Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Three Cities Trilogy: Lourdes, Complete by Emile Zola

Emile Zola wrote Lourdes as the first book of The Three Cities Trilogy in 1894.  The French flock to Lourdes in this story because of their faith in God.  Some travel there as pilgrims to strengthen their faith through the journey and by helping  the sick.  Many more have serious illnesses and go to Lourdes to be miraculously healed by divine intervention. 

Zola is known for his incredibly detailed descriptions and he does not disappoint in Lourdes.  On the white train, the one with the most afflicted of sufferers, Zola writes about the passengers in a few nearby cabins.  He describes the illnesses with exhaustive, uncomfortable scrutiny slowly one by one.  We meet the main patient, Marie, on the first page and begin to understand the unimaginable suffering that existed before modern medicine.  "Then her father helped her lie down again in the narrow box, a kind of wooden gutter, in which she had been living for seven years past."  Another "wretch," M. de Guersaint, describes his ailments, 'I was seized with sharp lightning-like pains, red-hot sword the muscles.'  La Grivotte tells of her pinings endlessly.

The doctors say I have one lung done for, and that the other one is scarcely any better.  There are great big holes you know.  At first I only felt bad between the shoulders and spat up some froth.  And then I got thin, and became a dreadful sight.  And now I am always in a sweat, and cough till I think I'm going to bring my heart up.  And I can no longer spit.  And I haven't the strength to stand, you see.  I can't eat.

The entire story takes place over five days, two on the train and three in Lourdes.  Zola divides the book into five sections, one for each day. Once in Lourdes, patients go from the hospitals to the Grotto, the holy place of healing, at certain times each day to pray and bathe in the healing stream waters.  A miracle is the only hope for many had no other option left but to face imminent death.  Many are healed throughout the weekend.  Others have been there for years in a row and yet, again, receive no cure.  Some die.

The most interesting aspect of this entire story is that it is based on truth.  People still flock to Lourdes for divine healing today.    Scholars see Zola's works including Lourdes as examples of French naturalism and socio-historical documents.  66 healing miracles have apparently been documented in Lourdes since the pilgrimages began in 1858..  Even Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Lourdes as a "messenger" of peace in 2008.  There must be something going on here.  Read the book and find out.


  1. Interesting! I'd never heard of this book.

  2. I recently posted on Zola's Nana for the classics circuit-your very well done of this book has it among those I am considering for my second Zola

  3. The passage you quoted reminds me of the descriptive morgue scene in Therese Raquin, so totally opposite from the feel of the lush passages in The Ladies' Paradise focusing on the feel and appearance of the fabrics. Zola was a master of description! Thanks for the review.

  4. This isn't what I thought it was going to be at all, but it sounds very interesting!