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The Life of Martin Guerre Essay

1) Much of the first page is taken up with descriptions of the country. What does it communicate?

Descriptions of the land and country in which the characters live sets the scene and the time period of the story. On the first page, we are given images of isolation due to the heavy winter that “buried [the land] under whiteness”. This gives us a view into the feudalist lifestyles of the peasants in the mountains, and the “leisure” they enjoyed despite their hard work.

2) Why is the marriage of Bertrande de Rols and Martin Guerre the first scene in this novel?

The marriage of Bertrande de Rols and Martin Guerre is the main focus of the entire story, which is the reason why the book begins in such a way. The story later goes back and explains the relationship between the two families and how their arranged marriage came about, but the initial focus is on the marriage itself in its infancy.

3) What does the reader learn of the families involved in the wedding in the first pages?

The reader learns that the families Guerre and de Rols are both rich and prosperous peasant families living in the village of Artigues. The families had been rivals for generations, ever since there was a misunderstanding between the great-grandfathers of the young couple. However, the birth and betrothal of Martin and Bertrande, who were born a very short time apart, marked the end of the families’ quarrels.

4) Why is Martin so accepting when he is punished by his father?

Martin knows his place in the family. One day he will grow up to take his father’s position at the head of the table as the cap d’hostal. He understands that if he has “no obedience for [his] father, [his] son will have none for [him]. He must learn to obey his father and learn from him in every way, so that he will be capable of filling his shoes when his father is gone. Otherwise, the family will be left in “ruin [and] despair”. In a sense, Martin is expected to become his father, which we later find out is not his wish at all.

5) Why can’t Bertrande stay contentedly with Arnaud, a man who gives her pleasure, supports her family and is a good farmer?

Despite the fact that Arnaud was “the man for whom [Bertrande] felt…a great and joyous passion”, she couldn’t stay contentedly with him. She was a very strong catholic who could not accept “the shadow of sin and danger which accompanied [Arnaud]”, even though he made her happier than Martin ever could or would have.

6) Why is nobody prepared to support and believe Bertrande?

If Bertrande were to win the case against Arnaud, the only person the victory would benefit is herself. She would have peace of mind in the fact that she was right, and she would have a chance at absolution from her sins. However, she would be going against the “common good”. Everyone else in her family realises that the outcome of the case will determine the family’s fate in generations to come, and for this reason “would have [her] still deceived”. Her sister-in-law pleads with her to drop the charges, otherwise the family “shall never be happy again [and] the farm will never prosper again.”

7) Why do you think Arnaud du Tilh refuses to leave Bertrande when she gives him warning of her conviction?

When Arnaud came to the Guerre household in the guise of Martin Guerre, he had “originally…intended to stay only long enough to pick up a little silver or gold”. However, he ended up getting more than he bargained for. He fell in love with Bertrande, which prohibited him from “deserting her to years of pain”. To leave at this time would also “look like an admission of guilt”. Arnaud had found himself stuck in the situation, and had no choice but to sit tight and hope that he was not found guilty.

8) Why might Bertrande feel unsure about prosecuting the ‘new’ Martin?

Bertrande, like Arnaud, was in a lose-lose situation. Her love for Arnaud was as strong as his love for her, and “he did not appear a monster” to her. However, to stay with him would be to commit “a sin most black”, going against her beliefs and principles. On the other hand, prosecuting him would destroy everything that made her happy – Arnaud, her family and the farm. This caused her to be unsure about what course of action to take.


9) What is the significance of Bertrande’s confusion about the sun?

Bertrande’s confusion about the sun reflects her strength of mind. “Everything seemed strange…she had never before left the parish of Artigues.” The first time Bertrande left Artigues and stayed in her aunt’s house, the sun seemed to shine through western windows in the morning. In actual fact the windows were facing east and the sun shone as normal; the only difference was Bertrande’s confused perception due to her being in a foreign place. The next time she stays in the house is when she is older and stronger, and she “[marvels] that she had ever felt confused about the direction”.

10) Why does Arnaud smile when he hears Bertrande’s response to his death sentence?

Arnaud really did love Bertrande and cared for her deeply, “ordering all things he could imagine to increase her comfort” when she was ill. When he hears her outcry “in spite of the sentence just passed upon him, his face [is] bright…with joy”. In view of what has happened, this is a powerful quote from which we finally gain some insight into Arnaud’s character. This man has been sentenced to death, yet all he cares about is the fact that Bertrande does indeed have feelings for him and love him as he loves her.


11) Read Bertrande’s conversation with the priest. Why does he try to convince Bertrande to withdraw charges against Arnaud du Tilh?

