10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Diary of a Country Priest
By Georges Bernanos
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
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A young French priest bears the cruelty of his parishioners with sublime patience in The Diary of a Country Priest, a modern classic that works as both a realistic novel and an allegory for the Passion of Christ. Its guileless narrator doesn’t know he’s dying of cancer when he becomes pastor of a church in rural Pas-de-Calais in the years between the world wars, and as his health fails, he makes few concessions to his frailty. Through the prism of the fragile priest’s efforts to serve God and his parish, the novel shows the inseparability of suffering and grace.
1 Every novelist who writes about faith needs, above all, to tell a story and not turn his or her book into a homily or tract. Did Georges Bernanos succeed? Why or why not?
2 The residents of Ambricourt see little to admire in their new priest. Do you see anything to admire in him? What?
3 Why did the priest’s parishioners dislike him so much? Did their disdain have more to do with them or with him?
4 Even some of the children of Ambricourt seem cruel. What accounts for their hostility?
5 Why does the priest have no name? How might the novel have been different if Bernanos had given him one of the saint’s names that monks tend to assume?
6 Why does the priest tear out diary pages about the death of Dr. Delbende? [Page 107] How do you see the death and its effect on the priest?
7 The priest gets little support from other clergy. His superior, the Dean of Blangermont, lectures him on not getting into debt, and an old friend from seminary turns out to be living with a woman. How does their behavior affect the young priest? Why do you think Bernanos included such unflattering portrayals of the clergy in the novel?
8 French parishes are “being eaten up by boredom,” the narrator says, and the clergy can’t stop it: “Someday perhaps we shall catch it ourselves – become aware of the cancerous growth within us.” [Page 1] Later the priest learns that he has stomach cancer. [Page 273] What do you think Bernanos is doing here? Why does he connect a metaphorical and real form of cancer?
9 The Diary of a Country Priest is a realistic novel that has elements of an allegory for the Passion of Christ or the Stations of the Cross. For example, in the Stations of the Cross, Jesus is condemned to death, takes up his cross, and falls. All of these incidents have parallels in the novel. Did you see any other allegorical elements in the book? What were they?
10 “I believe, in fact I am certain, that many men never give out the whole of themselves, their deepest truth,” the priest says. [Page 108] Does the priest give out the whole of himself, or his “deepest truth”?
1 The narrator often speaks in pithy phrases or epigrams such as: “Faith is not a thing which one ‘loses,’ we merely cease to shape our lives by it.” [Page 122] And: “There is not only a communion of saints; there is also a communion of sinners.” [Pages 138–139] Did any phrases in The Diary of a Country Priest seem especially memorable?
2 Some critics see The Diary of a Country Priest as a novel about the effects of grace. Some of those effects appear when the embittered countess, after speaking with the young priest, feels “miraculously, ineffably, the peace you’ve given me.” [Page 175] Where else does the novel deal with grace?
3 A challenge of novels about grace is that fictional consequences generally must be “earned” – they can’t result from coincidences or similar devices — while divine grace is by definition unearned. So a novelist must make credible both ordinary actions and occasions of grace. Did Bernanos do this?
4 Flannery O’Connor admired Bernanos and also wrote about the effect of grace on character. If you have read her work, how would you compare it with that of The Diary of a Country Priest?
The page numbers above come from the 1983 Carroll & Graf edition of The Diary of a Country Priest.
The Diary of a Country Priest. By Georges Bernanos. Translated by Pamela Morris. Introduduction by Rémy Rougeau. Da Capo, 302 pp., $15.95, paperback. Published: 1937 (first English-language edition), 2002 (DaCapo paperback).
The Diary of a Country Priest won two important French literary prizes: the Prix Femina and Grand Prix du Roman, given by the Académie Française. A One-Minute Book Reviews review appeared in the post that followed this guide. The book inspired an acclaimed 1951 film version by Robert Bresson.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
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