Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1752
Indulgence and Guilt
Joanne Harris explains on her website that it was during the Easter holiday that she began to outline the plot of Chocolat . As she thought about her story, she was struck by the incongruity of the Christian Easter holiday being associated with fasting and self-denial while...
(The entire section contains 1752 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Indulgence and Guilt
Joanne Harris explains on her website that it was during the Easter holiday that she began to outline the plot of Chocolat. As she thought about her story, she was struck by the incongruity of the Christian Easter holiday being associated with fasting and self-denial while the pagan spring renewal festivals held at the same time were full of celebrations and feasts. “The shops are never so full of temptations as they are at Easter. I wanted to write a book about that conflict between indulgence and guilt, with chocolate as the central metaphor” (Harris, para. 5). Chocolate, therefore, is a metaphor for both indulgence and guilt, depending on the character's perspective. To Vianne and her supporters, chocolate represents indulgence. “Everyone needs a little luxury, a little self-indulgence from time to time,” Vianne explains to Reynaud. The delicious concoctions she creates in La Céleste Praline are so tempting that no one can resist them, even though it is Lent. “I sell dreams, small comforts, sweet harmless temptations to bring down a multitude of saints crash-crash-crashing among the hazels and nougatines. . . . Is that so bad?” Francis Reynaud thinks so because chocolate represents guilt to him and his followers.
The townspeople feel guilty when they break their Lenten fast by trying “just one” of Vianne’s delicious candies. They run to confess their sin to Francis Reynaud so he can absolve them of their guilt. Reynaud has contempt for his parishioners who whisper their weaknesses to him in the confessional. He personally has not tasted chocolate since he was a young boy. He, too, smells the delicious odor of chocolate as it wafts through town, yet he is able to resist the lure of the creamy confections that seem always to be tempting him. Francis resists the temptation, however, because he equates pleasure with sin since discovering his revered mentor, Père Antoine, having sex with his mother. The grownup Reynaud also lives with the guilt of having caused the death of two people. His zeal in helping his flock deal with their petty sins is a perverted type of penance for his own guilt over a much greater sin. When Vianne illustrates that a little self-indulgence is not always bad, Reynaud slowly loses control of the townspeople, and in so doing, his tenuous ability to resist temptation crumbles. When he sneaks in to destroy the chocolates for the grand festival du chocolat,he thinks he is strong enough to taste just one chocolate but explodes into a massive exhibition of gluttony as he stuffs himself with chocolate. Perhaps if he had allowed himself a bit of self-indulgence along the way, he would not have wound up smothered in guilt in the end.
Religion, Faith, and Love
In Chocolat, faith (a belief or trust in the truth or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing) and love have no part in religion (a set of beliefs). Francis Reynaud knows the rules of his religion, but his version of Catholicism is warped because it lacks love. Armande Voizin wonders aloud if he even believes in God because he does not show love, and God is love, according to the Bible. Francis places his faith in what he believes are God’s rules rather than in God himself, whose cites love as the “greatest commandment of all” in the Bible (Matthew 22:36-40). Reynaud never expresses love for his parishioners. Instead, he focuses on their sins and failings and becomes obsessed with trying to control them. “I want to guide them . . . to free them from their sin,” he tells Père Antoine. “But they fight me at every turn.” He listens to their confessions, but Vianne listens to their hearts.
Vianne has faith and love but not religion. She believes that all religions could be true. She celebrates pagan holidays and encourages her daughter to do the same. She loves stories of spirits, witches, Mithras, Baldur the Beautiful, Adonis, Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, and Jesus, but she does not believe in the supremacy of any one of them. She does not believe in sin, heaven, or hell and admits that she does not know what happens to people after death. When her daughter asks where Guillaume’s little dog Charly is after he dies, Vianne replies that she hopes the dead return somehow in a never-ending cycle of life. She does not go to church but is willing to let her daughter Anouk visit Reynaud’s church if she desires. To Vianne, religion is not necessary to show faith and love.
Joanne Harris believes that, in Chocolat, love “ultimately holds the key to salvation” (Harris, para. 10). Reynaud complains to Père Antoine that his parishioners respect him but do not love him. He does not love them, however, and they treat him accordingly. He attempts to guilt Joséphine into returning to her husband not because they love each other but because she has broken the religious rules of the church by leaving her husband. He criticizes Armande for jeopardizing her health by eating chocolate—not because he cares about her but because she is breaking the rules for diabetics. He wants to drive away the gypsies because they are breaking religious rules by being pagans. He should be showing love and concern for their souls by inviting them to church. Instead of welcoming Vianne and her little girl to town and loving them with Christian tolerance in spite of their unorthodox beliefs, he criticizes Vianne for not attending church, being a single mother, not believing in sin, and opening her chocolate shop on Sundays. In contrast, the irreligious Vianne immediately sets out to meet the townspeople and learn their names. She comforts them when their dogs die, brings their estranged families together over chocolate, and allows them to die with dignity. “I want to give, to make people happy,” she says. “Surely that can do no harm.”
