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B+ : almost entirely middling melodrama -- but incredibly beautifully finished off
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Translator Paul Gibbard begins his Introduction by suggesting that readers familiar with Zola's better-known works might be tempted: "as they wade deeper into [The Dream], to double-check the name of the author on the title page".
Certainly, in some respects, The Dream is very different from the author's more famous naturalistic works -- but, in fact, much of its attention to specific kinds of detail (more than you ever wanted to know about embroidery ...) are typical of Zola's work, and while the story itself is something of an outlier the novel nevertheless is recognizably his work.
I would like to write a book that no one expects of me. First of all, it must be suitable to be placed in anyone's hands, even the hands of young girls. So no violent passions then, a simple idyll [...] I'll redo Paul and Virginie. What's more, since it's said that I can't do psychology, I'd like to force people to admit that I'm a psychologist. So a bit of psychology then, or what passes for such (!) That is, a moral struggle, the eternal struggle between passion and duty [...] And, finally, I'd like to work into the books something of the supernatural, the dream, the unknown, the unknowable.Zola's notion of 'suitability' can certainly be questioned; The Dream may not be (physically) explicit, its protagonist a true innocent, but this is not a book for the kids; if not pulled down a sexually wayward path, young Angélique's (rite of) passage, colored by some very dark shades of Christian martyrdom, is nevertheless one that one surely would not want impressionable young girls to consider too closely.
The Dream begins dramatically enough, during a snowstorm on Christmas Day, 1860, in the town of Beaumont. Nine-year-old foundling Angélique has run away from her latest intolerable situation, and huddles at the entrance to the local cathedral, where she is found, in the snow by Hubert and Hubertine, a couple who work -- as embroiderers -- and live nearby. The Huberts' tragedy is that they have remained childless, and now this child drops into their laps; they quickly arrange to become her guardians and take her in -- a happy solution for all.
From the first, Angélique shows herself to be inordinately passionate -- including with a temper that can flare. If on the whole a sweet, obedient, and helpful child -- and a valued embroiderer, quickly taking to the family business --, she can let herself get carried away by thoughts and reveries, to the extent that Hubertine worries about Angélique's raptured fervor and tries (rather futilely) to keep it in check.
The Huberts are perhaps overly protective of her -- as, for example: "Hubertine had obtained permission to keep Angélique out of school, as she feared the child might fall in with bad company". So, instead:
This cramped and ancient building, and its garden, in which a deathly hush prevailed, were Angélique's entire universe.The girl does not, in the least, fight her imposed isolation, or even perceive it as such; instead she fully embraces it -- and finds a different kind of escape:
Although high-spirited and vivacious, Angélique loved solitude and took great delight in spending time alone in her room in the mornings or evenings. There, she could let herself go and fully savour her escape into the world of dreams. Sometimes, when she was able to dart up during the working day, she was overwhelmed by happiness, as though she had somehow broken free and run far away.In the opening scene, Angélique had taken refuge by St. Agnes's door to the cathedral, and this saint hovers over much of the story -- much as she is described at the outset:
At the apex of the tympanum, Agnes appears in a radiant circle of light as she is received into heaven, where Jesus, her betrothed, weds his delicate young bride with a kiss of eternal rapture.Most learning does not interest the young girl -- "What was the point of knowledge ? It was utterly useless" --, but she does take to one book, in particular, The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, with its stories of the lives of the saints and other religious miscellany. It offers her what is perhaps not the best of lessons: "The Legend had taught her this: miracles are the common rule, the ordinary way of things". And it all makes for a small and very circumscribed world: nearing the novel's conclusion, Zola can sum up:
Yet she had known no book other than the Legend, no horizon other than the apse of the cathedral, which blocked out the rest of the world.Yet her fantasy-life is rich -- which becomes problematic when she encounters a young man, whom she promptly, easily falls in love with. Typically, however, for her:
She felt no curiosity about him, and a smile came to her face when she mused on the course things must inevitably take. In any case, what she did not know did not matter [.....] He had come, she had recognized him, and they were in love.Angélique believes entirely in fate and destiny; she practically refuses to be troubled by reality and its obstacles -- to the extent that, at one point, even her beloved complains: "I am someone who actually exists, Angélique, and you are rejecting me for your dreams ...".
When she meets the boy, Félicien, she takes him to be a stained-glass painter, but in fact he is the heir to an immense fortune, far above her station. He tries to tell her his true identity, but she doesn't want anything to puncture the fantasy-bubble she has already blown out of all proportions:
'No, you don't know, you can't possibly know, it all goes back so far ... Glass-painting is only a hobby for me, you need to know the truth ...'It may be enough for her, and him, but of course reality makes other demands. His father won't hear of such a match and has already decided who he is to marry; the Huberts know its impossible for someone such as Angélique to marry Félicien. The young couple is pushed apart by these outside forces -- but Angélique's does her best to remain steadfast in her certainty about how things are meant to be -- "she believed love to be all-powerful" --; any other outcome than her union with Félicien would shatter her entire world and destroy her.
From its opening at the cathedral to Angélique coming of age in its shadows, and with only the Legend to guide her (and her dreams), the religious is completely entwined in the story. Guiding light St. Agnes was famously put to death because she refused to marry, devoted instead only to (the spirit of) Jesus Christ, and Zola presents the innocent relationship between Angélique and Félicien in a similar way, down to describing how Angélique hangs on Félicien's words -- she: "listened adoringly, like a holy child at the feet of Jesus". And, of course, even her name is 'angelic' .....
Much of The Dream is predictable, and Zola plays out the story of true, deep love and the obstacles it faces in often predictable melodramatic form. Their union would seem to be one that is impossible, given the difference in their backgrounds -- and especially the opposition of Félicien's father (who, on top of it, has a complicated relationship with the boy because of another personal tragedy that marked him), and the question is: is Angélique's faith strong enough to overcome even all this -- indeed, reality itself ? What sets the novel apart from the usual sappy romance is the strong character of Angélique, a character who remains completely, indeed impossibly, pure, embracing her fantastical dream-world rather than the real one, with all its demands and disappointments.
The Dream certainly has its weaknesses. Zola can't get around the melodrama of so much of it, and a lot of that is hard to take. There's also Félicien, whom he can't quite build up into that ideal of Angélique's; the boy remains too underdeveloped for such an important character. As the story moves to its inevitable-seeming end, the melodrama gets even heavier-handed, and until right near the end one is basically, at best, groaningly amused by it all, rolling one's eyes.
The end, in its outlines, does not come as a surprise -- but what does is how Zola pulls it off. The final scene, the final page, the final paragraphs, and then especially the final sentences are as good an ending as one will find to a novel, pitch-perfectly put by Zola. Amazingly, even as what happens isn't really unexpected, the details and, especially, how it's put are pretty much close to perfect.
For practically its entire length The Dream is a middling novel -- fine but overheated, and seemingly simplistic. But it's as if Zola had presented all that only to achieve this final effect -- and what a grand one it is. Lots of novels have satisfying endings, but what Zola pulls off here is of a different order: simply masterful, and not just one of the highpoints of his work, but of all French fiction. As problematic as much of The Dream is, it's worth it all for that ending.
- M.A.Orthofer, 16 April 2022
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French author Émile Zola lived 1840 to 1902.
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