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By Roger Martin Du Gard
Translated by Stuart Gilbert
New York: The Viking Press, 1949
Originally published in 1913
365 pages

Bob Corbett
November 2014

Jean Barois was born in 1866, but we meet him on the opening pages in 1878 when he is just 12. He’s not been a healthy child and his mother took him to Lourdes for a cure. She and Jean are devote Roman Catholics, but his father, having been raised Catholic has given up religion in general and is agnostic.

(I find the distinction which people often use between those of faith and others, frequently described as agnostic. However, agnostic seems it should be contrasted with gnostic, and theist should be contrasted to atheist. This seems to be a curious confusion and a definite unclarity within typical English. From what we read in the novel Jean’s father seems definitely to be an atheist, not an agnostic.)

In any case, Jean recovers some from his ailment and grows into a seemingly healthy teen. However, he is a thinking boy and begins to wonder about the “free thinkers” he is hearing about in France of the 1880s. Jean himself has doubts and the priest encourages him in faith and good acts.

Cecile Pasquelin enters the novel. She is just 16 when he is 15. She and her mother work for Jean’s family and the two teens are very close friends. Later on they will marry and even have one child.

We slip rather quickly to Jean college days at the Sorbonne.

The “skip” is frequent and makes the novel structurally quite fascinating. The chapters are relatively short. Each one deals with some slight development in Jean’s life, and then we just jump forward, as in this case, which must be 4-5 years, and not a word is ever said of the “in between.”

The novel has relatively short chapters and each chapter may skip just a few years without any comment. I like the way Roger Du Gard does this; it seems to work quite well.

At the Sorbonne he meets Abbe Hermann Schertz, a Swiss, who argues for the Catholic faith, but with different levels of faith based on the knowledge base of the believer. More and more Jean is moving away from religious faith altogether, but he has great respect for Abbe Schertz.

We continue to follow his physical growth, schooling etc., however, it is his inner life beginning with this crisis of his Catholic faith and his understanding of God and religion that is at the center of his universe. At this point there have been three phases of Barois’ life:

  1. At 17 it dawned on him that there were “anomalies” in standard Catholicism.
  2. Barois learned “Doubt was not the outcome of a perverted religion . . . but an obsession as compelling as truth itself.”
  3. Now he is experiencing a newer freedom that moves him more and more away from religion.

Later in his marriage he realized the impossibility of intermingling of the old beliefs and new. He’s now been a professor for 2 years and an effective speaker. He’s made is radical break with religious views.

In an incident with his wife when he reluctantly attends her novena, he gives way, but is very unhappy about it. This builds and finally he breaks his bond with his wife (and doesn’t even yet know that she is pregnant). He loses his job because of his teaching of evolution.

After another skip of a few years he calls for a meeting of friends to form a journal, The Sower. All the men in the founding group are in their 30s or even 20s. A profound influence on Jean is Marc-Elie Luce, a professor at the College de France. He belongs to the “earlier” generation and is not part of this inner circle of young radicals. None of the other founders of the The Sower have met him.

In June 1896 begins a long section concerned with the case of Dreyfus. The Sower becomes a primary voice of raising the question of Dreyfus’ conviction and they begin a campaign to reconsider the case.

Later, again, Luce meets with Barois. The older Luce is convinced that Dreyfus is innocent, but is very worried about what to do. He worries that the entire edifice of the French government would fall. He’s torn, but eventually decides he has to go with the evidence.

Jean Barois begins publication in mid July 1897 and The Sower hits France like a storm. They even move to new and better offices in Jan. 17, 1898 as subscriptions pour in.

There is a curiousness about the structure of the novel. For the first 140 pages we have primarily followed the life and development of Jean Barois and Emil Dreyfus is not even mentioned. However, after Jean Barois learns more of the evidence against Dreyfus the novel seems to take a radical shift toward the Dreyfus case. Up to then the magazine which he put together and which had been growing in popularity was primarily dealing with issues of modern science and changes in the high regions of the intellectual world without any mention of social or political events.

In the end, of course, author Du Gard follows history and Dreyfus wins his case, but the credit goes to others, though, in the novel’s view the movement began via Jean Barois’ magazine, The Sower, and he has become very famous now, along with the older Luce.

In sum just about 100 pages is devoted to the Dreyfus trial and the involvement of Jean Barois, but then, without any word of ending that section, it ceases and we move to “several years later.” Barois gives a public lecture attended by many young intellectuals and “fans” of the magazine.

