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Goncourt's novel opens in a courtroom where a prostitute known as "la fille Élisa" is sentenced to death. Book I retraces Élisa's life leading up to her crime. The daughter of a midwife and occasional abortionist, Élisa runs away from home at sixteen to prostitute herself, first in a quiet provincial brothel, then in various Parisian maisons de tolérance. At a brothel near the École Militaire, she meets a soldier named Tanchon who falls in love with her. At the beginning of Book II, Élisa's death sentence has been commuted to life in prison, and she is on her way to a women's penitentiary which enforces the rule of continuous silence. The second half of the novel describes Élisa's physical and mental deterioration. As Élisa reminisces about Tanchon, the reader finally understands that she murdered her lover in a fit of rage when he tried to rape her. In the epilogue, the narrator—presumably Edmond de Goncourt himself—is being shown around the penitentiary by the self-satisfied local prefect. At the end of the tour, Goncourt comes across a madwoman who is mute, blind, and paralyzed: she is none other than his own creation, "la fille Élisa."