|Dantan illustration from an early edition|
This novel concerns Helene Mouret, the daughter of Ursule Macquart Mouret. As the story opens we find that she is Helene Grandjean, widow of a husband named Charles and mother to a seriously ill daughter named Jeanne. The story concerns the disruption of Helene's torpid existence by an episode of love: her affair with Henri Deberle, the married doctor treating Jeanne.
A Love Episode is the fifth and last novel that deals with the Mouret branch of the Rougon-Macquart family, the others being: The Conquest of Plassans, Pot-Bouille, The Ladies' Paradise, and Abbe Mouret's Transgression. My recurring issue with several of these novels is that they contain a heavy amount of descriptive passages, which often displaces plot and characterization. A Love Episode definitely suffers from this problem. The problem surprised me because it was such a contrast to most of the four books focused on the Rougon branch of the family, and especially to books I'd previously read relating to the lower class Macquart branch of the family. While almost all Zola's novels are firmly entrenched in naturalism, it was odd to find such thin plots in the books relating to the Mourets.
However, I'm beginning to think I understand that this 'problem' is actually an intentional device of Zola's. As I get more novels in the Cycle under my belt, Zola's overarching structure is becoming clearer. With each branch of the family (Rougon, Mouret, and Macquart), Zola is painting a social class (wealthy, middle class, and poor, respectively). The wealthy Rougons are often painted as occupying the apex of the various spheres of society: politics (Eugene is a powerful crony of the Emperor), trade (Aristide is a financial giant), society (Maxime is an aristocratic dandy), and religion (Angelique is a kind of saint). Meanwhile, the Mouret's mostly occupy the petite bourgeoisie echelons: politics (Silvere's idealism), trade (Octave, Francois, and Helene's first husband are clerks or shopkeepers of varying stature), society (Marthe and Helene's middle class respectability), and religion (Abbe Faujas' all too worldly manipulations). Zola's social satire regarding the upper class relates to their immorality, while with the bourgeoisie it's a lethargic, self-satisfied complaisance.
So getting back to the lack of plot. I feel Zola eschews plot in most of the Mouret novels to illustrate the stagnancy of middle class existence. Of all these characters, only Octave shows drive, and it works to catapult him out of the morass of middle class existence. Even so, his character is riddled with ambition and is very much a creature of the back-biting snake pit he comes from. He even winds up creating a microcosm of class stratification in his store The Ladies Paradise.
In A Love Episode and Pot-Bouille, Zola more clearly dissects the shallow existence of the bourgeoisie. They meander through life, drifting through various social engagements, either in a state of self-satisfied narcolepsy or viciously competing with their peers to gain ground. To complete the picture, Zola deposits a few destitute characters at the edges of these stories as ominous warnings of the precipice of poverty these characters fear more than anything. The poor characters can also serve another purpose, as seen in the relationship between Helene and Mother Fetu, they are outlets for alms or patronage that allow characters to feel morally superior.
In A Love Episode, Helene's middle class life is like a safe, calm pool outside the rush of real human life. Neither religion, love, nor death can penetrate the shell of her soft existence and that of her peers. At one point, Abbe Jouve confesses to her his frequent failure to keep his flock from the casual immorality their aimless lives create. Also, love does not seem to exist for these characters. The passion of their affairs, which Helene is shocked to find so commonplace, is actually quite detached. There is a dreamy quality to Helene's desire for Henri while other characters, such as Juliette and Malignon, have disinterested attractions which seem to arise from social conformity to peer behavior. Even the threat of Jeanne's illness, despite all Helene's apparent maternal love, becomes little more than a means to secure her lover to her (albeit not intentionally). Jeanne senses her displacement and withers, yet Helene drifts further from her as this happens.
In A Love Episode, Zola has defanged his biting satire somewhat. He is not describing overt moral degeneracy here so much as a middle class torpor. (The more active and vicious aspects of middle class infidelity and fornication are scathingly exposed in Pot-Bouille.) In this novel, Helene has no experience with passion. She is slowly stirred towards it after reading a maudlin love scene between the hero Ivanhoe and Rachel. She compares this to her own bloodless marriage with her dead husband, and the tepid courtship of new suitor. When Helene forms her attachment to Henri, it is for no clear reason. She often reminds herself she knows nothing of him or why he desires her. It as if all the characters are dilettantes at adultery, dipping their toes in desire and lust rather than actually experiencing it. The core of their lives are parties and teas, all excuses for Juliette's shallow skills as an entertainer. Her efforts clearly being depicted as pretentious and lacking in both finesse and taste. Even the funeral of a child becomes about whether there are enough flowers and social constructs (little Lucien finds a 'replacement' for a dead girl).
This world, Helene's world, is summed up perfectly at the start of chapter 10: "Upstairs, in her own room, in the peaceful, convent-like atmosphere she found there, Helene experienced a feeling of suffocation. Her room astonished her, so calm, so secluded, so drowsy did it seem with its blue velvet hanging, while she came to it hotly panting with the motion which thrilled her. Was this indeed her room, this dreary, lifeless nook, devoid of air? Hastily she threw open a window, and leaned out to gaze on Paris."
|photo of Paris in the 1880s by Claude Monet|
In the end, the characters in A Love Episode exhibit few real emotions. The closest we get are Jeanne's paroxysms and Henri's desire, the latter being so vaguely painted that we never know for certain whether it's real or not. In the final analysis, Helene refers to her affair with Henri as 'a madness', which gives the novel's title a special nuance. Real love (or even emotion) is only an 'episode', before one returns to the empty normalcy of middle class existence. Helene does this when, at the end of the novel, she yields to the proposal of her respectable suitor and leaves Paris (Life) completely. Helene doesn't implode or explode like other Zola characters, she simply softens.
Thematically, A Love Episode probably fills a important niche in the overarching structure of Zola's Cycle. From that standpoint, it's interesting to read. However, as a novel on its own terms, I'm not sure it could be especially satisfying.