The Sin of Abbé Mouret reworks the Genesis story of the Fall of Man, with the abbé, Serge Mouret as Adam, and the young Albine his Eve. Fifth of the twenty novels of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, the novel follows on almost directly from The Conquest of Plassans, in which the young Serge Mouret decides to become a priest.
The novel is divided into three books like the three acts of a tragedy. The opening of the novel takes the reader straight into the central theme of the novel, the conflict between nature and the Church with the celebration of the Mass. The use of an ancient language, the carefully measured, meticulously choreographed ritual, its preordained chants and responses, are set in striking contrast to the unmeasured abundance and freedom of Nature. Trees thrust their branches through the broken windows, cheeky sparrows fly in and flutter about, and Désirée, the abbé’s retarded sister, arrives with an apron full of newly-hatched chicks.
That contrast between regulated Church and unregulated Nature becomes an intense conflict within the abbé himself. His excessive devotion to the Virgin, and his extravagant pursuit of sanctity lead him to deny his own physical nature and every aspect of carnality. Disgusted alike by the fertility of farmyard animals and by human procreation, he yearns for total purity, denying even the basic needs of his body. An encounter with the free-thinking ‘philosopher,’ Jeanbernat, and his wild, untaught, gipsy-like niece Albine, makes a powerful impact on the priest, leaving him haunted and tormented by the memory of the laughing Albine, in her brightly-coloured skirt, and a forest glimpsed through a suddenly opened door. In the Abbé’s consciousness too it seems a door has suddenly opened—a door through which unfamiliar sensations and feelings begin to flow, transforming the very landscape around him into disturbing, erotic shapes. More and more tormented and feverish, his body weakened by his obstinate refusal of its needs, he collapses at the end of Book One, and succumbs to a devastating illness that leaves him with total amnesia.
Book Two takes the reader into a totally new environment, a room in the park of the ‘Paradou,’ where the abbé first saw the girl, Albine. No longer ‘abbé Mouret’, he is now simply ‘Serge,’ a young man recovering from a serious illness, and nursed by an Albine dressed only in white, with her formerly wild hair tied back. Serge has no memory of his previous life as an abbé. His memory now is the memory of an Adam, for whom Albine is the Eve born of his flesh: ‘You were in my chest and I gave you my blood, my muscles and my bones.’ The two fall in love, and this second book becomes a lyrical love poem and a hymn to Nature.
The once ordered and now wild park of the aptly-named Paradou will be the lovers’ paradise, their garden of Eden, and it is a very beautiful, luxuriant garden, filled with every kind of plant, tree and flower. They pick flowers, climb trees, gather fruit and leap across streams of sunlit water. Zola gives lyrical descriptions of this abandoned garden with its extravagantly prolific flowers and foliage. In the midst of this lavish abundance of natural beauty, Zola shows the naïve tenderness of the awakening of love between Serge and Albine, and the first stirrings of sexuality. The changing moods and emotions of the couple are reflected in the descriptions of the garden, where the flowers become increasingly sexualized: roses open out ‘like naked flesh, like bodices revealing the treasures of the bosom.’ Tormented by a frustration, a sense of incompleteness, that they do not understand, the couple’s innocent love turns to anguish, until at last Serge and Albine make love beneath a tree earlier said to be ‘forbidden.’ The whole park, the trees, the grasses, the very sky, all participate in that consummation, a consummation willed by the garden, willed by Nature, whose victory Zola here celebrates. It is the victory of fertility over sterility, of Nature over the Church, but the victory comes at a terrible price. The garden is no longer the safe haven of the lovers; it has been broken into, and the two are driven out like Adam and Eve from Eden. Love has now become Sin. And Serge, through the gap in the wall of the Paradou, hears the church bell that tells of his broken vows, and calls him back to being once more the abbé Mouret.
Book Three opens with cruel irony in a marriage ceremony the abbé is conducting, in the course of which he will speak words about love and constancy to the newly-weds that he had himself spoken to Albine. The end can only be tragic, but the sheer beauty and poetry of Zola’s descriptions of the garden, and the wonderful interweaving of themes and patterns, the swift changes of mood and tone, the sharply contrasting scenes, make the whole novel a deeply moving and enriching experience. This is a richly textured novel, multi-layered, with embedded stories, dreams and hallucinations. With so rich and complex a novel on so fundamental a subject, questions are bound to arise about Zola’s own rather troubled and complex view of sex, and his view of women. In following the story of Adam and Eve, how far is Zola endorsing a view of Eve/Albine as the temptress, and sex as sin? Zola’s long-standing view of maternity and fertility as ideals suggest that he is always on the side of life, and in this novel it is Serge/Adam who is castigated, as Zola rapturously celebrates the fertility of Nature.