Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 13, 2016

Doctor Pascal (1893), by Émile Zola, translated by Mary Jane Serrano

Doctor Pascal

Source: Wikipedia Commons

There could be a sense of anti-climax when reading Doctor Pascal, the last of Émile Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart cycle of twenty novels.    Having followed five generations of the descendants of Adelaïde Fouque (Tante Dide) over the course of the Second Empire in France, the reader has come across occasional allusions to Doctor Pascal but there has been no hint that he is a person of much interest.  He’s a bachelor, he lives in Plassans, and he’s spent his life recording the lives of his extended family in order to confirm his theories about heredity.

(This was Zola’s own pet theory too: he believed that heredity determined physical and mental health, and the bloodlines of the Rougon-Macquart family were a fictional demonstration that the descendants of the mad matriarch Adelaïde would turn out well or badly depending on whether they were of legitimate descent through her respectable marriage to Pierre Rougon, or from her more dubious relationship with the smuggler Macquart.  However, Zola believed that it was possible to transcend inheritance, as we shall see).

Zola, genius that he was, created a fitting finale for his series.  Doctor Pascal involves the conflict between religion and science; a May-September relationship; a fall from fortune; duty versus love; and at the end, a slightly ambiguous conclusion where – despite the image of a Madonna and babe – we are left wondering how the next generation will fare.

Doctor Pascal is descended from the legitimate branch of the family, so he is respectable and hardworking, albeit a tad obsessive. His niece Clotilde is diligent and respectable too: she is the daughter of the financial wheeler-and-dealer Aristide Rougon who took the name Saccard after his spectacular fall from grace (see my review of L’argent (Money).  She, however, has had nothing to do with her father, because she was packed off to Plassans after the death of her mother Angèle Sicardot.  Clotilde was brought up by Doctor Pascal at his property, La Souleiade, where in his belief that trees grew straight if they were not interfered with, he had allowed her to grow up in her own way, after teaching her merely to read and write. 

As Pascal eventually tells her, it was Clotilde’s good fortune to inherit the best of her mother’s side of the family.

“Your mother has predominated in you; you have her fine intelligence, and you have also something of her coquetry, at times of her indolence and of her submissiveness. Yes, you are very feminine, like her. Without your being aware of it, I would say that you love to be loved. Besides, your mother was a great novel reader, an imaginative being who loved to spend whole days dreaming over a book; she doted on nursery tales, had her fortune told by cards, consulted clairvoyants; and I have always thought that your concern about spiritual matters, your anxiety about the unknown, came from that source. But what completed your character by giving you a dual nature, was the influence of your grandfather, Commandant Sicardot. I knew him; he was not a genius, but he had at least a great deal of uprightness and energy. Frankly, if it were not for him, I do not believe that you would be worth much, for the other influences are hardly good. He has given you the best part of your nature, combativeness, pride, and frankness.”  (Kindle Location 1608)

When the story opens, Clotilde is a young woman, Pascal’s fond and dutiful secretary.


It is because Clotilde sorts Pascal’s documents that she comes into conflict with him.  A new firebrand preacher convinces her that Pascal’s research is an affront to God’s omnipotence, and egged on by the pious servant Martine and her grandmother Félicité who has her own reasons for wanting to get her hand on those documents, Clotilde first pleads with Pascal to destroy them, and then resolves to do it herself in order to save his soul.  Pascal goes through a dreadful period of not being able to relax in his own home because he fears his niece’s newfound religiosity will impel her to burn his papers.  He locks everything up, and he hides the key.

For Pascal, the search for truth has been his life’s work.

… Dr. Pascal had only one belief—the belief in life. Life was the only divine manifestation. Life was God, the grand motor, the soul of the universe. And life had no other instrument than heredity; heredity made the world; so that if its laws could be known  and directed, the world could be made to one’s will.  In him, to whom sickness, suffering and death had been a familiar sight, the militant pity of the physician awoke.  Ah! to have no more sickness. no more suffering, as little death as possible! His dream ended in this thought  – that universal happiness, the future community of perfection and felicity, could be hastened by intervention, by giving health to all. (Location 457)

Well, after a long period of quiet hostility between them, Clotilde finally gets hold of the key to Pascal’s cupboard, but he surprises her just as she is about to destroy everything.  Although Pascal intended never to burden Clotilde with the shameful secrets of their shared Rougon-Macquart family tree, in his rage he now forces her to listen as he explains his theory and how various members of their extended family embody the evil inherited down through the generations from Adelaïde.

