Review Mar 23, 2014 by Victoria Ryan
Does divorce devastate children? Will divorce be the downfall of society? Is the Catholic stance against divorce sorely out of touch? These are the questions addressed by Paul Bourget in his novel A Divorce, the story of a French woman thrust into conflict with her second husband and her son by her first marriage, years after her divorce. It’s a surprising story because, with few exceptions, it could have come from today’s newspapers but is set in in the year it was written – 1904 – well over a hundred years ago.
Gabrielle Darras wants to reconcile with the Catholic Church. Divorced from her alcoholic and abusive first husband, she is happily remarried to Albert, an atheist who permits her to raise their daughter Catholic. As the daughter prepares for First Communion, Gabrielle’s faith is rekindled, but she cannot participate in the sacraments because she never sought an annulment. She seeks the counsel of Father Eduard, a kind priest and brilliant mathematician who throughout the story is found at a chalk board deciphering a complex mathematical problem.
Father Eduard cannot help Gabrielle, in fact, he tells her that he “cannot even hear your confession.” In the eyes of the Church she has but one husband – her first – and is living as an adulteress with the second. Since she continues to live in sin she cannot receive absolution. Nor is she eligible for an annulment because by her own words she entered her first marriage willingly: “Had I known then he was an alcoholic, I would not have married him.” Father Eduard explains the secular research in sociology and psychology underlying the Church’s position, especially as the effects of the divorce apply to Lucien, her son.
“Divorce is against ‘natural law,’” Father Eduvard explains. “When natural law is violated, nothing, no good can hinder the suffering that later comes… The son knows his love was not enough because his mother brought a new man into the home. His self-respect decreases when he learns his parents are different from his friends. He has less reverence for his mother when he realizes everything. He doesn’t hate his stepfather, but he doesn’t love him. He breaks the union he had with his mother… By definition a person has only one family. ..(A divorce does not erase the birth family).”
Gabrielle counters with two questions: how can God call her to faith and then deny her a way to practice it? How can God expect more of her than she can bear?
When Gabrielle returns home, Albert tells her that Lucien is involved with a woman but he does not know she lived with a man for five years without a civil or religious marriage ceremony or that she bore his son before he left her. When Albert confronts Lucien, the conflicts Father Eduard spoke of come to light. Lucien searches for his birth father. Albert threatens to keep Gabrielle from their daughter. Gabrielle must choose between her faith and her love of Albert.
A Divorce is a thinly disguised opinion piece supporting the Catholic Church’s stance against divorce. Bourget uses Father Eduard to state Church doctrine, the other characters to illustrate the truths of his arguments, and a very chatty omniscient narrator to validate his message. Bourget treats the characters fairly, giving them all desirable qualities and believable motives which level the playing field of argumentation, keeping the focus on the question of doctrine. He is saying, through the narrator, “(Those who) follow Church teachings are in a great measure protected from the moral disasters which invariably come to those guided and swayed by their senses, passions, and weaknesses.”
Today’s reader could be drawn in by these characters, but the modern disregard for Catholic divorce doctrine will surely diminish the reader’s sympathy for Bourget’s characters. Gabrielle will be seen as a victim, a woman repressed by patriarchal Church law. The narrator will have little persuasive power because of statements perceived to be judgmental and sexist (divorced people act on their senses, passions, and weaknesses).
It is not unexpected that a writer in 1904 would describe Gabrielle’s skin and clothes and view her maturity negatively “… gray hair, the dawning autumn of her age”; yet characterize Albert by his respect for civil law, work ethic, and devotion to Gabrielle. Today’s critic will argue that unchanged Church doctrine continues to be anti-female.
Time has also weakened Bourget’s arguments. With today’s preponderance of stepfamilies, Lucien would not feel inferior. His jealousy of Albert “because he no longer had the larger part of (Gabrielle’s) affection” would strike today’s reader as Freudian. And pinning Gabrielle with even a hint of responsibility for her husband’s abuse and subsequent divorce when Lucien says, “I thought of the life I should have had with you two if things had been arranged that you could have stayed with him. Who can tell? The good side of his nature might have perhaps developed” Such speculative statements would be soundly rejected.
As in all good opinion writing Bourget anticipates arguments and addresses them. The Church is blind to serious problems in marriage? No, the Church sanctions separation. Annulments are Catholic divorces? No, Gabrielle cannot receive one because her first vows are valid. The Church is angry with remarried couples because they have carved out happy lives without the Church? No, Gabrielle is not happy without her faith and both Albert and Lucien suffer the very hardships the Church wishes to prevent.
Even the title A Divorce rather than Divorce asserts that Bourget is speaking about one family’s strife, one scenario; but the narrator clearly feels that, to a certain extent, one divorce can speak for all cases.
Bourget successfully shows why the Church opposes divorce and honest readers will concede the social and emotional problems he illustrates. But he fails to convince us that the Church has a handle on how to deal with divorce. Like Gabrielle, today’s divorced faithful aren’t strong enough to live celibate lives and don’t feel called to do so. Readers too will question if the Church is serving the letter of the law or the spirit of the law. Why is divorce perceived as the one sin the Church doesn’t forgive?
Perhaps Bourget is saying, through Father Eduvard’s mathematical conundrum, that the Church’s solution to problem marriages does not add up. Perhaps Father Eduvard’s specific attention to the beginning and end of the formula implies that the Church should ask itself if it is punishing the consequences of a bad marriage (divorce) instead of the cause (abuse, for example.) Perhaps he is saying there is no easy answer and is giving the Church credit for working unceasingly, as Eduard works, to solve the problem of protecting the sanctity of marriage yet serving those who fall short of the ideal.
A Divorce was a difficult book to acquire and at times was tedious to read. It would not be successful in the mainstream because its focus is wholly Catholic doctrine. It would not be met kindly by today’s woman without an historical perspective on sexism. It would, however, provide heated common ground for discussions about Catholics and divorce.
Publisher: Cornell University Library
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.2 x 1 inches