Plot Summary: ‘La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret’ by Émile Zola

La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret was originally published in 1875 and is the fifth book of the Rougon-Macquart series. It has been translated into English as Abbé Mouret’s Transgression, The Abbé Mouret’s Sin and The Sin of Father Mouret. The main character is Serge Mouret, son of François Mouret & Marthe Mouret (née Rougon) who all appear in the fourth book of the series, La Conquête de Plassans (1874).

The whole novel is set in a small village called Artaud in the south of France, possibly in Provençe. An excerpt of an early passage from the novel describing the inhabitants of the village can be found here.

Please note that this is a plot summary and therefore full plot developments are revealed.

BOOK ONE

While Serge Mouret prepares for mass, the boy Vincent arrives late. Serge performs the mass to an empty church. While this is taking place his housekeeper, Teuse, chases sparrows out of the church. Near the end of the mass Désirée (Serge’s 22 year old sister who has a low mental age) noisily enters the church carrying some newly-hatched chicks. Teuse tries to get her to be quiet and leave while the service is in progress.

After mass Serge has breakfast standing up and Teuse fusses around him and grumbles. He announces that he’s going out and will return for lunch at eleven o’clock. He walks into the village of Artaud. All the inhabitants are inter-related: ‘They inter-married with unblushing promiscuity’. Serge had asked to come here as he liked the isolation from the rest of the world. Serge meets Friar Archangais, who is pulling Vincent by the ear. Archangais does not have a good word to say about any of the inhabitants of the village. He tells Serge that M. Bambousse’s eighteen year old daughter, Rosalie, is pregnant by Fortuné.

Serge meets Fortuné and questions him over the pregnancy. Fortuné is willing to marry Rosalie but it’s her father who objects to the marriage as Fortuné is poor. Serge goes to see Bambousse and suggests a prompt marriage. Bambousse is having none of it and verbally abuses Rosalie. He throws clods of mud at her when she says she wants to marry Fortuné.

On his way home Serge meets Dr. Pascal who is in a horse-and-trap and is off to see Jeanbernat, an eighty year old man who lives on the derelict Paradou estate and had had a stroke the previous night. Serge accompanies Pascal just in case he is needed. They enter Paradou Park which is less than three miles from Artaud; it is completely over-run with vegetation. Jeanbernat is on his feet and appears to be ok. He is a committed atheist and is reading the philosophy books that were left in the large building. They talk and drink wine. Albine enters and she promises to give a nest of blackbird chicks to Serge’s sister. When they leave by the wall to the park, Serge can hear what seems to be an animal running along with them but on the other side of the wall. When they reach the end of the wall they hear a cry of ‘au revoir’ from Albine.

He returns home at two o’clock and Teuse is furious as his lunch is cold. Désirée is asleep after a busy day clearing out her farmyard. At six o’clock Désirée cajoles Serge to have a look at her animals. Serge is overwelmed by the animal smells while Désirée takes delight in it. Serge particularly dislikes the goat. She shows him her new acquisition, a piglet.

It’s Thursday and Father Archangais always dines at the vicarage on a Thursday. Archangais doesn’t think Serge will have much luck getting Bambousse’s permission to marry off his daughter to Fortuné. Albine turns up and gives Désirée the blackbird’s nest with three chicks. Serge describes his visit to the Paradou that morning. After tea, some girls from the village decorate the church with foliage for the service for the month of the Virgin. Teuse and Serge help organise the decoration. The girls clamber about the church giggling and playing about. When everyone has left, Serge starts praying to the Virgin Mary which lasts for more than an hour. He recalls his days in the seminary.

In his bedroom he lights a fire and further recalls his youth and his days in the seminary; how he wished to be pure and virginal; how he was shocked by the sins of others; how he studied hard; at night he would feel a presence and awake on the floor. ‘In this past of his he found nothing but enormous purity, perfect obedience’. He feels tired and wonders if he is ill. He feels feverish and wonders if it was caused by his walk in the sun, the shade of Paridou Park or the stifling heat of Désirée’s farmyard. Looking down at the village of Artaud at night he thinks that as quiet as it was it ‘was not dead enough’. His thoughts turned to Albine. He is overcome with the ‘exudations of humanity’. He asks the Holy Virgin for help. He wishes that he could have remained a child as ‘only a child can pronounce your name without befouling it.’ He is overcome and loses consciousness.

BOOK TWO

Serge has been sent by Dr. Pascal to Paradou to convalesce. He is attended by Albine alone; no-one else visits, not even Dr. Pascal. Albine declares that what Serge needs is affection. At first he just stays in bed unable to move. After a period of rain in which Serge seems to get worse he asked for the shutters to be opened and the sun streams in. He begins to sit up near the window and then to venture outside. He starts to walk on his own again. On his first attempt outside, Albine cries, ‘Why, you’re just like a tree trying to walk.’ In the sunshine, bathed by light, Serge is coming to life. One day they attempt to walk in the woods but Serge is tired and falls asleep. Albine lies next to him. When he awakes he doesn’t recognise her, though he claims that he had been dreaming of her and that he loves her.

