François, 15 years old, is the narrator of the book. He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Seurel who are teachers at Sainte Agathe in Sologne and is studying there to become a teacher himself. Augustin Meaulnes, 17 years old, arrives at the school. His arrival is going to shake François's calm and lonely life. 'The arrival of Augustin Meaulnes is for me the beginning of a new life' wrote François.
Augustin, called 'Le Grand Meaulnes' by the other pupils, breaks the monotony of the school establishment and fascinates the students with his mysterious personality.
"A long red house with five glass doors...."
In the first part of The Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier describes the school of the village where he leaved between 1891 and 1898
A few days before Christmas, one of the students, Moucheboeuf, is chosen by Mr. Seurel to meet François's grandparents at Vierzon railway station. Meaulnes does not appear to react to the choice of Mouchebouef, but the next day he disappears with Mr Florentin's carriage. During the night the carrriage is returned but Meaulnes is not to be found. Meaulnes has disappeared and reappears three days later without telling anybody where he has been. As soon as he is back home he draws a map in order to figure out where his jaunt has taken him. In the weeks that follow, François is perplexed by the behavior of Meaulnes - walking around his room as if he wants to leave again. He also notices that his friend is wearing the waistcoat of a marquis under his school uniform.
Meaulnes relates his strange adventure
At last Meaulnes tells François what happened during the days he was away. As he left home to pick up Francois's grandparents at Vierzon he lost his way. A couple of farmers offered to put his horse in their barn but the horse ran away. He tried unsuccessfully to catch it. Exhausted and having injured his knee, he rested for the night in an abandoned sheep pen.
In the morning he began walking again until he came to a mysterious estate where a party was being prepared. He saw young girls wearing old-fashioned clothes. As he did not want to frighten them he hid in an unused room and fell asleep. When he awoke he heard a strange conversation between two actors. They invited him to join the masquerade ball. Meaulnes disguised himself as a marquis. Children brought him into the great room where a dinner had been prepared for the engagement of Frantz de Galais, the son of the manor. He learned that Frantz had gone to Bourges to bring back his fiancée, Valentine. The couple had not yet arrived. Meaulnes took part in a farandole led by a tall Pierrot.
As they danced through the manor he discovered a peaceful room where a young woman was playing the piano for some children. 'It was like a dream, a dream he had before. He could imagine that this was his home, he was married and that this charming and unknown person playing the piano next to him was his wife...
Early the next morning, he had a fantastic encounter. Near the lake, Meaulnes saw the young woman from the previous evening and followed her onto a boat. Back on shore, they exchanged a few words. She introduced herself as Miss Yvonne de Galais and requested that he not follow her any longer.
The party ended abruptly. Frantz arrived home alone and announced that his fiancée would not be coming. Frantz left the manor in despair, leaving behind this note "My fiancée has disappeared and let it be known that she could not be my wife. I do not wish to live any longer".
As a carriage was bringing Meaulnes back to St. Agathe, he heard a gunshot and saw the tall Pierrot from the party - Ganache - carrying a body.
Meaulnes and François try unsuccessfully to find the mysterious estate on the map which Meaulnes had drawn upon his return. One night in February they hear strange noises outside and go to investigate. There they find a young gypsy with a bandage around his head and a group of children from the village, who steal their map.
The following day the gypsy joins their class as a student and quickly becomes its new leader. The gypsy eventually gives the stolen map back to Meaulnes with the missing parts now filled in. François, Meaulnes and the gypsy soon become fast friends and swear friendship forever. 'Be my friends on that day I am once again close to hell; swear to me that you will answer when I call you. You, Meaulnes, swear first'. The three swear their allegiance to each other and the young gypsy then gives Meaulnes the address in Paris of Yvonne, the young woman from the mysterious party.
Departure for Paris
A number of robberies occur in the village, likely excecuted by the gypsy's friend Ganache. One day the young gypsy puts on a performance in the village square. At the end of the performance, the young gypsy pulls aways his bandages revealing his identity to Meaulnes. He is Frantz de Galais, the young master of the mysterious estate. The following morning, Frantz and Ganache leave just before the police arrive and Meaulnes loses the the only hope he has of finding the castle.
Meaulnes goes to Paris where he hopes to see Yvonne de Galais again. François remains in Saint Agathe and reveals Meaulnes's secret to his friends. He eventually receives letters from Meaulnes, one of them informing him that Yvonne is already married.
The recovered castle
A year and a half after Meaulnes's departure, François happens to find the address of the mysterious property. It is the Sablonnières estate, close to the village of Old Nançay. François manages to get invited to his Uncle Florentin who is living in the village. His uncle informs him that Yvonne is, in fact, not married. François meets Yvonne and learns that the young lady has not forgotten Meaulnes either. Uncle Florentin decides to throw a party where Meaulnes, Yvonne and François are to be invited. Before announcing this news to Meaulnes, François visits his Aunt Moinel. She tells him a strange story. One night, last winter, as she was coming back from a party, she came upon a young woman in distress. She brought the young woman to her home and the woman then left for Paris. Being to preoccupied with the thought of reuniting Meaulnes and Yvonne de Galais, François does not pay much attention to his aunt's story.
At the party, Meaulnes finally meets Yvonne again. Although happy to see Yvonne once again, Meaulnes realises that nothing will be the same as it was before. He questions Yvonne at length and learns that not only has the old manor been demolished, but that in order to pay Franz's debts, the family had to to sell the boats and horses which Meaulnes remembered from the party. Meaulnes falls into a destructive nostalgia. He even reproaches the de Galais family to still use their old horse. By evening, however, crying, he asks Yvonne to marry him.
The Escape From Happiness
Meaulnes and Yvonne get engaged and are married in the chapel at Les Sablonnières. The day of the wedding a loud wail is heard near the house of the young couple. It is Frantz who is in despair because he has not found his fiancée, Valentine. He reminds Meaulnes of his pledge to come to his aid when he calls. François tries to get Frantz to leave, but is too late, Meaulnes has heard his call. Despite his love for his new bride, Yvonne, Meaulnes decides to leave with Frantz the next day in order to help him find his fiancée. Yvonne remains home alone and François becomes her confidant and tries to comfort her.
The following October, Yvonnes gives birth to a girl. She becomes sick, however, and dies of a cerebral embolism without ever having seen Meaulnes again. François moves onto the Sablonnières estate and tries to figure out why Meaulnes left. A few months later, while reading the diary of Meaulnes, he discovers what happened to Meaulnes when he went to Paris to search for Yvonne. He learns that while searching for Yvonne, Meaulnes met a young woman and seduced her. When he later discovered that the young woman was Valentine, Frantz's fiancée, he felt as if he had betrayed Frantz. He drove Valentine away rudely. Later, feeling guilty about his treatment of her, he tried to find Valentine, but she was gone.
In order to make amends to Frantz and Valentine, Meaulnes had left Yvonne the day after his marriage and answered Frantz's call for help. He wrote in his diary "I will only return to Yvonne if I manage to bring Frantz and Valentine back to Sablonnières, married".
One year later, Meaulnes does indeed bring Frantz and Valentine back to Sablonnières, married. Taking his daughter, he disappears, leaving François alone. The book ends with François musing "And I imagine him, in the night, wrapping his daughter in his coat, ready to take her on new adventures".
Photos : "collection particulière droits réservés"