Abbe Mouret's Transgression, by Émile Zola


‘LA FAUTE DE L’ABBE MOURET’ was, with respect to the date of publication, the fourth volume of M. Zola’s ‘Rougon-Macquart’ series; but in the amended and final scheme of that great literary undertaking, it occupies the ninth place. It proceeds from the sixth volume of the series, ‘The Conquest of Plassans;’ which is followed by the two works that deal with the career of Octave Mouret, Abbe Serge Mouret’s elder brother. In ‘The Conquest of Plassans,’ Serge and his half-witted sister, Desiree, are seen in childhood at their home in Plassans, which is wrecked by the doings of a certain Abbe Faujas and his relatives. Serge Mouret grows up, is called by an instinctive vocation to the priesthood, and becomes parish priest of Les Artaud, a well-nigh pagan hamlet in one of those bare, burning stretches of country with which Provence abounds. And here it is that ‘La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret’ opens in the old ruinous church, perched upon a hillock in full view of the squalid village, the arid fields, and the great belts of rock which shut in the landscape all around.

There are two elements in this remarkable story, which, from the standpoint of literary style, has never been excelled by anything that M. Zola has since written; and one may glance at it therefore from two points of view. Taking it under its sociological and religious aspect, it will be found to be an indirect indictment of the celibacy of the priesthood; that celibacy, contrary to Nature’s fundamental law, which assuredly has largely influenced the destinies of the Roman Catholic Church. To that celibacy, and to all the evils that have sprang from it, may be ascribed much of the irreligion current in France to-day. The periodical reports on criminality issued by the French Ministers of Justice since the foundation of the Republic in 1871, supply materials for a most formidable indictment of that vow of perpetual chastity which Rome exacts from her clergy. Nowadays it is undoubtedly too late for Rome to go back upon that vow and thereby transform the whole of her sacerdotal organisation; but, perhaps, had she done so in past times, before the spirit of inquiry and free examination came into being, she might have assured herself many more centuries of supremacy than have fallen to her lot. But she has ever sought to dissociate the law of the Divinity from the law of Nature, as though indeed the latter were but the invention of the Fiend.

Abbe Mouret, M. Zola’s hero, finds himself placed between the law of the Divinity and the law of Nature: and the struggle waged within him by those two forces is a terrible one. That which training has implanted in his mind proves the stronger, and, so far as the canons of the Church can warrant it, he saves his soul. But the problem is not quite frankly put by M. Zola; for if Abbe Mouret transgresses he does so unwittingly, at a time when he is unconscious of his priesthood and has no memory of any vow. When the truth flashes upon him he is horrified with himself, and forthwith returns to the Church. A further struggle between the contending forces then certainly ensues, and ends in the final victory of the Church. But it must at least be said that in the lapses which occur in real life among the Roman priesthood, the circumstances are altogether different from those which M. Zola has selected for his story.

The truth is that in ‘La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret,’ betwixt lifelike glimpses of French rural life, the author transports us to a realm of poesy and imagination. This is, indeed, so true that he has introduced into his work all the ideas on which he had based an early unfinished poem called ‘Genesis.’ He carries us to an enchanted garden, the Paradou — a name which one need hardly say is Provencal for Paradise*— and there Serge Mouret, on recovering from brain fever, becomes, as it were, a new Adam by the side of a new Eve, the fair and winsome Albine. All this part of the book, then, is poetry in prose. The author has remembered the ties which link Rousseau to the realistic school of fiction, and, as in the pages of Jean-Jacques, trees, springs, mountains, rocks, and flowers become animated beings and claim their place in the world’s mechanism. One may indeed go back far beyond Rousseau, even to Lucretius himself; for more than once we are irresistibly reminded of Lucretian scenes, above which through M. Zola’s pages there seems to hover the pronouncement of Sophocles:

No ordinance of man shall override

The settled laws of Nature and of God;

Not written these in pages of a book,

Nor were they framed to-day, nor yesterday;

We know not whence they are; but this we know,

That they from all eternity have been,

And shall to all eternity endure.

* There is a village called Paradou in Provence, between Les Baux and Arles.

And if we pass to the young pair whose duo of love is sung amidst the varied voices of creation, we are irresistibly reminded of the Paul and Virginia of St. Pierre, and the Daphnis and Chloe of Longus. Beside them, in their marvellous garden, lingers a memory too of Manon and Des Grieux, with a suggestion of Lauzun and a glimpse of the art of Fragonard. All combine, all contribute — from the great classics to the eighteenth century petits maitres— to build up a story of love’s rise in the human breast in answer to Nature’s promptings.

M. Zola wrote ‘La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret’ one summer under the trees of his garden, mindful the while of gardens that he had known in childhood: the flowery expanse which had stretched before his grandmother’s home at Pont-au-Beraud and the wild estate of Galice, between Roquefavour and Aix-en-Provence, through which he had roamed as a lad with friends then boys like himself: Professor Baille and Cezanne, the painter. And into his description of the wondrous Paradou he has put all his remembrance of the gardens and woods of Provence, where many a plant and flower thrive with a luxuriance unknown to England. True, in order to refresh his memory and avoid mistakes, he consulted various horticultural manuals whilst he was writing; of which circumstance captious critics have readily laid hold, to proclaim that the description of the Paradou is a mere florist’s catalogue.

