Peasant is often used as an insult, the meaning being that they are a stupid, dull, and foolish lot. Of course, they managed to survive for centuries under conditions that were far from comfortable, so obviously, they know a thing or two about life. I happen to have a weak spot for novels, it seems they are all French, that feature sharp dealing by peasants, and I am reading one now, La Terre, by Zola. The archetypal literary scene of peasant-dealing is for me, however, from The Red and the Black, by Stendhal, which is one of my all-time favorite books.
Julien Sorel is the young son of a successful peasant who runs a lumber business in the hills. Old Sorel beats his son, and despises him as a useless, arrogant, and snotty layabout, always shirking work, slight of build, addicted to reading useless books of Napoleonic history. Through the offices of a local priest who notes the boy’s intellect, Monsieur Rênal, a local big bourgeois, decides to hire the boy as a tutor for his children, so Rênal goes to settle terms with the father. The old man, grasping that his son is valuable to these people, and sensing there is money to be made from him, makes a deal on wages and boarding, but when the time comes to seal the agreement, he stalls Monsieur Rênal (italics original).
“Oh, very well!” said Sorel in a drawling tone, “then there’s only one thing for us still to settle: the money you are to give him.”
“What!” M. De Rênal indignantly exclaimed, “we agreed upon that yesterday: I give three hundred francs; I consider that plenty, if not too much.”
“That was your offer, I do not deny it, ” said old Sorel, speaking even more slowly; then, by a stroke of genius which will astonish only those who do not know the Franc-Comtois peasant, he added, looking M. de Rênal steadily in the face: “We can do better elsewhere.”
I have the original French passage here:
— Eh bien! dit Sorel d’un ton de voix traînard, il ne reste donc plus qu’à nous mettre d’accord sur une seule chose: l’argent que vous lui donnerez.
— Comment! s’écria M. de Rênal indigné, nous sommes d’accord depuis hier: je donne trois cents francs; je crois que c’est beaucoup, et peut-être trop.
— C’était votre offre, je ne le nie point, dit le vieux Sorel, parlant encore plus lentement; et, par un effort de génie qui n’étonnera que ceux qui ne connaissent pas les paysans francs-comtois, il ajouta, en regardant fixement M. de Rênal: Nous trouvons mieux ailleurs .
Truly, a memorable moment in literary representations of the peasantry! They survive against Nature, not always nurturing, and in a social realm that relegates them to the bottom of the heap. Sentimentality is a luxury, and even family feeling often gives way to calculation. Relations between father and son are often disrupted by lunges for the economic jugular.
In La Terre, the old farmer, Fouan, decides he can’t keep up his land anymore, love it as he does. He and his wife decide to make a legal gift of it to their children on agreement that the children will pay the old couple an annual stipend on which they can live. The two sons comprise a scheming rascal and an utterly dissolute drunkard, known locally as Jesus Christ because of his resemblance to images of the Saviour. The daughter is an intelligent woman married to a hard working farmer, and she fears being diddled out of her share by her brothers. The sons resent not getting the land outright: they suspect that Old Fouan has a stash of money he can live on easily without their payments, and that he is just plain stingy. At any rate, the two sons are constantly delinquent with their payments, especially Jesus Christ.
And then there is La Grande, the old crone, Fouan’s sister, eighty years old, tough as hickory, single, independent, who regards Fouan as a complete idiot for doing the gift. She knows what children are like when money’s involved. She sits in on a confrontation between Fouan and his sons, watching with utter, but silent disgust as Fouan demands the money owed him from one, only to forgive the payment owed by Jesus Christ, and in fact, letting him walk off with some of his brother’s money. That one is the favorite of the mother! La Grande declares, “You asked for it! Don’t ever come asking me for even a penny!!” She screeches like a harpie or an ignored prophetess in a Greek myth.
Finally, there are the two later novels, by Pagnol, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, better known here through their film adaptations. These tell the story of the Soubeyran clan in southern France, where land is valuable, but water is the final arbiter of wealth, for without a well, land is worthless. In this story, the battle for water, takes on a mythic cast, followed through several generations, with a hidden cache of gold as the final prize. This is not social realism, but it is brutal enough. In the end, the peasants’ grasping after water and wealth is frustrated by ironic twists of fate, complete with a local crippled prophet out of Oedipus, who declares the truth of the curse that floats over a town stricken by a dried up spring.