Friday, September 18, 2020

Finch’s Fortune by Mazo de la Roche

From Jalna to England and back
Finch’s Fortune,
published in 1932, is the third book published in the Jalna series by Canadian author Mazo de la Roche. (Because of prequels, it is the ninth book chronologically.) To recap the basics for those just tuning in: Jalna is the title of the first book in the series and the name of a farm in southern Ontario. The family that lives on that farm are the Whiteoaks, which is also the title of the second book. At the end of Whiteoaks, Finch Whiteoak inherited a hundred thousand dollars from his grandmother. In Finch’s Fortune, he spends it.

The novel opens with the family throwing Finch a 21st birthday party, even though many of the Whiteoaks still resent the fact that grandma left all her money to him. Finch was never quite comfortable in his own skin, and he is even less so now that he has come into his wealth. He thinks a man of means should see more of the world, so he decides to make a voyage to England to visit his aunt, and he generously invites his elderly uncles along for the trip. After a brief stay in London, he spends the better part of a year at his aunt’s sedate country home in Devon. There he meets a fellow houseguest, his cousin Sarah, who might be a marriage prospect for Finch if the two hit it off.

Of all the Whiteoaks, Finch seems to be the one with whom de la Roche herself most closely identifies, which is likely why this is the second consecutive Jalna novel to focus mostly on him. That’s unfortunate because Finch is the most boring and frustratingly meek character in this entire family saga. He appears to be a semi-autobiographical embodiment of all the author’s youthful insecurities, which may have been great catharsis for her but doesn’t prove enjoyable for the reader. Finch’s annoying qualities can best be expressed by quotations from his older brother Renny: “You’re always afraid!” “You’re twenty-one, and you act like a girl in her teens!” “I’ve never known anyone so absolutely incapable of enjoying himself.” Such is the protagonist of Finch’s Fortune. In Whiteoaks, his sexual preference was in question, but this novel confirms hat he is not gay. Even so, all he seems to have learned on his trip to England is a disdain towards women.

When not concentrating on Finch, the focus of the plot shifts back to Jalna and the dysfunctional relationships there. Alayne, an outsider who married into the Whiteoak family, was a sympathetic character in the previous novels, but here she turns into a bit of a shrew. Her marital troubles with Renny are the main concern of the Canadian portions of the novel, which isn’t much of an improvement over Finch’s perpetual melancholy.

The Jalna series is like a cross between The Waltons and Wuthering Heights. Its homey depictions of life on a Canadian farm make it appealing, but it often succumbs to emotional histrionics, with plotlines that are straight out of a romance novel—not a trashy romance novel, but rather something like the less satisfying works of Pearl S. Buck. There’s certainly nothing terrible about Finch’s Fortune; there’s just nothing exceptional about it either. From beginning to end, it is surprising how little forward momentum is generated in this lackadaisical novel. The book just coasts along inconsequentially to the next installment in the series.

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Monday, September 14, 2020

The Life of Erasmus Darwin by Charles Darwin and Ernst Krause

The grandfather of evolution
Erasmus Darwin
Before Charles Darwin formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection for his landmark book On the Origin of Species, the Darwin name had already achieved renown in England’s scientific circles due to the work of his grandfather Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). In February 1879, the German journal Kosmos published a paper written by biologist Ernst Krause on “The Scientific Works of Erasmus Darwin.” Later that year, Krause’s paper, accompanied by a “Preliminary Notice” written by Charles Darwin, was published in book form as The Life of Erasmus Darwin. The Preliminary Notice is more than just a preface, however, and is in fact even longer than Krause’s paper.

Erasmus Darwin was a practicing physician, but he did not limit his scientific pursuits to the field of medicine. His favored discipline was botany, and he published several scientific texts on the subject, the most important being his Zoonomia of 1794. He was also a poet. In the late 18th and 19th century, poetry was a legitimate medium through which to convey scientific and philosophical theories. Such didactic poems were written in verse with extensive footnotes in prose. Erasmus’s poems, such as The Loves of Plants, consist largely of visual descriptions of nature. Through such poems he also articulated his broader system of natural philosophy based largely on materialistic causes, in opposition to the elaborate paeans to intelligent design written by most of the biologists of his era. Erasmus was a founding member of the Lunar Society, a sort of learned illuminati in London. As Charles and Krause describe him, Erasmus comes across as a sort of English Ben Franklin, with whom he corresponded. Like Franklin, Erasmus was also an inventor, though Charles points out that he failed to follow through on many of his ideas.

