Emile Zola: Blood, Sex, Money 3.9

Doctor Pascal is the 20th and final book in Zola's Rougon-Macquart series. 

SHORT VERSION OF THE PLOT: Pascal Rougon, son of Pierre and Félicité, is a country doctor in Plassans who has been studying the family through the prism of the science of heredity. Félicité is unnerved by this and tries to get his niece Clotilde to steal the files. Pascal and Clotilde start an affair though financial and moral scandal separate them and Pascal dies of a heart attack. Félicité takes the opportunity to burn the files. As the saga ends, Clotilde is nursing her child with Pascal and reflecting on the future. Long version here.

The book brings to an end the extraordinary Rougon-Macquart novel sequence, one of the great achievements of nineteenth-century European fiction; Zola conceived the project in the late 1860s, initially conceived as 10 books, but soon expanded to 20. He aimed to write a family saga but that would give a complete picture of life under the Second Empire (1852-1870) - a period of French government that was still going when he imagined the series. He would build on the panoramic realism of Balzac but bring to the task the latest scientific discoveries in biology and sociology: this was to be realism but inflected with the latest scientific understanding of what reality was. He wrote the first book as that government collapsed in the Franco-Prussian War and then wrote the rest as the Third Republic uncertainly established itself in the 1870s and 1880s. He began the series as a near-unknown, the author of some journalism, a mildly controversial novel, Thérèse Raquin, and some short stories; he ended the series as perhaps the most successful and controversial writer of his era. Dr Pascal (1993) takes us to the beginning of the saga again: we are back in Plassans, the location of the first book and the town to which we have returned only once before in the series. Pascal is there in that first book, is mentioned in a couple of others, and then gets a book to himself right at the end of the series.

Pascal is, in many ways, the key to the perversity of Zola's project. Pascal is writing about his family - but he is also part of the family. He is both the objective observer of the family's behaviour, someone who claims the ability to explain it, and a member of that family, so someone whose behaviour, presumably, can be similarly explained in reference to biological and social causes. Pascal is a sort of supplement, in Derrida's sense, both inside and outside the rules of heredity. In the first book in the series, Zola tells us:

The other son, Pascal, born between Eugène and Aristide, did not seem to belong to the family. He was one of those frequent exceptions to the laws of heredity. As a race evolves, nature often produces a being whose every aspect is derived from her own creative powers. (p. 61)

Essentially, Pascal is an exception to the whole principle of heredity. In order to insist that heredity always works, Zola has to assert that sometimes it doesn't work. And this biological exceptionalism is not just an immature notion by a young writer. Something like it is there not just in the first book of the series but the last one too. Here's Zola speaking for Pascal in Dr Pascal. He's describing the various factors that produce a new human being and after talking about the influence of the mother and father and various familial strains he turns to the 'inborn factor', that is that element of the child that is entirely the child's own:

As for the inborn factor, this was the new being, or the seemingly new being in whom the physical and mental characteristics of the parents are intermingled, although in a superficially unrecognizable form [...] analogous to the chemical combination of two substances which constitute a new substance totally different from either of its constituents. [...] Was not the fact that he himself was so different from both his parents due to some such accident, or to the effect of larval heredity, in which he had, at one time, believed? (p. 32-33)

These passages shift awkwardly between seeing the 'inborn factor' as being wholly original or uncaused and being just undetectably caused. And then towards the end of the passage, it's clear that Pascal is searching for his own disconnection from the family. But is Pascal only 'superficially' different from his parents? Or 'so' different? Or 'totally' different? Later, Pascal reads out his own entry in his family tree:

Pascal, born in 1813. The innate factor. Combination, in which the physical and mental characteristics of the parents are confused, without any apparent resemblance to be found in the offspring (p. 105)

(David Baguley has shown how Zola similarly equivocated in his planning notes for the novel saga about whether Pascal's exceptionalism was real or apparent [p. 428].) 

