There could be a sense of anti-climax when reading Doctor Pascal, the last of Émile Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart cycle of twenty novels. Having followed five generations of the descendants of Adelaïde Fouque (Tante Dide) over the course of the Second Empire in France, the reader has come across occasional allusions to Doctor Pascal but there has been no hint that he is a person of much interest. He’s a bachelor, he lives in Plassans, and he’s spent his life recording the lives of his extended family in order to confirm his theories about heredity.
(This was Zola’s own pet theory too: he believed that heredity determined physical and mental health, and the bloodlines of the Rougon-Macquart family were a fictional demonstration that the descendants of the mad matriarch Adelaïde would turn out well or badly depending on whether they were of legitimate descent through her respectable marriage to Pierre Rougon, or from her more dubious relationship with the smuggler Macquart. However, Zola believed that it was possible to transcend inheritance, as we shall see).
Zola, genius that he was, created a fitting finale for his series. Doctor Pascal involves the conflict between religion and science; a May-September relationship; a fall from fortune; duty versus love; and at the end, a slightly ambiguous conclusion where – despite the image of a Madonna and babe – we are left wondering how the next generation will fare.
Doctor Pascal is descended from the legitimate branch of the family, so he is respectable and hardworking, albeit a tad obsessive. His niece Clotilde is diligent and respectable too: she is the daughter of the financial wheeler-and-dealer Aristide Rougon who took the name Saccard after his spectacular fall from grace (see my review of L’argent (Money). She, however, has had nothing to do with her father, because she was packed off to Plassans after the death of her mother Angèle Sicardot. Clotilde was brought up by Doctor Pascal at his property, La Souleiade, where in his belief that trees grew straight if they were not interfered with, he had allowed her to grow up in her own way, after teaching her merely to read and write.
As Pascal eventually tells her, it was Clotilde’s good fortune to inherit the best of her mother’s side of the family.
“Your mother has predominated in you; you have her fine intelligence, and you have also something of her coquetry, at times of her indolence and of her submissiveness. Yes, you are very feminine, like her. Without your being aware of it, I would say that you love to be loved. Besides, your mother was a great novel reader, an imaginative being who loved to spend whole days dreaming over a book; she doted on nursery tales, had her fortune told by cards, consulted clairvoyants; and I have always thought that your concern about spiritual matters, your anxiety about the unknown, came from that source. But what completed your character by giving you a dual nature, was the influence of your grandfather, Commandant Sicardot. I knew him; he was not a genius, but he had at least a great deal of uprightness and energy. Frankly, if it were not for him, I do not believe that you would be worth much, for the other influences are hardly good. He has given you the best part of your nature, combativeness, pride, and frankness.” (Kindle Location 1608)
When the story opens, Clotilde is a young woman, Pascal’s fond and dutiful secretary.
It is because Clotilde sorts Pascal’s documents that she comes into conflict with him. A new firebrand preacher convinces her that Pascal’s research is an affront to God’s omnipotence, and egged on by the pious servant Martine and her grandmother Félicité who has her own reasons for wanting to get her hand on those documents, Clotilde first pleads with Pascal to destroy them, and then resolves to do it herself in order to save his soul. Pascal goes through a dreadful period of not being able to relax in his own home because he fears his niece’s newfound religiosity will impel her to burn his papers. He locks everything up, and he hides the key.
For Pascal, the search for truth has been his life’s work.
… Dr. Pascal had only one belief—the belief in life. Life was the only divine manifestation. Life was God, the grand motor, the soul of the universe. And life had no other instrument than heredity; heredity made the world; so that if its laws could be known and directed, the world could be made to one’s will. In him, to whom sickness, suffering and death had been a familiar sight, the militant pity of the physician awoke. Ah! to have no more sickness. no more suffering, as little death as possible! His dream ended in this thought – that universal happiness, the future community of perfection and felicity, could be hastened by intervention, by giving health to all. (Location 457)
Well, after a long period of quiet hostility between them, Clotilde finally gets hold of the key to Pascal’s cupboard, but he surprises her just as she is about to destroy everything. Although Pascal intended never to burden Clotilde with the shameful secrets of their shared Rougon-Macquart family tree, in his rage he now forces her to listen as he explains his theory and how various members of their extended family embody the evil inherited down through the generations from Adelaïde.