Leaving the examination of Erasmus’s scientific accomplishments to Krause, Charles provides mostly biographical and genealogical information on Erasmus, as well as a discussion of his career as a physician. Charles strives to give the reader a sense of his grandfather’s personality and values by reproducing Erasmus’s correspondence with friends, professional colleagues, and family members. A friend and colleague of Erasmus’s, Anna Seward, had previously published a biography that was somewhat unflattering. Here Charles refutes Seward’s allegations and even attacks her character. While one does learn quite a bit about Erasmus from Charles’s biographical sketch, there’s definitely a degree of family bias to his account, as well as quite a few tangential digressions that would only be of interest to a Darwin cousin.

Krause is more successful in his essay on Erasmus’s career as a biologist. Probably at least two-thirds of Krause’s essay, however, consists of extensive quotes from Erasmus’s published writings. Krause believes that Erasmus deserves far more recognition for the development of the theory of evolution than he typically receives. He asserts that what we typically think of as Lamarckism, the evolutionary theory of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, was actually Erasmus Darwin’s idea. To call it Darwinism, however, would certainly be confusing, since Charles Darwin disproved Lamarckian evolution when he discovered the mechanism of natural selection.

Rather than a full biography, The Life of Erasmus Darwin is more of a jumble of facts and opinions about the man. One does, however, learn quite a bit about his contributions to the history of science, and Krause’s essay provides a good overview of his system of natural philosophy.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, Volume 1 by Alexander von Humboldt

Epic travelogue loaded with empirical data
Alexander von Humboldt
Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt achieved worldwide fame for a daring and scientifically fruitful expedition he undertook to the New World from 1799 to 1804. Accompanied by botanist Aimé Bonpland, Humboldt explored portions of Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico, where he logged new species of flora and fauna, investigated geological and meteorological phenomena, studied native cultures, and compiled accurate geographic measurements of the region. The discoveries made and data gathered from Humboldt’s American journey yielded at least thirty volumes of published books. While many of these works were written for botanists, geologists, and other specialists, Humboldt devoted three volumes to his Personal Narrative of the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804, which was meant to be the catch-all volume aimed at the general reading public. Though hardly light reading for laymen and loaded with arcane findings, the Personal Narrative proved to be a popular travel narrative that influenced many subsequent naturalists including Charles Darwin. Volume 1 covers Humboldt’s ocean voyage to South America, his stops along the way, and part of his time in Venezuela.

If Volume 1 is indicative of the whole, there is nothing particularly “personal” about the Personal Narrative. Humboldt does write this account in the first person, but the text is very heavy on empirical data. Only rarely does Humboldt ever include anything in his narrative that could be considered a personal anecdote. At times, however, Humboldt does insert commentary into the narrative that expresses his personal views on political and social issues, most notably his abhorrence of slavery. Except for such brief editorials, the text is comprised almost entirely of objective observations of nature. Humboldt relates these observations through a combination of beautiful nature writing, such as when he stands on a mountain top gazing at the landscape below, and detailed notations of scientific facts, such as long lists of minerals and plant species or measurements of temperature, barometric pressure, and elevation. Humboldt often compares these findings with other locations in the world that he has studied or to which he has traveled, in an attempt to elicit universal laws governing similar physical and ecological characteristics.

Humboldt also frequently digresses from the travelogue into extended asides in which he discusses at length particular topics of interest to him, such as documented instances of pre-Columbian transatlantic travel, the most efficient methods of processing indigo and tobacco plants, the atmospheric phenomenon of zodiacal light, or the strange case of a Venezuelan father who breastfed his own child. Just as Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle devotes a chapter to the formation of coral reefs, Humboldt in the Personal Narrative theorizes extensively on the formation of volcanoes, the causes of earthquakes, and the relationship between the two. These two travelogues share many of the same merits and faults. Both can be challenging reads for the nonscientist, but both inspire awe and envy for their authors’ adventurous and remarkable journeys.

