Category: Review
Comparison between Zola and Huysmans on the Lourdes Phenomenon

As opposed to just giving a definitive perspective of things, the works of literature of Zola and Huysmans offered a discussion on different forces in conflict. This meant that artists had to remain between a movement’s own official belief system and the opposing side that “fragilized” it. Comparing the ideas of Huysmans and Zola, the main focus should be made on Naturalism and Catholic mysticism not just as a field of two diametrically opposing perspectives, but mainly as caught in the “crosswinds” and put in simpler terms. In this regard, there is a close relationship between religious and secular texts that emanated during the same period of “cross-pressures” and “fragilization” that look at both systems of thought. To bring forth these two ideas, it will be imperative to focus on Emile Zola and Joris-Karl Huysmans’ ideas on Lourdes. Here is where the natural scientist and Catholic spiritual conflicted in their fictitious investigation on religion and science.

A deeper understanding of Zola’s Lourdes and Huysmans’ Les foules de Lourdes provides quite different ideologies on the place of pilgrimage. This can be explored through Bernadette’s revelations, pilgrimages, and believers’ cure. On the contrary, if consideration is given to their works of art as emanating from the same historical time of “cross-pressure”, a range of clear similarities is significant. The two artists indicate in their novels an elevated level of anxiety towards and attraction to the conflicting ideology. Zola and Huysmans’ writings emerge from a feeling of compulsion to defend what they believe in or their unbelief. In most cases, both authors knowingly or unknowingly deviate from their personal interpretation of the world so that they can open their works to the probability of “the other”. With regard to Huysmans, this involves embracing the idea of a godless world void of mystery, which can result in feelings of depression towards what seems a meaningless existence. On the other hand, according to Zola, this involves the probable existence of a supernatural being.

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The idea that there is a spiritual realm supporting the material universe is proved quite enchantingly even to a strongly inclined secular artist like Zola. This, however, has implications in the feeling of anxiety. Essentially, the writings of these two authors show the need to protect their system of beliefs. This arises succinctly due to the fact that the opposing system of thought has compelling proof. It is noticeable to re-establish themselves in their official stand on science and the divine, both authors engage in the debate on theodicy. This means for them to make a decision on whether or not they should believe in God amid human suffering.

Zola’s Lourdes

The author’s focus on Lourdes inclines mainly from two challenges that the shrine posed to his perception of things. In the first place, as Zola looked at history as the inevitable comparison of progress away from “superstition” and towards scientific reality, it was crucial for him to exemplify the surge in religious fervor at the shrine and all over France at the period dominated by reason and scientific research. However, his interest in the shrine as well as emanates from an individualized fantasy with the religion as shown in his connection and journal entries during the time. Zola says that during his prior visit to Lourdes, he had experienced the “cité mystique” just like the believer. His depiction of his first perceptions of the shrine as a genuine religious practice shows that the writer had become enraptured with the surrounding of Lourdes. His additional comments on the shrine are critical in understanding his impetus to draft Lourdes as undecided in that it originates from both the shrine’s expected threat to Naturalism and its steadfast charm.

In his novel, he describes the pilgrimage of Marie de Guersaint to Lourdes with expectations of receiving healing of her bodily paralysis. As the novel progresses, we meet her miraculously healed with other characters. As opposed to any other previous works of Zola, Lourdes has a binary narrative structure. The structure alternates between a mystical foundation of the faith healings and a positivity version.

Huysmans’ Les Foules de Lourdes

As opposed to Zola whereby the “other side” was the miracles of Lourdes, according to Huysmans, the threatening “other,” generally is atheism and Naturalism. This specifically refers to Zola himself based on his recent publication on the shrine. It is clear that The Crowds of Lourdes involved a direct reaction to Zola’s novel, which, when perceived from a conclusion point of view, Huysmans unsurprisingly considered as a direct attack on his faith. As a result, he purported to deny this systematically. In his novel, Huysmans portrays the narrator’s spiritual voyage from atheism to Catholicism. As a reaction to the overarching positivism of Zola’s work, The Crowds of Lourdes seeks to confirm the validity of miracles and, at the same time, question the existence of God and the devil. There are a few examples in Les Crowds of Lourdes that support both “fragilization” of Huysmans’ beliefs, as impacted upon by Zola’s eventual position on Lourdes whereby Huysmans is swayed by Zola’s assertions and a re-anchoring of the conflicting theme in a Catholic perception of things by inclining to a rooted dialogue about evil.

First of all, there is a crucial passage in the book that focuses on the nature of the healing waters of the Grotto. This passage directly answers the threatening positivist assertion of Zola’s novel. This description by Zola’s novel is seen as a challenge to faith. In more than one incident, Zola’s protagonist directs the attention of the reader to the contaminated quality of the waters. Sick people are occasionally submerged in these waters. There is irony in Zola’s commentary considering a miracle when sick people get out of the pools with additional diseases. This is meant to emphasize the total contamination of the water. On the contrary, Huysmans evaluates this observation and gets rid of all the irony. He turns it around to be evidence of the presence of supernatural intervention. As a result, this debate on the nature of Lourdes starts to reveal the writers’ personal agenda as opposed to a neutral stance of genuine scientific research.

The religious and mystical perspective is evident in the first part of the novel. There is a description of a garden saturated with a sweet scent from roses whose existence is mysterious. Essentially, the characters start looking for the location of the roses that offers them bizarre happiness to no avail. The roses are a well-understood representation of the virgin and add to the mystical perspective of the literary work as well as affirm the viewpoint in Zola’s book oeuvre far fetched positivist ideology. Even though the roses are referred to in a number of incidences within the novel, there is no scientific explanation of their existence.

According to Huysmans’ perception, the greatest threat to his belief based on Zola’s novel is the negative theodicy that talks about the non-existence of God, because most of the sick pilgrims leave the Grotto feeling worse than when entering. In the same way, in The Crowds of Lourdes, Huysmans bases a lot of his interior monologue to explain the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent God amid human problems. To start with, he confirms Zola’s troubling idea that most of the patients visiting the shrine are unhealed. He admits his own disappointment when people are not healed and imagines that God refuses to intervene in human problems. As such, Huysmans can only grieve with the sick whose sicknesses are not alleviated. He, in fact, feels at one point being pulled and threatened by atheism. However, he looks for answers to the many questions he has through meditating upon a Catholic perspective of suffering. He is then encouraged to believe in the reversal of advantages whereby evil or that the afflictions of the saints and believers can benefit the sinner. Following this, Huysmans realizes that Christians should pray for more suffering as opposed to the viewpoint of healing.


In conclusion, the final pages of Zola’s novel indicate that the author’s encounter with this so-called Lourdes phenomenon has greatly changed his perception of religion. As he embraces Catholicism, his literary work of the time shows that he is rearranging himself when it comes to matters of religion; at the time he visits the shrine, he feels that he actually has experienced something new and genuine. This discussion has closely compared the two authors with regard to their perception of what religion is all about. As much as Zola begins off his writings as an advocate of atheism, he ends up getting identified with Catholicism. It is evident that Huysmans’ writings depict him as being a strong believer in religion. Although he at some level almost gets swayed with the atheistic ideologies of Zola, he finds solace through meditation upon the teachings of Christian suffering in Catholicism.

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