Monday, April 30, 2018

The Sin of Abbé Mouret by Émile Zola

Serge Mouret is the son of Marthe Mouret (nee Rougon) and François Mouret, son of Ursule Mouret (née Macquart); meaning he has both Rougon and Macquart bloods running in his vein. Serge has two siblings: Octave (who is most Rougon than the others—appeared in The Ladies Paradise and The Conquest of Plassans); and Désirée, a retarded girl, of whom Serge took under his care.

Like all the tribe members, Serge possesses a certain obsession that is in religion; and so he becomes a priest. He practices total obedience in celibacy and fanatic devotion that leads to mysticism. He intends to cut off any link with the world, and to focus more in his devotion, he requests to be placed at Les Artaud, a remote rural village inhabited by peasants with incest relationship, poverty, and ignorance of religion. At first Abbé Mouret lives tranquilly by drowning himself in total devotion. But abandoning his physical health, he gets ill and loses his memory. A girl who loves to roam in The Paradou, a huge neglected garden, nurtures Serge under instruction of Doctor Pascal Rougon (Serge's uncle). Serge regains his health, but forgets that he is a priest, falls in love with Albine, and even makes love with her under a 'forbidden' tree. Yes, this is a replica of Adam and Eve's Paradise!

This book has so many interesting layers to discuss. I'll try to break it down to several points.

Nature v Church
The battle between nature and church is the main subject of this book. Zola portrayed the Catholic Church as empty, gloom, and dead. He especially disapproved of celibacy, which he believed to be unnatural, because procreation is human's nature. I learned from the Introduction (by Brian Nelson—one of Zola's experts) that when Zola wrote this book, France's birth rate was declining. Maybe this is his critic to the Church, because Zola always believed in fertility.

From the beginning of the story, Nature has tried to invade the Church—sun enters and takes possession of the whole church; sparrows fly into the Church through holes on the window panes; strong farmyard odour enters from front door (the farmyard is managed by Desiree, and is located next to the Church). But the biggest battle of Nature v Church is when Albine seduces Serge. Who wins the battle? As much as Zola liked the Nature to triumph, I think, by making Serge finally triumphs over his sexual desire, and returns to God, Zola has involuntarily given the victory to the Church. *spoiler alert* Although Nature could not be stopped in thriving into Church (Albine's death is taking place at the same time as the birth of Desiree's cow), Nature still cannot fully conquer Church.

Sin and repentance
Maybe this is not Zola’s intention, but this book made me think a bit about sin and repentance. After his memory returns, at one point, Serge feels that God abandons him (right after he feels proud of his own purity). He then succumbs to Albine's invitation, and goes to Paradou to meet her. But when Albine seduces him (taking him to the Forbidden Tree), God guides him again, and he can finally cut off his passionate love to Albine forever. Maybe, when we become proud of ourselves, God deliberately sends us temptation to make us sinned, and is therefore humbling us and making us worthy of salvation.

Le Paradou by Edouard Joseph Dantan, 1900
Naturalism and Research
Judging from the book's main topic, you can surely find naturalism flows abundantly throughout the book. There was a passage where the plants and flowers became alive and at war, attacking the Church! Of course, it's an allegory, but reading it, I felt like I saw it myself! Later, Zola's vivid picturesque narration inspired at least two impressionist paintings: Le Paradou by Edouard Joseph Dantan is one of them. And Zola put big efforts too into his research for this book. He must have analyzed and studied many horticultural catalogues to present so many plants and flowers throughout the book that at one point really bored me! And he has certainly studied the Bible, Catholic Missal, and many devotional books to write vividly of Mass and Sacramental events in great details.

Women, Immorality, and Misogyny
I was quite intrigued by the misogyny level in this novel. Brother Archangias--another religious in Les Artaud (but not ordained?) has a deep hatred towards women; so much that he thinks 'it would be a good riddance if girls were all strangled at birth'. Can you imagine this kind of man being religious?

Les Artaud is actually a tribe, which at the end named the village. Les Artauds people married their own relatives for ages. They are low in morality, and don't go into religion. When girls get knocked up, their concern is only of the loss of hands to work the farm, not of the ruined reputation. Again, getting pregnant means procreation and fertility...

On the other hand, when Serge fell into temptation, I felt that the narrator puts the blame to Albine (the woman brings down the man | woman is temptress); while in fact, both consciously wanted it. It's not the only example, there are several incidents throughout the book. I just wonder.. whether it's a common view in 19th century; or is it a vague evidence that Zola is a misogynist?

The Hereditary Illness
Although becoming a priest, Serge does not devoid of sexual passion. It is through his fanatic devotion and mysticism that he satisfies himself (he adores Virgin Mary as his mistress). It makes sense that, when he loses his memory, his sexual passion reborn through his exposure to the Nature. After his repentance, he switches his devotional focus to God, instead of Mary. Once again, Zola 'proved' his theory of hereditary illness. Could anyone in the family skip it? We should know after Doctor Pascal's final investigation is complete... on the last book: Doctor Pascal.

Meanwhile... 4,5/5 for The Sin of Abbé Mouret.


  1. I have been meaning to read Zola for a while. Your outstanding commentary on this book makes me want to give this one a try soon. Both the plot description and the themes make me think that I would enjoy this. The amnesia angle sounds like such an effective plot device in this context.

    1. Thanks Brian. I'm glad to have inspired you to read Zola. Beginning with this book is a good idea, because Zola's expertise and main topic is Naturalism, and in this book he dug deep into it.

      You're right, the amnesia makes the battle realistic. And if you come to read it, and feel the story flows rather slowly at the beginning, don't worry... it will 'explode' and fill your head with ideas at the end. ;)

  2. Fabulous wrap up of this complex and challenging book Fanda. As you know I struggled with the dreamy, hallucinatory style and the heavy religious content. I'm glad I've read six other Zola's to know that this one is very different to his other books. I will continue on undaunted!

  3. Interesting blog, it reminds me of Emile Zola, one of his controversial writings by Emile is the novel “Lourdes” about the conflict of faith and naturalism that took stage in the famous pilgrimage place Lourdes, France.
    I tried to write a blog about it, hope you also like it


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