Friday, 2 December 2016

Doctor Pascal by Émile Zola.

Yesterday was my three year blog anniversary, and today is another anniversary: three years ago today I blogged about my re-read of Émile Zola's The Fortune of the Rougons. Since then I've been re-reading the entire series, and today I reach the end with Doctor Pascal, the final novel in Zola's Rougon Macquart series. Before I say anything about Doctor Pascal, here's a recap of the books of the Rougon Macquart series:

The Kill (1872)
L'Assommoir (1877)
Nana (1880)
Pot Luck (1882)
Germinal (1885)
Earth (1887)
The Dream (1888)
Money (1891)
The Debacle (1892)

The first time I read these novels (2012 - 2013) I read them in order of publication. This time around I read them almost randomly, beginning with The Fortune of the Rougons, ending with The Debacle and Doctor Pascal, and in between was simply picking up whatever I fancied at that moment. I can't honestly say reading them randomly made any difference to my enjoyment. And with that, on to Doctor Pascal!

Doctor Pascal (Le Docteur Pascal) is the twentieth novel of the series and was first published in 1893. In this series Zola aimed to explore several theories, which he explains in the preface of The Fortune of the Rougons:
My aim is to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws. 
By solving the dual problem of temperament and environment, I shall attempt to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another. When I am in possession of every thread, and hold in my hands an entire social group, I shall describe the behaviour of this group as it plays its part in an historical period; I shall show it in action, with all its varied energies; and I shall analyse the aims and ambitions of its individual members along with the general tendency of the whole.
Each novel has a certain setting, be it Paris, Plassans (as in Doctor Pascal) or other small towns or villages. The historical period is the Second French Empire (1852 - 1870), which Zola criticised throughout the series, and the characters are all Rougon Macquarts, a family with two distinct strands to it and headed by the matriarch Adélaïde Rougon. From her we have the Rougons, or the 'legitimate' side, and the Macquarts, the 'illegitimate' side resulting from her affair with Macquart, which we learn about in the first novel. So, then, what we have is a set of novels that explore not only certain settings (for example the slums of Paris in L'Assommoir, clerical life in Plassans, as in for example The Conquest of Plassans, or the mines in northen France in Germinal) but the people within each setting; their reaction, their sufferings, and how the Second French Empire has impacted on their life. Through the characters, Zola explores the theory of heredity: there is quite a lot going on, in short. In Doctor Pascal we reach the conclusion: we reach full circle as it were, returning to Plassans, the setting of the first novel, we reach the end of the Second French Empire (by the start of Doctor Pascal we're into the Third Republic, 1870 - 1940) and, through his character Dr. Pascal Rougon, we learn of Zola's own theories on heredity and the study of heredity.

Dr. Pascal Rougon is the grandson of Adélaïde Rougon, the son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon, and the brother of Astride (Saccard; The Kill), Eugène (His Excellency Eugène Rougon and Money), Marthe (The Conquest of Plassans) and Sidonie (The Kill). We first meet him in The Fortune of the Rougons: his mother, who had thus far been unable to make anything of her self or her family, hoped that her sons would become "architects of the fortune she was unable to make on her own", however Pascal is essentially a-political:
Very sober in his habits, and totally indifferent to money, he contended himself with the few patients that came his way. 
His mother despairs, even asking "Where on earth do you come from?", however as Brian Nelson writes in his introduction of The Fortune of the Rougons, Pascal is “Zola's delegate – a kind of mirror of the author, the Naturalist writer, within the text”. He has an interest in physiology, and, like Zola, heredity. The people of Plassans are unaware that Pascal is well-known and greatly respected in the medical world, even published in the Académie des Sciences in Paris. We see him pop up here and there in the various novels, but at last in Doctor Pascal he has his own.

I love this novel, it's an immensely satisfying conclusion to a great series, but I have to admit I get the impression that plot is secondary to the novel, Zola has more important things in mind with this novel. Consequently the story isn't one of Zola's strongest: Pascal has spent his life working on his theory of heredity, using his own family as a model. He has identified the 30 descendants of Adélaïde Rougon (which I've listed here: this list includes dates, so if you don't want any spoilers I wouldn't look at it) and from here has identified certain traits: personality, health (physical and mental), and certain characteristics. By doing so he hopes to identify and cure genetic illnesses. However, his dossier, his vast collection of notes including the family tree, include certain aspects his ambitious mother Félicité wishes to be kept secret, and so she is intent on destroying his life's work (there are uncomfortable parallels here with Zola's wife Alexandrine; she too was aware of this and the novel almost lead to their divorce). 

As he works on his theory, his niece Clotilde (daughter of Saccard and his first wife Angèle)  with whom he lives expresses her disapproval from a religious point of view, believing he is trying to play God, and through their conversations Zola is able to offer a defence of such studies. Eventually however Pascal and Clotilde fall in love and begin an incestuous relationship.

This novel, as I say, is very satisfying. There are throughout a great number of references to previous characters, in which their fate is discussed: because of this Doctor Pascal ought to be read last, if only to avoid spoilers. As ever, Émile Zola put a great deal of work into researching the novel's themes, consulting much medical literature such as Traité de l'hérédité naturelle by Prosper Lucas and Essais sur l'hérédité et la sélection naturelle by August Weismann, and talking to Prof. Jules Déjerine (author of L'Héredité dans les maladies du systéme nerveux). He finished the novel on 14th May 1893, announcing to his publisher Georges Charpentier, "I have finished Le Docteur Pascal yesterday, Sunday, in a joyful state". It was then published on 19th June, but it did not reach the heights of La Débâcle before it, though some critics wrote of their admiration of two of the most gruesome scenes within the novel (in one scene something takes place that I have never seen described in literature - what that is I best not write for fear of spoiling it!). Others, however, wrote that the novel was merely an index of events, inappropriately written in novel form. Nevertheless Zola and his friends celebrated, and three weeks later Zola was given the Legion of Honour (though he was stripped of it in 1898 during the Dreyfus affair).

Doctor Pascal did not, of course, mark the end of Zola's writing career. Once the Rougon Macquart series had been completed, Zola began work on his Three Cities trilogy: Lourdes (1894), Rome (1896), and Paris (1898). Following this series was Zola's Four Gospels - Labour (1899), Fruitfulness (1901), and Truth (1903), the final novel, Justice, was unfinished at the time of his death. As tempting as it is to re-start the Rougon Macquart novels (honestly, I could happily pick up The Fortune of the Rougons right now!) I plan to read Zola's Four Gospels in the first few months of 2017. Also coming up, possibly even this month, Zola's first novel - Claude's Confession (1865). Until then, let me say more time how much I have enjoyed reading Zola's Rougon Macquart novels. I've been reading and re-reading them for four years now and I imagine I'll be re-reading them again very soon. 


  1. You write so well about Zola's books. I can see how passionate you are about him. Do you own all of his books in the various series or do you get eBooks ? Wondering how you access them all. I enjoy your reviews of this series. Travellin Penguin

    1. I own all the books, took a while to collect! I'm glad you enjoyed the posts :)

  2. interesting and informative post; i've tried occasional Zolas in the past, but have found him grim and brutal; i guess that influenced me more than it should have; don't know if i'd dare try him again, though... looking back, i think that people get more sensitive about descriptions of unpleasant realities as they age... at least i have... i'm more into enjoying the present than in reforming the "human" race...

    1. He is grim and brutal for sure! I do think he's great, but I always understand why people avoid him - he can be a little bit too much at times :)


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