Abbe Mouret’s Transgression by Emile Zola

“There is nothing of you that you have not given to me.”

The twenty volumes in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series are set in France during the period 1851-1873, and the novels trace the fortunes of various members of the two branches of the same family. The Rougons are the legitimate, and so-called respectable branch whereas the Macquarts are fairly disreputable. Zola traces the hereditary influences of violence, alcoholism and prostitution through his characters as they nagivate the changing social landscape of life in the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71.

The fifth novel in the series is the anti-clerical Abbe Mouret’s Transgression, and Serge Mouret is the Abbe in the title. Serge appears in the fourth novel, The Conquest of Plassans, but that novel mainly concerns his parents, Francois and Marthe Mouret. Over the course of the novel, Marthe becomes a religious fanatic, and her religious fervor is a key element in the destruction of her family.

When Abbe Mouret’s Transgression begins, Serge Mouret–still a young man–is the Cure of a village with 300 inhabitants:

“All its inhabitants were related, all bore the same name, so that from their very cradle they were distinguished amongst themselves by nicknames. An Artaud, their ancestor, had come hither and settled like a pariah in this waste. His family had grown with all the wild vitality of the herbage that sucked life from the rocky borders It had at last become a tribe, a rural community, in which cousin-ships were lost in the mists of centuries. They intermarried with shameless promiscuity. Not an instance could be cited of any Artaud taking himself a wife from any neighbouring village; only some of the girls occasionally went elsewhere. The others were born and died fixed to that spot, leisurely increasing and multiplying on their dunghills with the irreflectiveness of trees, and with no definite notion of the world that lay beyond the tawny rocks, in whose midst they vegetated. And yet there were already rich and poor among them; fowls having at times disappeared, the fowl houses were now closed at night with stout padlocks; moreover one Artaud had killed another Artaud one evening behind the mill. These folk, begirt by that belt of desolate hills, were truly a people apart -a race sprung from the soil, a miniature replica of mankind, three hundred souls all told, beginning the centuries once again.”

Abbe Mouret lives with his teenage sister Desiree and a loyal housekeeper named La Teuse. While Desiree, who has the mental capacity of a small child surrounds herself with animals, Abbe Mouret, who has clearly inherited the religious fanaticism of his mother, spends hours seeking some sort of religious ecstasy.  Prone to hysterical reveries induced by hours of religious contemplation, he cherishes an almost romantic love for religion, and he longs to leave his physical body and its functions behind.

After experiencing a collapse brought on by his religious fanaticism, Abbe Mouret’s uncle, Doctor Pascal takes his nephew to a gorgeous, secluded estate known as The Paradou. Built in the time of Louis XV, it was intended to represent a miniature Versailles. But partially damaged by fire, it now stands neglected and in a state of decay, inhabited only by an elderly caretaker, Jeanbernat and his niece, Albine. When Abbe Mouret recovers from his illness, he forgets his vows and falls in love with Albine.

On one level, Abbe Mouret and Albine become a latter-day Adam and Eve in The Paradou–their garden of Eden. Unlike Adam and Eve, however, they are not tempted by the Devil, but they are separated by the hideous, crude misogynist Brother Archangais. Torn between physical love and religious obligation, Abbe Mouret must choose. Abbe Mouret’s Trangression does not compare favourably to the other books in the series. There are pages and pages of descriptions of Abbe Mouret’s delirious, religious imaginative reveries, and after a while enough is enough. Character is subsumed by symbolism, and this is basically a simple tale in which not much really happens.

Abbe Mouret’s ‘choice’ however, creates an intriguing situation. Prior to knowing and loving Albine, Mouret really had nothing to sacrifice, and by ending his relationship with Albine–the woman he loves–he creates a world of mental self-flagellation. Whereas before he fantasized about enduring various physical and mental hardships in order to prove his love for god, now he really has something to suffer for. So strangely enough, meeting and relinquishing Albine just pushes Mouret one step closer to the state of religious ecstasy he longs for.

Desiree represents innocence in the novel, and yet as the story continues it’s apparent that her innocence really masks a horrific indifference. At first, she seems childlike and unfettered by the religious cares that trouble her brother, but Desiree is devoid of any natural feelings. Her love is revealed as warped, hideous and destructive though her relationships with her animals. Similarly Brother Archangais’s love for his fellow man is non-existent. He hates all women, and can only interact with other people through a system permeated with hate and an unquenchable need for punishment.

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7 Comments

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

7 responses to “Abbe Mouret’s Transgression by Emile Zola

  1. Jonathan

    Hi, I like your blog, especially the Zola entries as I am also reading the Rougon-Macquart series, though not in any specific order. I read the 1950s Elek Books translation of this one, translated as ‘The Abbé Mouret’s Sin’.

    Although I loved Zola’s descriptive prose in the middle section, I also found it a bit too much when I was reading it and was relieved when it switched back to ‘normality’ in the third section. I liked the book but considered it one of the minor ones of the series. However, the funny thing is that since finishing the book about two months ago the imagery and the ‘feel’ of that middle section keeps coming back to me and I find that I’m liking it more and more – I seem to be experiencing after effects from this novel. Did you experience anything similar?

    Paradou is certainly a garden of Eden but I especially liked the abrupt way the middle section ended with Serge being pulled out of the gap in the wall by Friar Archangais; pulled from the womb-like Paradou back into the sin-filled world. Simple but effective.

    • Thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree that it is one of the lesser ones and its strength seems to be in the descriptive passages–not the characters. I have also found myself thinking about the book too and I’ve wondered if I was a bit hard on it. Perhaps it’s all that mythic G of E imagery that stuck with me more than I thought at the time. All that imagery must have hit a nerve.

      • Jonathan

        Zola seemed to enjoy playing around with the structure of the novel with this one. The last R-M book I read a few weeks ago was ‘A Love Affair’ – again Zola has a small cast of characters and a simple story but he seems to play around with the structure more than with his ‘major’ novels. The more I read Zola, the more I enjoy Zola.

        • Some of the series make my best-ever list. Can’t believe that it took me this long to get to them. I want to reread them all at some point. but it’ll be a few years as I’m slowly working on Balzac.

  2. John Harrison

    There is a French film of La Faute de l’abbé Mouret, made in 1970. There is an english version of the film called ‘The Demise of Abbé Mouret’; you would have to hope that the subtitles are better translations than the film title…

    I enjoyed the book when I read it, but translating some of it is horrendous – maybe if I had a degree in botany it would have been easier.

  3. Anthony Scullion

    A new year, a new Oxford Zola translation! The Sin of Abbe Mouret will be Published in May. Only a few more to go until we have the whole cycle….

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