Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Divine Images of Hysteria in Emile Zola's Lourdes.(Critical Essay)

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Divine Images of Hysteria in Emile Zola's Lourdes.(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

Emile Zola's Lourdes, a novel that sparked controversy when it was first published in 1894, is generally considered today to be of most interest as a socio-historic document. Nonetheless, its metaphorical structure makes it worthy of study as a literary work. What is striking about the imagery in Lourdes is the complex interweaving of Zola's trademark medical descriptions with Catholic symbolism to depict the "miraculous" healing of Marie de Guersaint, whose pilgrimage to the shrine in Southern France forms the center of the narrative. Strikingly, the depiction of the young woman's miraculous cure is built upon the very images Bernadette evoked in her accounts of the Marian apparitions she had witnessed. Catholic symbolism abounds in Lourdes, particularly the most prominent emblems of the Virgin Mary, an intense light and the rose. The narrator also emphasizes the personality traits Marie de Guersaint and Bernadette share and, most importantly, establishes that these shared traits are among the primary indicators of hysteria. For both young woman, religious devotion is the most obvious manifestation of their psychoneurotic disorder. This intersection of psychological illness and Catholic mysticism is characteristic of the literary representation of hysteria at the end of the nineteenth century since, according to Cristina Mazzoni, "... [Its] history ... has been continuously linked to the religious history of supernatural phenomena, and the medical discourse of positivism remains dependent on the religious-feminine element it attempts to repress. Similarly, a continuity may be detected in the literature of naturalism . . . and [its] representation of the interdependence of neurosis and religion" (ix). In this light, Lourdes presents the experience of miraculous healing through the double optic of positivism and Catholic mysticism, building as much on Catholic lay representations of miracles as it does on clinical accounts of spontaneous recovery from psychosomatic illnesses.

To a large extent, Lourdes is an examination of the phenomenon of the shrine in Southern France. While the novel focuses on the experience of Marie de Guersaint, there are also numerous story lines involving other ailing pilgrims. In the course of the narration, the reader gains insight into the physical and psychological suffering that the participants in the annual pilgrimage must endure. For many, like Marie, the trip is one last desperate attempt to find a cure. The voyage proves to be emotionally distressing for Pierre, her childhood sweetheart, because the young priest is in the throes of a spiritual crisis that makes him question his Church's teachings. Marie understands her friend's psychological torment, and hopes that he too will experience a miracle in the form of a restoration of his faith. On a very basic level, Lourdes is a love story with a bittersweet ending. Pierre and Marie, despite their deep and abiding love for one another, are destined never to be together because of the young man's religious vocation. The priest's spiritual confusion is due in part to his romantic feelings for Marie and, once she is cured, her beauty and vitality only cause Pierre more suffering. He believes that his beloved friend will be lost to him forever because she is now able to become a wife and a mother. Yet after her miraculous recovery, Marie reveals she will never marry, for she has promised her virginity to the Holy Mother in exchange for a cure, a revelation that somewhat eases the priest's suffering. The novel ends with the narrator evoking the emptiness many in France felt at the end of the nineteenth century: "Ah! tristes hommes, pauvre humanite malade, affamee d'illusion, qui, dans la lassitude de ce siecle finissant, eperdue et meurtrie d'avoir acquis goulument trop de science, se croit abandonnee des medecins de l'ame et du corps" (578). Above all, this passage summarizes Pierre's spiritual confusion, which results from the clash between his status as a priest and the reverence of scientific knowledge that his father had instilled in him. …

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