The Song of Bernadette

by Franz Werfel

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First published:Das lied von Bernadette, 1941 (English translation, 1942)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Religious chronicle

Time of work: 1858-1875

Locale: Lourdes, France

Principal Characters:

Bernadette Soubirous, a religious mystic

Louise Soubirous, her mother

Francois Soubirous, her father

Dean Peyramale, the parish priest

Sister Marie Therese, Bernadette’s teacher and superior

The Story:

In Lourdes the Soubirous family had fallen into pitiful poverty. Francois Soubirous, having lost the mill whose products provided a livelihood for his family, was reduced to taking odd jobs that he could beg from the prosperous citizens of the little French village. His wife Louise helped out by taking in washing. Their combined earnings, scant and irregular, were insufficient for the care of the children. The family lived in the Cachot, a dank, musty building that had been abandoned as a jail because of its unhealthy conditions.

The oldest Soubirous child, Bernadette, was weak and suffered from asthma. She was considered, both by her schoolmates and her teacher, Sister Marie Therese, to be the most ignorant and stupid of all the children. Her ignorance extended even to religion. Although fourteen years old and the daughter of Catholic parents, she did not understand the meaning of the Holy Trinity. It was clear that little could be expected from the daughter of the poor and uneducated Soubirous family.

One day the children were sent out to gather firewood near the Grotto of Massabielle. Close to the grotto ran a small stream into which the offal of the town was emptied. Carcasses of dead beasts were swept along by the current, and earlier that day Francois Soubirous had dumped there a cartload of amputated limbs and filthy bandages from the contagion ward of the local hospital. It was rumored that the spot had once been the scene of pagan religious ceremonies.

Slower than the rest, Bernadette became separated from the other children and went to the cave alone. Suddenly, to her great astonishment, a strange light shone at the mouth of the grotto. She was unable to believe her eyes when a beautiful lady appeared before her. Dressed in blue, her face shining with brilliant light, her bare feet twined with roses, the lady smiled at the frightened child. Bernadette threw herself on her knees and prayed.

When the other children came upon her, they found her kneeling on the ground. After making the others promise to keep her secret, Bernadette told of her vision. The children nevertheless revealed her secret, and soon the whole town was laughing at stupid Bernadette. The next day she returned to the grotto and saw the lady once more. The vision told her to return each day for fifteen days.

When she returned again and again to the grotto, the townspeople were aroused. To the local intellectuals and the atheists, Bernadette’s vision was an example of ignorant superstition. To government officials, it was a plot of the Church against the state. To the Church, it was a dangerous event that could lead to disaster for Catholics. No one in authority believed Bernadette, but the common people became more and more interested. Soon many went with her when she made her daily visits. At last, the authorities tried every method to make the girl confess that her vision was a hoax, but without success.

One day the lady told Bernadette to ask Dean Peyramale to build a chapel on the site of the grotto. When Bernadette told the dean of the request, he angrily asked the identity of the lady. If she were truly a heaven-sent...

(This entire section contains 1607 words.)

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vision, persisted the dean, let her give some sign that would prove it. Let her make the rosebush in the cave bloom with roses in February.

The lady smiled when she heard the dean’s message. She beckoned to Bernadette to come forward. The girl moved toward the lady, bent down, and kissed the rosebush, scratching her face on the thorns. Then the lady told her to go to the spring and drink from it. When Bernadette started for the stream, the lady shook her head and told the girl to dig with her hands. In a short while, Bernadette reached moist soil. Scooping it up with her hands, she tried to drink the little water in it. The earth that she swallowed made her ill, however, and she vomited.

The crowd that had followed her was disgusted. To the people her actions had seemed those of a lunatic because they had seen no lady there, only the gray stone walls of the cave and its opening. They scoffed when Bernadette was taken away.

A few days later one of the townsmen went to the grotto. There, where Bernadette had dug, water had begun to flow. He scooped up some of the moist soil and applied it to his blind eye. After a while he could see; his blindness was gone. Local experts swore that there could be no spring there, that no water could flow from solid rock. By that time both the Church and the government were thoroughly aroused. Bernadette was forbidden to visit the grotto, and the place was barred to the public.

Reluctantly the dean began to wonder whether a miracle had occurred. After he discovered that roses were indeed blooming in the cave, he persuaded the Church authorities to set up a commission to investigate the whole affair. The dean was at last convinced that Bernadette had seen the Blessed Virgin. The commission agreed with his views. Finally the emperor ordered that the public be allowed to visit the grotto.

Throughout the excitement Bernadette remained calm and humble. After the Church had given its sanction to her vision, she agreed to enter a convent. There her immediate superior was her former teacher, Sister Marie Therese. The nun, proud, arrogant, skeptical, refused to believe in Bernadette’s vision.

As a nun Bernadette won the hearts of everyone by her humility, her friendliness, and her genuine goodness. The prosperity of Lourdes, where pilgrims came from all over the world to be healed by the miraculous water, did not matter to her. When her family came to visit her, she was glad to see them, especially her father; but she was relieved when they left. She lived in the convent for more than seventeen years.

At last a tumor of the leg afflicted her with a long and agonizing illness. As she lay dying, Sister Marie Therese admitted her error and confessed belief in the miracle. In Lourdes, the town atheist was converted. Dean Peyramale, disappointed and sad because the Church authorities had ignored him in the establishment of a shrine built at the grotto, went to visit Bernadette during her last moments. Her death was peaceful and serene.

After her death the fame of Lourdes became worldwide. Bernadette has been canonized and is now a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

Critical Evaluation:

Franz Werfel, lyric poet, dramatist, and novelist was probably best known for THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, which became his greatest popular success. Werfel was a German Jew born in Prague. His background, his love of music, and his intense interest in the mystery of man and his relation to the divinity all found expression in his writings. THE SONG OF BERNADETTE is no exception. In fact, it is representative of many common elements of Werfel’s literary style, although its subject matter is somewhat narrow and confined by important facts, dates, and details.

During the early stages of World War II, Werfel and his wife, in their flight from the German Nazis, found refuge in the town of Lourdes. While there, Werfel made the now-famous vow that if he ever got to America he would make it his first priority to “sing the song of Bernadette,” as he eventually did in the form of a novel.

Werfel gathered extensive facts concerning the experiences of Bernadette Soubirous at the famous grotto of Massabielle. His careful detailed study of life at that time—political passions of leaders and intricacies of the Church hierarchy in France—made his work like that of a reporter gathering facts. The reporting aspect of his account, however, is sublime. The reader is caught up in the emotions, physical and spiritual, of every character to cross the pages. In his preface to the work, Werfel tells the reader that even though he is a Jew and not a Catholic, he drew courage for undertaking a work of this type from a very early artistic commitment. His intention in all of his writings had been to examine and magnify the divine mystery and holiness of man. In THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, he is able to guard the truth of the mystery of Lourdes while examining and experiencing through his characters an enormous variety of fears, longing, and hopes. While the particulars of Bernadette Soubirous’ visions of the lady in the grotto are indeed singular, the author imparts a mystical yearning to his characters that makes Bernadette’s experiences far more real and universal than one would expect. Werfel’s language takes on an aspect of Catholicism so explicit and involved that it is difficult to believe that one not of the Catholic faith could become so intimately involved with a mystery of that religion.

Werfel, however, did not write a purely religious story; his book is a story of people who have the same emotions, the same hopes and fears, that all men and women share. For that reason THE SONG OF BERNADETTE is a masterful work, haunted by shadows of the unknown, filled with delicate beauty and a strong affirmation of man’s essential goodness.