Michael J. Cummings...©
on a Translation From the French by Clara Bell
Bianchon enjoys an outstanding reputation as a physician, surgeon, and
developer of a system of theoretical physiology. While pursuing his education
at a medical school in Paris, he studied under the great French surgeon
Desplein, acknowledged even by his enemies as an extraordinary physician
and teacher. As the narrator points out,
Desplein had a godlike
eye; he saw into the sufferer and his malady by an intuition, natural or
acquired, which enabled him to grasp the diagnostics peculiar to the individual,
to determine the very time, the hour, the minute when an operation should
be performed, making due allowance for atmospheric conditions and peculiarities
of individual temperament........But
if Desplein had a godlike eye, there was nothing of the divine in his soul,
for he was an atheist. He was as absolute in his belief that there was
no God as he was supreme in his medical art. However, when he died, he
took with him all his skill; he left behind no important
discoveries, inventions, or medical breakthroughs. Thus, he was like a
great stage actor rather than a great playwright. When the actor dies,
so does his fame. When the playwright dies, his works survive to be performed
again and again.
Desplein was alive, colleagues envious of his incomparable talent were
always on the lookout for deficiencies in him to criticize. Finding none,
they resorted to nitpicking about his moods or other manifestations of
his personality. There was his eccentricity, for example. He might dress
impeccably for a while, then neglect his appearance for a time. Or he might
travel in a carriage one day, then walk the next. However, Desplein did
have at least one good friend, Bianchon.
his college days, Bianchon was destitute, experiencing many a hardship
while living in Maison Vauquer, a run-down boarding house in the Latin
he was always cheerful and always willing to help others without expecting
recompense. He was also forthright and modest. His qualities earned him
the deep respect of others. Desplein, in particular, favored him and formed
a strong bond with him.
would take him with him on calls to homes of the wealthy, where patients
would always put a jingle in Bianchon's pocket. On one occasion, Bianchon
called Despleins attention to a poor man afflicted with a serious illness
caused by lack of food and rest. After Desplein healed the man, he gave
him money to help him pursue his trade. Later, the man brought a sick friend
to Desplein, saying he would entrust him only to the great doctor, and
the physician hospitalized the mans friend and took care of him and, over
time, other needy patients.
completing his medical studies, Bianchon went on to become an important
surgeon at the Hôtel-Dieu,2
the main hospital in Paris, where Desplein also practiced.
day at 9 a.m., Bianchon was crossing the street when he saw Desplein furtively
entering the church of Saint-Sulpice3
on the Rue du Petit-Lion.4
Following him inside, Bianchon was surprised to discover the avowed atheist
kneeling at an altar and then staying for mass, after which he made a contribution
to the church and gave alms for the poor. Bianchon left without being seen
by Desplein. It so happened that Desplein asked Bianchon to dine with him
that day at a restaurant. Over dessert, the latter deliberately steered
the conversation to religion. To bait Desplein, Bianchon said the mass
was a shameful and ridiculous exhibition. Desplein agreed, declaring that
has cost Christendom
more blood than all Napoleon's battles and all Broussais'5
leeches. The mass is a papal invention, not older than the sixth century,
and based on the
Hoc est corpus.6
What floods of blood were shed to establish the Fête-Dieu, the Festival
of Corpus Christithe institution by which Rome established her triumph
in the question of the Real Presence,7
a schism which rent the Church during three centuries!.......Three
months later, a physician at the Hôtel-Dieu who had seen Desplein
at Saint-Sulpice asked him why he, an avowed atheist, had visited a church.
Bianchon was with the two doctors at the time. Desplein explained that
he was ministering to a priest with a knee affliction. The questioner accepted
the answer. Bianchon knew, of course, that Desplein was lying. Thereafter,
he decided to observe Desplein closely. Exactly one year after Bianchon
saw Desplein enter the church, Bianchon posted himself outside Saint-Sulpice
at nine oclock and saw the great surgeon again steal his way inside and
attend mass. After Desplein left, Bianchon asked a sacristan whether Desplein
regularly visited the church. The sacristan told him that Desplein attended
a mass four times a yeara mass that Desplein himself sponsored.
more years passed and Desplein continued to attend mass on the appointed
days. Finally, Bianchon decided to follow Desplein into the church and
kneel beside him during the mass. Desplein did not seem at all surprised
to see Bianchon. When they left church, Bianchon said, I have caught you
three times going to massYou! You must account to me for this mystery,
explain such a flagrant disagreement between your opinions and your conduct.
