Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435

Bernanos's highly praised novel "The Diary of a Country Priest" tells the tribulations of an earnest and committed country priest as he attempts to minister to the frivolous and frequently cruel, unperceptive parishioners of Abricourt in Northern France.

The author uses the protagonist's diary as a way to directly reveal...

(The entire section contains 1476 words.)

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Bernanos's highly praised novel "The Diary of a Country Priest" tells the tribulations of an earnest and committed country priest as he attempts to minister to the frivolous and frequently cruel, unperceptive parishioners of Abricourt in Northern France.

The author uses the protagonist's diary as a way to directly reveal his outlook, changing thoughts, and reflections as he carries out his duties. Early on we are tipped off to the religious symbolism embodied in the priest by his choice of red wine and bread for fare (the components of the Eucharist as symbolic of following Christ's path or taking up his cross). In the case of this country priest, his cross to bear seems to be his being constantly misunderstood by almost everyone around him (e.g. when people falsely conflate his consumption of wine with being a drunkard). Despite this, his presence and words have a redemptive effect when it counts the most. We come to admire the priest's ability to carry on with grace despite his being falsely accused and even persecuted by those he tries to help.

For example, when the Countess who has lost her young son and closed herself off from her family and society is called on by the young priest, she is initially dismissive of his age and accuses him of depending on book knowledge rather than experience. His calm and resolute persistence and grace allow him to be God's instrument to break through to her. Eventually he persuades the Countess to pray and recite in order to reconcile herself with God, from whom she had become estranged through her anger. The priest's aid is fortuitous because she dies the next day. Despite his spiritual success, the daughter blames him for her mother's death and spreads this slander through the village.

He brings an nonjudgemental approach to a former classmate of his who has lapsed from the priesthood and now lives with his girlfriend, working as an apothecary. The girlfriend has not married him to leave the way open for him should he decide to return to the priesthood. When the priest of Abricourt declines in health, he chooses to live with this couple (an unconventional but Christlike choice) because he hopes he can do the most good there.

By the end of the novel, we realize the author has depicted the life and suffering of a saint and greatly increased our understanding of what that means. It is also a novel about all of us: how we can let God's grace work through us, and how many of us are too quick to judge and condemn others.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 652

Ambricourt

Ambricourt. (ahm-breh-kohrt). French parish located on a hillside whose priest sees its miserable little insignificant houses huddled together as a symptom of Christianity in decay. Like the village, the lives of its people seem consumed by boredom. He unfavorably contrasts the place where he will live out his vocation with a Carthusian cloister, where monks create an island of order in the midst of a sea of chaos. His parish is poor, but its poverty is not evangelical, unlike the poverty of Jesus Christ, and the few wealthy parishioners conceal their greed beneath a facade of false humanism, and so their wealth never manifests its full cruelty.

Parish church

Parish church. Like the village, the parish church and the priest’s lodging are coarse and poor. He needs to pay a boy to fetch water for him since he has no well, and his food consists mainly of bread and inferior wine. The church, with its broken windowpanes, is where the priest says mass and encounters the broken lives of his parishioners. The church school, where he catechizes the parish’s children, becomes another place of alienation since his young charges are either bored or cruel. Despite his sufferings in dealing with all his parishioners, he sees his parish as part of the everlasting presence of Christ in the world. Like all human communities, Ambricourt is caught in the great spiritual river sweeping all souls into the deep ocean of eternity.

Château

Château. Estate of a count and countess where the central struggle of the novel occurs. Walled and gated, the château stands on a heavily wooded hill, where the priest sees it as turning its back on the village and all its people. Although the château represents a life of privilege and prosperity, the priest discovers there lives of great spiritual poverty. The count is involved in an adulterous relationship with his daughter’s governess, and his daughter is so unhappy over her father’s affair that she threatens suicide or murder. The countess, whose life has been broken by the death of her son, has withdrawn into a cold hatred of humanity and God. Through a long, agonistic conversation, the young priest is able to break through the wall of isolation that the countess has constructed around her. She becomes reconciled to God, and during the night, after the priest leaves, the countess dies. The priest walks back to his church along Paradise Lane, a muddy pathway between hedges.

*Lille

*Lille (leel). City in northern France where the parish priest’s odyssey ends. Lille is a major industrial area, but it, like Ambricourt, is infected with a malaise and indifference to the spiritual life. The priest travels to Lille to consult a doctor about his severe stomach pains, which have been accompanied by the vomiting of blood. Though the city, with its ordered streets and elaborate buildings, offices, and residences, stands in stark contrast to Ambricourt’s poverty, the priest finds the city similarly alienating. He feels confused while wandering its streets, just as he has confused the name of the doctor he was supposed to see. The physician he does see, a drug addict, bluntly diagnoses the priest’s problem as stomach cancer.

The final place in the priest’s life is the decrepit lodgings of a former priest, a friend from his seminary years, who is now a commercial traveler living with a mistress. The priest reaches his friend’s apartment by climbing a dark staircase, and the former priest provides him with a camping bed set up not in a room but in a narrow passageway that smells of drug samples. The place is one of ugliness and loneliness, but the priest seems to lose himself in this foulness and misery, the only shelter in his misfortune. As he dies, his friend hears the young priest’s final exclamation of his faith.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389

Sources for Further Study

Blumenthal, Gerda. The Poetic Imagination of Georges Bernanos: An Essay in Interpretation. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965. An analysis of the poetic imagination at work in the novel. Associates this poetic vision with Bernanos’ mystical explication of human behavior.

Brée, Germaine, and Margaret Guiton. “Private Worlds.” In An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus. Rutgers, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1957. Interprets the country priest as a figure tormented by private and public incompatibilities. His diary is therefore a reflection of what the priest cannot, perhaps dares not, communicate to his parish or to church authorities.

Bush, William. Georges Bernanos. Boston: Twayne, 1969. Bush discusses Bernanos’ contention that evil in modern society is connected with conservative social forces and that humans secretly covet totalitarian order. Examines The Diary of a Country Priest as a vehicle of private thoughts that sustain the dying priest. Chief among these thoughts is the possibility that self-realization comes only with death.

Curran, Beth Kathryn. Touching God: The Novels of Georges Bernanos in the Films of Robert Bresson. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. A look at the themes of the Catholic novelist and the spiritual filmmaker and their attempts to articulate grace and redemption through the suffering and death of characters in their works.

Field, Frank. “Georges Bernanos and the Kingdom of God.” In Three French Writers and the Great War: Studies in the Rise of Fascism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975. Overestimates the effect of World War I on Bernanos’ pessimism but offers insights into the political and social underpinning of The Diary of a Country Priest. Although impressionistic, this study links Bernanos to larger trends in 1920’s ideology.

Hebblethwaite, Peter. Bernanos: An Introduction. New York: Hillary House, 1965. This work emphasizes the importance of childhood events as the psychological determinant of adult behavior. Offers a close reading of The Diary of a Country Priest with a detailed analysis of Bernanos’ innovative techniques. The priest is presented as an exemplar of spiritual tenacity.

Heher, Michael. Lost Art of Walking on Water: ReImagining the Priesthood. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2004. Heher describes the modern plight and perils of the priesthood.

Molnar, Thomas. Bernanos: His Political Thought and Prophecy. Somerset, N.J.: Transaction, 1997. Bernanos’ work went beyond commentary on religion and had political implications for his day and the future.

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