The brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt are considered to be both theorists and practitioners of the documentary novel in nineteenth century French fiction. They based their plots on newspaper articles, interviews, and personal investigation and, like Émile Zola and Fyodor Dostoevski, they described outrages to contemporary cultural convention. True to their mechanistic and analytical vision of the world, naturalist writers rejected myths of transcendence and brought tragedy into the sphere of everyday existence. Although their novels may have shocked middle-class readership, Sister Philomène also inspired sympathy for the poor and for reforms in hospitals and orphanages.
Sister Philomène is based on a firsthand account of a nun’s unspoken love for an intern, which was told to the Goncourts by Gustave Flaubert. Initially, the story appealed to the brothers as a romantic tale. Their fictionalized version, however, is decidedly deterministic. The Goncourts believed that character is shaped by milieu, just as animals are formed by their habitat. They rejected realism as a flat imitation of reality and insisted on depicting the physiological causes of psychology. At the same time that they became interested in portraying the impact of the maternal instinct and nervous system on women, they also documented life in city hospitals. The Goncourts’ fascination with the pathological and the deviant led them to investigate Paris hospitals, to follow doctors on rounds, and to interview interns. Their account of this social institution, while frequently ironic, seems authentic.
The Goncourts wished to show how a girl could become a nurse on basis of temperament and upbringing. They also trace her search for identity, a search in which she has little choice. Marie Gaucher’s life story follows the first chapter in the form of an extended flashback. After being orphaned at an early age, she is sheltered for a time in the household of Madame de Viry, where her aunt, a maid, cares for her. She acquires aristocratic tastes and falls in love with the young master, Henri. Unaware of the social mores that make it impossible to change class, she entertains the illusion that she is a true lady. When the adults realize her illusions, they send her to a Catholic orphanage.
Marie continues her struggle to define her identity at the orphanage, where her name is stripped away—from then on she is called Philomène—and she must rebuild her life. She alternates between acceptance of her new position and an inability to cope. The Church educates orphans on pious legends and miraculous apparitions. When one of her friends, Céline, becomes a mystic, Marie’s religious yearnings are expressed by isolation, fasting, and the nervous irritation of constant prayer. The mystical teachings and First Communion coincide with her physical maturation. The Goncourts depict the emergence of her senses in detail as she approaches puberty. She really longs for marriage, but when she returns to Madame de Viry’s home, Henri barely notices her. The destruction of her fantasy forces her to take up nursing as a substitute for motherhood.
Philomène has naïve and romantic views about her calling. The initial chapter, which shows the nurses making their rounds at night, emphasizes the hospital as a world apart. The moans of patients announce the themes of suffering and pessimism. After presenting this shadowy world of darkness and light, the Goncourts introduce the problem of the perception of reality. The nurses seem to comfort the patients, but they actually prolong the pain of life. The nurses’ efforts cannot prevail against the inexorable progress of death. The Goncourts juxtapose the deaths of patients with the joyous cries of the maternity ward—but death always prevails. These scenes also show doctors without idealizing them. Philomène passes through various phases of training that offer more realistic visions of her profession. Trepidation gives way to security,...
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