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Last Reviewed on May 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 694

Doctor Pascal, the title character and protagonist, is a physician in a small French town. He has become independently wealthy by making good investments on the advice of his broker—thus, he is not dependent on a medical practice for his income. He therefore devotes most of his time to his...

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Doctor Pascal, the title character and protagonist, is a physician in a small French town. He has become independently wealthy by making good investments on the advice of his broker—thus, he is not dependent on a medical practice for his income. He therefore devotes most of his time to his passion: medical and genealogical research.

The novel begins with Pascal in his study (as usual), accompanied by Clotilde, his niece and assistant. Clotilde helps him by copying papers and drawing flowers for illustration in Pascal's planned book. One particular feature of the room that the author describes is a carved, antique, wooden cupboard that holds Pascal's papers. These consist of documents and notes collected over thirty years, all on the subject of heredity.

Martine, Pascal's housekeeper, has worked for him for thirty years. Clotilde has been with them for thirteen years, since she was seven years old; after her mother died, her father felt unable to care properly for her. Martine runs the household efficiently and affectionately. She is very religious, and the fact that Pascal is not is a point of contention; she disapproves of him not attending church (whereas Clotilde always does).

Madame Rougon, Pascal's mother, eventually arrives. She deeply disapproves of her son's research and the potions he concocts in his laboratory. Vocally criticizing him in front of Clotilde, she laments the fact that that he wastes his energy treating the poor rather than rich, who would pay him well for the medicines he invents.

Another point of contention between Pascal and his mother is the cache of papers Pascal has accumulated. Knowing that their family has some scandalous episodes in its past, Madame Rougon would prefer that Pascal not collect information about their relatives and ancestors. She nearly succeeds in removing and destroying some papers, but she is interrupted by Pascal. After she leaves, Pascal lashes out at Clotilde for her treason of turning over the key. Henceforth, he personally holds the keys to the cupboard and his desk, which has one drawer full of money.

A few weeks later, Maxime, Clotilde's brother—who is an irresponsible spendthrift—visits from his home in Paris. He asks Clotilde to come live with him, but she prefers to stay with Pascal. The next major development is the arrival in town of a monk, whose preaching impresses Clotilde. Convinced that Pascal's scientific research is dangerously ungodly, she tries unsuccessfully to convince him to give it up and burn his papers. His mother also continues her campaign to burn the files.

A turning point comes when one of Pascal's patients dies after being injected with his experimental potion. The doctor becomes so distraught that the family fears for his sanity, as there is a family precedent for insanity; his elderly grandmother had been institutionalized after losing her mind.

Another major development is Doctor Ramond's courtship of Clotilde. Doctor Raymond is a young physician and close family friend. After some hesitation, Clotilde agrees to his proposal. Pascal's health is negatively affected by the news, and she spends many days nursing him, treatment that even includes injections from another potion. After he improves, the preparations for the wedding begin. However, Pascal he realizes that he feels sexual desire—not just familial affection—for his niece. A few days later, they discuss the situation and she reveals that she loves him, not Ramond, and will break off the engagement. That night, they consummate their love.

From this point forward, they are lovers, lost in a blissful reverie. Catastrophe soon strikes, however, as it turns out that Pascal's broker has been stealing his money. All of his fortune is now gone, save for the cash in the desk. Maxime and Madame Rougon try to persuade Clotilde to move to Paris, but she refuses to go, until Pascal insists. While she is away, he struggles under immense pressure and suffers from a heart attack. She writes to say that she is pregnant with his child and returning home. Before Clotilde can arrive, however, Pascal dies.

Once he is gone, Madame Rougon and Martine burn his files. The cupboard will now hold baby clothes for Clotilde and Pascal's child.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1349

The July afternoon is extremely hot, but the room is well protected from the heat by heavy wooden shutters. In front of a huge carved oak armoire, Dr. Pascal patiently looks for a particular sheet of paper. The search is not easy. For about thirty years, the doctor was amassing manuscripts for his work on heredity. A smile comes over his face when he finds the paper, and he hands it to his niece and asks her to copy it for their friend, Dr. Ramond. Clotilde takes it without interrupting her work on a pastel drawing of flowers that is intended for an illustration plate in the doctor’s book.

Martine, the housekeeper, comes in to repair the tapestry on an armchair. She has been with the doctor for thirty years, ever since he came to Plassans as a young doctor. Thirteen years later, following the death of his wife, Dr. Pascal’s brother sent Clotilde, then seven years old, to live with him. Martine cared for the child according to her own zealous religious convictions.

Dr. Pascal completes Clotilde’s instruction by trying to give her clear and healthy ideas on everything. The three live in peaceful happiness, although a certain uneasiness is now beginning to grow out of their religious conflicts. Martine considers it a pity that such a kind man as her master refuses to go to church; the two women agree that they will force him to attend services.

