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The Dream (Rougon-Macquart)

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Emile Zola

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Tags: Books
Author: Emile Zola
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Mondial
1 review about The Dream (Rougon-Macquart)

Her Dream, France's Coma, Zola's Nightmare

  • Jun 14, 2010
Most readers in France and other Catholic-majority nations in the 19th C would have been acquainted with the Legenda Aurea, the "Golden Legend", the compendium of the lives of saints that had been universally popular since the Middle Ages. The Legends are rich in fantasy, like all fairy tales replete with both the gruesome and the delightful. La Reve (The Dream) is intentionally such a tale of implausible enchantment, a 'fairy tale' novella inserted into the often didactic naturalism of Emile Zola's 20-volume Rougon-Macquart chronicle of society during the Second Empire. The central character, Angelique, springs straight from the pages of the Golden Legend, which in fact she reads avidly and upon which she models the fantasies that control her behavior. Much of the imagery in La Reve, and even some of the odd archaic syntax, comes from hagiography. Zola always excels at description, at scene setting, and in this book he gives his descriptive powers free rein to visualize the cathedral and the cathedral community of Beaumont: the Gothic sculpture, the picturesque old houses and gardens, the heirloom furniture, the embroidered liturgical garments and the workshop where the adopted waif Angelique practices the delicate artisanry of embroidering the chasubles and stolls of her religion of spiritual splendor. Zola is completely in control of his style here, completely restrained from any urge to interpret or extrapolate; this is indeed a 'golden' dream of romance. And yet, somewhere toward the middle of this tale of enchanting innocence, one's heart begins to palpitate, one starts to perceive a looming tragedy, a bittersweet denouement, as if too much happiness cannot be other than a dream even in the enchanted precincts of a cathedral garden.

Angelique is an abandoned child, a runaway from an abusive foster home. She is found nearly frozen to death on the porch of the cathedral by the Huberts, a childless couple who take her in and eventually adopt her. The Huberts are the heirs of generations of artisanry in the making of liturgical garments and banners, which they teach the girl. Nothing could more vividly symbolize the antique simplicity and stability of pre-modern traditional culture than such an anonymous art. The girl grows from a wildly erratic, temperamental waif into a beautiful maiden, gifted at her art but completely sheltered from 'contemporary' reality. She lives in the Hubert's ancient dwelling, nestled between the buttresses of the cathedral, isolated even from the bustling commercial lower town of Beaumont. She dreams of a prince charming -- naturally, in the way of fairy tales, one WILL appear -- and of her own transcendence of her shameful birth as a princess of bliss. She also dreams of sainthood, of martyrdom, of the renunciation of worldly happiness achieved by her idolized Saint Agnes. Two such dreams must inevitably clash.

There's almost nothing explicit in this novel of Zola's comprehensive theories of heredity and its import in human character. If one happened to read La Reve alone, without any exposure to the rest of Zola's writings, without the context of the whole Rougon-Macquart saga, one might take it to be a quaint, melodramatic, almost operatic love story. But Angelique carries with her a secret that she herself doesn't know. At the time of her adoption, father Hubert goes to Paris to uncover the identity of her birth mother. What he learns is the only linkage of this novella with the other Rougon-Macquart books, and he never reveals his discovery to Angelique or even to his wife. The girl is the illegitimate daughter, given up at birth, of Sidonie Rougon, the daughter of the opportunistic scoundrel Pierre Rougon who founded the wealth of the Rougons. In other words, Angelique could have been a child of prosperity, in Paris, the niece of a powerful cabinet minister, rather than a humble village maiden. There is a huge irony implicit in this 'charming' love story, which only readers of the whole saga will perceive. The question of Angelique's hereditary nature isn't asked in so many words, but her capacity for emotional 'excess' MUST be, for Zola, part of her Rougon inheritance. Zola's subtle irony extends to his portrayal of the provincial values of the cathedral town of Beaumont, a fast-vanishing enclave of the 'ancien regime' of religious certainty. Those values are so pure, so sublime ... and for the lovers in this tale, so cruel and sterile. The generous integrity of traditional France, even if it survives in rural pockets, is "the dream" in the title of this book.

I read this short novel in French, and I'm not entirely sure that its beauties will be apparent in English translation, especially for sober anglophones who have never looked into the Legenda Aurea or the fables of Perrault. Several of the translations available are quite old and musty with Victorian/Edwardian conventions. Even if you read French, however, or if you find a plausible translation, I'd strongly suggest reading "The Fortune of the Rougons", the initial story of the Rougon-Macquart clan, before "The Dream", lest you be misled about its significance.

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