The Woman of the Pharisees
Genre: Historical Fiction
Date Published: February 17, 1993
Number of Pages: 241
Print Price: $13.50
eBook Price: $
As one begins to read Woman of the Pharisees, one might think there is no possibility of redemption for the title character. When the novel by Francois Mauriac first hit France during World War II, one might have thought there would be no possibility of the world ever learning about this book, although it privately had acclaim among the French people.
It is considered Mauriac’s most ambitious novel, which explores what it means to be a Catholic who is truly striving for holiness. Louis Pian, the narrator, tells the reader of his adolescence and young adulthood and the difficulties he and his family endured from stepmother Brigette.
Mauriac portrays Brigette Pian as a “good Christian woman” who believes herself to be righteous and noble. The rest of the world sees her as she is – spiritually in ruin, dominating whenever she has the opportunity, and narrow-minded.
She is, however, sincere in her pharisaical behavior. She is certain she is doing God’s will as she controls those around her, from her husband Edouard, to her stepchildren, her neighbors, and people she might call “friends.” If anyone dares to balk at her ministrations, she verbally – and loudly – offers up to God her “sufferings” in the midst of the tension.
Brigette “knows” the young man with the seedy past is not the right man for her stepdaughter, so she manipulates her husband to prohibiting Michele from seeing her lover. When the parish priest providing spiritual guidance to the young man doesn’t do enough to keep them apart, Brigette arranges to have the curé suspended and banished from the rectory.
In some cases she appears to do things akin to feeding the poor a fish while clubbing them to death. She wouldn’t teach them to fish, but would remind them that without her giving them the rationed fish, they would starve. If they would try to learn to fish, she would threaten to cut them off before they had the opportunity to master the art. No, she doesn’t act out of love because she’s incapable of it. As any Christian should know, if one does not act out of love, he does not act as a Christian.
But Mauriac’s genius is not just the strength of Brigette’s character. Anyone who is irked by someone else’s faults often have similar faults of their own. Most people are blind to this fact. So while Louis despises his stepmother’s ways, that’s not to say he’s incapable of learning from them.
Some speculate that Mauriac was considering his own sinfulness while writing this novel. That could very well be. Any good Catholic novel can also help the reader realize their own sinfulness. Do you have a problem with someone at work, at home or how things are done at the local parish? Are you convinced the person is not doing the will of God? Are you certain what the will of God is for that person, in this circumstance? Does the title character remind you of people you know – “other” people? Are you and I, in fact, a Brigette Pian? As any good spiritual director will tell you – when faced with that, consider your own sins. You most likely have more than you’d ever want to admit.
This was certainly the case with the French Vichy government, which ruled the country at the time this novel was published in 1941. If the government officials saw themselves in La Pharisienne, they likely didn’t appreciate what they saw. This might account for the fact that the novel received no press acclaim. No French publication was allowed to mention either Mauriac or the novel, let alone review it.
In the end, Brigette does, in a sense, find redemption, albeit after everyone either dies or deserts her. She finally realizes that God seeks not things we do, but that we do them out of love of God and neighbor. In the literary world, Woman of the Pharisees proved to be the pivotal novel that earned Mauriac the Nobel prize for literature in 1952. It was first introduced to American readers in 1946, but still remains largely unknown. However, it is included among the Specially Recommended list in The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan compiled by John A. Hardon S.J. and has been read and discussed recently by some Catholic reading groups, so there is still hope that this novel will be more widely known.
Christine J. Murray writes from Sterling Heights, Michigan
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
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