Zola has not entirely made up this biological loophole. The French word variously translated as 'inborn' and 'innate' in these extracts is innéité and the idea is not Zola's own. It comes from the work of Prosper Lucas, particularly his Traité philosophique et physiologique de l'hérédité naturelle (1847, 1850). Lucas was a pre-Darwinian thinker some of whose ideas were built on by Darwin and other evolutionary thinkers. Of course, several of his ideas did not survival the intellectual law of the jungle and fell by the wayside, though Zola seems to have adopted some of his less successful ideas uncritically; for example Lucas believed that the particular circumstances in which parents have sex at the moment of procreation will leave an imprint on the child and in L'Assommoir, Gervaise's limp is attributed to the brutality of her father's lovemaking (though by the 1890s, Zola has accepted that this idea is false); another is this notion of innéité, which contrasted with hérédité, the latter providing the principle of similarity, the latter of diversity. Zola takes this on and continues to maintain it right to the end of his life.

This is a peculiar notion. The 'inborn' or 'innate' factor or 'innéité' seems to be what Zola was writing against. He wanted us to understand that we were the product of biological and social causes. Innéité is the suggestion that at least part of us is the product of nothing at all.

Why does Zola cling to an idea that is not just false, but appears to be inimical to the central materialist premise of his whole Naturalist approach? Perhaps it's just another instance of Zola's rather flaky scientific reading (the same flakiness that had him describe the characters in his preface to Thérèse Raquin using the long-obsolete theory of humours). He seems to have relied, for writing most of the Rougon Macquart in the 1870s and 1880s, on some intensive reading he did in the 1860s. It was only for this book that he tried to update himself - and discovered some of what he thought was fact was already discredited.

Perhaps we might more generously suggest that he alighted with enthusiasm on an apparently respectable (though dubious) scientific idea that solved a fundamental problem in his project. Zola was accused throughout his career of using high-minded moralism to mask a prurient and perverse interest in decadence. He was keen, therefore, preserve the sense that his intentions rose above the immorality that he represented. Around the time of Le Docteur Pascal, Max Nordau devoted a whole chapter of Degeneration - a strident critique of the degeneracy of contemporary European culture - to Zola and his apparently pathological interest in bodily smells; in response, Zola submitted himself for psychological examination, producing his clean bill of health as a refutation.

After all, if Zola, like Pascal, was 'conscious of the part played by heredity, environment and circumstance in determining conduct' (Dr Pascal, p. 22), then he would be conscious that his own Naturalist project would not stand aside from the processes it described, but be part of it. And if Naturalism is merely the contingent product of biological and social forces, what special claim to truth and reality would it have? This is a difficult circle to square: the force of Naturalism requires that the human world is 'just' part of the natural world, and thus subject to the same natural laws. That's the shock of Naturalism, its defamiliarising radical power. But to be able to say that with any authority, Zola seems to need to stand outside those processes. And so one can see how he might be attracted to a scientific theory that argued that there is a natural law by which someone might escape sheer biological determinism.

Zola, through Pascal, even seems to acknowledge that this is a loophole that allows the Rougon-Macquart project to continue:

It may not be very nice of me, but I am delighted, because some hereditary burdens are too heavy to bear. I may love them all [the rest of the Rougon family], but feel unutterably relieved when I feel myself different, with nothing in common with them. Not to be of them, not to belong to the family, my God! It is a breath of fresh air, which gives me the courage to put them all there, to strip them naked in those files and still have the courage to go on living! (p. 106)

This is Pascal talking, but it might as well be Zola. By entertaining this notion of innéité he was giving himself an out from the processes he explained.

