Study Guide

Sister Philomène

by Edmond de Goncourt, Jules de Goncourt

Sister Philomène Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In a hospital ward, two white-clad Sisters of St. Augustine are making their rounds. One of them, a novice, is Sister Philomène, whose name was originally Marie Gaucher. She is the daughter of a tailoress and a locksmith and was orphaned at the age of four, when she was adopted by an aunt who was a servant to the widowed Madame de Viry. In that pleasant household, the child began to thrive, and she soon assumed equal footing with Madame de Viry’s son, Henri. Madame de Viry felt this situation to be dangerous and she sent the child, screaming, to a convent orphanage. To avoid confusion with another child there called Marie, the Sisters called her Philomène. Though she was miserable at first, she gradually lost her resentment as she became accustomed to convent routine, although she changed from a vivacious child into a quiet and a whining one. She was restless, living only for her aunt’s monthly visit. One Sister, the ugly but good and kind Marguerite, paid special attention to Philomène.

At the age of ten, Philomène became the intimate friend of a newcomer, twelve-year-old Céline. Much of Céline’s childhood was spent in reading the Lives of the Saints aloud to her infirm grandmother, and she developed a mystic temperament. She liked to deny herself pleasures, to fast, and to invent self-punishments, and she converted Philomène to a course of personal sacrifices. Philomène worked herself up to a state of religious agitation, habitually spending all of Sunday in church and looking forward to that prospect as she once did to her aunt’s visits. She became sickly and irritable, and her thoughts were always on death. When her eyes began to give her trouble, the Sisters sent her with her aunt to see an eye doctor. On that occasion, Philomène visited Madame de Viry’s house for the first time since she entered the orphanage.

Back in the convent, Philomène felt miserable and forlorn. She succeeded in maintaining her state of feverish piety for two years, but then her faith became automatic and unfelt. Céline left the orphanage to become a nun; Sister Marguerite left for her health. The convent became unbearable to Philomène; she went into a decline and was so close to death that her aunt was permitted to take her away. Madame de Viry died, and Philomène became a servant to Monsieur Henri. Philomène longed to sacrifice herself for him, and she rejected the advances of a coarse groom who hoped eventually, by marrying her, to gain the management of Henri’s house.

One night, Philomène overheard Henri telling her aunt that he would bring a woman home with him were it not for the presence of an unmarried girl in the house. When he suggested that Philomène marry the groom, she fainted. Later, though assured she would not be sent away, she decided to begin her novitiate to the Sisters of St. Augustine. With seven months of her novitiate to complete before taking her vows, she was sent to a hospital to replace her friend Céline, who died of typhoid.

The doctors agreed that Philomène was pretty, but Barnier, under whom she worked, said that he preferred the old ones, tried and true. Philomène’s original...

(The entire section is 1297 words.)