Critical Evaluation

(Essentials of European Literature)

Chiefly known in his day as a playwright, Ludovic Halévy, in collaboration with Henri Meilhac, wrote the librettos for the operettas of Offenbach and for Bizet’s CARMEN. His nondramatic works were of a high quality and included, besides stories and novels, impressions of the Franco-German War and the Parisian Commune. THE ABBE CONSTANTIN is considered his masterpiece. He was elected to the French Academy within two years of its publication, but after that, although he was to live for another twenty-four years, he wrote virtually nothing else.

In writing THE ABBE CONSTANTIN, Halévy above all was ruled by his conception of “taste.” Nothing distasteful or excessive was allowed to invade his picture of French village life. Although the scenes are sharply observed, the settings described with color and detail, and the minor characters shrewdly drawn, the view of existence is deliberately lopsided. By eliminating the coarse and unpleasant, the author falsified his portrayal of the characters and their world. Halévy wrote as if his contemporaries, Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant, had never existed. He displays no concern for probing the realities beneath the surface, showing no sense of irony or satire. The novel, however, is written in a clean, graceful style that is pleasant to read. An aura of innocence seems to pervade the book, lending a charm to even the most minor incidents.

The author’s observations concerning the foreign (tourist) invasion of Paris in the 1880’s are very amusing; he is particularly acute when comparing the personalities of the Americans and the French. These comments of the author are often more interesting than the story they interrupt. By far the most complex and fascinating characters in the novel are the Americans, Mrs. Scott and Miss Percival. The French characters tend to be predictable and bland. The abbe himself, while a noble individual, does not inspire curiosity or interest in the reader.