Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In this first novel, Bernanos had a special purpose. Donissan waged war against Satan on a lonely country road, while the author fought a more public war of his own against the democratic, republican, materialistic Third Republic, whose wicked system he hoped to replace with a restored Catholic monarchy. Action Francaise, to which Bernanos belonged, wanted to restore order, piety, and authority to France, and the organization adopted as its patron and symbol the recently canonized Joan of Arc to epitomize divine intercession in national affairs. Bernanos would have found this association with Joan particularly fortuitous, since he was married to a descendant of the saint’s brother.

Yet the author’s battle against Satan transcended the political arena. Bernanos was also fighting an incarnation of evil, demonstrated in the way French society had changed from one of faith to one of secularism and indifference to the nature of God. The dilemma of the novel’s main character, Father Donissan, a man of religion out of step with a changing world, was also that of the author. Bernanos’ sense of alienation became particularly strong because of his service in World War I, whose horrendous devastation produced “a new world in which even death had lost its sacred meaning.” To come to terms with the personal trauma suffered in that great combat was, he said, his main reason for writing Under the Sun of Satan, a title which in this context has a special meaning.

Bernanos posed questions which, now increasingly irrelevant, were once principal concerns of Christian society: What is the nature of God? What does God expect of human beings? If God is all-powerful, how does one explain the nature of evil? Donissan searches for the path which will lead him to the discovery and understanding of God. In this quest, he has to test the power of his own faith by testing the power of evil as depicted in a literal incarnation of Satan. This fictitious struggle coincides with Bernanos’ determination to find answers to enable him to come to terms with his own anguish and with his desire to return the attention of his fellow humans to the purer values of the past, to make them again contemplate the central purpose for their existence.