Places: The Diary of a Country Priest

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1936 (English translation, 1937)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedAmbricourt

Ambricourt. Diary of a Country Priest, The (ahm-breh-kohrt). French parish located on a hillside whose priest sees its miserable little insignificant houses huddled together as a symptom of Christianity in decay. Like the village, the lives of its people seem consumed by boredom. He unfavorably contrasts the place where he will live out his vocation with a Carthusian cloister, where monks create an island of order in the midst of a sea of chaos. His parish is poor, but its poverty is not evangelical, unlike the poverty of Jesus Christ, and the few wealthy parishioners conceal their greed beneath a facade of false humanism, and so their wealth never manifests its full cruelty.

Parish church

Parish church. Like the village, the parish church and the priest’s lodging are coarse and poor. He needs to pay a boy to fetch water for him since he has no well, and his food consists mainly of bread and inferior wine. The church, with its broken windowpanes, is where the priest says mass and encounters the broken lives of his parishioners. The church school, where he catechizes the parish’s children, becomes another place of alienation since his young charges are either bored or cruel. Despite his sufferings in dealing with all his parishioners, he sees his parish as part of the everlasting presence of Christ in the world. Like all human communities, Ambricourt is caught in the great spiritual river sweeping all souls into the deep ocean of eternity.

Château

Château. Estate of a count and countess where the central struggle of the novel occurs. Walled and gated, the château stands on a heavily wooded hill, where the priest sees it as turning its back on the village and all its people. Although the château represents a life of privilege and prosperity, the priest discovers there lives of great spiritual poverty. The count is involved in an adulterous relationship with his daughter’s governess, and his daughter is so unhappy over her father’s affair that she threatens suicide or murder. The countess, whose life has been broken by the death of her son, has withdrawn into a cold hatred of humanity and God. Through a long, agonistic conversation, the young priest is able to break through the wall of isolation that the countess has constructed around her. She becomes reconciled to God, and during the night, after the priest leaves, the countess dies. The priest walks back to his church along Paradise Lane, a muddy pathway between hedges.

*Lille

*Lille (leel). City in northern France where the parish priest’s odyssey ends. Lille is a major industrial area, but it, like Ambricourt, is infected with a malaise and indifference to the spiritual life. The priest travels to Lille to consult a doctor about his severe stomach pains, which have been accompanied by the vomiting of blood. Though the city, with its ordered streets and elaborate buildings, offices, and residences, stands in stark contrast to Ambricourt’s poverty, the priest finds the city similarly alienating. He feels confused while wandering its streets, just as he has confused the name of the doctor he was supposed to see. The physician he does see, a drug addict, bluntly diagnoses the priest’s problem as stomach cancer.

The final place in the priest’s life is the decrepit lodgings of a former priest, a friend from his seminary years, who is now a commercial traveler living with a mistress. The priest reaches his friend’s apartment by climbing a dark staircase, and the former priest provides him with a camping bed set up not in a room but in a narrow passageway that smells of drug samples. The place is one of ugliness and loneliness, but the priest seems to lose himself in this foulness and misery, the only shelter in his misfortune. As he dies, his friend hears the young priest’s final exclamation of his faith.

Sources for Further StudyBlumenthal, Gerda. The Poetic Imagination of Georges Bernanos: An Essay in Interpretation. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965. An analysis of the poetic imagination at work in the novel. Associates this poetic vision with Bernanos’ mystical explication of human behavior.Brée, Germaine, and Margaret Guiton. “Private Worlds.” In An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus. Rutgers, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1957. Interprets the country priest as a figure tormented by private and public incompatibilities. His diary is therefore a reflection of what the priest cannot, perhaps dares not, communicate to his parish or to church authorities.Bush, William. Georges Bernanos. Boston: Twayne, 1969. Bush discusses Bernanos’ contention that evil in modern society is connected with conservative social forces and that humans secretly covet totalitarian order. Examines The Diary of a Country Priest as a vehicle of private thoughts that sustain the dying priest. Chief among these thoughts is the possibility that self-realization comes only with death.Curran, Beth Kathryn. Touching God: The Novels of Georges Bernanos in the Films of Robert Bresson. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. A look at the themes of the Catholic novelist and the spiritual filmmaker and their attempts to articulate grace and redemption through the suffering and death of characters in their works.Field, Frank. “Georges Bernanos and the Kingdom of God.” In Three French Writers and the Great War: Studies in the Rise of Fascism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975. Overestimates the effect of World War I on Bernanos’ pessimism but offers insights into the political and social underpinning of The Diary of a Country Priest. Although impressionistic, this study links Bernanos to larger trends in 1920’s ideology.Hebblethwaite, Peter. Bernanos: An Introduction. New York: Hillary House, 1965. This work emphasizes the importance of childhood events as the psychological determinant of adult behavior. Offers a close reading of The Diary of a Country Priest with a detailed analysis of Bernanos’ innovative techniques. The priest is presented as an exemplar of spiritual tenacity.Heher, Michael. Lost Art of Walking on Water: ReImagining the Priesthood. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2004. Heher describes the modern plight and perils of the priesthood.Molnar, Thomas. Bernanos: His Political Thought and Prophecy. Somerset, N.J.: Transaction, 1997. Bernanos’ work went beyond commentary on religion and had political implications for his day and the future.
Categories: Places