”, reflect her doubts and her sense of unease. Lewis captures her sense of emotional conflict when she realises just how serious her accusations could be. She knows that she is “destroying the happiness of my family”. Lewis describes her dilemma as a difficult choice between the “truth” and her moral and religious principles and the desire to save herself from deceit, which she realises could be interpreted as a selfish act. She expressly wishes to “free myself from a deceit which was consuming and killing me”.
In her pursuit of “truth”, Bertrande defies the beliefs and attitudes of Martin’s sisters and the priest. Throughout her entry into the court in Toulouse, her interactions with those who are hostile to her, ring loudly in her ears. She is acutely aware that she has refused “holy counsel”, which brings her a considerable sense of agony. Her religious pain is reflected in her “dizzied” state, and Lewis describes her incongruous response whereby the “heavy sweat turned cold on her skin” and “made her shudder even in the meridional heat”. Her conversation with Martin’s sisters keeps replaying in her mind, especially the sister’s comment that the truth is subjective. She reminds her that it is “true only for you”. Rather than reinforcing Bertrande’s principled approach, the quoted dialogue reinforces her sense of shame, and renews her doubts. She continues to wonder if she is wrong, “And might I be wrong” she asked herself again as she mounted the steps.
As Bertrande mounts the “stone steps” she confronts the “great, closed door” which becomes a powerful symbol of the urgent, life-and-death nature of her accusations. There is a sense of doom as well as a sense of “finality” that she “had not felt at Rieux” and she is immediately “engulfed” in terror. Bertrande knows that she is unable to appeal this decision, and should her testimony be verified, then the imposter will be sentenced to death. She grapples with the fact that she seems inevitably swept along a surging “tide” of action that could lead to her greatest “sin”. As she becomes increasingly dizzy, the door becomes “invisible and “insubstantial”. From one aspect, Lewis suggests that physically she cannot see the door clearly; it is as if she has walked into “an icy cloud on the summit of La Bancanere”. However, from a psychological perspective, she feels disoriented but also aware, as the doors open, that this could be the beginning of the end for the imposter.
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.
In the concluding pages, Lewis draws a stark contrast between Martin’s tone and attitude and Arnaud’s tone.
Martin proves to be prophetically similar to the father when his intransigent character is revealed at the trial. Martin is exceedingly cold and heartless, and urges her to “dry our tears Madame. They cannot, and they ought not, move my pity”. He charges her with sole responsibility for the error which occurred because of “wilful blindness”. She is responsible for the “dishonour which has befallen me”.
Lewis suggests that it is ironic, that she recognises him as her husband, particularly because he displays the same heartless, intransigent, and cold sense of authority that terrified her in the actions of her father-in-law. She recalls the Monsieur whose “authority had been absolute over her youth” and over Martin, and who slapped him in a moment of anger. Ironically, Martin’s acceptance of this absolute authority precipitated his escape, and now Bertrande becomes yet another victim of the harsh authority. Lewis suggests that owing to this harsh symbol of authority both Bertrande and Martin were unable to have a loving and enduring relationship.
Set against the harsh authority of the father’s countenance, Lewis draws a poignant comparison with the gentle tones of Arnaud. The transformation of Arnaud from a thief to an honest man, he reveals, is testimony to Bertrande’s grace and beauty. He is also prepared to die “by way of atonement” and offers his life as the ultimate sacrifice. These are the very qualities lacking in Martin and his father.
Lewis uses this contrast to highlight the problems and the deficiencies that are evident in the harsh visage and countenance of the father-in-law and in her husband. Lewis suggests that they would benefit from a portion of Arnaud’s sensitivity, who developed a very strong, undying sense of compassion owing to Bertrande’s beauty.
Lewis depicts Bertrande at the end as a woman who has loved and lost everything. 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).
As Lewis points out, she has been betrayed thrice and the taste of “solitary justice” becomes a symbol of her life and love. Owing to her tragic circumstances, as a victim, she is left with an empty sense of justice which is meaningless, because it is devoid of emotions and meaning.
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 impostor 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.