But it is nothing of the kind. The florist who might dare to offer such a catalogue to the public would be speedily assailed by all the horticultural journalists of England and all the customers of villadom. For M. Zola avails himself of a poet’s license to crowd marvel upon marvel, to exaggerate nature’s forces, to transform the tiniest blooms into giant examples of efflorescence, and to mingle even the seasons one with the other. But all this was premeditated; there was a picture before his mind’s eye, and that picture he sought to trace with his pen, regardless of all possible objections. It is the poet’s privilege to do this and even to be admired for it. It would be easy for some leaned botanist, some expert zoologist, to demolish Milton from the standpoint of their respective sciences, but it would be absurd to do so. We ask of the poet the flowers of his imagination, and the further he carries us from the sordid realities, the limited possibilities of life, the more are we grateful to him.

And M. Zola’s Paradou is a flight of fancy, even as its mistress, the fair, loving, guileless Albine, whose smiles and whose tears alike go to our hearts, is the daughter of imagination. She is a flower — the very flower of life’s youth — in the midst of all the blossoms of her garden. She unfolds to life and to love even as they unfold; she loves rapturously even as they do under the sun and the azure; and she dies with them when the sun’s caress is gone and the chill of winter has fallen. At the thought of her, one instinctively remembers Malherbe’s ‘Ode A Du Perrier:’

She to this earth belonged, where beauty fast

To direst fate is borne:

A rose, she lasted, as the roses last,

Only for one brief morn.

French painters have made subjects of many episodes in M. Zola’s works, but none has been more popular with them than Albine’s pathetic, perfumed death amidst the flowers. I know several paintings of great merit which that touching incident has inspired.

Albine, if more or less unreal, a phantasm, the spirit as it were of Nature incarnate in womanhood, is none the less the most delightful of M. Zola’s heroines. She smiles at us like the vision of perfect beauty and perfect love which rises before us when our hearts are yet young and full of illusions. She is the ideal, the very quintessence of woman.

In Serge Mouret, her lover, we find a man who, in more than one respect, recalls M. Zola’s later hero, the Abbe Froment of ‘Lourdes’ and ‘Rome.’ He has the same loving, yearning nature; he is born — absolutely like Abbe Froment — of an unbelieving father and a mother of mystical mind. But unlike Froment he cannot shake off the shackles of his priesthood. Reborn to life after his dangerous illness, he relapses into the religion of death, the religion which regards life as impurity, which denies Nature’s laws, and so often wrecks human existence, as if indeed that had been the Divine purpose in setting man upon earth. His struggles suggest various passages in ‘Lourdes’ and ‘Rome.’ In fact, in writing those works, M. Zola must have had his earlier creation in mind. There are passages in ‘La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret’ culled from the writings of the Spanish Jesuit Fathers and the ‘Imitation’ of Thomas a Kempis that recur almost word for word in the Trilogy of the Three Cities. Some might regard this as evidence of the limitation of M. Zola’s powers, but I think differently. I consider that he has in both instances designedly taken the same type of priest in order to show how he may live under varied circumstances; for in the earlier instance he has led him to one goal, and in the later one to another. And the passages of prayer, entreaty, and spiritual conflict simply recur because they are germane, even necessary, to the subject in both cases.

Of the minor characters that figure in ‘La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret’ the chief thing to be said is that they are lifelike. If Serge is almost wholly spiritual, if Albine is the daughter of poesy, they, the others, are of the earth earthy. As a result of their appearance on the scene, there are some powerful contrasting passages in the book. Archangias, the coarse and brutal Christian Brother who serves as a foil to Abbe Mouret; La Teuse, the priest’s garrulous old housekeeper; Desiree, his ‘innocent’ sister, a grown woman with the mind of a child and an almost crazy affection for every kind of bird and beast, are all admirably portrayed. Old Bambousse, though one sees but little of him, stands out as a genuine type of the hard-headed French peasant, who invariably places pecuniary considerations before all others. And Fortune and Rosalie, Vincent and Catherine, and their companions, are equally true to nature. It need hardly be said that there is many a village in France similar to Les Artaud. That hamlet’s shameless, purely animal life has in no wise been over-pictured by M. Zola. Those who might doubt him need not go as far as Provence to find such communities. Many Norman hamlets are every whit as bad, and, in Normandy, conditions are aggravated by a marked predilection for the bottle, which, as French social-scientists have been pointing out for some years now, is fast hastening the degenerescence of the peasantry, both morally and physically.

With reference to the English version of ‘La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret’ herewith presented, I may just say that I have subjected it to considerable revision and have retranslated all the more important passages myself.

E. A. V.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02