You do not believe in God, and yet you attend mass?
answered, I am like a great many devout people, men who on the surface
are deeply religious, but quite as much atheists as you or I can be."
they passed into the Rue de Quatre-Vents, a slum, Bianchon asked Desplein
why he was having a mass said four times a year. Desplein pointed to the
top floor of a building, noting that sponsorship of the mass was prompted
by events that took place when he lived there.
said he had endured great suffering in the place: hunger and thirst, want
of money, want of clothes, of shoes, of linen, every cruelty that penury
lived there alone, with no one to help him pay the costs of his medical
education or lodging. For breakfast, he ate a stale roll. He was so poor
that he could afford dinner only every other day. But he persevered, studying
hardsometimes an entire night.
day, the landlord evicted him, effective the following morning, because
he could not pay his rent. The landlord also evicted a neighbor, Bourgeat,
simply because he was a lowly water carrier. With nowhere to go and no
money to rent a cart to haul away his meager furnishings, Desplein spent
a restless night wondering what to do. However, in the morning, Bourgeat
offered to transport Despleins belongings in a cart he had rented. In
addition, he proposed that they join forces to find a new place to
lodge. So off they went.
finding two affordable rooms, they settled in and dined together daily.
Over time, Bourgeat had saved nearly enough money to buy a horse and a
barrel for his trade. However, he decided to make all his money available
to Desplein, who was struggling to complete his medical studies. Of this
extraordinary generosity, Desplein said:
That man, my friend,
understood that I had a mission, that the needs of my intellect were greater
than his. He looked after me, he called me his boy, he lent me money to
buy books, he would come in softly sometimes to watch me at work, and took
a mother's care in seeing that I had wholesome and abundant food, instead
of the bad and insufficient nourishment I had been condemned to........One
day Bourgeat told Desplein that he once had a dog, his only companion.
He took it with him wherever he went, even to masswhich was often, because
Bourgeat was a devoted Catholic. Not once in twelve years did the dog bark
in church. After it died, he wondered whether the church would permit priests
to say masses for it. It was a touching story, and Desplein never forgot
becoming a house surgeon at Hôtel-Dieu, Desplein had to move to the
hospital. He felt an indescribable, dull pain in doing so. But Bourgeat
was proud at having had the opportunity to help him. With his wages, Desplein
bought Bourgeat the barrel and horse he had always wanted. Bourgeat was
deeply moved, and a tear came to his eye.
and by, Bourgeat became ill. Desplein nursed him back to health, but two
years later the man relapsed and none of Despleins magic could save him.
Remembering that Bourgeat had been a devout Catholic, Desplein arranged
to have four masses said for him every year at Saint-Sulpice. Further,
Desplein attended these masses and even prayed that
Great God, if there
is a sphere which Thou hast appointed after death for those who have been
perfect, remember good Bourgeat; and if he should have anything to suffer,
let me suffer it for him, that he may enter all the sooner into what is
called Paradise.Desplein concluded his story
by telling Bianchon that he would give away everything if he could have
the kind of faith that Bourgeat had.
Desplein died, Bianchon never assumed that he died an atheist. The narrator
says, Will not those who believe like to fancy that the humble [Bourgeat]
came to open the gate of Heaven to his friend as he did that of the earthly
temple on whose pediment we read the words"A grateful
country to its great men."8.
The action takes place in
Paris, France, in the first half of the 19th Century.
with unsurpassed skill. He boldly avows atheism but attends a Roman Catholic
mass four times a year.
Highly respected surgeon who studied under Desplein. One day, he sees Desplein
entering a church to attend mass and decides to monitor Desplein to find
out why he, a thoroughgoing atheist, kneels in a pew to hear mass.