One really needs to be a botanist and a geologist to understand all of what Humboldt has to say in the Personal Narrative, but for the rest of us it is still enjoyable to vicariously experience the travels and discoveries of this heroic genius. For most readers with a casual interest in Humboldt, however, a modern summary of his journey will suffice. Gerard Helferich’s 2004 book Humboldt’s Cosmos, for example, provides an excellent blow-by-blow summation of Humboldt’s American expedition.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Miss Cayley’s Adventures by Grant Allen

Independent woman travels the world
Canadian-born British author Grant Allen spent his career pushing the boundaries of Victorian England’s conservative mores. As both an essayist and a novelist, Allen often wrote works advocating for such liberal and radical ideas as atheism, socialism, feminism, free love, and the theory of evolution. His 1899 novel Miss Cayley’s Adventures is a protofeminist story of female independence. The title character is an unmarried woman who, after her stepfather’s death, finds herself with nothing to her name but the twopence in her pocket. Rather than find a husband, take a job as a teacher, or confine herself to a convent, Lois Cayley embraces the freedom of having nothing to lose and decides she wants to travel around the world. She then fortuitously stumbles into a series of odd jobs that finance her travels to exotic locations around the globe.

Like a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, the chapter titles all begin with “The Adventure of the . . .” (Cantankerous Old Lady, Magnificent Maharajah, Unprofessional Detective, and so on). Although each chapter focuses on a particular escapade, this is indeed a novel. All the adventures must be read sequentially as one complete narrative, as they culminate in Miss Cayley’s ultimate fate. Some sources (Wikipedia included) state that this book is a detective novel, but that is not accurate. Miss Cayley is not a detective, and her adventures run the gamut from thwarting a crime, fending off a suitor, establishing her own business, or competing in a bicycle race.

In 1899, there were likely hundreds of novels published that featured a penniless young man striking off to make his fortune in the world. The idea of an unmarried woman traveling alone, however, would have been a shock to British readers, and probably to many Americans as well. In the story, Miss Cayley is frequently presumed to be an “adventuress,” that is to say, a woman of easy virtue looking to snag a wealthy husband. Allen, who enjoys satirizing priggish attitudes toward sex and class, endows Miss Cayley with an admirable I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude. She is clearly an intelligent and capable young woman, and one who values personal freedom and happiness over money. Sometimes her confidence comes across as a little too egotistical when she expresses thoughts of self-praise that are meant to come across as spunky or plucky but would seem off-puttingly arrogant if uttered by a male character. The story is light-hearted good fun, more romantic than realistic, and well-told for the most part by Allen. The situations he puts Miss Cayley in are sufficiently lively and complex to maintain the reader’s interest, but comfortably predictable in their good-triumphs-over-evil outcomes. The last few chapters, however, feature a tedious courtroom battle that ends the book on a weak note.

Though Allen was quite liberal for his era, he’s not entirely free from Victorian prejudices, or at least here he compromisingly panders to a more conservative audience in matters of race, sex, and class. Though he wishes to make Cayley the very embodiment of an independent woman, the novel never leaves any doubt that her final destination will be marriage. On a trip to India, Cayley is the only Brit who refuses to refer to the natives by the n-word, yet she blushes at the idea of marrying outside her race. Allen frequently scoffs at class distinctions, yet the events and characters of the narrative continually imply that the upper classes are a cut above the laboring masses, Miss Cayley excepted. Nevertheless, Allen’s novel does make baby steps in the right direction, and it is certainly a refreshing improvement over the racist, sexist, and classist sentiments found in much of English genre fiction at the time. Without succumbing to heavy preachiness, Allen manages to get his views across in a fun story that makes for an entertaining read.
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Saturday, September 5, 2020

Scientific Romance: An International Anthology of Pioneering Science Fiction, edited by Brian Stableford

A great time capsule of this important period in sci-fi history
Though examples of science fiction can be found as far back as ancient times, it was during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when this genre became popular and plentiful. Before the term “science fiction” gained widespread use in the 1920s, literary critics commonly referred to speculative fiction based on scientific concepts as “scientific romance.” In the book Scientific Romance: An International Anthology of Pioneering Science Fiction, published in 2017, editor Brian Stableford presents 27 short stories that exemplify the era of scientific romance. For the most part, the quality of the volume’s selections is very good. Reading this book is like opening an entertaining and educational time capsule of this pioneering period in science fiction.