The priest, having considered the entire situation closely, believes the consequences would be far less if Bertrande withdrew the accusation against Arnaud. He has had much to do with Arnaud, and suspects himself that he is not the true Martin Guerre. However, he valued him more than he valued the “raw, impatient…thoughtless…selfish Martin Guerre who ran away” and was willing to accept the new ‘Martin’ who he says simply spent “eight years in a hard school”.

12) What do you think of the idea that Bertrande is motivated to proceed with the appeal out of anger at those who have oppressed her? Can this idea be supported by the text?

In an era where women were indeed oppressed in a male-dominated society, it is understandable that a woman like Bertrande would have feelings of anger towards her oppressors. It is certain that she feels anger and a kind of hatred towards Arnaud, saying that “[she] has not demanded his death, but now [she] must demand it”. It is possible that Arnaud is ‘copping the brunt’ of all of her hardships that came about after Martin left her.

Although this idea is feasible, Bertrande has several other reasons for pursuing justice. By falling in love with Arnaud, “he has damned [her] soul”. Because she believes that this is a mortal sin, she wants to be “rid…of his presence” by any means necessary. It is also her biggest flaw, her incapability to “deny the truth”, that she must pursue it to the end.

13) On her journey to Toulouse, Bertrande recalls that in her mind she travelled this journey with Martin when he first left home. Why does Martin’s memory motivate her to pursue this course against Arnaud du Tilh?

Even though Martin never treated Bertrande as well as Arnaud did, he still represented for her what is morally right because she was committed to him through marriage. In this sense, the memory of Martin brings back the memory of a simple life, free of lies and conspiracy, where her happiness came from knowing she was doing the right thing.

14) During the trial, why is the uncle’s description of Arnaud so damning?

Carbon Bareau describes Arnaud in a way that everyone can identify with. He says that he has “a way of stealing the heart”, which is exactly what he did when he first came to the Guerre household. “The priest valued him, the children loved him”, and so did Bertrande. Carbon Bareau also says that he has “no respect for the laws”, which gave people an explanation of his anger when he was refused the money entrusted to Pierre Guerre.

15) After the trial, loneliness and solitude are again Bertrande’s fate. She receives little support from her family, her church, the court or the waiting crowds. In this context, what does ‘solitary justice’ mean?

Bertrande has found justice in the outcome of the trial; however she is the only one who will benefit from it. She has lost everyone she loves “for the sake of a truth, to free [herself] from a deceit which was consuming and killing [her]”. Bertrande was doomed to live an unhappy, ‘solitary’ life, whatever she did. If she dropped the accusation, she would be unhappy because of her sins. Because she followed it through, she lost everything.


16) What effect does the information about the original trial report have on your understanding of The Wife of Martin Guerre?

The original trial report made me realise that The Wife of Martin Guerre is based on real events in history, therefore making the events in the story seem more feasible.

17) Is it wise, or desirable or even possible to represent this story accurately?

Janet Lewis says that “the story which I offer here differs somewhat from the [real] story”, because no verdict or decision was actually reached. If this had have been the case in The Wife of Martin Guerre, we would not be left with the sense of irony and moral injustice that created the vital messages we take from the story.

THEMES: The nature of deception

1) Why does her family continue to believe the impostor is Martin after Bertrande’s accusations?

Because of the success of the Feudal/patriarchal society Bertrande’s family have happily lived in for generations, they “would not change a cobblestone”. They choose to disbelieve Bertrande, for “it is only the truth for [her], not for [them]”. By doing this, they choose to keep their happiness and prosperity without feeling any guilt.

2) The family wants Bertrande to pretend that Arnaud is her husband to maintain the happiness he has brought them. What does this suggest about deception?

The situation presented in the novel may suggest that deception is not entirely black-and-white, as it is often perceived to be. Although Arnaud is doing the wrong thing by impersonating Martin and intruding on the lives of the Guerre family, he proves himself to be a kinder, gentler, more passionate man than the true Martin ever was. Even though Arnaud’s deception is wrong, many good things come out of it.

3) How is it possible for Bertrande to be deceived into mistaking Arnaud du Tilh for her husband?

Because Bertrande was so unhappy in Martin’s absence, her defences against Arnaud’s “way of stealing the heart” were weak. She just wanted to be happy again, and Arnaud took advantage of “all the emotion tightly tied in check for so many years”. It is also possible that she accepted Arnaud in order to spite the real Martin for being cruel to her.

4) Do you think the novel suggests that deception might at times be justified?

The novel suggests that deception, although generally being a bad thing, can sometimes have positive outcomes. It also strongly enforces that however justified deception may be, the truth cannot be hidden forever. Bertrande tried to deny the truth early on because “the new Martin” made her happy, but this came back to haunt her when her suspicion turned to certainty and she knew she was committing a huge sin.

