History: This book is a naturalist or psycho-realist work written in 1887 .
Plot: Pierre and Jean are the sons of Gérôme Roland, a jeweller who has retired to Le Havre, and his wife Louise. Pierre works as a doctor, and Jean is a lawyer. It recounts the story of a middle-class French family whose lives are changed when Léon Maréchal, a deceased family friend, leaves his inheritance to Jean. The parents are over joyed with the wealth of his brother, and this torments Pierre with jealousy. Added to this, both brothers are courting the same woman, who obviously favors Jean. Pierre does his best to suppress his jealousy but as he talks to his old chemist friend and a casual girlfriend who works as a barmaid their thoughts – that Jean must have been the son of the dead man – eats away at him.
As Pierre struggles to control his fear that the rumours are right and his knowledge that he will appear jealous if he says anything . These terrible emotions provoke to come to the understanding that his mother and Marechal had an affair, and that Jean is Marechal’s son. This investigation sparks violent reactions in Pierre, whose external appearance vis a vis his mother visibly changes.
In his anguish, most notably shown during family meals, he tortures her with allusions to the past that he has now uncovered. His mother is obviously guilty.
Meanwhile, Jean's career and love life improve over the course of the novel while Pierre's life gets significantly worse. Provoked by his brother's accusations of jealousy, Pierre reveals to Jean what he has learned. However, unlike Pierre, Jean offers his mother love and protection after she confesses her love for Marechal and the ten year affair many years ago.
Pierre is still tormented. He decides to take a job as a doctor on an American bound ship. The novel closes with Pierre’s departure on an oceanliner. Thus the novel is organised around the unwelcome appearance of a truth (Jean’s illegitimacy), its suppression for the sake of family continuity and the acquisition of wealth, and the expulsion from the family of the legitimate son.
Review: It gives us one of the best looks at sibling rivalry I have ever seen in a novel. In this it compares well to The Brothers Karamazov.) The brothers have a cordial relationship but there are undercurrents of resentment based on perceptions on each of the brother's parts that their parents preferred the other.
We see growing feelings of resentment in Pierre and we see Jean, who was always somehow in the shadow of his older brother, begin to look down on those around him not in his economic class. We also get a great look at relationships of the parents to each other and to the brothers. Pierre Et James provides us with a brilliant look at a family whose children are no longer children but still somehow less than full adults. We also along the way see how the fishing industry in France worked and we enjoy the brothers' love of sport fishing. We go along as the older brother goes out on the town to places his parents would not care to know about. One of the most interesting bits of knowledge conveyed in the books was an account of the economics of life as a cruise ship doctor in the 1880. There is a beautiful (if there can be beauty is such a thing) description of the steerage area of the cruise ship that is as vivid as anything in Dickens. In that short passage De Maupassant shows he need not take a lower berth to his friend Zola in depicting the life of the poor.
Opening Line: “Tschah!" exclaimed old Roland suddenly, after he had remained motionless for a quarter of an hour, his eyes fixed on the water, while now and again he very slightly lifted his line sunk in the sea.”
Closing Line: “As they were about to turn off from the quay down the Boulevard Francois, his wife once more looked back to cast a last look at the high seas, but she could see nothing now but a puff of gray smoke, so far away, so faint that it looked like a film of haze.”
Quotes: “As it was not yet four o'clock, and he had nothing to do, absolutely nothing, he went to sit in the public gardens; and he remained a long time on a bench, without an idea in his brain, his eyes fixed on the ground, crushed by weariness amounting to distress.
And yet this was how he had been living all these days since his return home, without suffering so acutely from the vacuity of his existence and from inaction. How had he spent his time from rising in the morning till bed-time?”