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