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Reading Pierre et Jean, we know that Pierre is the legitimate son of Maréchal yet Madame Roland confessed to Jean instead that he is his true son. Why is this the case?

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The question is quite confusing. Madame Roland has two sons, Pierre and Jean. Pierre is the legitimate son, whereas his brother Jean, natural son of Maréchal, is the illegitimate one. Pierre suspects it, Jean does not. But his mother confesses it to Jean and she never does it to Pierre. We may wonder how this confession is made by Madame Roland to Jean and not to Pierre.

Some scholars have seen in this behavior of Madame Roland some indications of incestuous feelings. In the Le Livre de Poche edition of Pierre et Jean, Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier writes:

L’activité de ces deux figures — celle du triangle et celle du double — régit en fait la conduite des personnages, en soumettant chaque individu à l’une ou l’autre des relations qu’elles impliquent. Dans le triangle prend place la structure parentale, et les conflits qu’elle mobilisera — mésentente du couple, rivalité des frères, adultère reconnu dans le frôlement de l’inceste : l’aveu de Mme Roland, à la différence de précédents célèbres, ne se fait pas à l’époux, mais à celui des fils qui ne savait rien, en excluant celui qui soupçonnait ; et si l’exclu se sent « trompé » comme un « mari », l’élu donnera à la mère comme « l’émotion retrouvée des adultères anciens ».

My translation:

The activity of these two figures – that of the triangle and that of the double – actually governs the behavior of the characters, subjecting each individual to one or the other of the relationships they imply. The parental structure takes place within the triangle, along with the conflicts it will mobilize – couple's discord, sibling rivalry, acknowledged adultery in the proximity of incest: Mrs. Roland's confession, unlike previous famous cases, is not made to her spouse but to one son who was unaware, excluding the one who suspected. If the excluded one feels "deceived" like a "husband," the chosen one will give to the mother the "rediscovered emotion of past adulteries."

In fact, the same source explains how the study of Maupassant's manuscript has revealed that in an initial draft of the novel, the hints of incestuous desires in Madame Roland were even more evident:

La première concerne le chapitre VII, celui de l’aveu, dont la rédaction primitive laissait affleurer et les symptômes d’un amour privilégié pour Jean et une confusion entre transfert d’amour et transfert d’argent : Mme Roland y justifiait sa préférence par le souvenir de son amant et insistait pour que le fils choisi accepte cet amour en acceptant l’héritage. Le remaniement gomme les indices d’un désir incestueux, efface la contamination du sexe et de l’argent, et substitue à la discussion sur l’héritage une échappée sur la fin de la liaison, le détachement de Maréchal. En atténuant ainsi toute indication scandaleuse, l’écrivain renforce l’impression dominante de médiocrité, qui gouverne la vie des personnages et régit jusqu’à la déclaration de Mme Roland dont la passion s’est trouvée finalement noyée dans l’abandon.

My translation:

The first concerns chapter VII, that of confession, whose original wording revealed both symptoms of a privileged love for Jean and a confusion between love transfer and money transfer: Madame Roland justified her preference by recalling her lover and insisted that the chosen son accept this love by accepting the inheritance. The revision removes the hints of incestuous desire, erases the contamination of sex and money, and replaces the discussion about inheritance with an escape to the end of the affair, Maréchal's detachment. By thus mitigating any scandalous indications, the writer reinforces the prevailing impression of mediocrity that governs the characters' lives and regulates even Madame Roland's declaration, whose passion ultimately found itself drowned in abandonment.

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