Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1196
Under the Sun of Satan is divided into three quasi-independent sections. Part 1, a sort of prologue entitled “The Story of Mouchette,” is an account of a teenage victim of child abuse. Germaine Malorthy, nicknamed “Mouchette,” is sixteen and pregnant. The father of the unborn child is a forty-five-year-old nobleman, the Marquess of Cadignan. Germaine will not re-veal his name to her parents, but her father, Antoine, correctly suspects his identity and goes to confront the philanderer at his chateau. Cadignan denies everything, and Germaine, when quizzed again by her parents, remains silent. That night, she sneaks out of the house, hoping never to return.
She goes to see Cadignan, who recognizes a certain obligation for causing her predicament and agrees to sell some property and give her part of the proceeds. Germaine, however, wants him to marry her. He refuses, and she tries to get back at him by denying that she is pregnant and by claiming that she is the mistress of the local physician, Dr. Gallet. This admission puts Cadignan into such a rage that he rapes her. Afterward, when she tries to leave, he makes an effort to stop her, but in the scuffle, she grabs a loaded hunting rifle from the wall and shoots him at close range, under his chin. She then returns home before her parents are awake. The authorities rule that the death of Cadignan is a suicide.
Germaine now takes a new lover, Dr. Gallet. During one of their regular trysts, she tells him the truth about Cadignan’s death, although Gallet does not believe her. She wants her lover to give her an abortion, but he refuses. Germaine is by now so upset that, after her confession of murder, she goes into a hysterical fit and has to be hospitalized. A month later, following the stillbirth of her child, she is released as cured.
Part 2, entitled “The Temptation of Despair,” is the section that Georges Bernanos wrote last, after he wrote part 3. “The Temptation of Despair” deals with the struggle of the young, naive curate of Campagne, Father Donissan, to discover his proper relationship to God and to his fellowman. His search will be long and difficult, compounded as it is by his own lack of education and by the obstinacy of his nature. He “has neither education nor manners, and there is more zeal than wisdom in his extreme piety,” his superior, Father Menou-Segrais, observes.
One night, as Donissan is on his way to a nearby village to help with confession during a local retreat, he becomes lost and stumbles across the fields in the darkness. Yet he is not alone. Satan appears in the guise of an itinerant horse trader and offers to help him find his way back to the road. At first, Donissan does not realize to whom he is speaking. He regards the stranger as a friendly presence upon whom he can rely for support. When the truth is known, however, Donissan meets it without flinching: “Get thee behind me, Satan!”
The confrontation continues. Satan is up to his old tricks and even changes his appearance to that of Donissan himself, a resemblance so subtle that it is “like the unique and profound idea which every human being has of himself.” Finally, Satan leaves, realizing that he has met his match, but before he goes, he issues a warning that he will continue to work his evil on Donissan. “There isn’t a lout we can’t make use of,” he says tauntingly.
Donissan, alone once again, decides to return to his village. On the way, he meets Germaine. His encounter with the Devil has led him to discover that he has been given the gift of reading people’s souls, and thus he is able to reveal to Germaine details about her shooting of Cadignan. Donissan hopes for her salvation, but the encounter only convinces Germaine of the meaninglessness of her life. When she returns home, she desperately calls on the Devil for succor. Then, she takes her father’s straight razor and “fiercely and coldly” slashes her throat in front of a mirror.
Meanwhile, Donissan tells Menou-Segrais about the previous night’s experiences, including his ability to “see into another soul, with my own eyes, through the wall of flesh...by a special and miraculous grace.” Menou-Segrais suggests that, if Donissan really believes that this talent is a miracle, he should report it to the bishop.
While the two men are conversing, the housekeeper rushes in with the news that Germaine has killed herself. Donissan immediately goes to the stricken girl’s house but finds her still alive. She begs him to take her to the church to die; he does so, despite the protests of her father and Gallet.
Donissan’s act is condemned by the church authorities: “Such excesses belong to a different age, there are no words fit to describe them.” There is no lasting scandal, but Donissan is forced to pay for his imprudence by doing penance in a Trappist monastery. Five years later, he is appointed priest of the tiny parish of Lumbres.
In the final section of the book, “The Saint of Lumbres,” Donissan is old, sick, and near the end of his life. Despite a weak heart, he nevertheless maintains a full schedule of parish duties, staggering “under the weight of his glorious burden.”
Knowing of his reputation for saintliness and good works, a woman from a nearby village sends for him to cure her son, who is suffering from meningitis. Unfortunately, Donissan arrives too late, but the local priest, Father Sabrioux, encourages him to perform a miracle and bring the boy back to life. Donissan returns to the death chamber and, lifting up the dead boy’s body as he would raise the Communion host, manages to get the corpse to open its eyes. Overcome with the thought that this act is an act of despair, stemming from a lack of faith in God’s mercy, Donissan leaves with remorse, despite his success.
The effort at resurrection has taken its toll: Donissan has a heart attack. Near death, he fears that in playing God he has committed a great sin and endangered his soul. He returns to his parish and writes an account of what has happened, addressing it to his superiors. He then goes to the confessional to continue to serve his flock and the hundreds of pilgrims who come to him to receive absolution.
A member of the French Academy, the distinguished writer Antoine Saint-Martin, arrives in the village to see him. He waits for Donissan in the rectory. When the priest does not return, however, Saint-Martin goes to look for him, searching first upstairs in the priest’s private quarters, where he is shocked to see that the walls are covered with dried blood from the beatings Donissan has given himself. Saint-Martin next goes to the church and finally discovers Donissan in the confessional, dead “like a sentinel picked off by a bullet in his sentry box”; the body retains, “in its grotesque immobility, the look and attitude of a man whom surprise has brought suddenly to his feet.”
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