In his introduction to the book, Stableford gives an overview of the origins of the scientific romance genre and its heyday from the 1830s up until World War I. It must be noted that in this case “International” only includes writings from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Stableford obviously reads French and is quite knowledgeable in the history of French literature. I don’t think he translated the French works for this volume, but he does supply helpful footnotes that provide historical context and explain difficulties of translation.

Due to their influential talents and prolific output, the undisputed giants of this era were Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. This volume does not contain an entry by Verne, likely because he didn’t write any stories short enough to fit. Wells is represented by his excellent apocalyptic vision “The Star” from 1897. Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle were also prominent authors in this genre, and Stableford includes their stories “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” and “The Horror of the Heights,” respectively. Readers of classic literature will also recognize familiar names such as Nathaniel Hawthorne (“The Artist of the Beautiful”), Ambrose Bierce (“For the Akhoond”), and Jack London (“The Shadow and the Flash”), as well as several regular contributors to the American and British pulp magazines. One of the best things about this volume, however, is that it draws attention to French writers with whom English-language readers are likely to be unfamiliar, such as S. Henry Berthoud, Charles Epheyre, Émile Goudeau, and Camille Debans. Stableford provides brief but valuable biographical introductions to each story, often referencing a few other works by each author for further reading.

The diverse range of topics these authors cover represents the scientific concerns of their times. The ideas around which these stories revolve include future utopias, the end of the world, artificial intelligence, automatons, alien life forms, evolution, eugenics, microbial disease, climate change, and human immortality. The protagonists of these tales invent flying machines, weather control devices, invisibility potions, and a method for creating artificial memories. Many of the authors take a humorous or satirical approach to their sci-fi visions, with some hilarious results.

This collection is published by Dover Books, a company known for its inexpensive, no-frills volumes of public domain material. It is therefore a pleasant surprise that Scientific Romance is such a well-edited collection. Stableford has done a great job of not only selecting the stories but also of educating the reader on the history of this literature. One could find these stories online for free, but Stableford’s knowledge adds value to the reading experience. Not every story in this collection is a masterpiece, but overall the outstanding entries far outweigh the mediocre.

Stories in this collection
The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion by Edgar Allan Poe
A Heavenward Voyage by S. Henry Berthoud 
The Artist of the Beautiful by Nathaniel Hawthorne
What Was It? by Fitz-James O’Brien 
The End of the World by Eugène Mouton 
A Paradoxical Ode (After Shelley) by James Clerk Maxwell 
The Ablest Man in the World by Edward Page Mitchell 
Josuah Electricmann by Ernest d’Hervilly 
The Child of the Phalanstery by Grant Allen 
The Salvation of Nature by John Davidson 
Tornadres by J.-H. Rosny 
Professor Bakermann’s Microbe by Charles Epheyre 
In the Year Ten Thousand by Edgar Fawcett 
The Revolt of the Machines by Émile Goudeau 
For the Akhoond by Ambrose Bierce 
The Philosophy of Relative Existences by Frank R. Stockton

June 1993 by Julian Hawthorne 

The Dancing Partner by Jerome K. Jerome 

The Conqueror of Death by Camille Debans 

The Star by H. G. Wells 

A Corner in Lighting by Gorge Griffith 

The Memory Cell by Walter Besant 

The Shadow and the Flash by Jack London 

The Gorilloid by Edmond Haraucourt 

The Voice in the Night by William Hope Hodgson 

The Singular Fate of Bouvancourt by Maurice Renard 

The Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Joseph McCabe: Fighter for Freethought (Reviewer’s Library No. 4) by Isaac Goldberg

