Doctor Pascal by Zola

Doctor Pascal is Zola’s final novel in the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle. Zola wrote the Rougon-Macquart series as a social history of France’s Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852 to 1870), and so history is told through the stories of various family members. The novels extend from the 1851 coup d’etat which overthrew the Republic  t0 1873 (the aftermath of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War).

Doctor Pascal follows the phenomenal tale Debacle, and this final novel does not finish the series with a bang but a whimper. And some of the whimpering came from me. I’m not sure what I expected, but it was not easy to segue into the tediousness of Doctor Pascal after the splendour and the destruction of Debacle.

To place Doctor Pascal in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, he is a member of the third generation–the son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon, and the brother of Eugene Rougon and Aristide Saccard. Pascal appears in a minor capacity at various points in the series (The Fortune of the Rougons, The Kill, Abbe Mouret’s Transgression). When the novel begins the year is 1872 and Pascal lives in Plassans (where the series began) with his niece Clotilde (the daughter of  Saccard) and a servant, Martine. Pascal is a devoted and much-loved doctor in the town; at first he seems to be one of the more normal, rational family members until the nature of his research is revealed. Pascal, you see, is a big believer in heredity, and using his relatives as prime examples of his belief, he keeps a family tree along with substantial notes regarding the various family traits: madness, alcoholism, and obsessiveness. Pascal’s research into his family could, of course fall into the obsessive category, but it’s Pascal’s medical research that’s questionable. Ok, it is, after all the 19th C and medical treatments were archaic anyway, but even so…. Pascal, in the remote corner of Plassans, and feeding only on his own ideas, has developed a serum which he hopes will cure all hereditary illness:

About this time, the doctor, reading an old medical book of the fifteenth century, was greatly struck by a method of treating disease called signature. To cure a diseased organ, it was only necessary to take from a sheep or an ox the corresponding organ in sound condition, boil it, and give the soup to the patient to drink.

Doctor Pascal takes this one step further. In order to:

 regenerate those enfeebled by hereditary influences, he had only to give them the normal and healthy nerve substance. The method of the soup, however, seemed to him childish, and he invented in its stead that of grinding in a mortar the brain of a sheep, moistening it with distilled water, and then decanting and filtering the liquor thus obtained. He tried this liquor then mixed with Malaga wine, on his patients, without obtaining any appreciable result. Suddenly, as he was beginning to grow discouraged, he had an inspiration one day, when he was giving a lady suffering from hepatic colics an injection of morphine with the little syringe of Pravaz.

So things are looking up; Pascal adds Morphine to the mix and lo and behold, this formula appears to do the trick. Doctor Pascal doesn’t connect the formula’s success to the addition of morphine, and later in the novel, he becomes disillusioned with his research and starts injecting water in his patients instead. The book doesn’t use the word quack so I’m including it here.

Pascal believes in the power of science and is not religious. This puts him at odds with Clotilde and Martine who are both extremely religious. After Pascal’s mother discovers that her son has extensive notes on the shenanigans of Rougon-Macquart family, she begins to scheme for ways to get the evidence of past misdeeds destroyed, and to this end she ropes in Clotilde using religious beliefs to argue against science & against Pascal’s research. Here’s Félicité on Pascal’s years of research on his family:

A collection of falsehoods, of gossip, all the lies that our enemies, enraged by our triumph, hurled against us in former days!

I know Doctor Pascal has its fans–I’m just not one of them. I suppose part of my disappointment is that I hoped for something better for the last novel in the series. There’s a quote from Zola on the back of my copy:

Pascal’s works on the members of his family is, in small, what I have attempted to do on humanity, to show all so that all may be cured. It is not a book which, like La Debacle, will stir the passions of the mob. It is a scientific work, the logical deduction and conclusion of all my preceding novels, and at the same time it is my speech in defence of all that I have done before the court of public opinion.

Doctor Pascal does partially act as a wrapping up for loose ends. Fair enough. But the plot itself, based around the big romance between Pascal and Clotilde was implausible. There’s the age gap for one thing (he’s 59 & she’s 25); then there’s the vast differences in their belief systems. In addition, the novel begins their relationship clearly as uncle and niece. The leap to lovers just never worked for me, and perhaps this is due in part to the fact she calls him ‘master’.

Apart from that complaint, there are pages and pages of the two main characters and their religious debates. So very tedious. And then at other points Zola peers through the pages as the voice of Pascal when he heavy-handedly lectures about hereditary. 

Was there anything good about Doctor Pascal? Absolutely! It simply must be read in order to complete the cycle, and this last novel does indeed give a sense of completion. For example, the book’s first few scenes depict Clotilde drawing the most exotic pictures of flowers. These scenes hinted at shades of the fantastic embroideries of Angélique in The Dream. As a reader, I could see the thread of hereditary as it spread throughout the generations: the madness (in its various manifestations) and those on the edge of madness through the trait of destructive obsessiveness. At one point, for example, Félicité allows someone to burn to death (shades of the Conquest of Plassans here). It’s the perfect Rougon Crime of Opportunity (the best bit in the book), and although it’s suspected she played a role in his  death, what can be done about it? So yes, Zola’s intention to show the Rougon-Macquart family traits does work. Additionally, Doctor Pascal is a reunion of sorts as we hear about the continuing lives of other distant, rascally characters. Aristide Saccard, for example, after ruining the lives of thousands of people with his run-away investment schemes in Money is back. Maxime (The Kill, Money) the son of Saccard is gravely ill. The family matriarch, Adelaide Fouque (The Fortunes of the Rougons) is still alive and still living in the asylum. Octave Mouret (The Ladies’ Paradise, Pot Bouille) is a “King of Commerce,” and Jean (The Earth, Debacle) is alive, well, married and happy. It’s probably a healthy decision to stay away from the rest of his relatives.

