The main character is Duddy Kravitz, a young man on the verge of graduating high school. Duddy lives in the St. Urbain neighbourhood of Montreal in the ‘40s, and the novel takes place in the city and in the resort areas of the Laurentian mountains where Duddy works after graduating high school.
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Duddy is a con artist, ruthless entrepreneur, thief and forger. When he was young, his grandfather told him that “a man without land is nobody.” Duddy took that piece of advice to heart, and a large part of the book concerns the underhanded lengths to which he'll go to get some land of his own.
After graduating, he immediately goes to work at a resort in the Laurentian Mountains, in the town of Sainte Agathe. While there he meets his girlfriend, Yvette, a French Canadian girl that he'll subsequently treat quite badly. He's kind of ashamed of her for being a lower class francophone, but he depends on her to run his land acquisition scheme, since he's sure that landowners won't deal fairly with a young Jewish man. To be fair, he treats almost everyone badly, so it's not like she's singled out.
Yvette takes him for a walk in the mountains one day, and he sees Lac Saint-Pierre for the first time. Duddy recognizes the site's potential as a resort area. Thinking again of what his grandfather told him about a man without land being nobody, he immediately starts planning to collect all the land around the lake.
When the summer ends, he goes back to Montreal, and starts in the film business. He meets John Friar at a cinema club, and hires the black-listed, alcoholic to direct some avante-garde bar-mitzvah films. Duddy knows the films are ridiculous, but he still manages to sell them to gullible Jewish fathers by convincing them that the films are high art rather than just pretentious dreck.
He tries to secure funding for his film business through a local “boy wonder” from St. Urbain, who has made good. Duddy isn't able to get any money, but on the trip he does meet Virgil for the first time. Virgil is an epileptic truck driver. He has a load of pinball machines that he's smuggling across the border to Montreal. Duddy convinces Virgil to give him the pinball machines for a truck and a job driving it. This is merely the first time that Duddy takes advantage of Virgil.
John Friar disappears, and Duddy is left both to make the films and distribute them as well. Virgil is hired as a mobile projectionist, and, as could have been expected, he has a seizure while he's driving. In the resulting accident, he's paralyzed from the waist down.
Duddy finds himself alone with his business interests, and trying to show and make all the movies himself is more than he can handle. His uncle dies, and Duddy spirals into a depression and then a nervous breakdown. He becomes totally isolated, loses his clients and eventually becomes bankrupt, and loses all his assets. However, the land is all in Yvette's name, so, in spite of the bankruptcy, he keeps his empire around Lac St. Pierre.
Finally, when Duddy recovers his senses, he moves into the house that his uncle left him with Yvette and Virgil. In a defining act of naked and criminal ambition, he forges Virgil's signature on a cheque to get enough money to buy the last plot of land around Lac St. Pierre.
The impression we are left with is of ruthless ambition and even though Duddy should be repentant, he isn't. It's clear that he will remain the person that he is, and won't become a better man.
Best part of story, including ending:
In many stories, Duddy Kravitz would learn a lesson and decide to turn over a new leaf. In this story, he doesn't. He learns almost nothing. He is vicious but also extremely creative and resourceful. The final outlook of the book is therefore both funny and very bleak.
Best scene in story:
The scene where Duddy first sees Lac Sainte Pierre is great. It's clear that he immediately is thinking how it will work as a resort. He worries Yvette by diving into the lake and staying underwater too long so that he can check for rocks on the bottom. Even his own personal safety comes second to his ambition.
Opinion about the main character:
Duddy is a very objectionable person. His willingness to treat other people very badly and engage in criminal activity to make money is reprehensible. Nevertheless, he's not remotely the first person in literature to show desperation to be better than he is. Many people have heard from somebody, some version of the advice that land (or money) is everything. So while he's not a likable person, he is understandable.