More marketing than biography
In the early twentieth century, one of America’s most successful publishing enterprises was run out of the little town of Girard in southeastern Kansas. There Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius printed thousands of titles in his Little Blue Books series. Hundreds of millions of copies of these small, inexpensive paperbacks were sold at newsstands and through mail order. In addition to literature and knowledge of general interest, Haldeman-Julius also published books on topics that were radical for his time, such as socialism, atheism, feminism, and sex education. The most prolific writer in Haldeman-Julius’s stable of authors was Joseph McCabe, who covered all of the above subjects and more. McCabe was a former Catholic priest who lived for 12 years as a monk before leaving the church and rejecting Christian dogma. Even before he met Haldeman-Julius, McCabe became a champion of rationalism and established himself as one of the most outspoken opponents of the Catholic church and organized religion.

Though not a Little Blue Book, Joseph McCabe: Fighter for Freethought is the fourth volume in another series of Haldeman-Julius publications, Reviewer’s Library. The text is only 43 pages long. The author is Isaac Goldberg, another likeminded Haldeman-Julius regular. Goldberg doesn’t provide a biography of McCabe but rather a laudatory critical essay. Goldberg has never met McCabe or interviewed him; he has only read some of McCabe’s works and doesn’t appear to have done much research on the man. There is some coverage of McCabe’s career in the clergy and his reasons for defecting to atheism, but the biographical content stops there. The rest of the text is mostly Goldberg’s thoughts on McCabe, but Goldberg ends up talking about Goldberg just as much as he talks about McCabe. Goldberg uses McCabe’s life and works as a springboard to elaborate on freethought issues and anti-religious views. Because of the time period, there is also much discussion about the rise of fascism and authoritarianism, with vehement criticism of Hitler and Mussolini but mixed messages concerning Stalin.

The text is written in a somewhat casual style that’s aimed at habitual readers of Haldeman-Julius publications. It reminds one of the columns Stan Lee used to write in Marvel Comics that offered a look inside the “bullpen,” making readers feel like they were part of a club. Goldberg’s prose reads more like a magazine editorial than a book. This tone allows Goldberg to work in plugs for Little Blue Books and praise for Haldeman-Julius that would be inappropriate in a more formal treatise.

The best thing this booklet has to offer is a bibliography of McCabe’s published works. The list of titles is five pages long, includes around 175 entries, and teaches you more about McCabe’s writing career and scope of thought than anything Goldberg has to say. It covers not only McCabe’s publications with Haldeman-Julius but his entire published output up to 1936.

The book closes with one piece of McCabe’s writing, but the choice of essay is questionable. It’s a book review on a series of publications by (who else?) Haldeman-Julius. This, along with the 21 pages of advertisements, makes it clear that the Reviewer’s Library is little more than a marketing vehicle to promote sales of Haldeman-Julius publications. I learned surprisingly little about Joseph McCabe from this book that bears his name, but I am glad that I at least found a decent (though partial) bibliography of his work.

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Friday, August 21, 2020

Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural by Theodore Dreiser

Should have stuck to the real world
Theodore Dreiser is best known for his novels, but he also wrote a dozen plays over the course of his career. All but one of his dramatic works are of the brief, one-act variety. The collection Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural, first published in 1916, contains seven of Dreiser’s one-act plays. As the title indicates, some of these plays are a departure from Dreiser’s typical area of expertise. In his novels, Dreiser is perhaps the realest of American realists; his books are so realistic that at times they venture into the mundane. In more than half of the plays included here, however, Dreiser introduces paranormal phenomena. The results of his supernatural experimentation are far from successful, and he would have been better off sticking to social realism.

Of the seven plays in this volume, three of them can be considered “Natural,” meaning they deal with realistic subjects typical of Dreiser’s works: labor strikes, urban poverty, marital troubles. The first selection, The Girl in the Coffin, is the volume’s best entry. A strike organizer wants a local labor leader to appear at a rally, but the latter man is grieving beside the coffin of his recently deceased daughter. The plot is rather predictable, but Dreiser delivers high drama, authentic dialogue, and sharp insight into the labor struggles of the era. “Old Ragpicker” is another play in which Dreiser deals with the reality of his times. The title character is a homeless man, reduced to destitution by a stock market crash, who collects bottles and cans to survive. Though low on plot, it is a fine character study. The last of the realistic plays, The Light in the Window, deals with a wealthy couple on the verge of divorce. As they argue, passers-by imagine how happy life must be inside such an attractive and luxurious home. Dreiser plays up this contrast between expectation and reality rather heavy-handedly, but the marital drama is passable.

