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Book Review of "The Return of Martin Guerre"

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In The Return of Martin Guerre, one man's impersonation of an heir from an influential peasant family in the French village of Artigat ultimately leads to his public execution. The tale of Arnaud du Tilh alias Pansette (meaning "the belly") is full of ironies, not the least of which is his death at the hands of a man who by some accounts harbored some admiration for the quick-witted peasant. Set in a time and place where a hardly discernible line separated proper behavior from that which was grounds for death, du Tilh was guilty of more than one serious charge. Yet he was well-known as a strong farmer, loving husband, shrewd rural-merchant, and eloquent speaker. Arnaud's actions are not the result of his own audacity, rather of something more universal, so universal its results can be seen in other historical figures from the text. Du Tilh assumed Martin Guerre's identity because doing so represented a unique opportunity to test the extent of his abilities and leave behind his presently troubled life.

Everyone has an inborn mechanism that once in a while tells us, "You need a vacation." This couldn't have been truer than for someone like Arnaud du Tilh. Davis writes, "Arnaud du Tilh became known as `dissolute,' a youth of `bad life,' `absorbed in every vice.'" His mix of tomfoolery and heightened intelligence made him stand out. "So clever was Pansette that he began to be suspected of magic." Manipulating "evil spirits" was a serious charge in the 16th century. As an escape Pansette left to fight for Henri II in Picardy. Here he seems to be searching for an escape from his life, a sort of permanent vacation. So it happens that as Arnaud is traveling along the Salat River, he happens upon two of Martin Guerre's old frien...

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... of Spain." Arnaud was able to satisfy his thirst for mischief while at the same time helping to establish a respected family. By doing so he created a rift in the entire village of Artigat, while abandoning his own family.

The search to define ones self is continuous, and ends only in death. Arnaud du Tilh had found a home, and was content. During the trials, he wasn't merely arguing for his life, he wanted to keep the life he once had with Bertrande and his daughters. Du Tilh did not plan to take their inheritance for himself, upon examining excerpts from the book; we see that he was establishing a profitable business for his new family. No matter his true motive the place and times conspired against him, and he ended no better than the man whose identity he sought to steal.

Davis, Natalie. The Return of Martin Guerre. Boston: Harvard Press. 1983. P. 37

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