Doctor Pascal, the twentieth and final novel in Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, is significant both as a reflection of Zola’s personal life and as the culmination of his vast, ambitious history of the second empire. If Doctor Pascal does not possess the literary energy of some of the other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series, it nevertheless reveals many of Zola’s characteristic interests and obsessions.
Doctor Pascal centers on the love between an older doctor and a young woman, his niece. This relationship mirrors Zola’s love for Jeanne Rozerot, a beautiful, modest twenty-year-old seamstress whom Zola’s wife had employed. Rozerot became his mistress in 1888 (he was near fifty at the time), and for her sake he went on two extreme diets to lose weight. He seems to have loved her very much, and he eventually had two children by her (although he had none with his wife, Alexandrine). He was not, however, willing to divorce his wife, despite the fact that he disapproved of extramarital affairs. Alexandrine had been his loyal companion through very hard times, and he could not bring himself to desert her now. Alexandrine was unhappy about the affair, but after Zola died, she behaved most humanely; she agreed to meet his children, treated them kindly, and even made it possible for them to bear their father’s name legally.
Doctor Pascal is thus a very personal novel and reflects much about the life of the novelist. It is also personal in the sense that Dr. Pascal, as much as any other character in Zola’s fiction, embodies the author’s own intellectual interests and commitments. Dr. Pascal the scientist is devoted to curing nervous disorders and to keeping a record of his family. Zola, too, often viewed himself and his work as “scientific.” In opposition to what he considered to be the unreality of the Romantics, Zola was determined to place his work on a firm scientific basis; in fact, he often saw his own fiction as a form of “experimentation.” Dr. Pascal’s record of the Rougon-Macquart family permits Zola to review the chronicle of the figures and incidents in this “history” and, at the same time, to express his views on the significance of heredity in the affairs of men and families. Dr. Pascal—and, by inference, Zola—takes the genetic material of the Rougon-Macquarts extremely seriously. Although the laws of heredity may not be completely understood, and although Dr. Pascal’s injections are not medically successful, Dr. Pascal’s belief in the power and explanatory force of science remains unshaken.
In fact, Dr. Pascal’s belief in science—and...
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