Anatole France begins his tale with a satiric description of King Christophe V and his government. He was an unpopular monarch whose chief pursuits were hunting and sin. He seemed to be bored with both of these entertainments. In fact, he was bored with everything. He had no appetite and he did not even like to rest.
His depressed mental state affected his body. He suffered such disorders as migraine headaches and cramps.
The king consulted two doctors named Saumon and Machellier. The two doctors hated one another, but each of them realized that he would only hurt himself if he openly fought with his enemy. So they pretended to be in perfect agreement with one another.
Their diagnosis was comical. Machellier said that the king’s disease was constantly changing, like the Old Man of the Sea. An apparent case of stomach ulcers would suddenly change into nephritis. Soon thereafter, the king would appear to have tuberculosis.
After several months, the condition of the king deteriorated. It felt as if rats were nibbling his intestines, while a dwarf was in his stomach wielding a pickaxe. When his two doctors advised him that it was his depression that caused these symptoms, the king sent them away.
Saint-Sylvain, the most important secretary of the king, suggested that his royal master consult Rodrigue, who used unusual means to cure the sick. His opinion was seconded by Quatrefeuilles, the king’s principal squire. The king decided to stick with his two doctors, even though he was not satisfied with them.
Sometimes he followed his doctors’ orders; sometimes he did the exact opposite of what they recommended. Nothing helped. For a long time, he steadfastly refused to consult Rodrigue, whom he considered a charlatan. However, after a particularly bad night, he asked for Rodrigue.
Rodrigue believed that he had discovered secret properties of matter and he applied his discoveries to medicine. He told the king that his two doctors had offered a correct diagnosis. It was the king’s nerves that troubled him. He claimed that an atom of joy would heal him. The nerves of the king could be cured by contact with a material object that had imbibed joyous humors from its surroundings. So Rodrigue told the king that he should wear the shirt of a happy man. He should wear it next to his skin so he could absorb the joy that the happy man had imparted to it.
The king sent Saint-Sylvain and Quatrefeuilles to look for the prescribed shirt. He told them not to tell anyone why they were looking for it because many wretched people would then offer their shirts to the king in the hope of getting a reward. Moreover, an anarchist might give him a poisoned shirt.
They first tried to find a happy man among the courtiers. The most promising candidate was a man who was sleeping with a contented look on his face. However, when he awoke, his face assumed a sad expression. He had enjoyed a wonderful dream and felt disappointment that his joys were only a mirage.
Evening came, and the two men had thus far failed. They discussed various options. Saint-Sylvain thought that poor people probably were happier than the rich and powerful. Quatrefeuilles said he was wrong and compared his ideas to those of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Quatrefeuilles suggested that Rodrigue might have been using the term “man” in a generic sense, so that the term would include women. Saint-Sylvain offered various humorous objections to this idea. As a final argument, he alluded to what Hercules suffered when he accepted a shirt from a woman named Omphale. He implied that the king might suffer something similar if he accepted a shirt from a woman.
Since the Spanish ambassador was giving a party that evening, they decided to look for a happy man at the embassy. Quatrefeuilles thought that two prominent dignitaries were promising candidates, but Saint-Sylvain pointed out that one was unhappy because he had fallen from power, and the other was unhappy because he was afraid that he might lose his power.
Then they saw a man telling stories to a large group of people. He was Jeronimo, the most famous man in the realm. He told joyous stories that made people laugh.
The oratorical abilities of Jeronimo had made him popular and influential. He became a leader of the opposition.
Quatrefeuilles and Saint-Sylvain thought that this joyous orator was the man for whom they were looking. However, since Jeronimo was an opponent of the king’s government, Quatrefeuilles was afraid that he might not want to give the king his shirt.
Saint-Sylvain did not think that they would have trouble obtaining the shirt if they assured Jeronimo that they would never tell anyone that he had helped the king.
However, when Jeronimo noticed the elegant conduct of a duke, his mood changed. He was not genuinely happy because he envied the aristocracy.
Although they continued trying, they utterly failed to find a happy man. In the morning, they had to face the disappointed king.
Saint-Sylvain wanted to conduct the search more intelligently, so they sought the advice of Monsieur Chaudesaigues, the director of the royal library. When they arrived, the director complained about the noise people made in the library as the talked about every conceivable subject in every conceivable language.
