Last Updated on May 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 334
Science and Religion
Doctor Pascal embodies a conviction in the virtues of science that is so strong that, ironically, it clouds his reason. Determined to unearth the secrets of heredity—in part to understand the strains of mental instability in his own family—Pascal becomes obsessed with his research. In his laboratory, he also concocts potions that he experimentally applies to his patients.
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His mother, Madame Rougon, represents the antithesis to Pascal's relentless pursuit of scientific discovery. As a devout Catholic, she is scandalized by his irreverence and disapproves of his research of their family. Clotilde, on the other hand, is torn between their two perspectives. Convinced of her uncle's genius, she is a devoted assistant to his work, but she later loses confidence in his research's lasting value. Thus, Pascal, Madame Rougon, and Clotilde represent the tension that often exists between science and religion.
The Dangers of Obsession
One of Pascal's greatest problems is his inability to do anything in moderation. His curiosity and pride prove to be a harmful combination in that he cannot hold back from conducting research in his family's complicated history: the more skeletons he unearths, the deeper he wants to dig. This obsessive behavior taints his relationship with Clotilde. After they become lovers, rather than marry her, he keeps her as his mistress. Clotilde also displays a lack of prudence. She allows her devotion to Pascal to blossom into illicit love when she was already planning to marry the younger Doctor Ramond.
Heredity Versus Environment
Pascal wants desperately to understand the role of heredity as he traces the connections among family members that he believes have contributed to the high incidence of insanity, as well as other defects, in his family. Lacking an adequate basis to understand genetics, he attributes significance to antisocial and immoral actions such as illegitimacy and incest. Zola shows how different characters avoid the negative stain of inherited traits through their personal actions and through their interactions with the larger social world in which they are raised.