Marcel Pagnol’s L’eau des Collines: Moral Accountability with Community

The French filmmaker and writer Marcel Pagnol died in 1974 at the age of 79 in Paris, having lived through one of the most morally destabilizing periods in history. He watched as two world wars devastated his country; he witnessed the permanent loss of the rural way of life in France through industrialization; he saw the fragmentation of French society and the impending collapse of the kinds of communities that had defined human existence in the West for hundreds of years. Unlike many artists of his era, Pagnol resisted both despair and moral nihilism. Though his work is often bitterly painful, probing mercilessly the human capacity for evil, his stories do not take place in a moral vacuum. Instead, they are shot through with a simple reliance on ancient creeds for moral guidance. The two novels Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (collectively called L’eau des Collines) offer hope that restoration of community is possible, but only if we live out Christ’s second commandment “Love thy neighbor.” Even in its darkest moments, Pagnol’s work affirms that, as we renew charitable relationships with those nearest to us, we can participate in bringing peace and justice to our communities.

In a reversal of the usual pattern, Pagnol adapted the pair of novels (published in 1963) from his own 1952 film, Manon des Sources. L’eau des Collines takes place in the 1920s in a tiny town, Les Bastides Blanche, just a few miles from Marseilles on the arid and mountainous Mediterranean coast of Provence. Among the townspeople of Les Bastides—mostly farmers, a priest, and a baker (those staples of French society)—flourishes a sharp suspicion of outsiders. In particular the town cherishes a centuries-old hatred for people from Crespin, the next town over.

Cesar Soubeyran (called the Papet) and his nephew Ugolin are the last surviving remnants of an ancient and proud family of Les Bastides. Ugolin has his heart set on gaining possession of a certain piece of farmland, and for a while, it looks as if he will get his desire. But unexpectedly, Jean, the hunchbacked owner of the farm, decides not to sell. Instead he moves his wife and daughter from the city to the farm and takes up life as a farmer. Papet and Ugolin concoct a scheme to drive him off the land once and for all: before Jean arrives, they secretly stop up the spring that waters the farm, rendering the land impossible to cultivate. Then they spread word that Jean is from Crespin, ensuring that no one from Les Bastides will go out of their way to reveal the existence of the spring to a hated outsider. This combination of action and inaction, of word and silence, sets off a chain of devastating events that threaten the lives and happiness of not only Jean and the Soubeyrans, but the entire town.

Pagnol’s story stands in stark contrast with the moral and metaphysical despair of its post-World War II contemporaries. In 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre’s grim existentialist play No Exit was first performed in Paris. Just nine years later, Samuel Beckett’s nihilistic Waiting for Godot premiered, also in Paris. In 1967, Jacques Derrida published his trifecta of books codifying the literary theory of deconstructionism, which set out to destroy the moral and metaphysical fabric woven in literature by Western authors since Homer.

Into this milieu dropped Pagnol’s L’eau des Collines. Despite its obviously twentieth-century setting, the story has elements of a classic fairy tale: a cripple unjustly persecuted, an arrogant father figure, and a virgin who brings about a terrible revenge. Pagnol made no effort to undermine the classic associations with these figures. The elements of great legend are unironically at work here. With its rustic setting, where people live in caves and shepherdesses wander the fragrant sun-warmed hills, the story feels more like a tale from medieval Italian literature than a film made in the 1950s and a novel published in the 1960s. Though many of the main characters are not particularly religious (and neither, it seems, was Pagnol), the Catholic Church is a powerful force in the novel. Whatever reconciliation takes place within the novels occurs through the Church, if not quite in the way the characters expect.

Pagnol keeps the story from being merely a stylish throwback by telling it with modern realism. The tone is matter-of-fact, with a noticeable lack of moral commentary. One of Pagnol’s greatest strengths is his ability to tell a charged narrative with great restraint; he demonstrates the ability, so vital to artwork but so difficult to master, of leaving things unsaid. In two novels, whose unifying theme is silence, such reticence is necessary, and it is only through this reticence that the novels achieve their moral depth.

The choice to simply relate a story with no commentary, with no overt attempt to direct the reader’s emotional response by hitting the right buttons, leads to what is called moral ambiguity, that situation in which a reader cannot easily reduce characters to ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It is the literary version of Solzhenitsyn’s famous declaration that “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.” In good literature, both sides of that line must be evident in every character and every situation, but the pathway for navigating this reality should not be straightforward—for neither is it in real life.

Such moral ambiguity, however, does not necessarily lead to moral relativity. Quite the reverse, for a line between good and evil only makes sense if there is a clear definition of good and evil. In other words, excellent literature must have a well-established metaphysical landscape that provides readers with moral expectations. The characters must be difficult to pin down morally, but their actions, motivations, and decisions must not be.

This is exactly the reverse of much contemporary literature, which often uses characters as emblems of good or evil (consider the all-too-common trope of the Good Progressive vs. the Evil Capitalist or the Repressive Nun or the Corrupt Priest). These emblems act against a background of moral relativity, which forces the author to provide commentary on every action and character so readers can know what is good and what is evil. In the absence of a clearly defined metaphysical landscape, there is no room for reticence on the author’s part, which makes for heavy-handed storytelling.

Pagnol’s pair of novels achieves striking moral ambiguity in the characters by placing them against a background of robust moral standards, specifically the standards of Catholicism. The Catholic teachings about the dignity of all humans, the responsibility of people to care for the earth, and the specific mandate to love our neighbors, make up the landscape of Les Bastides. The conflict in the story comes from violating those teachings, and it is clear throughout that restoration and peace will only come by returning to them—something some of the characters refuse to do.

Pagnol does not have to explain when an action is good or bad; he simply relates what the characters do, and we as readers find ourselves in the difficult situation of perfectly understanding why certain characters do things that are evil. We identify with their motives, but because of the clear moral framework of the story, we recognize those motives as evil. This is one of the primary functions of moral literature: to prompt us to serious introspection and to seek a better understanding of where that line between good and evil runs through our own hearts.

The novels in L’eau des Collines are a luminous moment in twentieth-century literature, representing the tenacity of ancient truths in a world shattered by previously unimagined horrors. They meticulously—and painfully—document the consequences of small uncharitable actions, of a lack of repentance for seemingly insignificant things, and of the grave dangers of withholding love from our fellow man. In a world bent on stripping away all moral norms and, in the spirit of relativism, forbidding us to make moral judgments about choices and actions, this pair of novels stands as a reminder that however much we may try to deny it, our lives as humans in community are bound inseparably together. We will be held accountable not only for our actions towards each other, but our inaction as well; not only for our speech on moral matters, but for our silence.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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