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Category: Classic
Date Published: November 21, 2005
Number of Pages: 156
Print Price: $14.00
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Mouchette is one of those gem-like short novels such as Death in Venice, Wiseblood, and The Old Man and the Sea. Fanny Howe, a Catholic poet and novelist, introduces it by first reflecting on the black and white foreign films she saw at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she grew up.

The European Catholicism those films portrayed “was passionate and earthy,” unlike the “Jansenist and stern” Irish American church she was used to. Some of the films she saw were directed by the French auteur, Robert Bresson, also a Catholic, two of whose most famous movies were adaptations of Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest and Mouchette.

Because of their similar visions, Bresson was the perfect director to adapt the works of Bernanos to film. Both were French Catholics with vibrant but at times doubt-ridden faith. Bresson once said he was a “Christian atheist,” but he also said in other interviews that he was certainly a believer. His films are known both for his use of amateur actors (one of the actors in the film version of Mouchette was a mason), whose stiff movements and expressionless faces sometimes seem robotic, and for their religious themes unsentimentally presented.

Howe then briefly describes Bernanos’s life: he served in the army in World War I, wrote most of his famous works between the wars, and politically began as a monarchist but, disillusioned by the rise of fascism, veered left in the late 1920s. Howe writes that he considered his writing “a divine calling,” and goes on to say that, “The persistence and survival of innocence was his primary subject; Joan of Arc and Thérèse of Lisieux were his heroines.”

In her introduction, Howe also makes a statement of Catholic faith I found especially appropriate for artists:

“Catholics by and large share a feeling that life has a liminal quality,” she writes, “that it slides toward an invisible aura, that the earth is consecrated by a presence that has either fled or still hovers, that prayer to plastic figures is useful, the way the figure focuses the attention on a lost object, and most Catholics feel with Keats that the world is a vale of soul-making and that suffering is part of that ordeal and therefore there is a plot to life, a goal and a chance of transformation. They believe in ritual as contributing to the transformation.”

In Mouchette, published in 1937, Bernanos shows us the last evening and day of a French adolescent girl who has no ritual to transform her life. No authority figure, either from church or school, has reached out to her except with slaps and words of disapproval. Her teacher hates her because Mouchette (“little fly”), who has a beautiful voice, won’t sing unless forced, and when she tells her teacher, “Madame,” that music disgusts her, Madame calls her a “little savage.” Mouchette lives in a “draughty hovel” with a dying mother, an infant brother, an older brother, and an alcoholic father who beats her when he deigns to notice her.

The novel begins with Mouchette hiding in the woods waiting for the other girls to come out of school. She likes to run ahead, hide, then spy on them. But this day they all scamper away. She walks home alone through the woods like an animal (Bernanos more than once refers to her as being like an animal).

Caught in a thunderstorm, she gets lost in the forest. Arsène, an alcoholic epileptic poacher who roams the forest and is always eluding the gamekeeper, Mathieu, finds her. He takes her to his hut, gives her gin to drink, and starts a fire. He tells her a story he wants her to relay to the police the next day to serve as an alibi – you’re not sure why but it seems he doesn’t want anyone to know he was in the woods that night.

Then things get confusing for Mouchette – Arsène tells a story about a cyclone raging outside tearing the roofs off buildings, and about how he and Mathieu had earlier that night fought in the woods about a girl they both love, then, exhausted, drank liquor from Arsène’s canteen and become friends again.

But then, Arsène says, he hit Mathieu in the head with one of his animal traps and killed him. After telling this story in a sort of trance, Arsène suffers an epileptic seizure. Mouchette, with the wind and rain howling outside, cradles his head and sings to him.

After he recovers, Arsène makes as if to leave but she reminds him that he has killed Mathieu. He seems to not remember it, but believes her and refuses to let her leave. “Arsène,” she says to him, “I’d sooner kill myself than do anything to harm you.” Arsène takes this as a declaration of love, which, in a way, it is, but he uses it as a pretext to rape her.

The rest of the novel spools out from this harrowing first half of the novel. Mouchette has entered what Bresson called "solidarity of evil,” but it is the only solidarity she has known. In a way, she is still innocent. She has become an anti-Joan of Arc but you feel Joan of Arc would understand her.

The novel is written in graceful but rough hewn prose. Bernanos leavens it with asides on poverty; these would bother purists, but Bernanos is the kind of writer, like Tolstoy, whose work is so alive, so real, that the asides, the comments, become a necessary part of the fabric of the novel. He is lecturing but you forgive him – at least I do – as you would Tolstoy in his later stories.

I find it very hard to choose a passage to represent the book but the following will have to do. In it Mouchette has been left alone after school with no girls to spy on. So she is crouching in the woods staring at the school.

“Once again Madame had forgotten to put out the gas-light in the yard,” Bernanos writes. “It was one of the old-fashioned kind with a butterfly-shaped flame with a blue centre. The flame spat and hissed in the wind, but always rose again and cast the shadows of the red posts and the hideous flat roof on to the pale cement. Mouchette could not take her eyes from it. She seemed to have dreamed, many times, that this humble setting was now waiting for someone. Would he come back? Would he come back tonight? . . . But only Madame appeared suddenly at the kitchen door and stepped out. Nothing remained but the tall poplar, scarcely visible in the sky, murmuring like a spring.”

I first read the book then watched the film on DVD with the accompanying documentary. The latter is a fascinating look at how Bresson directed, how the work of an artist is real grinding work, slow and meticulous, planned but open to surprises. Sometimes you compare a book with a movie adaptation and clearly prefer one, almost always the book; in this case, I cannot choose.

Both are beautiful harrowing works of art: Bernanos’s novel gives a more interiorly rich version; Bresson’s is all action, sound, and light. Both share that “liminal quality” Howe speaks of in her introduction.

Both show how the work of an artist can be a divine calling.

ISBN-13: 978-1590171516
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 4.8 x 0.4 x 7.8 inches

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Franklin Freeman is a stay-at-home dad of four who lives in Saco, Maine. He grew up in Texas, Connecticut and California, received a BA in English from Texas A&M and an MA in English from Northeastern University. His book reviews have appeared in America Magazine, Boston Book Review, Bloomsbury Review, Commonweal, First Things (online), Gilbert, The Literary Review, Touchstone, and Weekly Standard, among others. His poetry has appeared in The Aroostook Review, New York Quarterly and Tiger’s Eye. A short story of his is forthcoming in St. Katherine’s Review.

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