Straightening out Serge Mouret: Confession and Conversion in Zola's la Faute De L'abbe Mouret

Article excerpt

As the French say, there are three sexes--men, women, and clergymen.

--Sydney Smith

Emile Zola was already a student of the confessional and recognized its particularly erotic possibilities several years before he began writing La Faute de l'abbe Mouret (1875), the fifth Rougon-Macquart novel in which the effeminate Serge Mouret betrays his vow of celibacy, confesses his misdeed, and is inducted into the realm of masculine normativity. (1) Concerned with population dynamics, with the strength of the French citizenry, and with the power of the Church to control sexual behavior, Zola had a keen, personal interest in what priests did behind closed doors. In September 1872, he used his regular column ill La Cloche to respond to news that a Jesuit had been caught fondling a female parishioner in a train compartment. Father Dufour was a real-life Tartuffe--a devious and libidinous man who relied on the power of his collar to prey on pious women (Brown 258). Convinced that this man embodied a lecherousness not uncommon in the ranks of the priesthood, Zola responded to the episode with particular delight by imagining a scene in which the confessional booth becomes a boudoir:

   Le jesuite Dufour est dans son confessional. [...] Des femmes,
   comme pamees sur des chaises renversdes, le front entre les
   mains, attendent, dans une ombre vague, la joie tendre de la
   confession. Il vient parfois, du confessional, un chuchotement
   leger, un soupir d'allegresse. C'est une penitente que la grace
   penetre et qui monte au Ciel. Les autres, impatientes, fremissent
   de desir. Et quand le tour de l'une d'elles est venu, elle
   s'approche a petits pas, le sein battant, avec le sourire vague
   d'une femme qui va dans l'alcove de Jesus. (14: 162)

This article is significant, not just because its scandalous language almost destroyed the newspaper in which it appeared, but because it reveals Zola's impatience with a masculinity that is denied its fullest expression. Clearly the essay exposes Zola's ardent anticlericalism and underscores the corruption he believed informed the Church and its priests. Indeed, Zola often "portrayed the Church as a playground ruled by an archaic brotherhood that sanctified the 'lower' self and undermined lawful marriages while promoting forbidden liaisons" (Brown 258). Yet this commentary also suggests how Zola expected priests to behave. They may take a vow of celibacy, but, because they are men, they are lustful creatures nevertheless, and they should be expected to take advantage of women whenever the moment might present itself. The primary problem Zola addresses here is not that the Church takes advantage of women in the confessional, but that it expects complete chastity from its priests. The main point of Zola's article is to argue against a compulsory celibacy that seems both unnatural and unmanly. Clerics would have no need to seduce women in train compartments or the confessional, he contends, if they were permitted to marry. Certainly Zola enjoyed taking a jab at the mysteries of the confessional, but he ends his article by suggesting that the obligation of celibacy is simply too much for any normal man to bear: "Quand on ouvre un wagon et qu'on trouve une femme ti demi-nue sur les genoux d'un pretre, il faudrait que le pretre put repondre 'a l'employe: 'Monsieur, c'est ma femme'" (14: 162).

While critics of La Faute have famously differed on the novel's elusive intent, (2) they have almost always agreed that the need for sex authenticates the men in Zola's universe. Mieke Bal, for instance, suggests that Zola views the sexual desire for another as the very basis of masculine identity (153). Richard Grant notes that the sex drive "is the basic force of the world and it is Zola's belief that any attempt to deny it is futile" (287). Valerie Minogue argues that the lack of sexual desire in men is for Zola completely unnatural (221). A. A. …