His lecture is very impassioned declaring:

  1. The human needs to be free, and especially free of religion. Science is to be the rational guide.
  2. A call to being careful to raise children outside religion.
  3. To recognize the form of life is a critical choice.

Soon after the lecture he is seriously injured in a terrible carriage accident. Just as the carriage is about to crash, he is shocked to hear himself utter a prayer: “Hail Mary full of grace.” As he is healing he is utterly obsessed by this lapse and worried that he will do this again in some moment of near-death or whatever, so he write his “last will and testament.” Unlike most which deal with possessions, his will is about ideas. Now, in his clear state of mine he explains he lives in a world without a God, and, for that matter, a life that actually has no ultimate meaning, it just is. It is an evolutionary universe and he accepts that.

At this point the novel skips about 10 years and Jean Barois has a visit from an older man and important influence in his past, Abbe Joziers. The Abbe tells him about his wife and daughter since it has been more than 10 years since he was with his wife. His daughter is now 13. He’s never seen her. He went to England just before she was born. Abbe tells him how much she looks like him.

When Barois gave his wife a divorce he had put into the divorce settlement that when his daughter was 18 she would spend a year with him. He tells the Abbe that he won’t force that. However, he is startled when his daughter WANTS to be with him. Marie does come and they get along just fine. She wants to be a nun and hasn’t even told her mother.

She and her dad have very frank talks and he doesn’t try to stop her from being a nun. Then his mother-in-law dies and he gets very ill and nearly dies himself. Both his former wife and Marie come to Paris to be with him. He survives, but his wife is feeling very lonesome since Marie has told her about her plans for the convent. Cecile does not know what she’ll do. Jean Barois is slipping into old age and bad health and he and his former wife are again living together and getting alone.

Jean still has connections with the magazine and the younger generation is not following the pattern or ideas of his generation. He simply doesn’t know how to deal with it. The young men chastise Barois for his impassioned leap into politics in the Dreyfus case. They chastise him:

“You certainly stake high claims on a brief episode, when some of you thought fit to leave your ivory towers and join in a crusade. And what a crusade, I ask you! But I’d have you note two things: how short the crisis was, and the disillusion that followed on its heels.”

I think now of the fuss at Ferguson, Mo. of the recent killing of a young black man, now 60 years after the Civil Rights Movement. I, like Barois, have to look back at my own impassioned involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the 1960s, and today see how quickly so many of us from the intellectual and university community “retreated” after some seeming gains had been won. Barois is charged of the same sort of inconsistency by the younger generation and he just doesn’t know how to deal with it.

Barois decides that he must speak out in a general cry of disillusionment.

“But, oh, my friend, how can one help despairing of everything and everyone? Only consider what all our efforts have led to. Ever since the Affair we’ve had nothing, nothing but disillusionments. Everywhere lies, selfishness, injustice, flourish exactly as they did before. Where can you see progress? Is there a single one of our convictions that has managed to make good? No, the tide has set the other way, against us. The younger men have no use for us; they’ve taken a stand against all the ideas we fancied we’d established. It’s heart-breaking! A great many of them are becoming fervent Catholics. Is it because they're unaware of our attacks on religion? No, but they found solutions to these problems which answer better to their needs and now they’re just as – as dogmatic as we were.”

This so reminds me of “our” time of the 1960-1980s, the activism, the “new” generation, the activists and so on. Look at the world around us and the lack of political activism today and the growth of conservatism and the non-political individual, or, perhaps even worse, the “me first and only” world view.

Barois is very sick and he meets Abbe Levys. He, too, has his own crisis of faith, yet he never really reveals this to Barois. In trying to “help” Barois he actually helps himself as well.

Barois confuses the whole months before his death, including his very late “conversion” with a letter he had written months before. The letter rather compellingly explains what may well happen to him, and what in fact did, in the weakness, pain and suffering of his final illness. But in his letter he explains that this is to be expected and his “real” self in the non-believer he has been for so many years. Thus the novel ends with a marvelous ambiguity.

I would have been sorely disappointed in anything less than the letter of “ambiguity,” but would much have preferred if Barois had chosen the mode of death that his friend Luce did, which was in full keeping with the life he had lived and lent to his life a much great dignity in death.

This is a marvelous novel and compelling read. I highly recommend it to all.

Bob Corbett


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