The Cathedral

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Category: Classic
Date Published: April 24, 2012
Number of Pages: 234
Print Price: $9.49
eBook Price: $

Huysmans’ novel, the third which chronicles the life of the protagonist Durtal and his conversion to Catholicism, is a classic. In this third installment, Durtal moves to Chartres, France and lives in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral as he tries to determine the future path his life should take. The beautiful and sacred backdrop is juxtaposed against Durtal’s own spiritual dryness, which is one of the major themes of the work. The reader follows Durtal as he lives through things we each experience in our own lives – loneliness, desolation, and uncertainty about the future.

The Cathedral is Huysmans’ most celebrated work. Having read none of the others I can make no comparison. But I understand the work’s worth for readers today as well as those of future generations. That being said, I must also confess that I really did not enjoy reading the work. Though informative and somewhat interesting, I found it too introspective, monotonous, and (at times) downright boring.

The novel is commonly used as a guidebook for those visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral in Chartres; it is not difficult to understand why. Huysmans had a love of art and a gift for bringing it to life through the use of words – this appears to be his greatest strength. The detail given to the description of the cathedral and each piece of artwork it contains is amazing and one could easily take this book to Chartres and follow along with Durtal as he walks throughout Notre Dame. It is that detailed.

Huysmans’ explanations are also used to highlight teachings of the Catholic Faith. Often he employs them to teach stories from the Bible and elaborate on them. Describing a statue of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, he notes not only the symbolism of the piece but continues to explain what is missing – images of Abraham’s two wives and his son Ishmael, “For as you know, these two women are emblems, Hagar of the Old Dispensation, and Sarah of the New; the former disappears to make way for the second, the Old Law being merely the preparation for the New; and the two sons born of these two mothers are by analogy the children of the Books, and thus Ishmael represents the Israelites, and Isaac the Christians.”

Unfortunately, Durtal’s thoughts are often just that – inner thoughts. There is little dialogue between Durtal and the other characters. When he does have conversations with others the dialogue is often tedious and dull as in Durtal’s incessant lists. There are pages and pages of Durtal describing the symbolism of color in art, of animals in art, of flowers in art. It becomes, to those of us who are not art aficionados, a bunch of meaningless facts. I found myself desperately wanting to skip over them. Additionally, Durtal’s character is also frequently overly critical of other cathedrals and artwork, almost to the point of being uncharitable. I found this disturbing and unfitting for his personality. It seems difficult to imagine that a person so intelligent could be so hateful toward artists whom others find of merit.

The few times I found myself interested were the moments when Durtal was speaking to others. Not coincidentally this is the same time where Durtal seems most human and where we learn the most about his struggles. A conversation with Madame Bavoil about whether or not he should join the monastery is one of these much sought after instances. Madame tells him, “Do you suppose that by moving your soul from place to place you can change it? Your trouble is neither in the air nor outside you, but within you.”

This leads to a wonderful description of spiritual dryness and the need to continue one’s prayer life. The Abbé, after speaking to Durtal explains to Madame Bavoil, “He is enduring a painful but not dangerous operation. So long as he preserves a love of prayer, and neglects none of his religious exercises, all will be well. That is the touchstone which enables us to discern whether such an attack is sent from Heaven.”

In a later excerpt, the narrator describes Durtal’s disgust with the Catholic Church’s view of art in his time, “He could never get over his amazement at the incredible ignorance, the instinctive aversion for art, the type of ideas, the terror of words, peculiar to Catholics. Why was this? For after all there was no reason why believers should be more ignorant and stupid than any other folks. Indeed, the contrary ought to be the truth.” Though a little harsh, the next few pages do provide an analysis of the problem and education’s role in producing it.

All in all, there is merit to The Cathedral. I really did want to know how things turned out for Durtal. He was experiencing something that we all struggle with, dryness in prayer. He wondered, as most of us do, about God’s plan for our lives. Its information regarding the artwork of Notre Dame is unsurpassable. That said, given what I consider the downfall of the narrative, the incessant lists, I will not read Huysmans’ fourth novel, which tells of Durtal’s time in the monastery. Bottom line, for the average person with no special interest in art, this is not a must-read. If you are someone who enjoys reading details of artwork, then this classic is definitely worth a look.

ISBN-13: 978-1475041521
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 10 x 8 x 0.5 inches

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Michelle Sheehan Tholen is a graduate of Catholic Distance University (CDU). She holds a Master's Degree in Theology with a concentration in Catholic Culture from that institution and a BA in English from the University of Maryland University College. She is the mother of two, lives in Bayou Vista, Louisiana with her husband, Paul and teaches English at Hanson Memorial High School. Mrs. Tholen is a writer for the CDU Year of Faith blog at

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