A man named Froidefond was cataloguing books. He knew the title and format of every book in the library; but since he never read any of the books, he was not troubled by the confusing and contradictory information that they contained. For this reason, Monsieur Chaudesaigues believed that he was happy.
This aroused the interest of the two visitors, especially Quatrefeuilles. However, this librarian proved to be another disappointment. When Quatrefeuilles asked him whether he was happy, Froidefond replied that he did not know that book title.
Saint-Sylvain thought it would facilitate their search if they had an exact definition of terms at their disposal. He asked the learned man to define the French word “bonheur,” which means “chance” or “luck” in English.
In reply, Chaudesaigues emphasized that bonheur etymologically referred to good auguries. If someone consistently enjoyed good omens whenever he consulted the birds or rolled the dice, he was a happy man. To find a happy man, it was best to examine old men who were about to die. Such a one had already rolled the dice for the last time, so he could no longer receive any bad omens. If all his throws had portended good fortune throughout his life, he could unreservedly be called a happy man. He suggested the Duke of Volmar as a suitable candidate. This duke had been a consistently successful warrior and was famous as the conqueror of Elbruz and Baskir.
However, when they arrived at the palace of the duke, the supposedly happy man was quarreling with his servants. So they quickly left the residence. Saint-Sylvain admitted that he was wrong in thinking that a rigorous method would help them find a happy man. Science only led them astray.
Quatrefeuilles thought a map would help them search intelligently, so he bought one. After consulting a map, they decided to continue their search in an area south of the city, where rich people were residing at this particular time.
They started their search by visiting Jacques Felgine-Cobur, who owned mines and was one of the richest men in the neighborhood. They found him at work crushing rocks. The rich man explained that it was his only diversion. Quatrefeuilles and Saint-Sylvain did not consider him a happy man.
They then visited the prince of Lusance. His residence was adorned with many works of art. He had a violin and could play it well. From his residence, the view was terrific. However, in the distance, a smoking chimney of a factory was barely visible. This fly in the ointment upset him deeply. He was not a happy man.
Although they continued their search, they could not find a happy man among the wealthy. One especially rich man was even upset when he learned that he had paid more for his boots than Quatrefeuilles had done.
Next they continued their search among the bourgeoisie. They attended the salons of prominent ladies, but these gatherings were devoid of happiness. The hostesses were upset by social slights, and the visitors grieved over their sicknesses, their heartaches, or their money worries.
One person worried about a possible revolution that would disrupt his peaceful life. Another was unhappy that life was monotonous and longed for the excitement of a revolution. Two different people feared death, but for different reasons. One was afraid of going to hell. The other believed that there was no life after death. He was unhappy about the prospect of losing his existence.
They then went to the royal park to eat dinner. Since lovers frequented the park, Quatrefeuilles thought it was a good place to continue their search. He argued that a man who enjoyed the love of a woman would surely be happy. Saint-Sylvain, whose marriage was devoid of happiness, disagreed with the sentiments of his companion.
Jacques de Navicelle happened to be in the park. Since all the women liked him, Quatrefeuilles thought that he must be supremely happy. To test it out, they invited Jacques to eat with them.
As they ate, they tried to find out whether his popularity with women made him happy, but he persistently avoided the subject. At last, they gave up and started talking about other things. In the course of the conversation, Jacques told them an Oriental tale. A young merchant of Baghdad earnestly wanted all the ladies to love him. A genie appeared to him and told him that his wish was granted. He immediately went outside to enjoy his newly acquired popularly. Almost immediately, a horrible old lady noticed him as he passed by her basement window. She fell in love with him, grabbed his leg, and pulled him down into her underground dwelling. There she kept him for twenty years.
After he finished this story, a head waiter told him that someone was waiting for him. When they saw the lady who had summoned him, the two envoys of the king realized that the story Jacques had told was autobiographical.
When they returned to the palace, the king scolded them for their incompetence. He decided to look for the shirt himself and went out into the night. Quatrefeuilles and Saint-Sylvain followed him at a distance.
The king saw a young man leaning against a tree by a road near the royal park. He was looking at the stars with an expression of supreme happiness.
The king approached him and asked him if he was happy. The young man admitted that he had not always been happy; but at the present moment, his happiness was supreme. He had discarded all fears and ambitions; his mind was ravished by intoxicating joy.