Later that afternoon, old Madame Rougon comes by, ostensibly for a visit but actually to inspect everything. Hearing her son in the next room, she expresses displeasure that he is again doing what she calls his “devilish cooking.” She tells Clotilde of the unpleasant rumors about the doctor’s new drug. If only he could try spectacular cures on the famous people of the town, she declares, instead of always treating the poor. She wants him to be a success, like his two brothers, but Dr. Pascal is most unlike the rest of his family. He practiced medicine for only twelve years; after that, he invested his money with a private broker and now lives on its returns. Martine receives the money every three months and uses it to the best advantage. When his patients pay him, Dr. Pascal throws the money in a drawer. When he visits a poor patient, he often leaves money there instead of receiving payment. He is completely absorbed in his research and his fight against suffering.

Madame Rougon is upset most by the fact that the big oak armoire contains detailed information on each member of the family. Afraid that the doctor’s papers might fall into the hands of a stranger, she asks Clotilde to give her the key. She opens the cupboard, but as she reaches for the files, Dr. Pascal enters; she leaves demurely as if nothing happened. It is Clotilde who receives the brunt of the doctor’s anger. From that time on, Dr. Pascal feels that he is being betrayed by the two human beings who are dearest to him, and to whom he is dearest. He keeps all the drawers of his desk tightly locked.

One day, Maxime comes for a visit. Still young, he is already worn out by his dissolute way of life. Having ascertained that his sister is not planning to get married, he asks her to come to Paris with him. Clotilde is frightened at the idea of leaving Dr. Pascal’s home, but she promises to go to her brother if someday he really needs her.

After Maxime’s visit, the house returns to its state of subdued tension until a Capuchin comes to Plassans to preach. Clotilde, deeply shaken by his preaching, asks Dr. Pascal to burn all of his papers. He refuses. He also has another fruitless discussion with his mother, who is constantly begging the young girl to destroy the files.

One night, Dr. Pascal finds Clotilde trying to steal his papers. While she helps to replace them, he makes a last attempt to convince her of the value of his work. He shows her the files and explains the use he is making of them. Clotilde is almost persuaded but asks for time to think about the matter.

One day, the doctor returns to the house in great agitation. A patient died of a heart attack while he was giving him an injection. Dr. Pascal refuses Clotilde’s attempted comfort, and when his mother hints that he might be going insane, he nearly believes the suggestion. He feels he may be suffering from the same condition as his grandmother, who was never well-balanced and is now, at the age of one hundred and four, living in a sanatorium. Anxious and helpless, Clotilde and Martine watch over him.

Dr. Ramond comes and asks Clotilde to marry him, but she says that she needs time to consider his proposal and that she will answer him soon. In the meantime, she asks him what he thinks of her uncle’s condition. Dr. Pascal overhears the conversation, and from that time on his health becomes worse. Although he allows Clotilde to take care of him, he will not let her come into his room when he is in bed. She finally persuades him to try some of his own injections, as Dr. Ramond suggests. As he begins to show improvement, she tries to restore his faith in his research. He is overjoyed when she finds the key to the armoire and brings it to him.

At last, Dr. Pascal declares that he feels greatly improved, and he tells Clotilde that she should begin to think about a date for her marriage. Clotilde does not seem concerned. One day, as they are coming back from a walk, she asks him to help untie her hat. Suddenly, as he bends close to her, he realizes how greatly he desires her. Disturbed by the strength of his feelings, he insists that she give Dr. Ramond a definite date for the wedding. A short time later, he buys her an extravagant present of lace, which he puts on her bed. That night, Clotilde comes running to his door and tells him that if her marriage is the occasion for the gift, she is not going to marry Dr. Ramond. He, Pascal, is the man she loves. That night she becomes his.

A period of extreme happiness follows for both Clotilde and Dr. Pascal. Martine, after disappearing for a full day to show her disapproval, continues her faithful service. One day, Martine returns with the news that the broker embezzled the doctor’s funds and fled. She performs miracles in preparing meals, using the money accumulated in the drawer, but at last their situation becomes really desperate. Dr. Pascal and Clotilde seem quite unconcerned and wait patiently for the matter to be settled in court.

Madame Rougon keeps busy. She produces a letter from Maxime, now disabled, in which he asks for his sister, and she heaps contempt on Dr. Pascal for keeping the young woman without marrying her and for not being able to feed her properly. Dr. Pascal is happy when Clotilde refuses to go to her brother, but, feeling guilty, he pretends that he needs time to devote himself to his research and insists that she should go. Deeply hurt, Clotilde nevertheless obeys.

Dr. Pascal goes on working, waiting, meanwhile, for the painful joy of Clotilde’s letters. His health suffers, and he has two heart attacks. Dr. Ramond brings him the news that some of his money is recovered. About the same time, he receives a letter from Clotilde, telling him that she is pregnant. He immediately wires her to return. She leaves at once, but he dies two hours before she arrives. He did, however, muster enough strength to complete his files concerning himself, Clotilde, and their unborn child.

While Clotilde is in Dr. Pascal’s room, Madame Rougon, with the help of Martine, burns all his papers. Clotilde later uses the shelves to store her baby’s clothes.

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