In the thirty years since the war, the once grand mansion on Côte Joyeuse has been largely destroyed and has fallen into ruin. Philippe Valmêt originally built it in 1840, and his oldest daughter is Ma'ame Pélagie, who is unmarried at the age of fifty. She has stayed on the property with her younger sister Pauline, who is only thirty-five, and together they live in a small cabin in the shadow of their decayed home. Ma'ame Pélagie dreams of rebuilding the mansion. After their thirty years of scrimping and saving, they have not yet earned enough money to fund the renovation, but Pélagie and her sister hope to live long enough to see the house refurbished.
In the afternoons, they sit drinking coffee on the portico and speak of old times while discussing their plans for the future of the mansion, although Pauline remembers little of their life before the war. Pauline's first memories are of war and slave revolts and fire, after which she was taken to live in their log cabin. Their brother Léandre is the middle child, but he left the plantation to his older sister and went into business, although his daughter La Petite is coming to visit Pauline and Pélagie. While drinking coffee, Pauline anticipates the arrival of their niece, and Pélagie plans to have La Petite sleep in the cabin, presuming that the daughter will know why they live in the cabin and that they still have plenty of money.
La Petite is a tall girl with joyful, dark eyes, and they welcome her into their lives. She tries to fit into her new life at Côte Joyeuse, following Ma'ame Pélagie to observe the fields or, more often, assisting Pauline in household tasks. Pauline loves La Petite dearly, but the girl eventually becomes quiet, thoughtful, and pale, and one day, La Petite tells her aunts that she can no longer live at Côte Joyeuse. Pauline visibly shudders, but the motionless Pélagie hides her feelings and asks why La Petite has come to this conclusion. The girl answers that she needs more life and action than the solemn Côte Joyeuse can give her.
Pauline feels faint at La Petite's announcement and later sobs in front of Pélagie, who asks her if she is upset that La Petite is leaving. Upon Pauline's assent, Pélagie feels resentful and tells her sister that she has taken care of Pauline for her entire life and that Pauline should not care more for La Petite than for her older sister. Pauline replies that she loves Pélagie but that she will die if La Petite leaves, for the girl has been leading her somewhere that she wishes dearly to go. Pélagie comforts Pauline, and when she next speaks an hour later, she promises Pauline that La Petite will not go away, and the comforted Pauline falls asleep.
Afterward, Ma'ame Pélagie leaves her cabin and sneaks away to the ruined mansion with a broken heart. Upon arrival, she again visits her dreams of the mansion, mentally interacting with people in the household and apologizing for being late in order to spend time with Félix. She sits at a bench and pictures the lively mansion with all the visitors as well as the young Pauline, who interrupts the guests and cries when reprimanded. She thinks in French, "One can't hurt Pauline," and aloud says, "Hurt Pauline." A bat strikes her on the chest, but she does not notice and instead listens to her father and his friends discussing the upcoming war.
She pays no attention to the war at first, choosing to talk to Félix, and even after the first cannon opens fire at Fort Sumter and after her slave La Ricaneuse insults her angrily, she does not truly believe that war is coming. Not until Félix says good-bye and goes to war does she believe, and they have their last conversation on the sofa on which she has for the last thirty years planned to die. In her memory, the soldiers come and destroy the house, ordering her to leave, although she refuses. Finally, the house is set on fire, and she only chooses to escape because Pauline must be saved. Again, she thinks, "One can't hurt Pauline," and says, "Hurt Pauline." At the end of the night, she dreamily bids farewell to the mansion and hurries home, never looking back at the monstrous, brooding ruin.
A year later, the old Valmêt property has transformed, with both the ruin and the log cabin gone and a new brick house in its place. Léandre now lives in the house, and one can hear youthful laughter in the trees and from the vicinity of La Petite at the piano. Pauline is enraptured by La Petite's music and has grown young with the renewal of Côte Joyeuse, but Pélagie goes alone to the veranda and looks out across the fields. She is dressed in black and has grown old, having been forced into the light by "a young and joyous existence" while her soul stays behind with the ruins.
In essence, "Ma'ame Pélagie" is a story about the death of the Civil War generation and the transition from past history to the future and a new era. Ma'ame Pélagie is a relic of a time before the destruction of Côte Joyeuse, and she thus displays a skewed awareness of time that focuses almost exclusively on the past. The level of contradiction between her reality and her memories is particularly apparent in her appearance, which is described as "queenly" while the burned and destroyed mansion looms in the background. She is able to continue appearing relatively youthful while her dreams of the old life still survive because she associates the most hopeful period of her life with antebellum Louisiana. Yet, once she must give up her dream, she grows visibly older while the Valmêt property ironically comes back to life in a new form.
"Côte Joyeuse" means "joyous coast," but the atmosphere of the Valmêt home as we meet it reflects very little joy except for that which is contained in memory, almost the only good remnant of the war. Not until La Petite arrives does joy truly arrive in Pélagie and Pauline's cabin, and not until Pélagie gives up her recollection of joy does "the laughter of young people" and true joy return to Valmêt. Instead, Pélagie and Pauline are initially described as living "almost within the shadow of the ruin," which is a direct metaphor for the shadow of history. Pauline has been unable to escape from her older sister's will in this regard, but La Petite appropriately descends from Léandre, the only of the three siblings who has understood the need to leave Valmêt's shadow and join the forward-looking movement of the rebuilt cities.
One of the overarching themes in "Ma'ame Pélagie" is that of the relationship between life and death. The main characters of the story live on the physical border between health and age as well as the temporal border between their past and the rest of their lives. The tragedy of Pélagie is that her orientation in these continuums is directly opposite to that of the others in her family. Pauline in particular shifts between life and death, as she is originally saved from the fire in the Valmêt's home only to be brought by her sister and savior into a state of half-life. Eventually, the life of Pauline proves to be the only factor more important to Pélagie than the old life of Valmêt.
To illustrate how real the past is in Pélagie's mind, Chopin uses a shift in verb tense while Pélagie prepares to bid the old mansion goodbye. Whereas Pélagie's present is narrated in the past tense, her past is appropriately expressed in the present tense, and the immediacy of her memory of life before and during the war adds an element of pathos to our understanding of her psychology. Because of the Civil War, Pélagie loses not only her childhood and much of her worldly wealth, but more importantly she loses her beloved Félix and her identity. Such is her connection to her home that she also wishes her death to take place in this house, and in a clear parallel to the events of the future, only the thought of Pauline delays her determination to die in the fire.
Although Chopin reveals at the end of "Ma'ame Pélagie" that Pélagie has chosen to sacrifice herself to the pressing needs of the present and future, the author leaves the resolution of Pélagie's dilemma to a great deal of doubt until the last few paragraphs of the narrative. By having Pélagie think, "Il ne faut pas faire mal à Pauline," or "One can't hurt Pauline," while saying, "faire mal à Pauline," or "hurt Pauline," Chopin shows Pélagie's essential conundrum while making us fear that she will make the latter rather than the former choice. However, we are finally reassured by the tableau of happiness at the beginning of Part IV that Pauline has been helped, not hurt, even while we simultaneously feel sympathy for Pélagie's melancholy fate in the last paragraph. This indeed has been a sacrifice, but a necessary one; the new brick house does not have the grandeur of the old mansion, but it has carried the family forward in reality, since the decrepit mansion no longer could provide anything but thwarted hope and aging memories.