“Un homme à part”: The Doubting Priest and the Interrogation of Virility in Emile Zola's Trois villes Trilogy

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0009-0009-1887-8157
McLean, Donald, French - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Krueger, Cheryl, French - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lyu, Claire, French - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Horne, Janet, French - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Sessions, Jennifer, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia

Emile Zola’s Trois villes tells the story of abbé Pierre Froment, a Catholic priest who is doubting his vocation and beliefs. Convinced that the realization of a utopian religion nouvelle is the answer to personal and societal problems, Pierre travels to different places looking for a way to achieve his initial goals of overcoming his doubt and of reimagining the role that religion plays in Western European society. First, in Lourdes, he seeks healing for the doubt that he sees as a sickness. Second, in Rome, he fails to defend his ideas against a hostile Curia that has condemned his book. Third and finally, he returns home to Paris, where he takes the first true steps towards the future he imagines by reconnecting with his estranged family, leaving the Church, and becoming a father. Doubt is an ever-changing force in the novels: Beginning as a theological concern that causes Pierre to question his legitimacy as a figure of authority, his doubt transforms into a masculine-coded and positivist rationalism that, through its capacity to accept and learn from questions, confirms his capacity to lead. This new positioning of doubt allows Pierre the opportunity to be curious, to change, and to grow, all of which are denied him by a Catholic Church that the narrative presents as monolithic and unchanging. Scientific reasoning that is based on constantly questioning the presented evidence defines what it means to be a man with legitimate authority in Zola’s late fiction.

This dissertation addresses the intersection between doubt and virility in the Trois villes. It argues that doubt serves two functions in the narrative, both of which establish Pierre’s legitimate authority as a paternal figure. First, borrowing from Scott Powers’s analysis of Lourdes, this dissertation assumes that doubt is metanarratively staged—that is to say, that the strategic use of language, narrative, and characters bolsters the validity of Pierre’s doubts, even when he seeks to reject these doubts—to serve an anti-clerical purpose and put its main character in situations that can only present the Church in a negative light. Second, doubt serves as a point of transformation for Pierre. It is initially the cause of his distress, but by the end of the trilogy, it transforms into a liberating tool that allows scientific—and thus virile—inquiry into the world around him. As doubt becomes a tool for a masculine-coded positivism, the question of what an ideal Zolian man is also comes to the forefront of this dissertation. The three chapters of this project show how Pierre comes to realize the ideal Zolian form of masculinity: first, through seeing an apophatic definition through womanhood; second, through seeing representations of failed masculinities in the Church’s upper echelons; finally, through modeling himself after positive models such as experimental scientists. Doubt and virility intersect in the Trois villes to build the foundations for a utopian future focused on science, reason, and the family.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Emile Zola, Trois villes, Priest, Doubt, Virility
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