Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1409

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.

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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 social doctrines very seriously indeed. Since Honoré de Balzac, French literature, especially novels, had been moving away from what many critics have seen as its roots, a naturalism emphasizing exact depictions of milieu—businesses, shops, factories, farms, the salons of the rich, the hovels of the poor, city and country, entrepreneur and peasant. As Balzac would announce, the surroundings explain the individual, even as individuals explain their milieu. The writer aims for accuracy of description, psychology being of secondary importance. The job of art, then, is to reveal truth, without concern for its effect on its audience. Bourget, in challenging this concept, was reverting to the older notion that the duty of art is to instruct while pleasing.

Bourget also was returning to the tradition of psychological realism with which the French have always felt comfortable. Arguably the first French novel, though in verse, is the anonymously written Châtelaine de Vergy, a thirteenth century French psychological masterpiece. Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678; The Princess of Clèves, 1679) is universally recognized as an almost perfect gem of psychological realism. The works of Denis Diderot and of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (Les Liaisons dangereuses, 1782; Dangerous Liaisons, 1784) carry the tradition into the next century, followed by the works of Alfred de Musset and Benjamin Constant a few generations later.

The tradition persists into the present. Psychologically probing the love life of the French adolescent, mature beyond his or her years, has, even recently, remained a staple of the French novel. It is seen in the novels of Raymond Radiguet and Françoise Sagan. Bourget was quite simply acknowledging the roots of French literature. His Essais had revealed a perspicacious observer, his novels confirmed the diagnosis, and The Disciple justified his reputation.

However, thematically the novel is a response to a crisis in the European spirit and a reaction against the practices of a previous generation of French writers. The Disciple is the product of a continent-wide awareness that scientific progress had questioned the validity of traditional religious faith, especially that faith’s role as the source of a transcendentally sanctioned morality that guides behavior in this world and offers immortality to believers in the next. The Disciple addresses the same themes as Ivan Turgenev’s Ottsy i deti (1862; Fathers and Sons, 1867), whose central character, Bazarov, rejects all faiths and adopts rationalism. The Disciple also addresses the same themes as Fyodor Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), in which Raskolnikov kills two people to illustrate his superiority to conventional morality.

For Adrien, vice and virtue are socially constructed in a godless universe, as he explains to the judge who calls him into his office in an attempt to identify the role of Adrien’s teachings on Robert’s actions. Later, Robert himself will be possessed by a desolating vision of the inevitable death of the planet, “only a ball without air and without water, from which man has disappeared, as well as plants and animals.” Terrified, he decides that as the here and now is all humans will ever experience, then humans must “exalt it by increasing its intensity.” He longs for the transient youthful presence of the woman he has coldly decided to seduce.

Robert is an arresting portrayal of intellectual arrogance worthy of comparison with Godwin Peak of George Gissing’s Born in Exile (1892), another atheistic hypocrite who sees no world beyond the present world. The reader simultaneously respects Robert’s intellectual honesty while deploring his emotional coldness and sympathizing with his later acquisition of lacerating self-knowledge.

The Disciple’s tripartite structure cleverly presents the same events from different perspectives, thus taking advantage of the human pleasure in finding oneself mystified, then enabled to understand—that is, catered to by—popular murder mysteries. First, the judge presents what he assumes to be the facts of the murder of Charlotte de Jussat. Then Robert’s account, which makes up most of the novel, narrates the true course of events. Third, Adrien and André each reacts to the revelation of the truth; the two then provide between them a morally satisfying denouement.

Bourget’s reputation as an exponent of the psychological novel is buttressed by his elaboration in The Disciple of the idea of the multiple personality, a sophisticated perception that humans do not possess a stable ego but rather are each made up of the cumulative effects of conscious and unconscious mental operations and responses.

Finally, The Disciple is notable for the beauty of its depictions of the gentle Auvergne landscapes, which Bourget knew and loved from the days of his youth spent hiking in the countryside. He always possessed a strong sense of place and subscribed to the doctrines of his friend Maurice Barrès, whose novel Les Déracinés (1897) depicts the dangers of forcing people to abandon the land of their birth.

Some readers dislike Bourget’s moralizing, Christian slant, but few can deny his persuasive intensity. Many of the French youth of his day (to whom the novel is dedicated) had agreed with him. He continued to exert a strong influence on France’s social conscience well into the twentieth century, though after World War I, his hold was destined to weaken. The Disciple, in any case, may still be read for its superb depiction of the need for moral responsibility.

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