Bourgeat: A poor
man who helped Desplein when the latter was an impoverished medical student.
Catholic priests assistant responsible for preparing and maintaining vestments,
chalices, and altar cloths and for seeing to the day-to-day operation of
the sacristy, a room in a churchusually behind the main altarwhere chalices
and vestments are kept and where a priest robes himself for mass.
The Atheists Mass is a
short story that is part of a larger work, The Human Comedy (La
Comédie humaine), consisting of more than 90 novels and short
stories knitted into a gigantic tapestry. The Human Comedy is divided
into the following sections: (1) "Scenes From Private Life," (2) "Scenes
From Provincial Life," (3) "Scenes From Parisian Life," (4) "Scenes From
Political Life," (5) "Scenes From Military Life," (6) "Country Life," and
(7) "Philosophical Studies." "The Atheist's Mass" appears in "Scenes From
Private Life." It was published in January 1836 in La Chronique de Paris
and incorporated into The Human Comedy in 1844.
Balzac tells the story in
limited third-person point of view in which the narrator enters the mind
of only one character, Bianchon. The thoughts of Desplein become known
only when he verbalizes them in his conversations with Bianchon.
The structure of The Atheists
Mass consists of the following:
1. An exposition providing
information about the education, work, and accomplishments of the two main
characters; about the personality ....of Desplein;
and about the relationship between Desplein and Bianchon when the latter
was an impoverished medical student.
2. The presentation of the
riddle: Why does Desplein, an atheist, go to church to attend mass? Here,
Balzac piques the curiosity of the ....reader,
who must read to the end of the story to discover the answer.
3. The account of Bianchons
close observation of Desplein to learn the reason for the atheists godly
4. Despleins explanation
of his behavior.
5. Bianchons conclusions
In The Atheists Mass,
it is easy to see that Bourgeats driving motivation is to do what is right
in the eyes of God. As for Desplein, his driving motivation is to deliver
superior treatment. But it is interesting to note that superior treatment
has a double meaning in this story. To Despleins envious colleagues, the
term refers to the ability to heal with superior skill. To Desplein, the
term refers to the ability to heal with unstinting compassion, thanks to
the influence of Bourgeat. And Bianchon? We are told at the beginning of
the story that he is "a physician to whom science owes a fine system of
theoretical physiology, and who, while still young, made himself a celebrity
in the medical school of Paris." Whether, after hearing Desplein's story,
he will follow in his mentor's footsteps is an open question.
To draw his characters or
to make observations, Balzac uses similes and metaphors that burn, cut,
rip, or present easy-to-visualize images of people, places, and things.
In other words, reading Balzac is to see and feel what the words portray.
Following are examples of Balzac's imagery.
earliest studies were guided by one of the greatest of French surgeons,
the illustrious Desplein, who flashed across science like a meteor.
études furent dirigées par un des plus grands chirurgiens
français, par l'illustre Desplein, qui passa comme un météore
dans la science.
comparing Desplein to a meteor (météore).
They [Bianchon and Desplein]
had already exchanged thoughts on quite equally serious subjects, and discussed
systems de natura rerum, probing or dissecting them with the knife and
scalpel of incredulity.
Ils avaient déjà,
sur des points tout aussi graves, échangé des pensées,
discuté des systèmes de natura rerum en les sondant ou les
disséquant avec les couteaux et le scalpel de l'Incrédulité.
comparing thoughts (pensées) and systems (systèmes)to objects
that can be cut; metaphor comparing incredulity to cutting instruments
I hardly know whether in
later life we feel grief so deep when a colleague plays us false as we
have known, you and I, on detecting the mocking smile of a gaping seam
in a shoe, or hearing the armhole of a coat split.
Je ne sais pas si plus
tard nous éprouvons autant de chagrin par la trahison d'un confrère
que nous en avons éprouvé, vous comme moi, en apercevant
la rieuse grimace d'un soulier qui se découd, en entendant craquer
l'entournure d'une redingote.
comparing a shoe that has ripped open (un soulier qui se découd)
to a mocking smile (rieuse grimace).