Clotilde then begins to see his quest for the truth in a different light, and although the truth about their family history is painful to her, she admires Pascal’s honesty. She begins to share his optimism that perhaps his research might lead to a different outcome for future descendants. Despite their considerable age difference and their incestuous uncle-niece relationship, they fall in love.
Pascal’s mother Félicité is not best pleased about this. Her hard-won middle-class respectability is at threat because the pair show no sign of wanting to get married, and she is very anxious that Pascal’s research not ever be made public. She doesn’t want anyone to know about her boozy brother-in-law Antoine Macquart and her mad mother-in-law Adelaide (Tante Dide) who has been safely hidden away in an asylum for decades.
Although Félicité is not a sympathetic character, her desire for privacy is something with which many of us might identify. Pascal, oblivious to all but his quest for truth, has never considered the impact on his family. Do today’s family historians cheerfully uploading their family trees to the cloud ever stop to consider that for one reason or another, some family members might object?
Ah, those abominable papers! she saw them at night, in her nightmares, revealing in letters of fire, the true histories, the physiological blemishes of the family, all that wrong side of her glory which she would have wished to bury forever with the ancestors already dead! She knew how it was that the doctor had conceived the idea of collecting these documents at the beginning of his great studies on heredity; how he had found himself led to take his own family as an example, struck by the typical cases which he saw in it, and which helped to support laws discovered by him. Was it not a perfectly natural field of observation, close at hand and with which he was thoroughly familiar? And with the fine, careless justness of the scientist, he had been accumulating for the last thirty years the most private data, collecting and classifying everything, raising this genealogical tree of the Rougon-Macquarts, of which the voluminous papers, crammed full of proofs, were only the commentary. (Location 204)
Félicité (whose money is unaffected) sees her opportunity, but Pascal who is both naïve about money and stubborn about his mother, won’t have her in the house. La Souleiade is almost down to its last potato, when Clotilde gets a call for help from Paris. Her brother Maxime (he of the ‘uncontrollable appetites’ featured in La Curée), is now an invalid, and he wants her help. Clotilde, of course, doesn’t want to go, but Félicité insists it is her duty, and Pascal persuades himself that Clotilde should not be suffering their poverty.
All this time, of course, Pascal has been getting older, and tragedy strikes while Clotilde is reluctantly doing her duty in Paris. But Félicité doesn’t get exactly what she wants because the novel concludes with Clotilde in possession of the family tree and with the scandalous birth of Pascal and Clotilde’s son. This birth is a sign of hope which contrasts with the five generations of deaths which symbolise an end to the legacy of Mad old Adelaide. She dies, at the age of 105; so does her alcoholic son Antoine Macquart (in a truly nauseating death); and her grandson Pascal Rougon dies after a series of heart attacks. There is also the death of the dissolute Maxime (Adelaide’s great-grandson by Aristide Rougon-Saccard), and of his feeble-minded haemophiliac son Charles.
Clotilde, musing on how her life has turned out, recognises that Pascal was not just being kind in removing her from the toxic environment of her father’s home in Paris, he was ‘experimenting’ too.
It was an old theory of his which he would have liked to test on a large scale: culture through environment, complete regeneration even, the improvement, the salvation of the individual, physically as well as morally. (Loc 4360)
She had flourished in a different environment and ended by becoming a well-balanced and rational woman. The novel ends with Clotilde nursing her babe and it all looks quite promising.
Except that this nameless child is the grandson of Aristide Saccard, and the product of an incestuous relationship, is he not?
Author: Émile Zola
Title: Doctor Pascal
Translated by Mary Jane Serrano (1898)
Publisher: Kindle edition, first published 1893
Source: Personal copy, a freebie ‘purchased’ for the Kindle from Amazon.