Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941)

Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941) is a novel inspired by an intriguing court case from sixteenth century France that she discovered in an old book, Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence (1873).  It tells the story of a fraudulent case of mistaken identity.  Arnaud du Tilh bore an uncanny resemblance to his comrade in the religious wars, Martin Guerre.  Martin had suddenly left home and remained away for eight years.  Arnaud decided to go to Martin’s community and pass himself off as Martin who had returned after a long absence.

Arnaud had therefore adopted another man’s life, that of a well-to-do peasant with a beautiful wife and a devoted son.  His physical resemblance, persuasive abilities and likeable nature allowed him to fool most of Martin’s community and family until the doubts of Martin’s wife Bertrande, and then of Uncle Pierre, led them to mount a campaign to expose the imposter that succeeded at the moment when the real Martin Guerre appeared, at the last minute, during the court case in Toulouse intended to settle the matter. 

Janet Lewis, who seems to have feminist sympathies, found in the story the opportunity to celebrate Bertrande as a courageous woman who stood up for the truth in defiance of the social pressures to conform that were exerted by her family and community.  They had defended Arnaud (whom they believed to be Martin) and they sought to preserve his much appreciated place in their community, a place that Bertrande believed was based on dishonesty.  Bertrande stuck to the truth until she was vindicated, despite the numerous obstacles put in her path. 

The novel is therefore a moral tale about the trials and tribulations of fighting for the truth in the face of majority opinion.  In presenting this tale, Janet Lewis took care to note the moral complexities of the issues raised by the presence of the imposter and Bertrande’s desire to expose and expel him. For example, the real Martin was a rather arrogant, obnoxious and unkind person while the imposter Arnaud was a much more likeable, tender and loving man, and he was far kinder to Bertrande and her son Sanxi than Martin had been.    On the other hand, Arnaud had committed fraud and sought financial advantage through deception.  And his presence upset the legitimacy of the hereditary lines of authority upon which the community relied for stability and order.  Furthermore, by having sex with Bertrande he had put her in technical breach of the sin of adultery, which, due to Bertrande’s devout Catholic faith, made her a sinner and put her in what she perceived to be a devastating predicament regarding her potential place in the afterlife. 

But despite these moral complexities, Bertrande appears as a character who displays the strength of character to overcome formidable challenges.  Bertrande had to stand her ground in the face of majority opinion.  Meanwhile, many of the challenges she faced stemmed from the fact that Bertrande was a woman in a patriarchal society and she was expected to be obedient to the men in authority over her, especially her husband.  Yet she defied them all and succeeded in the end. 

The novel is also an unusual love story.  Arnaud du Tilh had initially intended to impersonate Martin Guerre in order to commit petty larceny before leaving.  But he enjoyed living the life that Martin had abandoned.  He also fell in love with Martin’s wife Bertrande and wanted her to regard him as her husband.  He cared for her and her son and brought them happiness until her doubts about his identity, and concerns about her adultery, drew her away from him emotionally and transformed her love for him into hatred.  He later confessed that her love for him had made a rogue into a decent man.  Arnaud continued to love Bertrande and he did not try to escape when he had the opportunity to do so and he faced the death penalty if convicted.  Nor did he carry any hatred for Bertrande when he faced execution.  The novel suggests that Arnaud was more deserving of the love of Bertrande.  When Martin returned, he still treated his wife with disdain. 

The novel also presents a portrait of a feudal society in the sixteenth century that was patriarchal and hierarchical. Authority in families was held by the male head of the household and passed on to the eldest son through primogeniture, a process by which the property and wealth was passed on in total rather than divided between siblings and other relatives in the extended family.  Meanwhile, the male head of the household possessed near-absolute authority over his subordinates, yet he also bore the responsibility for the wellbeing of those in his care, his extended family and servants.  Women and children had few rights and they were rigidly subordinated to the will of their elders, especially to the male head of the household.  Marriages were often arranged by the male head of the household and the children had no choice in the matter.  Women were expected to be obedient to their husbands.  Bertrande was subordinated to her husband and to the male head of the household who was the father of her husband.  To defy or disagree with the husband or the male head of the household could bring severe punishments that were accepted by the community as legitimate. 

There was a lack of upward social mobility in this rigidly stratified and hierarchical society, hence the temptation of Arnaud to impersonate a well-to-do peasant in order to acquire access to his land and wealth.  It was also a society that put a premium on honour and petty disagreements could easily become damaging feuds. 

It was also a time of widespread religious belief and the fear of being a sinner could be profoundly troubling for those who found themselves in such a predicament.  It was also a time of bitter religious intolerance and hostility involving wars between Protestants and Catholics.  Both Martin and Arnaud had fought in these wars on the Catholic side.  The judge who presided over the court case that convicted Arnaud was later killed for being a Protestant. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: The Wife of Martin Guerre meaning, The Wife of Martin Guerre themes, The Wife of Martin Guerre analysis, The Wife of Martin Guerre notes