He [Bianchon] carried his
poverty with the cheerfulness which is perhaps one of the chief elements
of courage, and, like all people who have nothing, he made very few debts.
As sober as a camel and active as a stag, he was steadfast in his ideas
and his conduct.
Il portait sa misère
avec cette gaieté qui peut-être est un des plus grands éléments
du courage, et comme tous ceux qui n'ont rien, il contractait peu de dettes.
Sobre comme un chameau, alerte comme un cerf, il était ferme dans
ses idées et dans sa conduite.
comparing Bianchon to a camel (chameau) and a stag (cerf).
These gilded idiots say to
me [Desplein], "Why did you get into debt? Why did you involve yourself
in such onerous obligations?"
dorés me disent: Pourquoi donc faisiez-vous des dettes? pourquoi
donc contractiez-vous des obligations onéreuses?
comparing wealthy persons to objects layered with gold (imbéciles
Bianchon knew the mysteries
of that temperament, a compound of the lion and the bull, which at last
expanded and enlarged beyond measure the great man's torso, and caused
his death by degeneration of the heart.
les mystères de ce tempérament de lion et de taureau, qui
finit par élargir, amplifier outre mesure le buste du grand homme,
et causa sa mort par le développement du cur.
comparing Desplein's temperament (tempérament) to the qualities
of a lion (lion) and a bull (taureau).
climax of the story occurs when Desplein reveals why he attends mass.
English title of the story, "The Atheist's Mass," is both an oxymoron and
a paradox; the French title, "La Messe de lathée," is a paradox.
But whether in French or English, the title expresses a contradiction:
that a person who denies the existence of God has arranged for a mass to
be saida mass at which the person says prayers.
Humanity, not knowledge,
makes a man great. Despleins medical colleagues deeply envied him
for his knowledge of medicine and his unsurpassed ability to treat his
patients. So envious were they of Desplein that they criticized him for
the slightest faultshis occasional deviations in the way he dressed, for
example. But Despleins true greatness lay not in his medical skillformidable
as it wasbut in his unheralded work on behalf of the poor. Desplein himself
apparently did not fully appreciate the importance of charitable undertakings
until the humble water carrier, Bourgeat, set an example for him. Though
a man of meager means, Bourgeat made his life savings available to Desplein
so that he could complete his medical education. Moreover, Bourgeat did
all my errands," Desplein told Bianchon, "woke me at night at any fixed
hour, trimmed my lamp, cleaned our landing; as good as a servant as he
was as a father, and as clean as an English girl.
He did all the housework . . . sawed our wood, and gave to all he did the
grace of simplicity while preserving his dignity, for he seemed to understand
that the end ennobles every act. After gaining prominence as a physician,
Despleina man known for meanness, according to his detractorsbegan treating
poor patients, telling one of them to bring all of his poor friends to
him. He also repaid his benefactor, Bourgeat, for his kindnesses, buying
him a barrel and a horse for his trade. In addition, after Bourgeat died,
Desplein arranged to have masses said for him four times a yearand attended
each one of them himself even though he claimed to be an avowed atheist.
It may well be that Desplein's humanity ignited a spark of faith in his
Questions and Essay Topics
Humble faith understands
what proud science cannot. Bourgeat was unshakable in his belief in
God and in the inherent goodness of creation. Before he met Desplein, he
had only one friend, his dog. But it was the best of dogs, one that knew
enough not to bark in church. After he met Desplein, he saw the future
doctor as gooda man who could heal, another Christand did everything
in his power to help Desplein. Bourgeat understood what science could not:
that God does not manifest Himself under a microscope. One must look for
Him in the faces of the poor and the sick and the downtroddenand sometimes
in the quiet recesses of a church, where even a dog recognizes a divine
Appearances are deceiving.
The narrator says that Desplein's life "was marred by many meannesses,
to use the expression employed by his enemies." The narrator also says
that "in his heart he mocked at everything; he had a deep contempt for
men." But the reader discovers later that Deplein's private life was marked
by many kindnesses and that he had a deep respect for poor and downtrodden
men, to whom he generously gave of his time and money.
