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June 15, 2020


#French Jean Barois

by N@ncy

  • Author: R. M. du Gard
  • Title: Jean Barois
  • Published: 1913
  • Genre: historical novel with ‘mise-en-scene’ dialogue
  • fictive characters based on historical persons l’Affaire Dreyfus
  • Contents: 3 parts, 496 pages
  • Language: French
  • Trivia: Nobel Prize 1937
  • #20BooksOfSummer20


1. Explain the title of the book.
Jean Barois is the name of the main character. He grew up in a French provincial town and was educated in a catholic college.

2. What is the predominant element in the story?
Narrative: Du Gard is renowned for the different techniques:
direct dialogue: mise-en-scene
interior monolgue
free direct speech: (the narrator takes on the speech of the character)
“Tu vois, toi…”
tone signifies that… “ Vous savez bien que je ne comprends bien à vos lectures.”
camera effect: – Jean Barois’s business card: the last address lines are crossed out.
In this ‘snapshot’ Barois tells us the Jean is unemployed. (pg 161)

3. Who is the single main character about. whom the story centres?
Jean Barois is the name of the main character. He grew up in a French provincial town and was educated in a catholic college. He undergoes a transformation from happy husband and father, successful journalist —> to thin, haggard, sickly, lonely man.

4. What sort of conflict confronts the leading character or characters?
a. External – rejection of the faith of his youth – He embodies ‘Libre-Pensée’. (rejects all dogma, relies on own reason)
b. Internal – he cannot live without the feeling of hope. He needs the ‘crutches’ of faith’.

5. How is the conflict resolved?
On his deathbed, Barois is moaning and hugging the crucifix. The end is near. But wait..there is a secret testament found by the priest and Barois’s ex-wife. They want to make it disappear…..why?

6. How does the author handle characterisation?
a. description – the basic physical descriptions without elaborate colors, textures, metaphors.
b. conversation – monologues give the reader the illusion of direct contact with ‘la vie interieur’
c. actions – the exterior of the book is anchored in some historical events (part 2, Dreyfuss Affaire, Zola’s trial). The actions are only reactions to what is happening around him.

7. Who tells the story? What point of view is used?
a. There is for the most part…no narrator!
b. The book is written in ‘dramatic dialogue’, letters and documents.
c. The point of view is always that of the characters themselves.
d. An invisible ‘narrator’ can be imagined the ‘stage direction’.
e. Characters are standing at a table, speaking in a low voice, the drapes are drawn etc.

8. Where does the primary action take place?
Each chapter has been meticulously documented as to timeline and place.
Du Gard has used the ‘mise-en-scene’ technique.
This results in a “visual” telling of a story.
The only thing that is missing is the ‘stage lighting’!

9. What is the timeline? 1878 – 1918 ( Jean: born 1866 – died 1918)

10. How does the story get started? What is the initial incident?
Jean Barois struggles with his faith and an unhappy marriage. He leaves both and starts his ‘libre-pensée’ life in Paris.

11. Briefly describe the rising action of the story.
Barois’s Le Semeur (intellectual pamphlet) is a success. He uses his publication as a mouthpiece for high officials to speak the truth about the Dreyfuss Affair with risking their reputations. Jean Barois is willing to take the responsibility upon his shoulders.

12. What is the high point, or climax, of the story?
The moment that Jean Barois realises he needs ‘ the crutches of faith’.

13. Discuss the falling action or close of the story.
Death approaches, his face haggard and pale….he revives for a minutes and his last words are
“Je vous salue, Maire, pleine de grâces…”

14. Does this story create any special mood?
The emphasis on faith, religious dogma’s and one’s choice to believe or not to believe was overpowering in part 1. I nearly closed the book, but decided to give the Nobel Prize winner 1937 one more chance to prove himself. Part 2 and 3 were very good. The book develops as does the character of Jean Barois. Both François Mauriac (Noeud de Viprères) and Roger Martin du Gard reveal the religious struggle in a scene where the main character writes his testament rejecting any form of confession or conversion on his deathbed!

