Friday, January 18, 2013

Lourdes by Emile Zola

The struggle between Faith and Reason
Lourdes, originally published in 1894, is the first volume in Emile Zola’s Three Cities Trilogy. In 1858, in a grotto outside the town of Lourdes, a girl named Bernadette Soubirous had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary. From that moment on, Lourdes became a site of religious pilgrimage, and the local spring water was proclaimed to miraculously cure all manner of ailments. Zola’s novel takes place in the late 19th century, during a weekend of national pilgrimage, when faithful Catholics from all over France are converging on the shrine in hopes of obtaining a heavenly miracle. The story opens in a train car filled with all manner of sufferers and their clerical caretakers. In the first chapter alone the reader is introduced to at least fifty characters, and over the course of the book it becomes difficult to remember who is plagued by which crippling infirmity. The main story line revolves around Pierre Froment, a young priest, and his childhood friend Marie de Guersaint, who was paralyzed by a freak injury suffered in a riding accident at the age of thirteen. Marie prays that Our Lady of Lourdes will grant her a miracle cure. Pierre, despite being a man of the cloth, is a rationalist and a skeptic. He is a priest who has lost his faith and hopes perhaps the pilgrimage to Lourdes will rejuvenate his dying belief.

The novel takes place over a period of five days, but this pilgrimage feels like a long haul. The first half of the book is really tough to get through, though the reader’s efforts are rewarded with a stronger second half. What makes it so difficult is that Zola seems less interested in providing the reader with an engaging plot than with accurately capturing the experience of Lourdes. Many of the chapters read more like a National Geographic article than a novel. Zola not only depicts in minute detail the mysterious ambience of the grotto and the lush grandeur of the basilica, but also the shameful cheesiness of the gift shops and the military efficiency of the food service. He clearly revels in describing the pilgrims and their various ills. Long paragraphs read like laundry lists of decaying flesh and suppurating sores. In addition, weaving its way through the book is the historical narrative of Bernadette and her visions, and the subsequent transformation of the tiny town of Lourdes into an ecclesiastical mecca.

The overall purpose of the novel is to dwell upon the question of what function religion still serves for humanity in a world where so many of its superstitions have been debunked by science. Zola was an outspoken disciple of Darwin and clearly a skeptic on religious matters. As such he examines the phenomenon of Lourdes from a secular perspective, through the rational mind of Pierre. Does faith have a beneficial effect on human health? To what extent are illnesses psychosomatic? Is religion a necessity for human happiness? Readers of a devout Catholic persuasion are not going to like this book. Conversely, Atheists may consider it a waste of effort to devote so much reading time to a novel on Catholic history. Nevertheless, in today’s world the conflict between faith and skepticism is still a heated battle, and the issues Zola raises in Lourdes are still relevant and meaningful to a twenty-first century audience.

Lourdes is the first novel Zola published following the completion of his monumental twenty-novel series, the Rougon-Macquart cycle. It probably doesn’t deserve a spot in a top ten list of his finest works, but it would manage to squeeze into the better half of his prodigious literary output. After reading this auspicious opening volume, I am looking forward to following the Three Cities Trilogy to Rome and Paris.

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  2. Hello Karl

    I was looking for some detailed information on Emile Zola's research trip to Lourdes for this novel and came across you review. Interesting and informative. Thanks. Something related that may interest you is "The Voyage to Lourdes" by Alexis Carrel, a nobel prize winner in medicine. Carrel died in 1944, so he definitely meets your criterion. (As an added bonus, his book is short.) I couldn't find this book online, so I scanned a reprint. Here's the webpage containing the link:


  3. Mike, Thanks for bringing the Carrel book to our attention, and for providing the link.