Places: Sister Philomène

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Sœur Philomène, 1861 (English translation, 1890)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSainte-Thérèse Ward

Sainte-Thérèse Sister PhilomèneWard (sant-tay-REHZ). Hospital ward committed to Sister Philomène’s charge that eventually becomes her entire world. The hospital in which the ward is situated is never identified, although it is likened at one point to the Hospital de la Pitié in Paris’s rue du Fer-à-Moulin. The novel opens with a description of Philomène doing her rounds, emphasizing the limited nature of her daily and nightly routines.

The vocation that brings Philomène to the ward is a trifle arbitrary. She is meekly following in the footsteps of her friend and role-model, Céline; however, she is no less powerful for that. The neatness, cleanliness, and discipline of the wards, brightened by a copious display of frequently laundered white linen, are carefully contrasted with the disorder of the resident doctors’ room: a vaulted hall whose stone walls ooze damp, equipped with a pipe-rack, a slate board on which the surgeons scrawl memoranda, and their untidy pigeon-holes. Philomène is glad to have the suffering in the wards carefully veiled and curtained but still must work hard to suppress the vivid imagination that informs her of what happens in the consulting rooms and–most horrifically of all–the dissecting room.

Her inability to recognize the sexual nature of her feelings for the young doctor Barnier, the surgeon responsible for her patients, is symbolized by the delight she takes in the news he brings her of the great city that she could experience for herself if she would only allow herself to step out into its streets.

Madame de Viry’s house

Madame de Viry’s house. Town house in the rue Chaussée d’Antin, into which the infant Marie Gaucher–later renamed Philomène–is received after being taken in by her aunt, who is a servant there. It is because Marie is indulgently received by Madame de Viry that she gets ideas above her station that lead to her being packed off to an orphanage. By the time she returns to Madame de Viry’s house, it has become Monsieur Henry’s house, an unendurable den of iniquity.


Orphanage. Establishment run by the nuns of a calculatedly unnamed order, situated in Paris’s Faubourg Saint-Denis, where Philomène (renamed because the orphanage already numbers another “Marie” among its charges) grows up. She adapts as readily to its disciplined passivity and her work as a seamstress as she earlier adapted–inappropriately–to life in Madame de Viry’s house. The children leave the convent once a week to walk along the Canal Saint Martin, and once a year visit the country, usually the park at Saint-Cloud, walking from Sèvres to Suresnes. The convent’s inmates also visit the house of their benefactress, Madame Mareuil, at Lagny. Philomène receives her first communion at the shabby local parish church, Saint Laurent, at the end of the boulevard de Strasbourg.

Mother House of the Sisters of Saint Augustine

Mother House of the Sisters of Saint Augustine. Convent to which Philomène’s friend Céline is sent to serve her novitiate, once she has fully absorbed the piety and religious fervor of the orphanage, leaving a void in Philomène’s life that the latter cannot fill. Philomène eventually follows Céline to the convent, after failing to adjust to the requirements of Monsieur Henry’s establishment.


*Marne. Provincial French department–named for its major river–where the unnamed village in which Barnier grew up is situated. There, his father kept horses that towed barges along the Meaux Canal. His first love, Romaine, whose suffering and death in Sainte-Thérèse Ward sets him on the road to ruin, follows him to Paris from the village.


Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. Church at the end of the rue de la Banque to which Philomène goes, on one of her rare excursions outside the hospital, to pray for Barnier. Her modest foray outside the hospital is, however, far too little and far too late. She cannot save Barnier from himself.

BibliographyAuerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard Trask. New York: Doubleday, 1953. Considers the Goncourts as naturalist writers. Compares their novels with those of Émile Zola and classifies the Goncourts as second-tier writers.Baldick, Robert. The Goncourts. London: Bowes, 1960. A very brief but excellent survey of the Goncourts’ novels. Concentrates on biographical background to the novels. Includes some exploration of major themes and aspects of literary style. Sister Philomène is cited as their most positive and least sensational novel.Billy, Andre. The Goncourt Brothers. Translated by Margaret Shaw. New York: Horizon Press, 1960. The standard biography of the Goncourts. Shows that their novels emerged from events in their lives. Traces the research efforts that contributed to Sister Philomène. Also furnishes contemporary reaction to their novels.Grant, Richard B. The Goncourt Brothers. New York: Twayne, 1972. Surveys the lives and works of Jules and Edmond de Goncourt. Ordered chronologically, the book carefully integrates their lives of the authors with detailed stylistic and thematic analysis of their novels.Nelson, Brian, ed. Naturalism in the European Novel: New Critical Perspectives. New York: Berg, 1992. Essays by prominent scholars of naturalism in England, France, Germany, and Spain. Includes several important discussions of the Goncourts’ role in the development of social documentary as a literary genre.
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