What makes this even stranger is that Zola places, right at the centre of the book, a deeply perverse relationship: a sexual (procreative) relationship between an uncle and daughter. Nineteen books earlier, La Curée had a quasi-incestuous relationship - between a woman and her stepson - as an image of the pathology of the Second Empire, yet here a genuinely incestuous relationship is presented with what seems to be complete approval as part of his distance from the family, rather than his literal and metaphorical connection to it.  It seems connected to the (non-incestuous) relationship he had begun with his mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, 27 years his junior, with whom he had now two children. Indeed, while the published book has a fulsome dedication to his wife, in an edition given to Rozerot, Zola has ripped out the dedication and written in a new dedication 'to my beloved Jeanne - my Clotilde [and...] my two darling children for whom I wrote this book, so that one day they may read it and know how much I loved their mother'. Critics like Nicholas White have explained the internal metaphorical logic of this family story ending with a pure reassertion of family renewing itself and also maintaining the aesthetic neatness of the cycle. Meanwhile, Henri Mitterand's introduction to the 1993 Gallimard edition makes a great case for saying this is part of the book's essential perversity, suggesting the oddity of family and the twisted roots of the family tree. Nonetheless, it pushes, I think, to breaking point Zola's attempt to square the circle of his theoretical and practical naturalism.

It's surprising - to me, anyway - how little criticism the incest inspired. Given that Zola was regularly mocked and denounced for his supposed immorality, one might have expected much more outrage, but perhaps these criticisms were outweighed by a rightful appreciation for Zola achievement in finishing the series. The book's critics were as at least concerned with the book's atheism. In fact, reading the book now, there is a kind of quasi-spiritual reverence before nature, a kind of panvitalism that sees an essential shimmering spirit existing in and animating the natural world, before which Pascal and Zola spend much time enraptured.


This was, without doubt, the most difficult book I had to adapt. In part, because it was the final book of the series and so there was a need to wrap up the whole saga and reflect on it, satisfyingly, while building to a climax (after a 90-minute episode about a disastrous war! tough act to follow). In part, too, it is challenging because the framing device that we created for the entire thing - Aunt Didi speaking to us from the asylum - needed to be integrated and this means creating a huge strand of story that is simply not in the book - Didi is on about three pages of the novel, insane, virtually catatonic, and dies halfway through; she had to be an active protagonist in our drama. And, in part, because the book is relatively uneventful: although it features incest, arson and spontaneous human combustion, it is mostly a very placid book reflecting back on the whole series.

In part it was difficult because what to do with the incest? While it is part of the perverse structure of the book, it is nonetheless a hard sell to a Radio 4 audience. I toyed with trying to keep it incestuous but it was hard to think it wouldn't overwhelm everything else, so I decided to make Clotilde a fairly distant cousin. This seemed to me a reasonable replacement which retained Nicholas White's sense of the original book's attempt to reassert the purity of the family: after 26 episodes of the family tearing itself apart, my final episode could bring the two branches together.

And then, Zola's novel is a curious thing. It is a very self-conscious finale to the series - quite a lot of the book consists of summaries of the previous novels and Pascal's project is very much Zola's project, a quasi-scientific analysis of the actions of various branches of a family: Zola's arguments with religion are his arguments with his cultural critics. This supplies the book with the necessary sense of reflection and finality, but it does make the book feel quite thin and self-conscious at times. There are some fine set pieces: at one point Félicité visits Antoine and watches as he basically suffers from spontaneous human combustion. But it's pretty unconnected with the rest of the story.

We wanted Didi to be a core part of the story. The first episode of the saga had her as a character in the drama and not just a narrator and we wanted to return her to that state. So we wanted her to leave the asylum. But what can a 104-year-old do? How can she be active? We decided that, rather than have Pascal being a long-time hobbyist with files full of family information, she would be the source of it. He busts her out of the madhouse and she gives him the family details so he can write the book and expose the family's infamy. This made the central axis of the story Félicité vs. Didi, with Pascal and Clotilde intermediaries and, at points, collateral damage. I was able then to integrate four major events: first, the disappearance of Grandguillot, which is now the result of Félicité's actions, once she hears that Pascal is planning to fund the publication of his book; second, the combustion of Antoine (which I hope I've made slightly more plausible) which is not exactly Félicité's fault but she does nothing to stop it because she knows Antoine, after Grandguillot's departure, has offered to fund the book;  in the novel, Clotilde is called to Paris by Maxime which means she is away when Pascal begins his descent and indeed she misses his final moments - in my version Félicité sends a false letter calling Clotilde to Paris to get her out of the wayand allow her to confront Didi and burn the book; and finally, in the novel Félicité takes advantage of Pascal's death to burn the manuscript; in mine she burns it in front of him, an act that provokes his final, fatal heart attack.

