Francis Reynaud is the parish priest in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, the “lynchpin of the community” and “the core of the machinery that turns lives.” He is a judgmental, mean-spirited, bitter man who is better at dispensing guilt than forgiveness. Few townspeople remember that he is actually a local boy who has returned to Lansquenet to take over the position of his once-revered mentor, Père Antoine. Francis visits the older priest every week, praying for him to come out of his coma. The two priests each have hidden sins. Père Antoine’s sin has caused his coma and Reynaud's sin will bring about his downfall.
Reynaud is the gloomy presence at the end of the carnival parade, the Black Man that haunts Vianne Rocher’s dreams. He is the incarnation of guilt in the tiny French village, a constant reminder to the villagers that they have not prayed enough, fasted enough, or confessed enough. In Vianne’s narrative, she notes that “there is little warmth in their speech” when the townspeople talk about him. The farmer Narcisse informs Vianne that Reynaud is a “Paris seminarian, all his learning from books—he does not know the land, its needs, its demands.” Guillaume Duplessis reports that Reynaud criticizes him for being so devoted to his dog, Charly. Dogs do not have souls, after all, the priest reminds Guilliaume. The elderly Armande Voizin informs Vianne that Francis Reynaud does not believe in magic and, “Tell you the truth, I wouldn’t be so sure he even believes in God.” Francis believes in rules, and for Francis, church rules have supplanted God. He tells Père Antoine that while he loves God, he fears him more.
Francis Reynaud illustrates the negative effects of religious legalism. He misinterprets Catholicism to enforce his own agenda of control and self-denial. Reynaud is the antithesis of a caring priest who shepherds his flock and lovingly looks out for its welfare. He spends hours on his knees weeding the church garden, symbolic of the hours he devotes to weeding out the sins of his parishioners, yet Vianne notices that he pulls out “great clumps of shrubs and flowers” along with the weeds. Those clumps of shrubs and flowers are the roots of faith and love that, as a priest, he should be nurturing.
Reynaud is outraged that Vianne Rocher has dared to open a chocolate shop during Lent. The very name of the shop is an affront to his beliefs—“céleste” means “heavenly” in French. While he is busy devising ways to convince the villagers not to patronize La Céleste Praline, Vianne Rocher is at work learning the villagers’ names and getting to know them and their families—things the village priest should be doing. Instead, Reynaud complains that the townspeople fear and respect him but do not love him. He despises them for their “thousand trivial problems” and “petty concerns,” calling them a “languid procession of liars, cheats, gluttons and pathetic self-deceivers.” Ironically, he is exposed as the biggest liar, cheat, glutton, and self-deceiver of them all.
Francis Reynaud hides a dark sin. When he was a boy, he set fire to a gypsy houseboat and two people were killed. Père Antoine was behind the plot, explaining to the impressionable Francis that it was God’s will, that the gypsies were nothing but trash. Père Antoine absolved Francis of his sin but he was unable to erase the guilt. Francis has lived with this destructive guilt, and in his guilt became a zealot in pointing out the sins of others. Reynaud is a victim of his past; he has become deeply insecure and channels this insecurity into an obsessive desire for order and control. He has been able to sustain this order until Vianne arrives with her tempting chocolates. The more he resists their temptation, the more he can pretend to be righteous and ignore the fact that he has committed murder. Reynaud does everything he can to turn the townspeople against Vianne, but she is winsome and compelling and he is harsh and unpleasant. Instead of drawing people to church with love, he repels them with more guilt. By piling more guilt on his parishioners, he unconsciously attempts to absolve himself of his own guilt, but it does not work. All of Reynaud's plots to undermine the chocolate festival fail. In desperation, he flees to Père Antoine’s bedside, hoping for a miraculous sign that will tell him what to do next. While praying, Francis imagines he sees the priest’s finger move. He cannot destroy Vianne, but perhaps he can destroy her chocolates. Without the chocolates, there can be no chocolate festival. But the chocolates are magic, and their magic is more powerful than his empty prayers. He tastes just one, and then just one more. Soon he is overcome by gluttony. Vianne discovers him crouched in the chocolate shop’s ruined display window, his “face smeared with chocolate.”
Vianne Rocher is a beautiful, vibrant single mother in her early thirties. She is strong willed and independent, yet inwardly insecure. She longs to belong somewhere or to someone. She and her six-year-old daughter, Anouk, are vagabonds who travel and live wherever the wind carries them. Vianne arrives in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes during Carnival time and decides to stay for a while. Lansquenet, she soon learns, is a place “in need of a little magic.” Vianne provides the magic of everyday things—kindness, understanding, just the right piece of chocolate.
Vianne and Reynaud are character foils. While Reynaud represents the legalism and guilt associated with the church, Vianne embodies the sensuality and pleasure of a free-spirited life unencumbered by dogma and theology. In his narrative, Reynaud describes Vianne as a woman who “laughs a great deal, and makes many extravagant comical gestures with her arms.” Vianne does not attend church and does not believe in sin, but she does believe in reincarnation and celebrates pagan holidays. She has taught her daughter Anouk to accept her version of spirituality and to reject most things associated with Christianity. Easter was originally a pagan holiday to celebrate the goddess Eostre, she explains to Anouk. In her chocolate shop display window, a chocolate Jesus on the cross shares equal billing with chocolate bunnies and lambs. There will even be a white chocolate version of the Pope.
Vianne recoils when the elderly Armande Voizin, reputed to be a witch herself, asks her if Francis Reynaud knows she is a witch. “Witch, witch. It’s the wrong word,” Vianne replies. She recalls that her mother called herself a witch, for want of a better term. From her mother, Vianne learned how to turn bad luck into good, how to fork her fingers to “divert the path of malchance,” how to sew sachets, brew drafts, and remember that a spider brings “good luck before midnight and bad luck after.” Like her own daughter, Vianne grew up with her vagabond mother, traveling the world on the wind of “gypsy wanderlust” that took them all over the world. Vianne has lost count of all the cities they lived in and the many languages they learned to speak. They changed their names multiple times, worked at dozens of jobs, were arrested and deported but always embraced life as a grand adventure. At age forty, however, Vianne’s mother died of cancer, and Vianne was left to continue the gypsy life alone. Nine months later, she had Anouk. She does not know the identity of Anouk’s father. In the six years that she and Anouk have been traveling the world, Vianne has begun to grow tired of the vagabond life. She hopes that perhaps in Lansquenet she may finally be able to see the “sun rise above the same horizon for five—maybe ten, maybe twenty—years.”
Anouk is Vianne’s six-year-old daughter. She is a younger version of Vianne, independent and...
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