Indulgence and Guilt

Joanne Harris explains on her website that it was during the Easter holiday that she began to outline the plot of Chocolat. As she thought about her story, she was struck by the incongruity of the Christian Easter holiday being associated with fasting and self-denial while the pagan spring renewal festivals held at the same time were full of celebrations and feasts. “The shops are never so full of temptations as they are at Easter. I wanted to write a book about that conflict between indulgence and guilt, with chocolate as the central metaphor” (Harris, para. 5). Chocolate, therefore, is a metaphor for both indulgence and guilt, depending on the character's perspective. To Vianne and her supporters, chocolate represents indulgence. “Everyone needs a little luxury, a little self-indulgence from time to time,” Vianne explains to Reynaud. The delicious concoctions she creates in La Céleste Praline are so tempting that no one can resist them, even though it is Lent. “I sell dreams, small comforts, sweet harmless temptations to bring down a multitude of saints crash-crash-crashing among the hazels and nougatines. . . . Is that so bad?” Francis Reynaud thinks so because chocolate represents guilt to him and his followers.

The townspeople feel guilty when they break their Lenten fast by trying “just one” of Vianne’s delicious candies. They run to confess their sin to Francis Reynaud so he can absolve them of their guilt. Reynaud has contempt for his parishioners who whisper their weaknesses to him in the confessional. He personally has not tasted chocolate since he was a young boy. He, too, smells the delicious odor of chocolate as it wafts through town, yet he is able to resist the lure of the creamy confections that seem always to be tempting him. Francis resists the temptation, however, because he equates pleasure with sin since discovering his revered mentor, Père Antoine, having sex with his mother. The grownup Reynaud also lives with the guilt of having caused the death of two people. His zeal in helping his flock deal with their petty sins is a perverted type of penance for his own guilt over a much greater sin. When Vianne illustrates that a little self-indulgence is not always bad, Reynaud slowly loses control of the townspeople, and in so doing, his tenuous ability to resist temptation crumbles. When he sneaks in to destroy the chocolates for the grand festival du chocolat,he thinks he is strong enough to taste just one chocolate but explodes into a massive exhibition of gluttony as he stuffs himself with chocolate. Perhaps if he had allowed himself a bit of self-indulgence along the way, he would not have wound up smothered in guilt in the end.

Religion, Faith, and Love

In Chocolat, faith (a belief or trust in the truth or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing) and love have no part in religion (a set of beliefs). Francis Reynaud knows the rules of his religion, but his version of Catholicism is warped because it lacks love. Armande Voizin wonders aloud if he even believes in God because he does not show love, and God is love, according to the Bible. Francis places his faith in what he believes are God’s rules rather than in God himself, whose cites love as the “greatest commandment of all” in the Bible (Matthew 22:36-40). Reynaud never expresses love for his parishioners. Instead, he focuses on their sins and failings and becomes obsessed with trying to control them. “I want to guide them . . . to free them from their sin,” he tells Père Antoine. “But they fight me at every turn.” He listens to their confessions, but Vianne listens to their hearts.

Vianne has faith and love but not religion. She believes that all religions could be true. She celebrates pagan holidays and encourages her daughter to do the same. She loves stories of spirits, witches, Mithras, Baldur the Beautiful, Adonis, Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, and Jesus, but she does not believe in the supremacy of any one of them. She does not believe in sin, heaven, or hell and admits that she does not know what happens to people after death. When her daughter asks where Guillaume’s little dog Charly is after he dies, Vianne replies that she hopes the dead...

(The entire section is 1752 words.)