Why the materialist went to church
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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