The more I read of Zola, the more interesting he becomes. The Sin of Father Mouret is utterly unlike the others I have read in the Rougon-Maquart cycle, and it tested my understanding of Zola’s place in the French Naturalism movement. Because whatever else I might say about The Sin of Father Mouret, it isn’t the sort of realism that I have come to expect from my reading of Zola’s novels so far. The chronology is impossible; time itself plays tricks; nature behaves more like a tropical hothouse than a French landscape, and the characters are surreal.
Since the dust-jacket of my 1969 Prentice-Hall edition gives away a good part of the plot, it’s not really a spoiler to reproduce it here:
The Sin of Father Mouret presents the tragic confrontation of love, death and religion. A novel of overwhelming power, it revolves around the internal struggle of a priest determined to make himself worthy of the Virgin Mary by dissolving his basic human drives. Falling in love with the beautiful Albine, a pagan creature of nature, his conflict becomes so strong that he develops brain fever, and falls into a coma.
He awakens to find himself alone with Albine, in her secluded old mansion. In his weakened state, he remembers nothing of his past, and surrenders himself to the sensual delights of the girl and her garden paradise. Together, the two explore the primeval world of unspoiled nature, and finally discover the ecstasy of love and sexuality.
When the priest recovers his memory, he flees back in horror to civilisation. Appalled by his sin, he nevertheless is haunted by memories of his beautiful life with Albine. The girl, innocent of the world and of sin, implores him to return to her. The priest’s inner struggle becomes a paralysing force, precipitating the final tragedy of the novel.
Part 1 of the novel focuses on Father Mouret. His parents are the cousins Marthe Rougon (from the legitimate side of the family) and François Mouret, (from the illegitimate side) so according to Zola’s belief in the scientific truth of eugenics, he is subject to the respectable and the disreputable in his personality, as they are expressed in the environment in which he finds himself. This existential struggle between good and evil is heightened by Mouret’s vocation to the priesthood where he finds himself trapped in the geographically and spiritually arid environment of the godless village of Artauds. His housekeeper, La Teuse struggles to maintain the standards of the church because they have no money to repair the crumbling building and the shabby vestments, and Brother Archangias urges him to give up altogether:
Meanwhile as Voriau led the way down the dusty road, Brother Archangias was speaking irritably to the priest. ‘Give up the damned to hell, abandon these toads, Father. There’s no way to make them pleasing to God short of hamstringing them. They’re wallowing in irreligion just like their parents before them. I’ve been in this part of the country for fifteen years and I’ve yet to make anybody a Christian. It’s all over the day they leave me. They belong to the earth, to their vines and olive trees. Not one so much as sticks a foot in church. They’re animals in a war with their rocky fields. Lead them by hitting them with a stick, Father, with a stick.
Then catching his breath, he added with a horrible gesture, ‘Look Artauds is like the brambles that eat the rocks around here. One was enough to poison the whole country. They clamp themselves on, they multiply, they thrive no matter what. The town’s just like Gomorrah; nothing but a rain of fire from heaven could cleanse it.’ (p.22)
In this spiritual vacuum, Father Mouret’s devotion to the Virgin Mary becomes an unhealthy passion. Aged only 26, he spends long hours praying on his knees, inventing new ways to isolate himself from the world and suppressing all his natural instincts to the extent that he barely eats at all. Since celibacy is a requirement of the priesthood, he is especially vigilant about avoiding the lusty young women of Artauds. He is repelled by nature and is especially troubled by the fecundity of the animals tended by his simple-minded sister Désirée. He finds it very hard to leave the sanctuary of the presbytery to deal with the needs of his parishioners, and his innocence is tested by the frank earthiness of premarital pregnancy and a father who would rather see his pregnant daughter unmarried than have her marry a penniless peasant. These pressures have their inevitable consequence and Mouret falls gravely ill.
Part 2 takes place in a lush Garden of Eden. Fearful for Mouret’s sanity, his uncle Doctor Pascal has removed him from any exposure to religion and sent him to an old ruined estate called Paradou, and placed him under the care of the young and beautiful Albine. Crucially, Albine is a pagan, in the original sense of the word, that is, she has no knowledge of any god. In this part of the novel called only by his Christian name Serge – Mouret recovers, but with no memory of his life as a priest or of anything outside his immediate environment. Like Adam and Eve before the Fall, these innocents explore the glories of nature in this Paradise, and, yes, like Adam and Eve they eventually succumb to their natural desires. (There is lots of serpent-like imagery in the garden). (And a lot of flowers, of which more later).
But there is also a wall which surrounds the old estate, and a spot which affords a view of the town and Serge’s old life as Father Mouret. Albine implores him not to venture there, but the inevitable happens. And so begins Mouret’s struggle to reconcile his sin with his vocation.
Part 3 traces Mouret’s tortuous path through guilt and temptation. Like the Knowledge of good and Evil which irrevocably cast Adam out of the tranquillity of innocence, Mouret’s knowledge of human love sabotages his devotion to the Virgin Mary. He tries substituting devotion to the passion of Christ and he tries denying his love of Albine but he is a man now, no longer an innocent boy. And Albine’s love is demanding: she does not understand the vows which torture her lover, and she will not be denied.
The misogynistic Friar Archangias is a caricature of the Archangel who expels the lovers from Paradise. Sex, and the women who tempt men into it, are sinful, and Archangias wields a mighty stick to ward off the temptations to which he is subject too. He bars the gateway to Paradou with his massive body, but he is no match for Albine.
The plot resolution with its malevolent flowers is even more surreal than the other mythic sequences, yet it has a strange kind of realism all the same. The Catholic Church is as intransigent about celibacy today as it was in the 19th century, but there are provisions for men who fall in love to leave the priesthood, and while I am not sure if it’s the church that provides supports for those who leave, there are psychological and counselling services available to assist with the transition. For Father Mouret, the spiritual dilemma could realistically only be resolved by death. A death, (like many other odd circumstances in the novel) by magic realism, though the term hadn’t been invented then.
While some may read The Sin of Father Mouret as a critique of the Catholic Church, I find that Zola’s portrait of religious devotion is sympathetic. It seems quite clear to me that Zola intended to show that it was the godless environment that tipped Mouret into insanity. If he had been in a contemplative order, the flaws in his personality would never have been tested.
According to my edition’s helpful Afterward by the translator Sandy Petrey, the surreal style of the novel suits Zola’s mythic purpose. Like The Dream, (see my review), it shows Zola experimenting with different writing styles and genres (though that term – as far as I know – hadn’t been invented then either). Written in 1875, it’s No 9 in the recommended reading order, between The Ladies Paradise (1883) (about Father Mouret’s brother Octave in a social history sort of novel) and my next title in this Zola Project, A Lesson in Love (1878) which is apparently a star-crossed lovers sort of novel. Zola as a romance novelist? That will be interesting indeed!
The Petrey translation, I’m sorry to say. is pedestrian. It is sad to see a great writer’s work spoiled like this: I cannot imagine what he might have thought of ‘Don’t say stupid things, kid’ (p 269, used to denote the French tu); or ‘Okay, when will that guy be through with covering himself with incense?’ (p. 226). As for hamstringing in the passage quoted above, even the often risible Google Translate can do better with On devrait leur casser les reins as We should break their backs. But until something better comes along, there is limited choice for this title, as you can see at the Translations page at Reading Zola. I think I’m stuck with old Vizetelly for A Lesson in Love!
Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Sin of Father Mouret (La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret)
Translated by Sandy Petrey
Publisher: Prentice-Hall, 1969, first published 1875
Source: Personal Library, purchased from AbeBooks.
Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.