The script went through several drafts - six eventually - because it was extremely difficult to get the tone and the structure right. Some huge things have to happen in the play - Clotilde, as in the book, has to go from becoming a devoutly Christian sceptic about Pascal's scientific project to a near-atheist who embraces science; and she has to also fall in love with him in the process. Didi, not as in the book, has to be busted out of prison (basically) and be enough of a threat to Félicité to make the latter take very serious, in fact lethal, action. The former I did with two early scenes in church; the first establishes her religion; the second, with Félicité, shows her religion being used cynically. I separated out the revelation about the book and made that a trigger for her romantic feelings: it is the way Pascal sees the world that makes her fall for him.

Didi's journey was much harder. In the first draft, I had Pascal hide her in Macquart's old hut (from 1.1) with the specific intention of ransacking her brains for family history with which to write his book. The hut was atmospheric and allowed some menace as Félicité tried to find her (I even had her, until quite a late draft, call through the door 'little pig, little pig, let me come in...' - although that version of Three Little Pigs story postdates the action of the play). The problem was that it swapped one prison for another; stuck in an old hut, Didi was necessarily a bit of a bystander to the action. In addition, by making Pascal the driver behind the book, she wasn't sufficiently active an agent in the story. So I brought her into the house, made her meet Félicité earlier and made the book more her idea. We felt she needed more and in the second draft there's a scene where the Town's main square is being named after the Rougons and Didi turned up to disrupt it. This was a fun scene but ultimately it didn't go anywhere; there was no real threat, just annoyance. In the final version, I pulled back from the public ceremony and have Didi interfere with a plan to rename the square - which in turn, it is implied, may affect a much larger business deal that is currently underway.

This has meant undeniably transforming the text and changing the story into something quite different. I was pleased that there are a few subtle touches, ways in which elements from the original novel are repurposed: the illegitimacy of Charles becomes the illegitimacy of Clotilde; Félicité's poison-pen letters become Didi's anonymous denunciation of Félicité to the Council. I think I've repurposed Antoine's burning, Grandguillot's disappearance and Clotilde's call to Paris quite effectively. It should feel like it starts as a family drama and becomes a thriller as the stakes are raised. Félicité is such a joyful character to write, it is hard to resist a bit of grand guignol camp and I think some of that remains in the climactic scene (but I did cut the line 'I'm the mummy now!').

One thing that happened between the first and second drafts is that we had a baby. I won't say that this has totally transformed my perspective on the world (I already thought children shouldn't be harmed, thanks) but it focused my attention on one aspect of the script. In my first draft, Félicité refuses to help as her son is dying. The suggestion was made to soften that. In fact, I decided to harden it, to make the darkest moment of the saga a parent deliberately watching their son die. (This is counterpointed almost immediately by the image of hope embodied by Pascal and Clotilde's child.)

And it brings the whole saga to an end. Le Débâcle (which is the basis for episode 3.8) is an epic war novel and a hard act to follow. In my version, I aim for something more personal, quieter perhaps, but as bleak and yet as hopeful a vision as Zola's.

You can read the final script HERE.


Works cited

Baguley, David. 'Darwin, Zola and Dr Prosper Lucas’s Treatise on Natural Heredity.' In The Literary and Cultural Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe, edited by Thomas F Glick. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014, pp. 416-30.

Nordau, Max. Degeneration.  Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

White, Nicholas. 'Family Histories and Family Plots.' In The Cambridge Companion to Zola, edited by Brian Nelson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 19-38.

Zola, Émile. Le Docteur Pascal. Edited by Henri Mitterand.  Paris: Gallimard, 1993.
———. Doctor Pascal. Translated by Vladimir Kean.  London: Elek, 1957.