Doctor Pascal, by Émile Zola, translated by Mary Jane Serrano

Doctor Pascal

Source: Wikipedia Commons

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)

Clotilde and Pascal in their idyll are oblivious to this: Martine the faithful servant keeps Félicité at bay. But Martine cannot protect them from other troubles. Unlike almost everyone else in his grasping, avaricious family, Pascal is not interested in money. His income comes from investments managed by the local notary, and any money he receives from his (mostly impecunious) patients lies untouched in a drawer in the house (apart from when Pascal imprudently buys Clotilde expensive jewellery – which she doesn’t really want anyway). Martine manages the household comfortably on a shoestring, and all is well for a good long time. But eventually greed raises its ugly head once more, and the notary does a bunk with everyone’s money, leaving Pascal ruined.

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.

Rougon-Macquart family treeAll 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.

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers for the Zola Project.


Exceptional Excerpts: ‘Doctor Pascal’

Zola_Doctor-Pascal-fcXC-700pxDoctor Pascal is the last novel in the twenty-novel Rougon-Macquart series and although it’s not one of the best of the series it is still a good read, especially if you’ve read the other nineteen.

Although the main subject of the novel is the love affair between Pascal and his niece Clotilde, this excerpt is from Chapter Nine and describes a scene where Pascal’s manipulative mother, Felicité, goes to visit her alcoholic brother-in-law, Antoine Macquart, who lives close to the asylum in which Tante Dide is living. The excerpt is rather long, consisting of two pages of the original novel, but I think that any attempt to shorten it will just diminish its effect. It is quite a famous scene from the novel as it describes a case of spontaneous human combustion. Anyway, it opens with Felicité going to visit Macquart:

It was a magnificent summer’s day, hot and clear. To the right and to the left of the narrow path, she gazed, with mounting resentment, at the fields she had been stupid enough to buy for him; all that fertile ground, the price she had paid, in an attempt to ensure his discretion and good conduct. In the sunshine, the house, with its pink tiles, its walls distempered a bright yellow, looked wonderfully gay and attractive. Under the ancient mulberry trees on the terrace she revelled in their delightful coolness and admired the view. What a worthy and perfect retreat, what a blissful spot for an old man to finish a long, good and dutiful life in peace!

She could neither see nor hear him. Nothing but profound silence! Only the faint buzzing of bees around the giant mallows. There was a little yellow dog on the terrace, the kind called loubet in Provence, stretched out on the bare earth, in the shade. He had raised his head and started growling, but he knew her, put his head down again and made no further movement.

There was something eerie about this solitude, in spite of the blazing sun she shivered and called: “Macquart!.. Macquart!.. ”

The door of the house, under the mulberry trees, was wide open. But she felt too frightened to go in, the entrance was like a gaping maw. And she called out in a louder voice: “Macquart!.. Macquart! ..”

Not a sound, not a breath. There was still that heavy brooding silence, only the bees seemed alive, buzzing around the giant mallows.

In the end, Felicité began to feel ashamed of her fears and boldly went indoors. In the hall, the door on the left opened into the kitchen, where Macquart usually sat. It was shut. She opened it. At first she could distinguish nothing, he must have closed the shutters to keep out the heat. Her first impression was merely one of being almost suffocated by the smell of spirits which filled the room; even the furniture seemed to be oozing with it, the whole house was impregnated with it. Then, as her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, she finally saw Macquart. He was sitting near the table, on which stood a glass and a bottle of double-strength brandy, completely empty. Hunched up in his chair he was soundly asleep, helplessly drunk. This sight aroused her to a fury of contempt:

“Come, Macquart, it is unreasonable and shameful to get yourself in such a state!.. Wake up, it’s disgraceful!”

He was sleeping so deeply that she could not even hear him breathing. She raised her voice, shouted, started beating him with her fists, all to no avail: “Macquart! Macquart! Macquart!.. You are disgusting!”

She gave up trying to rouse him, but she was no longer apprehensive, she walked about and bumped against the furniture. Her walk along the dusty road from the asylum had made her very thirsty. She took off her gloves and put them down on a corner of the table. Then, she had the luck to find a water jug, washed a glass and filled it to the brim. She was about to drink when an extraordinary sight filled her with such amazement that she put the glass down near the gloves without drinking.

She could now see everything clearly, thanks to a few narrow shafts of sunlight which filtered through the cracks of the old shutters. There was her brother, wearing, as always, his neat blue suit and his eternal fur cap. He had grown much stouter in the last five or six years, he looked monstrously bulky with his folds of fat. She had just noticed that he must have been smoking before lapsing into unconsciousness, because his pipe, a short black pipe, had fallen on his knees. Then she stood transfixed with astonishment; the cloth of his trousers had caught fire from the smouldering tobacco; and through a hole in the material, already as large as a crown piece, his naked thigh could be seen, a red thigh and it was burning with a blue flame.

At first Felicité thought that it was his linen, his underpants or his vest, which was burning. But, there was no doubt about it, it was his flesh, burning with a flickering blue flame, light, dancing, like a flame spreading over the surface of a bowl of alcohol. It was still no higher than the flame of a night-light, so feeble, so unstable that the slightest breath of air made it waver. But it was growing,
spreading rapidly and the skin was splitting, and the fat was beginning to melt.

Felicité uttered an involuntary exclamation: “Macquart!.. Macquart!”

Not the slightest movement from him. He was completely unconscious, he was in a drunken stupor, more like a coma, all sensation paralysed; but he was definitely still alive, she could see his chest heaving in a slow and regular rhythm.


Now the liquid fat was dribbling through the cracks in his skin, feeding the flame which was spreading to his belly. And Felicité realized that he was burning up, like a sponge soaked in alcohol. He had been saturating himself for years in the strongest, most inflammable of spirits. Soon, doubtless, he would be flaming from head to foot.

Then she stopped making any effort to arouse him, he was too deeply unconscious. During the next few minutes she nerved herself to watch him, terrified, but gradually coming to a decision. Her hands were trembling with a light but uncontrollable tremor. She was choking, she seized the glass with both hands and emptied the water down her throat in a single gulp. She was about to creep out of the kitchen, on tiptoe, when she remembered her gloves. She turned back, thought that she had picked them both up, groping cautiously over the table for them. Then she went out, closed the door carefully and quietly, as if afraid of disturbing someone.

I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s powerful stuff! It almost put me off drinking as well!

By the way, Felicité has only picked up one glove. Pascal and Clotilde meet her on the train returning home from this incident and they notice that she only has one glove with her. Later on Pascal visits Macquart’s house and witnesses the astonishing sight; everything in the room is in its proper place but on the charred chair is a mess of ash and fat and everything is covered with grease. Clotilde notices Felicité’s other green glove under the table.

Excerpt taken from the Elek Book translation, Doctor Pascal from 1957, translated by Vladimir Kean, pp173-5.

‘Le Docteur Pascal’ Cover Images

Le Docteur Pascal was first published in 1893 and was the last book in the Rougon-Macquart series. It has been translated as Doctor Pascal.

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