The Sin of Father Mouret, by Emile Zola, translated by Sandy Petrey

The Sin of Father Mouret

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.

WARNING: SPOILERS

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.

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‘La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret’ Cover Images

La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret was first published in 1875 and has been translated as The Abbé Mouret’s Sin, Abbé Mouret’s Transgression, The Sin of Father Mouret. More details are on the translations page.

The painting titled The Death of Albine by John Collier is based on a scene from the book.

For images of other covers please look on the Images page.

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.

Exceptional Excerpts: The Abbé Mouret’s Sin by Émile Zola

The following quote occurs near the beginning of the novel and describes the village in which the young Serge Mouret is the parish priest.

Gradually, lassitude overcame the Reverend Mouret. The rising sun bathed him in such warmth that he relaxed completely against the church door. Tranquil contentment took possession of him. He mused on this village of his, which had sprung up in this place, amid the stones, like the gnarled undergrowth of the valley. All Artaud’s inhabitants were inter-related, all bearing the same surname to such an extent that they used double-barrelled names from the cradle up, to distinguish one from another. At some antecedent date an ancestral Artaud had come like an outcast, to establish himself in this waste land. His family had grown with the savage vitality of the vegetation, drawing nourishment from this stone till it had become a tribe, then the tribe turned to a community, till they could not sort out their cousinage, going back for generations. They inter-married with unblushing promiscuity. It was unknown for an Artaud to bring in a wife from any neighbouring village. There were merely occasional cases of girls going elsewhere to find husbands. These people came into the world and left it bound to their soil, proliferating on their own dung-hills with slow deliberation like the uncomplicated soul of trees which scatter their seed about their feet, with little conception of any larger world beyond the dun rocks among which they vegetated. Even so, there were still poor and rich among them. When hens vanished, hen-houses acquired heavy padlocks at night. An Artaud had once not long since killed another, one evening, behind the mill. Deep in this grim belt of hills they were a people apart, a breed sprung from the soil, a mankind of three hundred heads in whom time began all anew.

(The Abbé Mouret’s Sin, by Émile Zola, Elek Books, translated by Alec Brown, 1957, p.30)