15. Is this story realistic or true to life?
Historical – Du Gard blends historical events into his fiction. In Part 2 follows the Dreyfuss Affair and Zola’s trial. On page 360 is a reference to the 1905 law in France ‘separation of church and state.
Personal – Du Gard wrote ‘Jean Barois’ between 1910 – 1913 at the moment of his first marriage crisis. Roger Du Gard and his wife Hélène married young and were opposites. He was a methodical, free thinker and she was dependant on her catholic faith. The book is not autobiographical (Jean is not Roger and Cécile is not Hélène) but it is obvious certain experiences of their marriage are transported into the book. Pg 105: “To change direction after a marriage […] a gap is hollowed out and the happiness that connects them is destroyed…”

16. Are the events presented in flashback or in chronological order? (structure)
Part 1: youth and adolescence – rejects his faith and marriage.
Part 2: setbacks – sorrows – (Dreyfus Affair, Zola’s trial)
Part 3: completely alone – regains his faith b/c of his fear of death.

17. What is the general theme of the story?
The most important part of happiness is ‘l’ affranchissement’ – liberation, the feeling of being free. Du Gard did not believe a long an happy marriage was possible. Jean is most happy with someone he feels equal to, someone who is ‘not the boss’ as was his pious wife or the pontificate of Rome. Jean’s happiness is experienced outside of marriage and the church.

18. Did you identify with any of the characters?
Jean Barois: He searched his whole life for the answer to the question: What makes life worth living? Jean was so used to defining himself as a possession of other people and a church. He was his father’s son, a member of the catholic faith, ideal husband for Cécile. He was just an object. Jean thought life was a straight line, but learned it is curved and eventually the ends meet. That moment of ‘epiphany’ in the last few pages makes the book worth reading!

19. Does this story contain any of the following elements?
Symbol: the most important symbol was the statue of Michelangelo’s ” L’Esclave enhaîné ” that Jean Barois kept in his desk. This represents his feeling of being ‘liberated’ from an unhappy marriage and church dogma’s. He referred to it four times in the book:
a. stretching outside this sad body, to rebellious shoulders [étirant hors de la matière son corps douloureux, aux épaules rebelles]
b. exhausting myself in vain [s’épuisant toujours en effort stérile]
c. unchangingly stopped in his effort [immaublement arrêté dans son effort]
d. not able to lift a free arm [ne pouvant pas lever un bras libre] chained slave GARD 90-rebelling

20. Does the story contain a single effect or impression for me?
This book was a life story about Jean Barois and his struggles with his faith, his journalistic aspirations and his search for happiness . The sentence that affected me the most referred to the central theme of ‘ happiness’.
“Ramasser le bonheur par miettes…C’est la seule chance que l’homme ait d’en récolte un peu…” (pg 371).
Gather happiness in the form of crumbs …it’s the only way of harvesting a little of it. After reading this I had to stop and make some coffee and think….about all the crumbs I have gathered.


Strong point: Du Gard brought history to life, The Dreyfus Affair!
The character Ulrich Woldsmuth is based on the Bernard Lazare, who was asked to help defend Dreyfus. (part 2)
Weak point: Du Gard could not follow the Dreyfuss Affair step-by-step. Part 2 is easier to understand if you read about the Affair and Zola’s trail on Wikipedia first. This way you can ‘fill in the gaps’ and put the story in a historical perspective.
Weak point: Pg 329 -342: be prepared for a long philosophical speech. I skimmed it.

Last thoughts: I started this book with the feeling ‘ must read it ‘ for Nobel challenge.
“Qu’on le veuille ou non!” ( Whether I like it or not)
Suprisingly this book had more depth than many bestsellers.
Roger Martin de Gard was one of a generation of French writers (A. France, A. Gide, E. Zola, R. Rolland, F Mauriac) caught at a pivotal point in history filled with scientific and economic revolution, Affair Dreyfus, quarrel between church and state and the approaching WW I.
They tried to free themselves from hindrances of the past and look towards a politically involved life of the future.
Nobel Prize for Literature 1937 is well deserved for Roger Martin du Gard.
I even liked Du Gard’s style of writing….better than Zola!
Coup de coeur!

Score: 5 +++


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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jun 15 2020

    Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Been meaning to read Michael Rosen on Zola in England.

    Liked by 1 person


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  1. #20BooksOfSummer 2020 Reading List | NancyElin

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