He then pulled out his watch and said: “It’s time. Goodbye.” The king urged him to listen to what he had to say, but the young man hurried away into the forest. As the king followed him, he heard a gunshot. When the king saw that the happy man had committed suicide, he fainted. Quatrefeuilles and Saint-Sylvain brought him back to the castle.
The day after the king’s fiasco, his two emissaries thought of the composer Sigismund Dux. They found him playing the organ, attended by beautiful ladies and admired by priests, diplomats and other important people.
Saint-Sylvan jumped to the conclusion that Sigismund Dux was surely a happy man. He asked to speak with him in private in behalf of the king.
He was just about to ask for the composer’s shirt when the features of Sigismund Dux suffered a sad alteration. In the street, someone was playing a polka composed by an obscure violinist. It had become very popular, and Sigismund Dux was jealous. He suddenly left Saint-Sylvain and sought a private place where he could vomit. The emissaries of the king made no further attempts to obtain his shirt.
After the two emissaries had searched in vain for fourteen months, the king realized the difficulties involved. So he ordered his minister of the interior to establish a special commission to conduct the search, under the direction of Messieurs Quatrefeuilles, Chaudesaigues, Saint-Sylvain, and Froidefond. The prefect of police put his best agents at the disposal of the commission. In the capital, happy people were hunted with the same zeal with which criminals and anarchists are hunted in other countries. Anyone suspected of happiness was immediately put under surveillance. The surveillance caused some uneasiness among the citizens.
Each morning the commission met and discussed hundreds of prospects. However, after four months had elapsed, they still had no positive results. Someone complained that it was hard to find a happy man because everyone had vices, and vices caused unhappiness. The director of the library complained that he found life boring because he had no vices. He then embarked upon a harangue in which he praised the virtues of vice. A fruitless discussion ensued.
Like all special commissions, this one sat for five years and disbanded without accomplishing anything. Meanwhile, the king did not get better. He even thought he felt his organs moving about, For example, his intestines seemed to journey to his nose, while his heart spent some time in the calf of his leg.
Saint-Sylvain believed that happiness and virtue go hand in hand, and he thought that the peasants living in the rural mountainous region were more virtuous than the people in the capital. So together with Quatrefeuilles, he visited various hamlets in the mountains.
The results were disappointing. They found the same problems and the same vices that plagued citizens who dwelt in the capital. Saint-Sylvain recognized that he was mistaken when he thought that country people were happier and more virtuous. He blamed the “Georgics” of Virgil for leading him astray.
Saint-Sylvain heard about an innocent simpleton named Hurtepoix, who always seemed to be in seventh heaven. However, when Saint-Sylvain visited him, Hurtepoix was bathed in tears. The death of Jesus made him unhappy.
The envoys of the king consulted the mayor of a certain hamlet, who suggested that they visit a priest named Miton. The mayor described him as a happy man who deserved his felicity. Since he lived in a neighboring village, the mayor lent them some horses.
As they traveled, they were joined by a young man. He had been living happily with his wife for four years, and he had two wonderful children. They were about to ask for his shirt. At that very moment, someone approach them on horseback. He informed the young man that his wife and children had drowned. This removed the grieving husband from the ranks of happy.
They continued the journey to the residence of the priest. He was a cultured man and lived an excellent life.
Quatrefeuilles informed the priest that he had come in the service of the king. He was going to ask an important question. He asked the priest to answer frankly without hiding anything, since the health and perhaps the life of the monarch depended on his answer. After this solemn introduction, he asked the priest if he was happy.
The priest replied that his life was a torture. He was living a lie, since he was not a believer.
After vainly searching for many years, the two envoys, returned to the side of their monarch. They daily went to a hunting pavilion, where the king enjoyed some fresh air.
They heard about a small man named Mousque, who lived in a hollow plane tree in the forest. He was very ugly, but he laughed frequently and seemed to enjoy life. The forest and in a nearby pond supplied everything that he needed in life. He offered rude hospitality to those who came his way, and if a vehicle got stuck in the mud, he cheerfully helped push it out. He was strong and agile. He could run fast enough to catch a hare, and he could climb a tree like a cat. He could even break the jaw of a wolf with his bare hands. He also possessed manual dexterity. He was accustomed to make reed flutes and tiny windmills for the amusement of children.
When Quatrefeuilles and Saint-Sylvain investigated, they realized that Mousque was the happy man for whom they had been searching for such a long time. Unfortunately, he did not have a shirt.