La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret (1875) is the fifth novel in Émile Zola's twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. Viciously anticlerical in tone, it follows on from the horrific events at the end of La Conquête de Plassans, focussing this time on a remote Provençal backwater village.

The plot centres on the neurotic young priest Serge Mouret, first seen in La Conquête de Plassans, as he takes his orders and becomes the parish priest for the disinterested village of Artauds. The inbred villagers have no interest in religion and Serge is portrayed giving several wildly enthusiastic Masses to his completely empty, near-derelict church. Serge not only seems unperturbed by this state of affairs but actually appears to have positively sought it out especially, for it gives him time to contemplate religious affairs and to fully experience the fervour of his faith. Eventually he has a complete nervous breakdown and collapses into a near-comatose state, whereupon his distant relative, the unconventional doctor Pascal Rougon (the central character of the last novel in the series, 1893's Le Docteur Pascal), places him in the care of the inhabitants of a nearby derelict stately home, Le Paradou.

The novel then takes a complete new direction in terms of both tone and style, as Serge — suffering from amnesia and total long-term memory loss, with no idea who or where he is beyond his first name — is doted upon by Albine, the whimsical, innocent and entirely uneducated girl who has been left to grow up practically alone and wild in the vast, sprawling, overgrown grounds of Le Paradou. The two of them live a life of idyllic bliss with many Biblical parallels, and over the course of a number of months, they fall deeply in love with one another; however, at the moment they consummate their relationship, they are discovered by Serge's monstrous former monseignor and his memory is instantly returned to him. Wracked with guilt at his unwitting sins, Serge is plunged into a deeper religious fervour than ever before, and poor Albine is left bewildered at the loss of her soulmate. As with many of Zola's earlier works, the novel then builds to a horrible climax.

Unusually for Zola, the novel contains very few characters and locations, and the level of realist observation compared to outright fantasy is most uncharacteristic; however, the novel remains extraordinarily powerful and readable, and is considered one of Zola's most linguistically inventive and well-crafted works.

The novel was translated into English by Vizetelly & Co. in the 1880s as Abbé Mouret's Transgression, but this text must be considered faulty by any student of literature due to its many omissions and bowdlerisations, as well as its rendering of Zola's language in one of his most technically complex novels into a prolix and flat style of Victorian English bearing little resemblance to the original text. Two more faithful translations, certainly much more readable to modern students, emerged in the 1950s and 1960s under the titles The Sinful Priest and The Sin of Father Mouret. The novel inspired a now lost painting by John Collier (1850-1934), exhibited in 1895 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, under the title "The death of Albine". The painting was reproduced in the weekly "The Graphic" on 31 August 1895 (example in the British Museum, London).

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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