Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507
A Catholic novelist in the manner of Julien Green and François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos was a visionary for whom the forces of good and evil were genuine presences. He shows a fierce integrity in his writing, although his views are sometimes oversimplified or inconsistent. His characters, while representing extremes of human behavior ranging from saintliness to depravity, are battlegrounds for good and evil, and their souls are the prize. These priests and other individuals who devote their lives to God are powerfully imagined and realistically drawn.
The Diary of a Country Priest has a meager plot because Bernanos is more interested in showing a man’s thoughts and basic principles than in describing general human behavior; this novel is a fictional presentation of priestly attitudes, functions, and tribulations. Through this philosophical and realistic treatment of life in a small French parish, readers recognize Bernanos’s high regard for Joan of Arc as the symbol of France. In the simplicity of her peasantry and saintliness, the maid is not unlike the diarist. Compassion and tenderness characterize the writing, which in translation sustains the poetic charm and fluency of the original. Humankind’s holiness is Bernanos’s keynote.
One of the themes of The Diary of a Country Priest is that of the conflict between individual religious ecstasy and the day-to-day “housekeeping” of the church. The young priest’s aspirations, at once naïve and noble, are touching, but his failure to live up to them causes him increasing unhappiness. He wants more than anything else to be of use to God and to his parishioners, but he feels thwarted at every step and is not sure why. The picture of the hard, narrow villagers, with their materialistic and shallow ways, their stubbornness and malice, is vivid and complete; the reader soon understands the pain of the youthful priest’s frustration when he is unable to elevate them spiritually.
Boredom, Bernanos suggests, is the beginning of evil, or at least the ground in which it grows. The young priest sees that life for his parishioners is nothing but boredom. The nature of injustice worries him as does the nature of true poverty. Everyone constantly gives him advice, warning him of intolerance, excessive dedication, or pride, but none of them can see into his heart and mind and understand what really troubles him. The naïve and unworldly qualities of the young priest give him an innocent charm.
Despite his inexperience, the priest knows that “each creature is alone in his distress.” His growing wisdom is a growing realization of the loneliness of the individual. From the beginning, he is beset by ailments and becomes obsessed by them; soon, illness dominates his physical existence, but his spiritual life grows richer and more intense.
At the end, the priest learns that true humility does not lie in self-hatred, but rather that the supreme grace is to “love oneself in all simplicity.” His death, revealed in a moving letter from his friend to his superior, expresses his ultimate sense of peace.