The remaining four plays fall into the “Supernatural” category. Of these, The Blue Sphere is the only one that rises to mediocre, while the rest are unilaterally terrible. Each of these plays has a real-world plot taking place while, invisible to the human characters, various supernatural entities, spirits of the dead, or mythical dryads flutter around providing commentary. In the Dark, for example, shows police chasing down a murderer while spirits circle in the air shouting “Murder!” and “Blood!” Laughing Gas is based on the hypothesis that people anesthetized by nitrous oxide are capable of experiencing visions in which they ascend to higher planes of existence and commune with the rhythm of the universe. The Spring Recital, depicting a church concert with ghostly spectators, is pointless.

Though written as plays, most of these dramas could never have been staged because they require sets and perspectives that would have been impossible to produce. They read more like mini-screenplays, but this was before they age of talkies, and they wouldn’t have worked well as silent films either. Laughing Gas, for example, describes both microscopic details of surgery and macroscopic views of extraterrestrial planes of existence. Nevertheless, somehow the play was produced once, in 1916. The most manageable work, The Girl in the Coffin, has been staged a half dozen times and “Old Ragpicker” twice. Other than that, these dramas have never seen the inside of a theatre. For the most part, they are no treat to read on the printed page, either. I’ve always admired Dreiser for his unflinching realism, but the fact that he would go in for this spiritualist nonsense has actually lessened my opinion of the man. To make matters worse, unlike Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Allan Poe, he can’t even manage to make the paranormal fun.

Plays in this collection

The Girl in the Coffin
The Blue Sphere
Laughing Gas
In the Dark
The Spring Recital 
The Light in the Window 
“Old Ragpicker”

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Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Atheist’s Mass by Honoré de Balzac

Why the materialist went to church
The Atheist’s Mass, a short story by Honoré de Balzac, was first published in 1836 under the French title of La Messe de l’athée. Like most of Balzac’s writings, this is one small piece in his grand patchwork of novels, essays, and stories known as La Comédie Humaine, in which he set out to document all facets of French society in the early 19th century. The story of The Atheist’s Mass revolves around two medical men. Horace Bianchon, a Parisian physician, is a recurring character in the Comédie Humaine, appearing in over two dozen works including Père Goriot and Lost Illusions. His mentor, the distinguished surgeon Desplein, also shows up in at least ten of Balzac’s works.

Desplein, whom Balzac describes as one of history’s great medical geniuses, is an unswerving and unapologetic atheist. Like many men of science, Desplein grounds his beliefs in empirical evidence rather than faith. His explorations of the human body and brain have made him a hardened materialist, one who disbelieves in the existence of the spirit or soul and trusts in matter alone. Desplein’s staunch nonbelief in all matters religious makes it all the more extraordinary when his protégé Bianchon spots the esteemed surgeon entering the church of Saint-Sulpice to attend a mass. What possible explanation could there be for this contradictory behavior? His curiosity aroused, Bianchon investigates the matter on the reader’s behalf. Roughly the first third of The Atheist’s Mass is a character sketch of Desplein, the middle third is Bianchon’s inquiries into this perplexing matter, and the final third is Desplein’s explanation for his uncharacteristic actions.

The result is a very moving and memorable story. Though the narrative concerns matters of atheism and religion, Balzac doesn’t take sides or preach in either direction. Atheism is merely a characteristic of Desplein that allows Balzac to explore the character’s history and personality. The account Desplein gives of his past reveals the humanity within the genius. The background in medical science and Balzac’s depiction of the lifestyles of these 19th-century doctors also keeps the story interesting. In the end, however, Balzac delivers a universally touching tale that transcends the time and place of its setting. Despite its brevity, or perhaps because of it, The Atheist’s Mass packs a powerfully poignant punch and stands as one of the better short stories in the Comédie Humaine.

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