The Nun by Denis Diderot

03/03/2012 19:13

“Out of all these creatures you see around me, so docile, so innocent, and so gentle, well, my child, there is scarcely one, scarcely a single on, that I could not turn into a wild animal; a strange metamorphosis to which one is all the more susceptible the younger one enters religion and the less one knows of life in society. These words may surprise you: may God preserve you from ever finding out how true they are. Sister Suzanne, the good nun is the one who brings with her into the cloister some great sin to expiate,”


The oeuvre of Denis Diderot comprises several stunning works such as Letter on the Blind, Encyclopédie, Le Fils Naturel, but The Nun exuded such controversy and daring that it was never published in the author’s life time. Through the “memoirs” of a nun that had escaped from her cloister, the novel casts light on convent life in the 18th-century France, revealing the darker side of “the religious life.” Written at a time when the Catholic Church was said to epitomize morality and its opponents were mercilessly ostracized, the novel was to Ancién Régime France what Doctor Zhivago was to Soviet Russia. Although the novel is more than two centuries old, its deep message is not any less bereft of relevance than it was during Diderot’s lifetime.


The protagonist of the novel, Suzanne, is a young nun who is forced to enter the convent by her mother, the latter fearing that the illegitimate daughter might endanger her two other daughters’ inheritance. Her memoirs take her across three cloisters, each proving to be a nightmare for Suzanne. In the first two, she becomes the scourge of the society for being open about her wish to leave religious life, and in the last one she becomes a victim of sexual harassment. Despite all the atrocious cruelty and hypocrisy she encounters, she never loses her Christian faith and perseveres to the very end, straying from suicide only because the latter would end up satiating the nuns’ sadistic appetite.


One of the main themes that the novel conveys is that the superstitious nature of religious thinking completely devoid of rational thought begets a pernicious atmosphere that devours the individual, as we can see in the quote below the title. Religious fanatics see themselves as holy people above everyone else; they are capable of the outmost cruelty as they perceive all of their actions sanctioned by a deity and view the people they dislike as being on the side of hell. As Suzanne is determined to have her vows annulled as she did not join the convent of her own accord, the nuns under the second Mother Superior along with the latter display abominable behavior towards poor Suzanne.”Whenever I walked beneath windows I had to hurry or have waste thrown at me from the cells. Some nuns spat in my face.”


The author also castigates the negative impact of the sheltered ambience of the convent and its effects on the human psyche. Suzanne writes in her memoirs, “Man is born to live in society. Separate him, isolate him, and his way of thinking will become incoherent, his character will change, a thousand foolish fancies will spring up in his heart, bizarre ideas will take root in his mind like brambles in the darkness.” This is demonstrated through the use of Madame ***, the Mother Superior at the last convent, whose mind is soaked in fantasies of lascivious nature. This fallen woman incessantly requests Suzanne to caress her body and even ask the latter if she had ever masturbated – a mere sexual deviant in a holy disguise or a product of her repressed environment?


At its commencement, the novel was not intended to be published as a literary work, but started out as a practical joke on Marquis de Croismare, a friend of Diderot’s; the former ended up believing the story and was swept away by compassion for the poor girl. The novel is written in a lucid, concise style and in a retrospective fashion. Suzanne’s condition is described so vividly that the reader will feel as if he were immersed in Suzanne’s bleak world, vicariously feeling for her suffering and dearth of justice. However, the protagonist’s naivety will irritate the reader at times; for example, Suzanne’s inability to understand Mother ***’s advances as demonstrations of lesbian affection.


The Nun is not just a good read because it provides deep insight into the 18th-century convent life in France, where many nuns were forced by their parents to take the perpetual vow to remain in the religious life, but because the message of the story is as relevant to our day and age as it was when the story was written. The Roman Catholic Church to this day is viewed by many individuals as a whited sepulcher; moderate Catholics themselves see the institution, wrapped up in several scandals, as largely corrupt.


However, the reader should by no means dismiss Diderot’s novel as an anti-religious or anti-Catholic work. Suzanne remains a devout Christian throughout the novel, proclaiming that Christianity is superior to all religions. Except for the members of the convent and the monk attempting to rape her, the novel does not portray Christians in negative light whatsoever. Suzanne can be viewed as a martyr of all moderate Christians in the struggle against fanatics. She exudes true devotion and compassion towards mankind that is truer to the official values of Christianity and that of most “vehement” priests whose beliefs and actions do not always correlate.

Tomáš Buš



Date: 05/06/2015

By: wgrange

Subject: lesbianism in "The Nun"

While it is true that Suzanne Simonin is naïve, that quality is essentially what enables her to withstand the torments of the cloistered life. When Mother Superior Ste. Europe exhbits what Suzanne calls "fits of passion," she is describing the Mother's lesbianism. To state, as M. Bus does, that Suzanne's rejection of Mother's lesbian advances is a "failure to understand lesbian affection" is like saying Suzanne does not understand the monk's need to rape her. Suzanne's repulsion is a natural reaction; rejection of "lesbian affection" is a perfectly normal, wholly acceptable response--as Diderot believed it to be.

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