Clotilde then begins to see his quest for the truth in a different light, and although the truth about their family history is painful to her, she admires Pascal’s honesty.  She begins to share his optimism that perhaps his research might lead to a different outcome for future descendants.  Despite their considerable age difference and their incestuous uncle-niece relationship, they fall in love.

Pascal’s mother Félicité is not best pleased about this.  Her hard-won middle-class respectability is at threat because the pair show no sign of wanting to get married, and she is very anxious that Pascal’s research not ever be made public.  She doesn’t want anyone to know about her boozy brother-in-law Antoine Macquart and her mad mother-in-law Adelaide (Tante Dide) who has been safely hidden away in an asylum for decades.

Although Félicité is not a sympathetic character, her desire for privacy is something with which many of us might identify.  Pascal, oblivious to all but his quest for truth, has never considered the impact on his family.  Do today’s family historians cheerfully uploading their family trees to the cloud ever stop to consider that for one reason or another, some family members might object?

Ah, those abominable papers! she saw them at night, in her nightmares, revealing in letters of fire, the true histories, the physiological blemishes of the family, all that wrong side of her glory which she would have wished to bury forever with the ancestors already dead! She knew how it was that the doctor had conceived the idea of collecting these documents at the beginning of his great studies on heredity; how he had found himself led to take his own family as an example, struck by the typical cases which he saw in it, and which helped to support laws discovered by him. Was it not a perfectly natural field of observation, close at hand and with which he was thoroughly familiar? And with the fine, careless justness of the scientist, he had been accumulating for the last thirty years the most private data, collecting and classifying everything, raising this genealogical tree of the Rougon-Macquarts, of which the voluminous papers, crammed full of proofs, were only the commentary.    (Location 204)

Clotilde and Pascal in their idyll are oblivious to this: Martine the faithful servant keeps Félicité at bay.  But Martine cannot protect them from other troubles.  Unlike almost everyone else in his grasping, avaricious family, Pascal is not interested in money.  His income comes from investments managed by the local notary, and any money he receives from his (mostly impecunious) patients lies untouched in a drawer in the house (apart from when Pascal imprudently buys Clotilde expensive jewellery – which she doesn’t really want anyway).  Martine manages the household comfortably on a shoestring, and all is well for a good long time.  But eventually greed raises its ugly head once more, and the notary does a bunk with everyone’s money, leaving Pascal ruined.

Félicité (whose money is unaffected) sees her opportunity, but Pascal who is both naïve about money and stubborn about his mother, won’t have her in the house.  La Souleiade is almost down to its last potato, when Clotilde gets a call for help from Paris.  Her brother Maxime (he of the ‘uncontrollable appetites’ featured in La Curée), is now an invalid, and he wants her help.  Clotilde, of course, doesn’t want to go, but Félicité insists it is her duty, and Pascal persuades himself that Clotilde should not be suffering their poverty.

Rougon-Macquart family treeAll this time, of course, Pascal has been getting older, and tragedy strikes while Clotilde is reluctantly doing her duty in Paris. But Félicité doesn’t get exactly what she wants because the novel concludes with Clotilde in possession of the family tree and with the scandalous birth of Pascal and Clotilde’s son.  This birth is a sign of hope which contrasts with the five generations of deaths which symbolise an end to the legacy of Mad old Adelaide.  She dies, at the age of 105; so does her alcoholic son Antoine Macquart (in a truly nauseating death); and her grandson Pascal Rougon dies after a series of heart attacks.  There is also the death of the dissolute Maxime (Adelaide’s great-grandson by Aristide Rougon-Saccard), and of his feeble-minded haemophiliac son Charles.

Clotilde, musing on how her life has turned out, recognises that Pascal was not just being kind in removing her from the toxic environment of her father’s home in Paris, he was ‘experimenting’ too.

It was an old theory of his which he would have liked to test on a large scale: culture through environment, complete regeneration even, the improvement, the salvation of the individual, physically as well as morally. (Loc 4360)

She had flourished in a different environment and ended by becoming a well-balanced and rational woman.  The novel ends with Clotilde nursing her babe and it all looks quite promising.

Except that this nameless child is the grandson of Aristide Saccard, and the product of an incestuous relationship, is he not?

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Doctor Pascal
Translated by Mary Jane Serrano (1898)
Publisher: Kindle edition, first published 1893
Source: Personal copy, a freebie ‘purchased’ for the Kindle from Amazon.

Cross-posted at The Works of Émile Zola


  1. Well done Lisa, what are you going to do to fill in your time now?


    • I’m going to read Finnegans Wake!


