Author: François Mauriac
First published: La Pharisienne, 1941 (English translation, 1946)
Locale: Bordeaux, France
Plot: Social realism
Time: The early 1900's to World War I
Louis Pian (lwee pyahn), the elderly narrator of the story, a landowner, the illegitimate son of Marthe Pian and her first cousin, Alfred Moulis. He is thirteen years old when the story begins. He lost his beloved mother when he was seven years old, in a suicide “accident.” When his sister, Michèle, and his best friend, Jean, fall in love, he is jealous of both of them and tries to keep them apart. He betrays a confidence by showing his stepmother a letter from his teacher M. Puybaraud to Octavie Tronche. Deprived of intimacy and sexual satisfaction himself (being self-centered and dispassionate, he never marries), he resents and affects to despise intimacy in others.
Brigitte Pian (bree-ZHEET), Louis' stepmother and his mother's cousin, a pillar of the church. She has dark eyes, big ears, a double chin, and long, yellow teeth with gold fillings. Although unlike Louis in her passionate temperament, she resembles him in being deprived of intimacy and sexual satisfaction and in reacting resentfully by trying to spoil love for others, including Léonce Puybaraud and Octavie Tronche, Michèle Pian and Jean de Mirbel, and Octave and Marthe Pian. She also delights in crushing opponents, such as Abbé Calou. Self-righteous, proud, and hypocritical, she convinces herself that she is God's mouthpiece and enjoys the sadistic manipulation of people's lives. She overcompensates for feelings of sexual inferiority through an attitude of superiority and her will to power. She persecutes the Puybaraud family and reduces them to dependence on her handouts, and she contributes to Octavie's miscarriage and death.
Marthe Pian (mahrt), Louis'mother, who committed suicide when her lover, first cousin Alfred Moulis, terminated their affair.
Octave Pian (ohk-TAHV), Louis' supposed father, a landowner. He wears a long mustache and is fond of eating and of hunting on his country estate. He is kind but weak and hesitant, except on rare occasions, and frequently has been paralyzed into impotence by his love for his first wife, Marthe. He probably drank himself to death after reading the letters revealing his wife's affair with her cousin and Louis' probable illegitimacy. He loves his children, especially Michèle.
Michèle Pian (mee-SHEHL), Louis' sister and only sibling, a year older than he. She has dark skin, a heavy lower jaw, white teeth, and pretty legs that she shows off whenever possible. She hates her stepmother for her domineering ways and her interference between herself and Jean de Mirbel. Brigitte succeeds in separating them with her vicious insinuations.
M. Rausch (rohsh), a schoolmaster and a former member of the papal guard. He has a scarred upper lip, a walleye, and yellow hair. He dresses carelessly, often wearing slippers rather than shoes, and is dirty. A harsh disciplinarian to his pupils, he is obsequious toward those in authority.
Abbé Calou (kah-LEW), the parish priest of Baluzac, near the Pian estate. He has blue eyes, a large nose, good teeth, and big, hairy hands, and he is a head taller than Count Mirbel. He specializes in reforming rebellious boys, reputedly by harsh discipline but really through understanding, kindness, and trust. He tries particularly hard to help Jean de Mirbel but is punished for allowing Michèle to write to him.
Jean de Mirbel (zhahn deh meer-BEHL), a future landowner of noble family, fifteen years old at the novel's beginning. He is handsome and dark-haired, and he has pointed white canine teeth, badly set. He adores his beautiful but selfish and indifferent mother and is bitterly disappointed at her using her visit to him to spend the night with a lover. He steals money from Abbé Calou and runs away with Hortense Voyod, the anticlerical lesbian wife of the local pharmacist.
Countess de Mirbel, Jean's mother. Slim, beautiful, and youthful, she has a slightly snub nose, heavy eyelids, sea-green eyes, and a charming contralto voice. She is hedonistic, insincere, manipulative, and self-centered. She lies about her adulterous activities. At odds with her husband, she wrote indiscreet letters that fell into the hands of her brother-in-law Count Adhémar de Mirbel. She uses the pretext of a visit to Jean to spend the night with her dramatist lover.
Count Adhémar de Mirbel (ah-day-MAHR), a retired colonel, seventy years old at the beginning of the story, Jean's uncle and guardian. He is tall, stout, and blue-eyed. He wants Jean to be disciplined harshly.
Léonce Puybaraud (lay-OHNS pwee-bah-ROH), one of the twenty teachers at Louis' school of two hundred pupils. He is also general secretary of the local Catholic charities. His lack of qualifications makes him dependent on Brigitte Pian, who resents his love for Octavie Tronche and bullies him mercilessly. He marries Octavie and buys a piano for her, which infuriates Brigitte, who is supporting them. He shares Octavie's dream of rearing children of their own.
Octavie Tronche (ohk-tah-VEE trohnsh), a teacher at a Catholic school sponsored by Brigitte Pian. She is flat-chested and has sparse, dull hair; small, colorless eyes; and pale lips. She is graceful, charming, and saintly. Brigitte hates her for enjoying the sexual fulfillment and (prospectively) the motherhood Brigitte herself has been denied. Thanks partly to Brigitte's persecution, Octavie loses her baby and dies in childbirth.
Hortense Voyod (vwoy-YOH), a landowner and the lesbian wife of a local pharmacist. She is blonde, freckled, and unattractive. Her private life runs afoul of Abbé Calous' interventions, so she joins with a local schoolteacher and his wife to plot against the priest. She runs away with Jean, who is young enough to be her son, to spite Calou.