The Conquest of Plassans, the fourth novel in Zola’s Rougon Macquart series examines the issue of the “priest in the house.” Retired merchant Francois Mouret rents the second floor of his home to Abbe Faujas and his elderly mother. Mouret’s wife, Marthe, isn’t initially too keen on the idea, but ironically while Mouret becomes more uncomfortable with the priest in the house, Marthe turns increasingly to religion and becomes a fanatic.
It’s quite clear that religion and the priest assume a sexual dimension in Marthe’s life. Here she is reacting to a lecture from the Abbe:
“She felt a pleasure in his harshness. That iron hand which bent her, and which held her back upon the edge of the adoration in the depths of which she would like to annihilate herself, thrilled her with ever renewed desire. She remained a neophyte, making but little advance in her journey of love, being constantly pulled up, and vaguely divining some yet greater bliss beyond. The sense of deep restfulness which she had first experienced in the church, that forgetfulness of herself and the outside world, now changed, however into actual positive happiness. It was the happiness for which she had been longing since her girlhood, and which she was now at forty years of age, at last finding; a happiness which sufficed her, which absorbed her for all the past-away years, and made her egotistical, absorbed in the new sensations that she felt within her like sweet caresses.”
That translation was by Vizetelly, but here’s the new translation from Helen Constantine in the Oxford World’s Classic edition of The Conquest of Plassans:
“She was happy to receive these blows. The iron hand that ruled her, the hand which kept her on the brink of this continual adoration, in whose depths she wanted total annihilation, was whipping her with a desire that was constantly renewed. She was still a novice, she was descending into love one step at a time; she would be brought up short, guessing she might plunge deeper, ravished by this slow journey to other joys yet unknown. The great peace she had first experienced in the church, that forgetting of the outside world and of her own self, was transformed into an active pleasure, into a blessed state which she could bring about, which she could reach herself. It was the happiness she had vaguely desired from girlhood, and which she was now finding as a woman of forty. It was a happiness which satisfied her, which gave back all the beautiful years which had passed her by and made her live for herself alone, attentive as she was to all the new sensations that wakened her innermost being like caresses.”
The second translation uses far more sexual imagery, with words such as “plunge deeper,” “desire,” and “ravished.” The first translation makes the point that religion is a love-substitute for Marthe, but this could be agape in its nature–worshipful & chaste, and there’s the sense that Marthe, in some ways, doesn’t quite understand what she’s experiencing: “She remained a neophyte, making but little advance in her journey of love, being constantly pulled up, and vaguely divining some yet greater bliss beyond.” The second translation, however, conveys the idea that religion is an orgasmic experience for Marthe, significantly, “one she can even reach herself.” This passage then shows that religion (and the Abbe) may fill a need for Marthe, a gap in her life, but that need is inherently sexual. Zola, tracing the poisonous hereditary through the Rougon-Macquart family focused on madness & alcoholism, but there’s also the pleasure-loving side of this family as seen through Nana, one of Paris’s most sought after prostitutes, and her earthy mother Gervaise, who finds herself in a ménage a trois with two men who share her body, her home and her labor. In Marthe, we see sexuality repressed and perverted; add madness to the recipe and it’s a recipe for disaster.