Georges Bernanos Essay - Critical Essays


As a novelist preoccupied with spiritual conflicts, Georges Bernanos repeatedly explored the symbolic contrast between the innocent vulnerability of childhood and the corrupt world of humanity. Bernanos’s children and adolescents are of two types: the suffering adolescent and victim, and the innocent young girl. Mouchette, “Sainte Brigitte du néant” (Saint Brigitte of the void), crushed by society and family, and Steeny of The Open Mind, who emerges from his childhood innocence, belong to the first category: We also find adults who have experienced humiliation in childhood, such as Monsieur Ouine or Mouchette’s mother, so like one of Dostoevski’s suffering women. Perhaps the best illustration of the second type, the innocent young girl, is Chantal de Clergerie, whom Bernanos modeled on Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.

Bernanos also creates adult heroes who are granted the fresh spiritual vision of a child, often at the moment of death, such as the Curé of Ambricourt and Chevance and, to a lesser degree, the ascetic Donissan. Always indifferent to the approval of society and to their own pleasure, they are nevertheless deeply aware of good and evil. Such is the Curé of Ambricourt, who reads the souls of Chantal and her mother. Like Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, these characters show the spirit of hope, abandonment to God, and self-acceptance.

Just as children and motifs of childhood appear throughout Bernanos’s fiction, so too does the symbolic figure of the priest; the role of the priest, like that of the child, is to dramatize the spiritual conflict that is at the heart of human experience. Bernanos’s priests also fall into two categories: the self-effacing and the self-assured. Those in the first category are apparently lacking in intelligence; they are unattractive, like Donissan, Chevance, and the Curé of Ambricourt. They are, however, endowed with supernatural lucidity and clairvoyance, which is different from psychological insight, for it is manifested in a love of souls most consumed by evil. At the same time, the priest himself suffers from a slow and consuming agony. Gaëton Picon maintains that Bernanos chose a priest-hero because such a figure represents the only person in the modern world capable of accepting the spirituality rejected by contemporary civilization. He does so in his solitude and silence, yet he is totally involved in the process of Salvation. He is thus the model for all human beings, who should be instruments of grace for one another.

The second type of priest, who is self-assured, robust, and intellectual, is seldom the sacerdotal ideal. Cénabre, in L’Imposture and Joy, is a man who has lost his faith but who ironically studies the lives of the saints. The Curé of Fenouille, though ascetic, is not expansive or loving; consequently, he embodies the emptiness of his “dead parish.” Finally, Monsieur Ouine is an antipriest, a caricature of the sacerdotal vocation who is unable to give a firm answer, as his name (oui, “yes”; ne, “no” or “not”) indicates. He experiences agony, as do the Curé of Ambricourt and Chevance, but his self-seeking prevents that agony from becoming redemptive.

Suffering and agony are the lot of both the good and the evil characters in Bernanos’s novels. The Curé of Ambricourt suffers from the loss of God; Chantal de Clergerie, as Albert Béguin observes, goes to the heart of the agony of Christ. Monsieur Ouine suffers from his emptiness; Mouchette, from her humiliation. Death, usually violent, comes to at least one and often several characters in each of Bernanos’s novels. Many die by suicide, just as contemporary civilization pushes people toward spiritual suicide. This suicide is one of despair in Doctor Delbende, of pride in Fiodor, of humiliation in Mouchette, of passion in Hélène and Eugène Devandomme. Murder claims Chantal de Clergerie and Jambe-de-Laine; death, after a spiritual agony, comes to the Curé of Ambricourt.

This somber world of violence reflects the inner world of satanic thirst and spiritual emptiness that is particularly evident in modern society. It is personified in Satan, who, in Bernanos’s first novel, is incarnated as a crafty horse dealer; it is internalized in the unbelieving Cénabre; and it is obliquely suggested in the seductive Ouine. The omnipresent parish represents the modern world. Ambricourt is devoured by ennui, or apathy; Fenouille is a “dead parish” (the original title of The Open Mind). Bernanos saw mediocrity and self-righteousness as the greatest of modern evils, the cancers that devour society. Like Péguy, Bernanos deplored the de-Christianization of France and the irresistible attraction to Satan.

The satanic world appears as a hallucination, un mauvais rêve (a bad dream), as one novel is titled. The Open Mind reads like a nightmare; many scenes in Mouchette are hallucinatory, such as the young girl’s conversation with the old woman who keeps vigil over the dead (her suicide is like a rhythmic drowning). Henri Debluë sees the dream as one of Bernanos’s principal motifs, yet it is not always a bad dream. With Balthasar, Debluë believes that the good dream gives an existential dimension to Bernanos, representing his desire for Being—which, for Bernanos, is the human community in Christ.

Under the Sun of Satan

Begun in 1919 and written in cafés and trains, Under the Sun of Satan was finally published in 1926. It is composed of three apparently disconnected parts, although many critics, including Claudel, see in it an inherent unity. Bernanos did not write the novel in its final order; he completed the last part first and the second part, the account of Donissan’s meeting with the Devil, last. The model for the hero Donissan is Saint Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, Curé of Ars (1768-1859). The novel was an immediate success; as William Bush observes, the unusual incarnation of Satan appealed to a public that was weary of escapism as found in André Gide and Marcel Proust.


(The entire section is 2497 words.)