Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 145
Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos is the story of a young and inexperienced priest who goes to work as a member of the clergy in a small, rural community in France. The priest is ambitious and idealistic, but his plans are continually quashed by the local residents who mock him, misunderstand him, and ridicule his intentions. The priest is sick when he comes to the community, but despite his sickness and the ill treatment he suffers from his parishioners, he continues his work, though at times he struggles to maintain his faith in the Lord. When he becomes involved in a family scandal, life becomes more challenging for him, but his faith gets him through this difficult time. Finally, after living in the community as an outcast, he comes to terms with the events of his life and dies of stomach cancer.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1051
A thirty-year-old priest who is in charge of the Ambricourt Parish in France records in his diary his impressions and activities over a period of one year. His purpose in keeping the diary is to maintain frankness with himself in his relationships with his parishioners and in his service to God.
The priest is a man of marked humility, sympathy, simplicity, and great loneliness. Son of a poor family in which there was much suffering and hardship, he plans to raise the scale of living in his parish. His plans for a village savings bank and for cooperative farming are discussed at his first monthly meeting with the curates, but his plans are disapproved because of their pretentious scope and his lack of personal influence in the parish. This blow, which causes him to question whether God is prepared to use his services as he did the services of others, is intensified by the words of his superior and ideal, the Curé de Torcy, and of his friend, Dr. Maxence Delbende, who soon afterward commits suicide because of his disappointment at not receiving a legacy he expected.
These two men thwart the young priest’s ambition with their belief that the poor cannot be raised for religious and social reasons. God gives the poor a dignity, the Curé de Torcy says, which they do not wish to lose in his sight. According to the doctor, poverty serves as a social bond and a mark of prestige among the poor. In the eyes of the Church, the curate believes, the rich are on the earth to protect the poor.
Undaunted, the priest accepts an invitation to the chateau, where he hopes to get financial help for his parish projects from the count. He is unsuccessful in this, but he devotes himself with all his physical energy, which is limited because of insomnia and a chronic stomach disorder, to the spiritual advancement of his parish. Even here, however, his efforts are ill-spent. He questions his success in teaching a catechism class when the children do not respond as he hopes, and he is tormented by the attentions of Seraphita Dumouchel, a young student in the class, who discomfits him by her suggestive questions and remarks to the other children and by the scribbled notes she leaves about for the young priest to find.
Seraphita later befriends him when on a parish visit he suffers a seizure and falls unconscious in the mud. A few days later, however, bribed by sweets, she tells Mademoiselle Chantal, the count’s strong-willed, jealous daughter, that the priest fell in drunkenness. The story is believed because it is known among the parishioners that the priest drinks cheap wine and because his physical condition is growing progressively worse.
The priest’s spiritual strength shows itself in his theological dealings with the count’s family. In conversation and in confession, Mademoiselle Chantal tells him that her father is having an affair with Mademoiselle Louise. The daughter, believing that she is to be sent to England to live with her mother’s cousin, declares that she hates everyone in her household—her father and the governess for their conduct and her mother for her blindness to the situation. After asserting that she will kill Mademoiselle Louise or herself and that the priest will have to explain her conduct to God, she gets his promise that he will discuss the girl’s problems with her mother.
The priest goes to the chateau to confer with the countess regarding her daughter’s spiritual state. There he finds the mother in an even more atheistic frame of mind than that of her daughter. Her spiritual depression results from the death of her baby son, twelve years earlier. During a prolonged philosophical discussion, in which she ridicules the priest for his theological idealism and his lack of vanity and ambition, the countess describes with bitterness the hateful selfishness of her daughter and relates with indifference the count’s many infidelities.
Before he leaves the chateau, the priest senses a spiritual change in his wealthy parishioner when she throws into the fire a medallion containing a lock of her son’s hair. The priest, always humble, tries to retrieve the locket. In a letter delivered to him at the presbytery later in the day, the countess tells him that he gave her peace and escape from a horrible solitude with the memory of her dead child. The countess dies that night.
The priest’s success in helping to redeem her soul leaves him with an uncertain feeling. He does not know whether he is happy or not. If his reaction is happiness, it is short-lived. When the details of his session with the countess become known as a result of Mademoiselle Chantal’s eavesdropping, criticism and derision are heaped on him. The canon reprimands him because he assumed the role of her confessor, and the Curé de Torcy ridicules his approach in dealing with the countess. Members of the family, unstable as they are in their relationships, accuse him of subversive tactics.
His lack of social grace, his personal inadequacies, and his professional ineptitude seem to increase as his physical condition grows worse. Because his hemorrhages continue, he decides to consult Dr. Lavigne in Lille. His last major bungle is in connection with this medical aid. Forgetting the name of the doctor recommended to him in Lille, he turns to the directory and mistakenly chooses the name of Dr. Laville. The physician, a drug addict, bluntly diagnoses the priest’s ailment as cancer of the stomach. From the doctor’s office, the priest goes to the address of his old schoolmate at the seminary, Monsieur Dufrety, who long urged his friend to visit him. There he dies that night.
In a letter from Monsieur Dufrety to the Curé de Torcy, details of the priest’s death are described. In great suffering and anguish following a violent hemorrhage, the priest held his rosary to his breast. When he asked his old friend for absolution, his request was granted and the ritual performed in a manner, Monsieur Dufrety writes, that could leave no one with any possible misgivings. The priest’s last words affirmed his great faith in the whole scheme of things because of God’s existence.