France in the 19th century was a country that was in trouble. In the beginning of the century its people were picking up the pieces from overthrowing a powerful and well established monarch. The people had to weather a failed first republic and the Napoleonic Wars. French people then had to deal with a restoration of the monarchy and a return of the power to the Bourgeoisie. Living as a common person in France was no easy task. While slavery no longer existed legally, its basic principles were still practiced over the peasants by the powerful Bourgeoisie.
In the novel The Life of a Simple Man the protagonist is a peasant man named Tiennon. The story is a fictional account of life of a peasant in 19th century France. Tiennon lives through most of these historical events but most of them had no real effect on his day to day life. The one event that truly affected all peasants was the second empire of Napoleon III and his war against Prussia in 1870. France’s declaration of war meant that all military aged men would be conscripted and forced to serve. Before the war families were able to buy their son’s service out of the military for 500 francs.
Tiennon had paid this amount, but with Napoleon’s declaration of war no amount could save his son Jean. “1870 came, and the great war, again one of those years on never forgets (Guillemin 154)”. “Monsieur Lavallee came to tell us that the government of Badinguet had declared war against Prussia. He took me aside to tell me that Jean would be called up before long (Guillemin 154)”. These quotes show not only what life would have been like for Tiennon and his family but also for all the peasant families.
Tiennon had lost 500 francs which is an incredible amount of money for a peasant and he got nothing in return. This could be devastating to a peasant family not only because they are losing their loved one, but now they have one less person to help with work. French peasants were a very close knit family, with most families sharing one house with one or two rooms in it. “Our house had two rooms of equal size connected by an inside door: these were the kitchen and bedroom (Guillemin 119)”. These houses were shared by multiple families who all worked on the farm of their master.
Everyone was required to do something on the farm for life to continue and without even one person all the rest were burdened with having to pick up the slack. This war caused not only Tiennon’s family to suffer but all other peasant families with children. Napoleon III was defeated by Prussia and his government was overthrown by the third republic in Paris. This sent repercussions all throughout the French countryside as more men were needed to defend the French homeland from invading Prussian armies. The Prussians however were advancing on Paris.
And there was talk of calling up the young men aged between eighteen and twenty. That touched me closely, because Charles and the hired man were both likely to be involved. Things developed quickly and they left in the first few days of October. That event caused a lamentable repetition of the scene which had taken place when the eldest had gone; a profound desolation followed. (Guillemin 157) While the threat of the Prussians was great, the even bigger impact of losing his second son was that he was alone in the fields now. Tiennon was forced to hire laborers that he could barely afford and this was true of most peasants. The Metayers on the other farms were nearly all in the same position. Everywhere you could see women in the fields, exhausting themselves doing men’s work (Guillemin 157)”. Life wasn’t easy for the peasants before, but with a war raging and some of their strongest workers off fighting, work was almost impossible.
The threat of a Prussian Invasion was all over France. People in the countryside were becoming paranoid and this affected everyone, not just the urban populations in the cities. With news reports coming in from all over, no one knew what to believe and what not to believe. Inaccurate news which helped to increase the anxiety we all felt. Wild ideas came into people’s minds; some hid all their treasures in deep ditches and hollow oak trees, and one old miser buried his money under a heap of manure in a field (Guillemin 157)”. The amount of terror can only be imagined because most of the time French foreign policy very rarely affected the rural populations. Peasants were not usually concerned with the day to day functions of the Paris government, but this war threatened France’s borders and now the people and their families were threatened.
Paris eventually fell to the Prussians and a third Republic was restored. The rural peasants were able to continue on with their lives and eventually Tiennon’s sons returned and life was again able to return to normal. Some may say that the biggest thing that affected the French was the passage of universal suffrage for men. This may be true for the French in the Bourgeoisie, but not for the common Frenchman. Most French peasants were illiterate and could not fully understand who was running for office. After Napoleon III took over Universal suffrage meant almost nothing.
His government was a despotism founded on universal suffrage. The lower chamber was appointed by the people, but it could originate nothing; it could only discuss the measures submitted to it by the emperor, and the amendments which it suggested could be adopted or rejected by the council of state, a body nominated by the emperor. The senators were mainly chosen by the emperor, and although their services were gratuitous, his majesty was empowered to grant liberal salaries to those whose conduct merited such recognition. Mackenzie 290) Robert Mackenzie shows that while universal suffrage was true in theory, it was a farce in reality. Tiennon has no idea who he should vote for and since he is illiterate he must resort to listening to whoever can read. Unfortunately most of the people who can read do not have Tiennon’s interests in mind. “My master says that if a Republican was made President, wheat would sell for only twenty sous the measure (Guillemin 106). ” Tiennon ended up voting for Napoleon instead of the Republican.
Peasants were even forced to vote for whomever their master wanted them to vote for. Tiennon’s master tells him that his game keeper, who is an intimidating person, will give all the workers their ballots. This is blatant voter intimidation but it works in suppressing the peasant vote. In conclusion the Regime of Napoleon III and his Franco Prussian war affected Tiennon the most in this book. At the beginning of the war Tiennon has to deal with his eldest son Jean being called into the military and his loss of his 500 francs.
Tiennon and his family had to fill Jean’s void in the fields which required everyone to do more work. When the war started going badly for France Tiennon’s other son Charles was called into the military and now Tiennon had no one to help him and was forced to hire help and have his wife and daughter tend the fields. Finally the amount of hysteria and panic from the advancing Prussian armies would have interrupted normal life and mad living for the peasants even more difficult than it already was.
There are many other historical events that happened in France during the timeframe of this book such as universal suffrage, or the railroad, or even agricultural advances. These events may have affected France as a whole, but in answer to the question of what affected Tiennon the most it would have to be Napoleon III and his war. Ending with this quote by Roman Historian Plutarch seems to sum everything up in this story, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics. ”