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...
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