The Return of Martin Guerre


Natalie Zemon Davis

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The Carnival Mask Symbol Icon

In sixteenth-century French peasant communities, the villagers frequently hosted carnivals in which people could dress up as others using costumes and masks, taking on other identities—even just for an evening. In Davis’s reading, the mask evokes many forms of impersonation in Renaissance culture, suggesting that everyone is always impersonating someone or something else. The mask, in other words, symbolizes the fact that identity is always, in some sense, a charade. For instance, the Daguerre family “masked” their identity by changing their name to “Guerre” when they arrived in Artigat in order to better assimilate to their new community. Likewise, healthy beggars sometimes pretended to be disabled or blind in hopes of appealing to people’s charitable impulses. Furthermore, Davis describes Arnaud du Tilh as “rehearsing” for the role of Martin Guerre, underscoring the theatrical dimensions of his deception. Arnaud essentially wore the “mask” of Martin, like a player in a carnival. But Davis suggests that this impersonation was merely an extreme example of the performances in which many people engaged when they took on new personas, like the Daguerres who became the Guerres. The carnival mask is such a resonant symbol for Davis because it shows that everyone masks their identity in one way or another.

The Carnival Mask Quotes in The Return of Martin Guerre

The The Return of Martin Guerre quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Carnival Mask. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Identity and Property Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harvard University Press edition of The Return of Martin Guerre published in 1983.
Chapter 4 Quotes

Was it so unusual for a man in sixteenth-century villages and burgs to change his name and fashion a new identity? Some of this went on all the time. The Daguerres left Hendaye, became the Guerres, and changed their ways. Every peasant who migrated any distance might be expected to do the same…At carnival time and at other feastdays, a young peasant might dress as an animal or a person of another estate or sex and speak through that disguise.

Related Characters: Arnaud du Tilh
Related Symbols: The Carnival Mask
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

Lawyers, royal officers, and would-be courtiers knew all about self-fashioning—to use Stephen Greenblatt’s term—about the molding of speech, manners, gesture, and conversation that helped them to advance, as did any newcomer to high position in the sixteenth century. Where does self-fashioning stop and lying begin?

Related Characters: Arnaud du Tilh, Jean de Coras
Related Symbols: The Carnival Mask
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

Montaigne insists how difficult it is to know the truth about things and how uncertain an instrument is human reason. “Truth and falsehood have both alike countenances…Wee beholde them with one same eye.”

Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:
Epilogue Quotes

The story of Martin Guerre is told and retold because it reminds us that astonishing things are possible. Even for the historian who has deciphered it, it retains a stubborn vitality. I think I have uncovered the true face of the past—or has Pansette done it once again?

Related Characters: Martin Guerre, Arnaud du Tilh
Related Symbols: The Carnival Mask
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Return of Martin Guerre PDF

The Carnival Mask Symbol Timeline in The Return of Martin Guerre

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Carnival Mask appears in The Return of Martin Guerre. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 4
Identity and Property Theme Icon
...of his large appetites. He loved carnivals, where people would dress up in costumes and masks and pretend to be someone else. Like Martin, he longed to escape the constraints of... (full context)
Identity and Property Theme Icon
...planning to impersonate him and take his property. Davis compares him to actor wearing a mask, like a player at the carnivals popular in sixteenth-century French villages. (full context)
Narrative and Authority Theme Icon
The Nature of Evidence Theme Icon
...story is representative of the truth, or if it is simply another one of Arnaud’s masks. (full context)