One day they walk into the sunken garden, surrounded by all types of flowers and other vegetation. The following day they stay indoors and tell each other stories. Albine tells him how the lady of the house died in Serge’s room and that she was buried somewhere in the garden. They agree to find the spot. A week later they find three willows near a brook. Albine is convinced that this is their spot. She asks if Serge wants to be her husband.

They still want to find the tree where the lady of the house was buried. One day they go to a region of the park that neither had previously visited. They walk on through the trees and vegetation. They feel that they are close to the tree, but they are lost. They declare their love for each other and kiss. Eventually they find their way home.

In the days following this kiss they are embarrassed and spend time apart but eventually resume their walks. On one walk they notice that part of the wall has a hole in it. They now feel that the park is now theirs. One day Albine announces to Serge that she has found the tree and after much prevarication Serge agrees to go with her to see it. Once there they both felt healed of an unbearable tension. They kiss and make love; the surrounding trees and creatures seem to be encouraging them. Serge feels complete, masculine, his senses sharper. They realise that they are lost. Albine feels as if someone is after them and she wants to hide. They continue walking until they reach the wall at the point where there is the hole. Through the hole they can see Artaud. Serge watches the village and Albine becomes more fearful that he is drifting away from her. He can see his church and his memory returns. He falls to his knees and cries, ‘Dear God!’ Friar Archangais appears on the other side of the wall, his fists clenched in anger. Serge goes through the hole. Albine weeps.

BOOK THREE

Serge has returned as vicar. It is early morning and he is marrying Rosalie and Fortuné. The baby is in the church as well. Once they are married they go to work. Désirée now has a cow.

They have breakfast, though Serge does not eat. Teuse talks about his time away and about the Reverand Caffin, Serge’s predecessor. Serge now rarely leaves the church. He starts to carry out repairs to the church and paint much of the vicarage.

Teuse and the Friar played Bataille in the evenings. Whilst they are playing Serge leaves to go to the newly-wed’s house to bless their bedroom. The Friar doesn’t see the point of this but follows Serge to keep an eye on him. On their way they meet Jeanbernat who recognises them and mocks them and tussles with the Friar. He has the Friar in a lock and threatens to cut his ear off. Serge intervenes and Jeanbernat leaves. Serge continues to the newly-wed’s house and blesses the bedroom.

The next Sunday Dr Pascal arrives during mass. He has come from Paradou and announces that Albine is not well. He says that Serge should go to see her as she looked after him when he was ill. Serge refuses.

One Sunday Albine arrives and Désirée takes her to the stable while Serge is giving his class. When Désirée falls asleep she goes to see Serge. She says that she has been waiting and tries to lead him away, but he continues to pray. She says to Serge, ‘You are mine’ but Serge declares that he belongs to God and that he has sinned. She says she knows nothing of God and calls him a coward. She remembers life at Paradou together and compares it to his present life in his ‘dungeon’. All she sees is suffering in the crucifixes. Before she leaves she says that she will wait by the opening in the wall every evening for him.

Later on Serge confesses to Jesus that he still loves Albine. He speaks to Jesus but when he asks Jesus to give Albine back to him, Jesus is silent. Serge feels abandoned. Each day he grapples with this problem, until one day he wakes reborn. He remember the joy he felt when he was at Paradou; he stands up in the church and states that ‘There is nothing, nothing. God does not exist’ and shudders. He feels damned and believes that the church is falling down around him. Désirée enters and brings Serge back to reality.

The next day Serge sleeps late. He looks out of the window at the walls of Paradou and can’t decide whether to go to Albine. He starts to think of the details of the elopement and how difficult it would be. The next day he is still tussling with the problem when, on an impulse, he leaves the church and heads for Paradou. When he reaches the wall the Friar is there sleeping. He goes through the gap – Albine is waiting. She notices that he looks grim and asks him if he loves her – he says he does. They plunge deep into the garden but Albine realises that he doesn’t love her. Serge complains of the cold and of being tired whilst Albine talks of the life they will lead together. Serge talks of his love of the church. Albine takes him to the tree but Serge only weeps; she tells him to get out of the garden. As Serge leaves, the Friar is waiting for him.

Albine feels betrayed by both Serge and the garden. She walks deep into the garden. She realises that she will ‘die amid flowers.’ She collects as many flowers from the garden as possible and takes them to her room. When night falls she goes to her room, seals herself in and dies of asphyxiation.
Pascal arrives to tell Serge the news of Albine’s death and then rushes off to Paradou. Jeanbernat is digging a grave under the mulberry tree. The doctor checks Albine and then informs Jeanbernat that she will have to be buried legally in the graveyard.

It’s morning. The Artaud butcher has come to slaughter Désirée’s pig. There are two funerals: one for Albine and the second for Rosalie’s child. Serge conducts the service. As the coffin is about to be lowered Jeanbernat arrives. Before anyone can do anything he pulls a knife and chops off the Friar’s right ear and throws it on the ground, then leaves. They lower Albine’s coffin into a grave next to Rev. Caffin. There is a noise from the farmyard and Désirée announces gleefully that her cow has given birth.

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