The Prices Set by Society: Reading The Wife of Martin Guerre

Janet Lewis’ novella The Wife of Martin Guerre describes one woman’s quest for the truth, in the face of breaking her community’s traditional patriarchal and religious practices and beliefs. Set in a rigid 16th century society, which demands submissiveness and silence in exchange for stability, authority and security, Bertrande faces a dilemma: sacrifice her family and community’s happiness for her own cleared conscience, or sacrifice her conscience for her family. The heavy price society demands for stability, authority and security can be seen through stifling tradition, the choice between truth or lies, and the issue of identity.

In The Wife of Martin Guerre, Martin rebels against the tradition in which he has been brought up in. This is a consequence of the inflexible justice he receives from paternal authority. The novella is set in the French village of Artigues, known for upholding “the feudal structure”. Every aspect of life was controlled by this structure and had been for more than 300 years, such as “the rubbing of garlic on the lips of Sanxi.” This repetition of tradition can be stifling and constraining. Martin rebels against the paternal authority, which society provides. The inflexible justice he receives from his father, the “accumulated authority of antiquity”, results in his departure. When Monsieur Guerre discovers the real reason for his son’s departure, he is shocked and disappointed mirroring society’s own reaction to disobedience. Lewis uses the character of Martin to explore how individuals in society may act under constraints and inflexibility, and how such rebellion shapes them.

Bertrande’s choice between truth or lies highlights how one’s own needs must be vanquished in the needs of the community. Bertrande, at the cost of her own downfall, goes against this unwritten social rule. When Bertrande initially reunites with her husband, she experiences “a suspicion”, which she hopes will pass. Instead, the suspicion grows stronger, to the point of endangering her physical health. When she reveals this to other “mesnie” members, she is told not to think of such things. After Martin is arrested, the village implores her to drop charges, to which Bertrande replies, “how can I deny the truth?” Martin’s youngest sister states that it is “only the truth for you”. This housekeeper wishes that Bertrande is “still deceived…we were all happy then.” The priest too tries to convince Bertrande if there was any evil, God would reveal it in due course. This is characteristic of the priest, a significant member of this society who is learned and experienced and whose word is law. This represents the pressure that society has on those that disobey, and the underlying pressure that everything should done for the sake of the community, a collective society with no individual.

Since there is no individual in such a collective society, there is no individual identity. All individual identity is submerged into one communal identity. As the title suggests, Bertrande, as a woman, has no identity, she is merely “the wife of Martin Guerre”. Woman in the 16th century were considered to be subordinate to men and second-class citizens. Their only roles were that of wife and mother, and, in a village like Artigues, of farm labourer. All they did was for the good of the family, and generally, the community. During Arnaud’s reign and during the trial, Bertrande faces the dilemma of identity: is she the deceived wife of Martin or the adulterous wife of Arnaud? Both identities have invidious consequences and downfall in society. The choices that Bertrande faces and the decisions that Bertrande makes all reflect the price one pays for disobeying society’s rules and exploiting society’s offerings. Although Bertrande believes that what she is doing is for the good of the family, it goes against the good of society and therefore requires punishment. Both Arnaud and Bertrande are punished, Arnaud physically and Bertrande morally. The truth presents itself “coldly, inescapably” and all that’s left for Bertrande is her soul, which doesn’t last long, especially when consumed by “hate and love”. Arnaud, on the other hand, is hanged in front of the Guerre house and “mesnie”, a demeaning punishment for a demeaning man.

Ultimately, the heavy price society demands for its offerings can lead to betrayal and disobedience, as seen through the characters of Martin Guerre and his wife Bertrande de Rols. Martin rebels against the inflexible paternal authority of his father, resulting in his departure and Bertrande’s pursuit of the truth. For her part, Bertrande’s own identity costs her family and her community of Artigues their happiness and their own security.