Envy breeds enmity.
Desplein's colleagues envy him for his enormous medical skills. To bring
him down to their level, they criticize him for the tiniest fault and gossip
about him, calling him a mean man. Envy can turn quickly into enmity, it
Hard times forge sturdy
character. The three central charactersDesplein, Bianchon, and Bourgeatall
endure hard times before their lives change for the better. But their poverty
helped make them what they became. As the narrator says, "Burning poverty
. . . is a sort of crucible from which great talents are to emerge
as pure and incorruptible as diamonds, which may be subjected to any shock
without being crushed."
The sick heal the sick:
While Desplein heals the bodies of poor persons, the latter seem to heal
the soul of the spiritually ailing Desplein.
1. At the end of the
story, the narrator tells the reader, "After Desplein died, Bianchon never
assumed that he died an atheist." What is ....your
view? Was Desplein an atheist at the time of his death?
2. Why does Desplein
decide to help Bianchon?
3. Will Bianchon carry
on Desplein's tradition of helping the poor?
4. At the end of the
story, does Bianchon imply that Desplein was entombed in the Panthéon
along with other great citizens of France?
5. What does the anecdote
about the dog add to the story?
6. Write an informative
essay about the history and traditions of the Hôtel-Dieu of Paris.
1. Latin Quarter
(Quartier Latin): Section of Paris on the left bank (rive gauche) of
the Seine River, south of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. .....In
medieval, Renaissance, and later times, the Latin Quarter was the site
of the University of Paris, which consisted of many colleges, .....including
the famed Sorbonne. Until 1789, the university's students and their teachers
spoke only Latin in class, in cafes, and on the .....streets.
Consequently, the university environs became known as the Latin Quarter.
The area had a vibrant intellectual life that spawned .....important
social, cultural, literary, artistic, and scientific developments.
Hospital founded in 651 on the Île de la Cité, a small island
in the River Seine that is connected to the rest of the city by .....bridges.
The Île de la Cité is the site of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
The term Hôtel-Dieu refers to the principal hospital of a
French .....city. Thus, other cities in France
each have an Hôtel-Dieu. Today, the Hôtel-Dieu of Paris boasts
an outstanding staff of physicians. .....Until
the Renaissance, it was the only hospital in Paris.
Second largest church in Paris. Balzac attended Mass there when he lived
nearby. The church gained widespread .....attention
after Dan Brown referred to it in his novel The Da Vinci Code. Brown's
information was inaccurate.
4. Rue du Petit-Lion:
Street on which the Church of Saint-Sulpice was located. Today, the street
is know as Rue Saint-Sulpice.
5. Broussais, François-Joseph-Victor:
French physician who bled patients with leaches and prescribed fasting.
He gained a wide .....following early in the
6. Hoc Est Corpus:
Incomplete reference to hoc est enim corpus meum (for this is my
body). A priest speaks these words at the part of .....the
mass known as the consecration, in which a wafer of bread becomes the "Real
Presence" of Christ, although the bread itself does .....not
change in appearance. Christ spoke the words hoc est corpus meum
in His native language at the Last Supper, as reported in the .....gospels
of Matthew (26:26), Mark (14:22), and Luke (22:19) and in 1 Corinthians
7. Real Presence:
See No. 6.
8. A grateful country
to its great men. (Aux grands hommes, la Patrie reconnaissante.) Inscription
above the entrance of the Panthéon, a .....domed
building in the Latin Quarter of Paris honoring the memory of great citizens
of France. It was constructed as the Church of .....Sainte-Geneviève
between 1758 and 1789, but became a public building during the French Revolution
(1787-1799). Among the more .....than seventy
illustrious persons whose remains are entombed there are Jean Jacques Rousseau
Voltaire (François-Marie .....Arouet,
1694-1778), Mirabeau (Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, 1749-1791), Émile
Zola (1840-1902), Alexandre DumasPère
(1802-1870), and .....Louis