Chocolat is a “plea for tolerance of others and of our feelings,” Joanne Harris explains on her website (Harris, para. 8). Francis Reynaud’s warped interpretation of his religion results in legalism and intolerance. He is close-minded toward others who live and believe differently than he does. As soon as Vianne arrives in Lansquenet, Reynaud pays her a visit, not to welcome her but to attempt to convince her to become like everybody else—attend church and close her shop on Sundays. Francis is also intolerant of townspeople who do not follow him: Armande Voizin, Guillaume Duplessis, Joséphine Muscat, and of course the gypsies. Like Vianne, the gypsies are outsiders who do not follow rules. Francis has succeeded in rallying many people against the gypsies, and the townspeople refuse to sell supplies to the gypsies or let them eat in their restaurants. The prejudices against the gypsies are founded on ignorance. For example, Caroline Clairmont distributes signs for merchants to post in their windows that read, “No hawkers, vagrants or peddlers. The management retains the right to refuse to serve at any given time.” When Vianne refuses to post the sign, a shocked Carloline replies, “Surely you don’t want people of that type—itinerants, thieves, Arabs for heaven’s sake.” In truth, the gypsies are neither thieves nor Arabs.
Vianne, too, is intolerant, although she is gentler than Reynaud is. Like Reynaud, she is a victim of a past that has created preconceptions and prejudices. Because a priest (the Black Man) had long ago urged Vianne’s vagabond mother to give up her child to a stable, traditional family, Vianne mistrusts all priests and is ready for battle from the moment Reynaud enters her shop. Although Vianne tells Reynaud that there is room enough in town for both of them, each time she sees him, she secretly “forks” him with her fingers, something witches do to repel the enemy. Vianne also is intolerant of the Catholic church. Upon arriving in town, she immediately notices that there is a church, “aggressively painted white,” in the middle of the square; on her first morning as a resident of Lansquenet, she notes that the church bells woke her up. She is proud that she has taught her daughter about “the hypocrisy of the church, the witch hunts, the persecution of travelers and people of other faiths.” She has not taught Anouk about any of the church’s positive accomplishments through its missions, hospitals, and other social welfare programs. Her intolerance of the church is also based on ignorance.
For the most part, the people who learn tolerance are the ones who prevail in Chocolat.The intolerant ones leave town or decide to keep quiet. The abusive Paul-Marie Muscat flees Lansquenet, leaving his restaurant to be reopened and reinvented by his ex-wife, Joséphine. Armande’s family, the Clairmonts, maintain a low profile. After being caught gorging on chocolates in Vianne’s shop, Francis Reynaud disappears on Easter Sunday, failing to even say Mass. Vianne is successful in convincing the people that the gypsies are not dangerous thieves, and the remaining townspeople and gypsies unite to celebrate the grand festival du chocolat as well as Easter Sunday.
Paganism Versus Catholicism, Good Versus Evil
Vianne and Reynaud represent the main conflict of the novel, both literally and symbolically. Literally, their characters are diametrically opposed to each other in all ways; symbolically, they represent paganism versus Catholicism. Reynaud represents “the church”—an institution that, in Vianne's view, robs people of life’s pleasures. Vianne never admits to being a witch—“there’s that word again!” she says—but she believes in a polytheistic spiritualism that embraces all sorts of pagan deities. During Lent (the forty days preceding Easter Sunday) Catholics are supposed to practice self-denial, giving up worldly pleasures such as chocolate. Ignoring Lent, Vianne encourages people to sample her delicious confections, magical chocolates that somehow transform them and help them cope with their problems in a way that the church does not. Chocolat presents the struggle between good and evil, but with the symbolism reversed. The traditional symbol of good, the priest, is evil and the traditional symbol of sensuousness and abandon, the witch, is good. Reynaud insists that all he wants to do is “guide” the townspeople and “free them from their sin” but his dark presence hovers over Lansquenet and transforms life there into a Lenten season that never ends. Vianne’s presence in Lansquenet is a much-needed breath of fresh air. Her magical chocolates are pleasures that remind the townspeople that Lent does not have to last forever.