Monday, September 22, 2014

A Dead Woman’s Wish by Emile Zola

Baby steps toward Naturalism
A Dead Woman’s Wish is an early work by Emile Zola. It was first published in 1866 as a serial in the journal L’Événement, under the French title of Le Voeu d’une morte. The publisher discontinued the serialization due to poor sales. Supposedly there was a whole second part to the novel that was planned but never completed. Regardless, the work as it stands now is certainly a complete novel, and it’s hard to imagine how it could have been dragged out much longer.

As a young child, Daniel Raimboult is orphaned by a catastrophic fire. Left penniless and alone, he is also cursed with an ugliness which will become a source of ridicule throughout his life. A wealthy girl from the neighborhood takes pity on this unfortunate child and becomes his anonymous benefactress, sponsoring his education. When Daniel approaches manhood, his guardian angel reveals her identity as Madame de Rionne and invites her young ward into her home. Daniel is overcome by love and reverence for this mothering figure, and to reside under her roof is for him a veritable paradise. His joy is short lived, however. Despite her wealth, Madame de Rionne has not led a happy life. She is trapped in a loveless marriage, and at the age of thirty she is stricken by a fatal illness. On her deathbed, she confides her dying wish to Daniel, the only person she can trust. She asks him to watch over her daughter Jeanne, who is then six years old. He must see that she leads a good life, sticks to a virtuous moral path, and finds the happy marriage that Madame de Rionne herself never had. Daniel vows that he will devote his life to fulfilling this last request.

This work was written prior to Zola’s development of the mature, naturalistic style that he would employ in later works like Thérèse Raquin and the novels in the Rougon-Macquart series. The plot of this book is a throwback to Romanticism, and utterly predictable. The moment each character is introduced, the reader immediately has an inkling of his or her predestined fate. For a melodramatic morality tale, however, this novel is skillfully written and not without its moving moments. The plot may be overly romanticized, but a nascent Naturalism can be found in the details. Zola’s pessimistic attitude permeates the book. The virtuous hero is surrounded by a supporting cast riddled with greed, conceit, and cynicism. At Madame de Rionne’s funeral, for example, Daniel is the only one who mourns sincerely. For everyone else, the ceremony is either a sham, an inconvenience, or a joke. Later in his career, Zola was often admonished by critics for concentrating on the ugly side of life. This book proves that his jaundiced view of society was developed early.

It’s not too difficult to figure out why this serial novel was prematurely yanked from circulation. It's hard to imagine the readers of Zola’s day gobbling up a story that’s such a total downer. Daniel is the only character remotely worth rooting for, and we so rarely see him happy. When he’s performing his avowed duty as Jeanne’s moral conscience, he displays all the sternness and severity of a fundamentalist minister. The final chapter offers some uplifting relief from all the dourness, but not enough to make the book an enjoyable read. That said, however, this depressing fare is preferable to some of the fluffier pieces Zola produced early in his career. A Dead Woman’s Wish is a prepubescent stage in the evolution of the author’s later, greater masterpieces. Diehard fans might like it, but they won’t love it.

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