Pierre et Jean is widely credited for changing the course of narrative fiction. The book introduced intense psychological complexity into its naturalistic depiction of a family brought to the breaking point through startling revelations. The film will be set during the mid-1800's, just before the start of Nantucket’s “ghost period”—after the demise of the whaling industry and before the rise of tourism.
Peter and John tells the story of Peter Roland, a sensitive and sober but unstable town doctor in his early 30s. Peter takes pleasure from a cozy and affectionate relationship with his strikingly beautiful mother, Julia, and he enjoys a playful camaraderie with his mischievous and sometimes reckless younger brother John. One night at dinner, a courier arrives with news of a surprising small inheritance for Peter and a much larger one for John. Immediately, Peter darkens, suspecting that John’s benefactor, a bachelor aristocrat and family friend, had carried on an affair with his mother and was, in fact, John’s true father. Burdened by his suspicions, Peter can’t find the words or feelings to resolve his fears. He finds himself unexpectedly drawn towards a young woman who arrives on the island, but his brother John also finds her attractive. The young doctor becomes increasingly unsure of himself, descending into a fog as thick as the rolling mist that regularly engulfs his seaside home. What emerges is less a tale of jealousy than a series of cathartic realizations prompted by Peter’s crisis, forcing him to confront what former Brandeis University French literature professor Murray Sachs described as Peter’s furtive reckoning with “the hollowness and immaturity of the illusions by which he lived.”
Maupassant’s novel was widely heralded by critics and writers. “Monsieur de Maupassant has never before been so clever,” wrote Henry James who called Pierre et Jean a “masterly little novel.” It is a complex and relevant tale of family, class, legacy, legitimacy, and self-discovery.