Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Doctor Pascal by Emile Zola

More than just an epilogue
Doctor Pascal is the final book in Zola’s twenty-novel Rougon-Macquart series. While it serves the purpose of an epilogue, it is also an impressive novel in its own right, and stands alone as a great work of literature. Pascal Rougon is a semi-retired physician who devotes most of his time to the study of evolution. An important asset in his research is the cabinet of files he keeps on his own diverse and dysfunctional family, the Rougons and Macquarts. Through detailed descriptions of these family dossiers, Zola reviews the events of the previous nineteen novels. In doing so, he provides us with a “Where are they now?” synopsis of the characters, and thoroughly explains the theories of heredity that underlie the series.

Evolutionary discourse only comprises a portion of the book, however, as most of the novel is devoted to the relationship between Pascal and his young niece Clotilde. In Pascal, Zola creates a very autobiographical character, and allows us glimpses into his private life. Zola fancied himself a scientist, and his novels his experiments. At the time Zola wrote this book he was falling in love with a young mistress of his own. Throughout the book, Pascal, approaching old age, looks back on his life and contemplates its purpose. Zola uses Pascal as a mouthpiece to ponder aloud philosophical issues, like the conflict between knowledge and faith. Can the two coexist, or must one vanquish the other in order for mankind to truly progress? He debates the definition of a life well-spent: Is it better to devote one’s time on this earth to work, or to the enjoyment of simpler pleasures like love and family? While many men seek immortality through offspring, Pascal has spent his whole life striving for an intellectual legacy of scientific achievement. As he feels the end of his life drawing nearer, he, like Zola, wonders if he has made the right choice.

I would not put this work in the same class as Zola’s four or five masterpieces, but it’s in the better half of the Rougon-Macquart saga. Those who have enjoyed some of Zola’s better-known novels will find much to enjoy in this one as well.

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