The story begins with the recollection of young Jean Rézeau catching a viper in his grandparents' courtyard and holding it in his fist. He chokes it to death.
Young Jean lives with his grandparents. When his grandmother dies, his parents come back from China where his father teaches Law. He and his brothers then discover that their mother Paule is a horrible woman, who hates her life and her children. She is extremely severe with them and deliberately unfair to the point of cruelty. Their father is a weak man who, except on rare occasions, submits to his wife's will, and spends his time in entomology studies.
Gradually, this turns to a perverse domestic war. Paule seizes any pretext for being cruel to her sons, and especially to Jean. Jean and his brother attempt to kill their mother twice: once with an overdose of medicine (which only gave her diarrhea), once by attempting to drown her in the river, making it seem an accident. She escapes.
On one occasion, she asks their sons' personal educator to flog Jean as a punishment. Jean escapes and goes to see his grandfather, a senator living in an upscale area of Paris. He is brought back by his father, who is fairly embarrassed by the situation.
Jean is now 15. He discovers sex with Madeleine, a young farmer's daughter from the area. He does not love her, for he distrusts all women, into whom he sees his own mother. He claims that women are little but an exutory for semen.
Paule tries to have her son caught red-handed with theft by intentionally leaving her wallet in Jean's bedroom. Jean foils her plot and after a short confrontation, he obtains what he wants, and what Paule wants too: the departure of Jean and his brother to a boarding school.
Jean concludes his memoirs by saying that while it seems that he has won, in reality Paule has destroyed his whole being. Throughout his life, he'll not be able to feel trust or love, he is the one that walks with a viper in his fist.