Paul Bourget’s most famous novel had a profound effect on the world of French letters. Its author had begun publishing as a poet in 1872; he had turned out perceptive novels beginning in 1885. His Essais de psychologie contemporaine (1883; essays in contemporary psychology), followed by Nouveaux Essais de psychologie contemporaine (1885; new essays on contemporary psychology) proved most influential. He was scarcely an obscure writer.
Until The Disciple, however, Bourget was known mostly for his social criticism (the Essais, describing the literary environment in which he matured, were considered a landmark) and for his highly passionate novels. Indeed, conservatives thought his work almost pornographic. With The Disciple, he broke unexpected ground, exploring the responsibility of those whose teachings and writings influence our actions. Adrien Sixte, in his story, is the most moral of scholars, but, however unintentionally, his doctrines lead young Robert Greslou to commit a heinous crime. Bourget blames Greslou’s teacher, Adrien. In so doing, Bourget is also peering into the mirror of his own soul, because Adrien is a thinly disguised portrait of the French nineteenth century historian, philosopher, and literary critic Hippolyte Taine. He was Bourget’s own mentor and role model, who argued that if one knows all the causes for a given action, one can inevitably predict it.
The literary doctrines then in vogue, as practiced by such French novelists as Émile Zola, followed deterministic criteria, depicting characters as lacking free will and thus not responsible for their actions; heredity and environment held them in thrall. Bourget was not so much repudiating determinism as demanding religious responsibility for what he viewed as human, not inanimate, causes.
Taine was sorely wounded by his old disciple Bourget’s stand, even writing the author to deny any resemblance between Adrien and himself, adding that he never would have counseled Robert to act as Adrien did. Interestingly enough, Bourget had based his plot on two real cases, the latter, involving a writer Bourget actually knew, occurring only a few months before The Disciple was published. His book owed some of its popularity to its unusual mixture of psychological analysis and sensational murder mystery, not to speak of the formerly objective psychologist’s new role as an antipositivist, antiskeptic, Christian moralist.
For the rest of his long life, Bourget continued to compose essays and novels deploring anti-Christian, especially anti-Catholic, behavior, rigging his plots to show the tragedies that befall his heedless characters. As in the work of so many Victorian writers (compare the plots of his good friend, novelist Henry James), his heroes and heroines are faced with heroic dilemmas. How they deal with them reflects their character strengths and weaknesses. Such thesis literature rapidly becomes obsolete, once the social problems besetting any given age are solved. At worst, it is scarcely readable, the plots transparently contrived, the puppet characters plainly made of cloth. Bourget, however, wrote well and, more to the point, always remained a keen psychologist. From time to time, he even reverted to his former, determinist point of view.
To understand the excitement generated by The Disciple, it may help to state that the French take literary and...
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