115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Bodies of Water: Hydration, Desire, and Natural Religion in Emile Zola’s La Faute de l’abbé Mouret

Erica Cefalo, University of Maryland, College Park

This paper examines Zola’s use of water imagery in La Faute de l’abbé Mouret. I will explore: 1.) The role of water as a mystical life source in Zola’s concept of natural religion, and 2.) Zola’s connections between waters of the Earth and essential human liquids, including references to the four humors.

Proposal: 

In Emile Zola’s 1875 La Faute de l’abbé Mouret, the novel’s main character, Father Serge Mouret, is a model of good faith and Marian devotion until he is stricken with a feverish bout of emotion that ends in amnesia. Serge is found and nursed back to health by a wild local girl, Albine, residing in an abandoned garden known as Paradou. Comparisons to the biblical Garden of Eden, which Janet L. Beizer aptly describes as “uncomfortably obvious,” abound. Surrounded by overgrowth that has taken back the ruins of Paradou’s original farmhouse, the couple journeys through various stages of courtship mirroring childhood innocence, adolescent discovery, and finally an adult knowledge of love and sexuality accompanied by the inevitable loss of innocence. The novel itself is likewise divided into three stages. Book one details Serge’s daily life before his illness, book two recounts the tale of Serge and Albine as a sort of Adam and Eve in Paradou, and book three finishes with Serge’s repentance and reentry into the Church.

In this presentation, I propose a study of Zola’s use of water imagery in La Faute de l’abbé Mouret that will explore 1.) the role of water as a mystical life source in Zola’s concept of natural religion and 2.) Zola’s connections between waters of the Earth and essential human liquids, including the four humors famously invoked by the author in his introduction to Thérèse Raquin.

A number of critical texts have dissected Zola’s exhaustive descriptions of the lush flora that dominates Paradou’s dreamlike landscape. Chantal Bertrand-Jennings, for example, emphasized the contrast between the parish church as a place of death while the garden signifies abundant life.  In Wade Edwards’ study of confession and conversion in La Faute, he briefly acknowledges the “arid land” of the village representing Serge’s chastity in contrast to the lush and lusty Paradou. The water responsible for this contrast between the dry and hydrated locations in the novel has, however, thus far been largely overlooked. Throughout book two, Zola describes various water sources in the garden to both reflect and move along each of the stages of human growth. The “cool caresses” and “nudities” of “flowing waters” beckon the couple to follow them deeper into the forest, a seemingly bottomless pond tempts them into peering inside. From still, shallow, clear waters in the playful childlike phase to moving streams of adolescence, Serge and Albine end their exploration of the garden by daring to discover these deep, dark pools that serve as the backdrop for their fall from innocence.

All of the water bodies are depicted as both savage, and refreshing in keeping with Zola’s view of sexual exploration as a natural and inevitable fate for all humankind, even the celibate priest. Once the lovers cede to the call of nature to consummate their love, Zola then turns to descriptive vocabulary that presents their human bodies as water-like with passion love and sexual desire “trickling down in droplets” and “falling down as rain.” Finally free of social inhibitions, Serge and Albine are defined by the liquids that sustain and promote human life, essentially transforming themselves into bodies of water.