Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Following his exclusively Catholic education, Georges Bernanos never faltered in promoting his idea that what is not God-centered does not satisfy. All of his fiction is directed to demonstrating that end. In his extended metaphor of the road traveled by an innocent, the reader has a model for his life and receives more than a hint of his responsibility as keeper of his brothers and sisters.

Mouchette is a revelation of the despair that results from the absence of God. Bernanos’ child heroine is the archetypal symbol of crushed innocence in the pervasive evil of the world. She, in her antipathetic community, becomes a symbol for everyone in the larger and no less antipathetic world with its moral horrors, which Bernanos observed at first hand from the trenches in World War I and in Francisco Franco’s Spain. Surrounded by drunken unfeelingness and violence, and driven to her death, she is a symbol for all in the larger world, which is equally bent on mass suicide. Pursued to her various stations, for Bernanos Mouchette parallels Christ’s expiatory suffering and death in a world alien to Him.

The physical setting in the novel clearly supports this dominant theme. In the hallucinatory wet, stunted growth of the Artois woods, Mouchette’s muddy minidrama is acted out among at best uncomprehending neighbors; at worst, they are drunkenly perverted. Evil surrounds her and tracks her down in a Manichaean world where the forces of Satan flourish and kill. Bernanos’ novel as a whole is a cry of horror against such a world, one that brutalizes the spirit of childhood in Mouchette and in all human beings.

After the deafening silence which comes to surround her, the water finally fills her ears with a “joyous murmur.” Bernanos extends only this small hope from her suffering and death, the single meaning to be extracted from a world given over to the power of Satan, where the voice of the narrator is the solitary sacerdotal presence.