If everybody had have decided to accept Arnaud as Martin and live the “white lie”, business on the farm would have gone on as usual. However, Bertrande could not, with a clear conscience, justify going against her beliefs and becoming “the wife of Arnaud du Tilh”.

5) Are those who believe Arnaud wilfully blind, or are they actually completely innocent of his deceit?

There are many reasons why many people rejected the notion that Arnaud was not the real Martin Guerre. Most of Bertrande’s family believed that Bertrande had gone mad as a result of Martin’s long absence, followed by his sudden return. Others thought that she had “a greed of authority and of money”, saying that it was “all a plan to destroy Martin and possess the farm”.

Even if Bertrande’s family did know that Arnaud was an impostor, they wouldn’t have kicked up a fuss about it. Their main concern was the wellbeing of the farm and their happy lifestyle, and would not jeopardise that by siding with Bertrande.

THEMES: Social institutions and the individual

6) RELIGION: What is the priest’s motivation in encouraging Bertrande to go against the rules of her religion by staying with a man she believes is not her husband?

When the priest urges Bertrande to “withdraw the charges before it is too late”, he knows that this will be going against her religious morals. He is justified in saying this though, because he believes Bertrande is “in danger of sinning far more greatly” than if she stayed with Arnaud. If she sends a good and worthy man to his death to achieve vengeance, the priest is afraid that she will harm “not only [herself], but all who love [her]”,

7) MARRIAGE: Why does Bertrande not have the same freedom as Martin to reject the institutions that govern her?

Bertrande lives in sixteenth century France, in an era where the patriarchal system was dominant. Women were expected to be virtuous and faithful to their husbands, and did not have the freedom, rights and opportunities that the men had.

8) THE LEGAL SYSTEM: Is Bertrande wrong to trust that the law will deliver the truth?

It was always a risky endeavour for Bertrande to try and prosecute Arnaud du Tilh. In a time where women were not supposed to be individuals, it is surprising that she was given any credibility by the judges at all. In the end, however, the law did deliver the truth. Bertrande’s fault was that she relied on it to solve all her problems. This was not possible, as legal justice and moral justice are two very different things.

9) WOMEN AND POWER: Explore the role of each woman in the text and discuss the impact of their lack of autonomy and power on their lives.

Bertrande did not show the characteristics typically seen in women of her time. She displayed very strong and individual qualities, but her gender did not allow her to express herself, which she needed to do. Being a woman trapped her in her situation with Arnaud, because she was expected by everyone else to be the faithful wife to both Martin and his impersonator.

Madame Guerre was in the same position as Bertrande. As the wife of the cap d’hostal, she was expected to support her husband in every way she could. We see evidence of the impact of her lack of power when Martin receives his punishment from his father: “Madame Guerre caught her breath but made no outcry”. She was opposed to this harsh punishment and wanted to comfort her son, but she knew that she could not argue with the head of the house. She, too, often had to make sacrifices for the “common good”.

Martin’s sisters were treated equally to every other woman in the house. They were given duties that they were expected to carry out, and had no choice in the matter. In the novel, we are not even given the sisters’ names, which shows how unimportant they were as individuals.

10) INDIVIDUAL ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES: Does the family fulfil its responsibilities to Bertrande, just as she tries to fulfil her responsibilities in return?

The family didn’t have any responsibilities towards Bertrande in the first place. Everything that everyone did was to serve the family as a whole, and so they gave Bertrande no support in her quest for truth and justice because it was detrimental to the family. They were not interested in pursuing “a truth that none of [them] believed”.

THEMES: Justice

11) LEGAL JUSTICE: Arnaud du Tilh is convicted of multiple crimes but Martin Guerre is convicted of none. Is this just?

Martin Guerre should have received equal punishment to Arnaud, because his abandonment was the very cause of all the problems in the first place. He gave his permission for Arnaud to impersonate him. While Martin was off abandoning his family and his responsibility, Arnaud was in his place earning the respect many say that he deserved more than Martin did anyway.

12) MORAL JUSTICE: Do you think that Bertrande’s position suggests that moral justice is not achieved?

In the official court document, there is a phrase that says,

“But I would willingly ask you if this Monsieur Martin Guerre who was so harsh towards his wife, did not deserve a punishment as severe as that of Arnaut Tillier, for having been by his absence the cause of this wrongdoing?”

One would think that Bertrande’s victory would finally give her freedom and credibility. However, she is given the opposite – “bitter, solitary justice”. Nobody really cares that she was right, and they do not try to stop her when she leaves. If moral justice had been achieved, Bertrande would not have ended up in the position she did.

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