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The Nun (La Religieuse)

The story of the abuse and persecution of unwanted daughters surrendered to Catholic convents in eighteenth century France

Citation Information

Bender, Robert 2016. The Nun (La Religieuse), URL = <http://www.rationalrealm.com/philosophy/reviews/the-nun-la-religieuse-denis-diderot.html>.

Publication Information

Diderot, Denis, The Nun (transl. by R. Goulbourne), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. xliii+189, (paperback).

Portrait of Denis Diderot oil on canvas by Dimitry Levitzky 1773

Denis Diderot (1713–84) was one of the key figures of the French Enlightenment. He was almost entirely responsible for the great Encyclopaedia project, the aim of which was to publish everything known in the sciences of the time. For a decade, he was a friend of Rousseau, until they had a major rift. After abandoning early training for the Jesuit priesthood, he spent a few Bohemian years in Paris, mixing with young philosophers. It was then that he published his first work, Pensées Philosophiques (Philosophical Thoughts), attacking religious hypocrisy. He also went on to write a number of novels.

His novel, The Nun (La Religieuse), began life as a hoax to lure a friend back to Paris from his country estate. Completely absorbed, Diderot tinkered with it for years, finally developing it into a major work of fiction. The novel was eventually published 12 years after he died. In it, he invented the story of a young girl named Marie-Suzanne Simonin. Suzanne is the result of an adulterous affair by her mother. Resented by her 'father', she is thus rejected by a mother who is anxious to restore her favour with her husband. Suzanne is forced into a nunnery at 18 years of age in order to get rid of an embarrassment and to favour her elder sisters. Her sisters turn out to be grasping, selfish daughters who cannot wait to inherit their mother's estate. They are starkly contrasted with Suzanne, who submissively sacrifices her life in order to enable her mother to sustain her respectable front.

Suzanne has no vocation for being a nun and protests about it all her life, but to no avail. She complains to her self-centred mother, to her confessor and to abbesses. They all manipulate her into submission, with no real sympathy for the injustice of her situation. Her attempt to make a public speech about the evils of getting rid of unwanted daughters into nunneries is cut short by some quick damage control by the senior nuns. However, she cannot remain there and, after some time locked in a solitary room at her mother's, they find another nunnery prepared to overlook the scandal she has caused. The new nuns take pity because she has musical talent.

Her novice years yield her the best time of her life, between an unloving home and the horrors of her later time in two nunneries. Her first abbess is a wonderful leader. But, a year after taking her vows, her mother, her 'father' and the sympathetic abbess all die. From that point on, her life becomes very bad. The new abbess, Sainte-Christine, brings a new order. 'The favourites of the old order are never the favourites of the following reign.' Scourges and hair-shirts were confiscated by Moni, but are now made mandatory by Sainte-Christine. Suzanne is a rebel and resists this new order based on unquestioning submission and obedience. Her resistance brings only sadistic repression.

A regime of vicious persecution is implemented instantly, with the co-operation of nearly all of the subordinate nuns. Diderot presents them as toadying favour with the head Sister. They are her willing enforcers, each of them competing to show more cruelty in mockery and persecution than the others. Much of Diderot's story is reminiscent of Erving Goffmann's analysis of total institutions, such as the army, prisons and insane asylums. Here, every minute aspect of administration reinforces the huge power divide between the commanders and the inmates, who are systematically humiliated and stripped of dignity and privacy.

Book cover: The Nun (La Religieuse) by Denis Diderot

The nuns make Suzanne eat her meals on the floor in the centre of the refectory. Some nuns spread broken glass on the floor of the corridor to her cell and steal her shoes. Others steal her bedding, refuse to serve her food, throw their toilet wastes through their doors at her as she is passing their rooms, block the keyhole to her room and become hysterical at her contaminating presence. The abbess conducts a mass in which Suzanne is made to lie in a coffin. Although she is almost driven to suicide, she receives protection from one loyal friend. In writing a detailed account of her persecution, Suzanne consumes a large quantity of paper. Realizing the damage impending if her story became public, the abbess and her minions have a panic-reaction. The Vicar-General is called in, investigates thoroughly and scathingly condemns the abbess for her cruelties. In the end, little changes.

Suzanne engages a lawyer, M. Manouri, to plead in a court for her liberation from an unwanted cloistering. When this appeal fails, she is persecuted even more cruelly afterwards as an agent of Satan—a typical reaction from an authoritarian institution in which submission to authority is the primary value. Diderot develops here a powerful case for liberty from such oppression. As in so many other institutions, the oppression is so capricious, despite the existence of detailed rules for management of convents. Everything depends on the personality of the leader.

Suzanne eventually transfers to another convent, Arpajon, where she encounters a similar but different problem. The abbess there also exerts strong favouritism. However, this is because she is a lesbian, fostering intense bitchy and hysterical jealousies between new and discarded favourites. This is what happened in the Longchamps convent, where Sainte-Christine's favourites would do anything to fit in with the abbess' commitment to persecuting a rebel, even driving the resister to suicide.

The whole of Diderot's novel is not devoted to an attack on Catholic Christianity, as Suzanne is portrayed as a fervently pious young woman. Diderot's critique is directed to the unnatural hothouse relationships that develop in authoritarian convents. In these dysfunctional settings, it is not the church, but the personal idiosyncrasies of the abbess that determine whether the convent culture manifests as healthy or sick. He also protested against a legal system that reinforced such systemic viciousness.

Along the way, Diderot develops acute psychological studies of sadistic and highly sexualised personalities. He shows how similar the forces are for driving inmates insane from the shifting intense loyalties and scrambling for status and favour with the abbess. Diderot suggests these phenomena were common in such institutions. And he protests at convents being used, in practice, for the disposal of unwanted daughters, where the Orders were paid handsomely to enable rejecting families to get rid of their disfavoured children. In this case, Suzanne's parents have three children, favour two of them while being appallingly cruel to her, their third child. So, this novel presents a consistent theme on the evils of unequal treatment of persons in clique-riddled bureaucracies, just as there is in families in which one child is ostentatiously favoured.

For a novel written in the 1770s, it is remarkably modern in the ways in which it addresses what are still very real issues. It speaks to, for example, the repeated outbreaks of bastardisation in the armed forces and the persecution of whistleblowers, such as Mary McKillop. McKillop was beatified posthumously, but while alive, she was excommunicated for exposing the sexual abuse of children by a priest. Clergy abuse of minors remains a very modern issue. As with the American Declaration of Independence, Diderot was pleading, in effect, for all people to have rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To achieve this goal, his novel is a plea for the need for the abolition of such evil institutions as convents, in which helpless young women have their sanity systematically destroyed.

Copyright © 2016

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