      • You’d better report every 100 pages or so, or we might be waiting for ever for your review.


        • Actually, I’ve already listened to it twice on audio, and read some of it, but of course I couldn’t make sense of any of it.


          • I tried and failed and now it’s at the bottom of a heap somewhere out of sight.


            • Did you ever read Ulysses?


              • Oh yes, a couple of times, which is why I thought Finnegan’s Wake would be easy. My mistake!


                • Yup… I know it’s probably beyond me. But I’m going to give it a go.


      • Ugh! FW! I’m still waiting for the English translation.


  2. I did feel the sense of anticlimax. There are some truly great novels in the Rougon-Marquart cycle–the best in literature I think, but then there are others that connect the stories that are not so great. Still good, but not as powerful. I tell myself that I’m going to go back and reread the lot at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I would agree that Doctor Pascal is not one of the great ones. But it is a fitting finale, I think, and it ties up the loose ends without being too pre-programmed. I’m going to re-read Germinal now that I’ve got a better translation of it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The ones I intend to re-read are ‘Father Mouret’ and ‘The Debacle’; I just loved the middle-section of ‘Father Mouret’ when I read it but I’d like to re-read now knowing how it ended. ‘The Debacle’ grew more intense as I read it—I actually found it a bit boring at the beginning.


      • I’ll be interested to see your reviews, we always see different aspects of a novel when we re-read…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Most interesting thoughts – I’m looking forward to finishing the series, and just saw that Oxford has announced the new translation is coming out later this year. Perhaps that will enliven things a little.


    • Yes, I’m hoping to have a copy before long. But I’m not holding my breath because flights in and out of Australia are few and far between at the moment, and it may even be coming by sea….


  4. […] Le Docteur Pascal (1893), Doctor Pascal, translated by Mary Jane Serrano (1898), Kindle Edition. […]


  5. […] you’re not familiar with Doctor Pascal you can read my review to get a grasp of the novel, but to understand its place in the series you need to read […]


  6. […] you’re not familiar with Doctor Pascal you can read my review to get a grasp of the novel, but to understand its place in the series you need to read […]


  7. Thank you for sharing such a thorough and thoughtful review. I must say you’re a lot more generous with the despicable gender relations depicted in this novel than I felt when reading it! Clotilde gushing about how much she wants to be an obedient sex slave for her 60-year-old uncle “master” makes for uncomfortable reading anyway, even without considering this is after he’s raised her in emotional isolation since she was a young child. And the incestuous baby at the end was pretty bizarre: I guess Zola thought the Rougons should interbreed to make a stronger line?


    • I guess it all depends on the filter we read through. I have no doubt that if I re-read all the C19th classics I’ve read over the years, there would be problems with gender relations, racism and anti-Semitism all through them. And imperialism and ableism too.
      With Zola, anyone could dismiss the entire series because of his bizarre theories about heredity. But taken as a series, it’s a wonderful cross-section of C19th French life.
      I get much more frustrated by contemporary novels which are banal and complacent about the troubled world we live in. I don’t judge Zola et al by the standards we have now, but I certainly do judge contemporary novels by those standards.


      • With Zola, anyone could dismiss the entire series because of his bizarre theories about heredity. But taken as a series, it’s a wonderful cross-section of C19th French life.

        No argument there. The series as a whole is fantastic, and in many cases features strong female characters who are proactive and intelligent, interacting with men in a realistic manner as people with ambitions independent of their relationship to a man. I think that’s why Doctor Pascal disappointed me so much, especially as the final book I’ll probably ever read of his; Zola had proved capable of so much better than this elsewhere and for him to suddenly devolve to telling us women owe men literal slavish devotion, and in the context of this severely imbalanced relationship with an element of grooming, was a real kick in the gut from the man who’d brought us characters like Clorinde and the women in Le Ventre de Paris. I guess over the course of the 19 previous novels, I had come to trust him and felt betrayed by this final novel as undoing everything I thought he’d been telling us since the start about his attitude to women.

        Of course, it’s a tribute to his talent that I ended up having such strong feelings about this. If he’d been like this from the start, I’d have stopped reading and moved on, chalking it up as you say to the different times. I guess my problem is that I was judging Zola by the standards he himself had set in the previous books; I had come to respect him as a writer who was in advance of his time, only to be shown that was a lie after all. (Contemporary authors, as you say, have absolutely no excuse!)

        Anyway, thanks for engaging with my rant on your old review!


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