Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1085

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.

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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 the opposition to that belief from those closest to him—forms the chief intellectual concern of the novel. The objections to the doctor’s scientific approach are religious and social, whereby the former, although virulent, is ultimately less threatening to Zola than the latter. Dr. Pascal’s treasured servant, Martine, objects to Pascal’s tampering with God’s plan, but she takes action to help destroy the doctor’s valued historical files only after being incited by Madame Rougon, Dr. Pascal’s mother.

Madame Rougon’s motives are entirely selfish. She does not want the honor of the family stained by an exposure of defects. Her only pride is her family, and she cannot tolerate the prospect of family shame. Taking advantage of Martine’s simplicity, Madame Rougon finally succeeds in destroying all of Dr. Pascal’s meticulously recorded chronicle. In a sense, this destruction of the family records is a logical conclusion of the degeneration of the Rougon-Macquarts, a family that, despite a few branches still growing, has degenerated and become self-destructive.

If the parallel between Dr. Pascal and Zola holds, the question arises whether Zola’s literary work is also metaphorically destroyed as the Rougon-Macquart series comes to an end. Perhaps Zola believed that life would take its revenge on literature, that the truth he sought to express could not be borne. The forces of reaction, both social and religious, would stifle and burn his work.

That fate was not in store for Zola’s literary work, although it was, in a sense, in store for Zola himself. Shortly after the publication of Doctor Pascal, Zola intervened in the notorious Dreyfus affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer, was convicted of treason by the French authorities, and the conviction was upheld despite another officer’s having confessed to the crime and fled the country. When Zola thereupon attacked the authorities for anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, and lies, he was forced into temporary exile in England.

Zola’s courageous action in behalf of Dreyfus and his opposition to anti-Semitism are particularly important in evaluating Zola’s naturalist theory, which occupies a central role in Doctor Pascal. Because of Zola’s emphasis on genetic determinism, his work might be open to accusations of racialism. Because of the stress he places on forces that mold men’s lives, over which they have no control, he also could be accused of fatalism. The critic Georg Lukács, for example, refuses even to include Zola in the literary tradition of progressive realism. Nevertheless, in his literary output as in his life, Zola affirmed his confidence in the forces of science, progress, and, above all, life. Despite the destruction of the doctor’s files, the reader is left with the impression at the end of the novel that Dr. Pascal’s work will continue after him.

The emotional interest of the narrative, the center of gravity of the fiction, lies in the love of an older man for a young woman. Zola explores their feelings with extreme delicacy and insight, and the child resulting from their love is meant to signify the rebirth of hope and humanity. The child more than compensates for the destruction of the files. If that destruction is seen as revenge against scholarship, science, and art, then the birth of the child signals the victory of the positive forces of life over the forces of despair and negativism.

Although the novel holds significant intellectual content as well as relevance to Zola’s life and career, there is a certain weariness in Zola’s telling that may be the result of Zola’s already having written an enormous number of pages in his vast chronicle. Like his character Dr. Pascal, Zola was no longer a young man. The narrative may be judged to lack the intensity of his earlier works, but it nevertheless glows with compassion and loving faith.

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