My edition is from Mondial books and is translated by Mary J. Serrano



Filed under Fiction, Rougon-Macquart, Zola

14 responses to “Doctor Pascal by Zola

  1. I’m sorry that you didn’t enjoy more the last novel of the Rougon Macquart. How do you feel now that you’ve completed your reading? Sad to leave Zola behind or excited to start Balzac ?

    It seems Dr Pascal was ahead of his time, don’t you think? I’m not speaking of the treatments he uses but of the idea of preventing genetic illnesses. Isn’t that the very purpose of gene therapy ?

    About the gathering of all characters in the last book, the same thing happens in the last volume of In Search of Lost Time. I remember I enjoyed it, so I understand you liked hearing of characters you discovered in the previous novels.

  2. leroyhunter

    Congrats Guy on finishing an impressive undertaking – pity it didn’t live up to some of its predecessors.

    I picked up The Kill a while back so may start my Zola experience there. It’s complicated (to say the least) to try and get a handle on the different editions, translations etc. I’ll be back to your reviews when I finally do get into the cycle.

    • The Kill is not really mentioned as one of the greats (Germinal, La Bete Humaine), so I was pleasantly surprised by how marvellous it was.

      Several new translations have been published of various books since I started this undertaking in 2007. I bought my copies in advance and had them stacked up as a reminder.

      Yes, the last novel was a bit of a letdown but then the stakes were so high.

  3. Guy: My congratulations as well on completing the project. While Zola is not one that appeals to me, I do love novel cycle readining projects — and will admit that I have found one that includes 20 volumes.

  4. Whoops — typo in that it should read “I have not found one”. Sorry.

  5. Jonathan

    I finished Doctor Pascal and the series today. I agree that it’s a bit disappointing as the final novel but it is useful by tying up a few loose ends. I agree that the chapter in which Macquart, Tant Dide & Charles die was one of the best – I thought it was reminiscent of La Bête Humaine – probably because of all the deaths and trains.

    I also liked the last chapter, which for me was reminiscent of A Love Affair and for Zola it is quite optimistic. It also made me realise that Pascal and Clotilde did genuinely love each other and that they were decent people, which doesn’t occur often in the other novels.

    I don’t think I’ll follow you next with your Balzac project but I may read Proust…possibly…

  6. How did you feel finishing the cycle? I had a sense of completion but also felt more than a little sad that it was over. I spent some time thinking about which ones I wanted to return to, the merits of the best etc.

    I’m thinking of starting Proust in 2014 when I am all pumped up with those New Year’s resolutions. Not that I’ll be ‘done’ with Balzac by then, but I’ve been feeling the ‘need’ to read Proust. There have been so many signposts pointing me towards Proust, I can’t ignore them.

    • Jonathan

      It felt good finishing the series especially as I wouldn’t normally be attracted to reading a series of twenty novels. But it was Zola’s style and power as a writer that urged me on. I was impressed with the variety of the novels and the breadth of the subject matter. Also, I was not a big fan of descriptive prose until Zola showed how it should be done. It seems very likely that I’ll read Three Cities at some point but Proust is in my sights.

      • I agree. Zola is very impressive: there’s his mining novel, his banking novel, his government novel, his war novel etc etc…. he seems to throw himself into these worlds. I think about The Earth almost every day.
        Any idea when you’re going to start Proust?

  7. Jonathan

    It sounds like The Earth is your favourite; if I have to name one then it would be mine as well. I think I read somewhere that Zola was proudest of The Earth. Even when I was reading it I couldn’t understand how Zola was packing so much into the novel. As with all of his novels there are a lot of characters and a lot of imagery that has burnt its way into my mind. I was impressed with how a lot of the ‘lesser’ novels were pretty good themselves. For me, I’ll have to re-read The Abbé Mouret’s Sin as the structure and style of the book just took me by surprise. Are there any that you want to re-read?

    For me the thought of reading Proust has changed from maybe one day to I’m just about ready. The earliest would probably be in a couple of months time but then again it may not be until early next year. I’d probably take it slowly though. The R-M took me about two years reading approx a novel a month, so I’d probably start reading it and if I want to continue I’d develop a reading strategy. Would you read Proust slowly or try a full on attack?

    • I wouldn’t feel comfortable trying to decide which one is the ‘best’ Zola as they are so different and can’t really be compared. Although I can safely say that they are definitely some that are better than others.

      Sometimes this glorious tableau runs through my head: Nana’s excesses, Saccard’s insane calculations, sausages hanging in the butcher shop, miners covered in coal dust trudging home, Renee surrounded by the perfumed flowers, crazed starved horses stampeding through the fields of the dead, flames bursting through the framework of a burning house, people sneaking around a Paris boarding house, poor Gervaise toiling with laundry while the men in her life booze it up…

      L’Assommoir seems to have a Hardy feel to it (another favourite author)– Gervaise is a strong working class woman destroyed by the men in her life so I see a connection. It’s the novel that, for me, comes a close second to The Earth

      Yes I want to reread the whole series to be honest, but I may move the reading order around this time, and I may only get around to my favourites. I want to read the new available translations that were not available at the time (Brian Nelson’s The Fortunes of the Rougons & The Belly of Paris & the new Money when it comes out next year). But not knocking the Vizetellys who paid dearly for trying to bring Zola to the British public.

      It took me the best part of three years, I think.

      As for tackling Proust…. I tried and failed years ago with the touch and go method, so I think it’ll have to be a full-on assault. I’ve been able to pick up and drop Balzac comfortably, but I don’t want to fail with Proust this time.

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