The Disciple, one of Paul Bourget’s (1852–1935) greatest literary achievements and his most famous novel, marked a change in the author’s literary development. Prior to this work, his fiction consisted of highly dramatic tales set in high society; with The Disciple, Bourget began the transition into the moralistic tone that would mark his later oeuvre. The novel tells the tale of Adrien Sixte, a positivist philosopher living a rigidly ordered life in his Parisian apartment, with little or no variation in his daily routine. Those few people known to him include his housekeeper and the concierge of his apartment building. This regularity is upset one day when Sixte receives a letter requesting his appearance at an inquest: A young man, Robert Greslou, has been accused of murder.
Sixte remembers Greslou as a student, an exceptionally bright young man who had sought out his input as a teacher and mentor. Beyond two brief meetings at his residence, Sixte had no interaction with Greslou and is thus surprised to be called by the inquest. Before Sixte heads to the police station to assure the authorities that he can be of no use to the case, Greslou’s mother arrives at his home, imploring him to help her son and offering him a monograph written by Robert.
The vast bulk of the novel is devoted to this tome, with Sixte’s story serving merely as a frame for Greslou’s memoirs, his autobiographical justification for the actions of his previous years. One of these actions is the incident that left a young woman dead; it is for her death that Greslou stands accused. His monograph details his obsessive adherence to philosophical treatises, Sixte’s foremost among them. Greslou devoted his life to the sort of life he imagined Sixte would lead: hermitic, orderly, defined by thought over action and the mental life over the physical or sensual life. In this sense, Greslou’s life functions as a test of Sixte’s theories, his life’s work.
After failing to gain acceptance at the university, Greslou takes a position as instructor to the children of aristocrat M. de Jussat. The elder son of the family, André, is a physical, strong sort, a direct opposite to the bookish, physically feeble Greslou. Second oldest is a daughter, Charlotte, simple and pretty, and the youngest boy is to become Greslou’s pupil. The young tutor decides, as a matter of philosophical experimentation, to try and compel the daughter to love him. In the meantime, he develops feelings for her, though the overwrought self-analysis of his monograph makes it difficult to discern his true objectives or feelings from his “experimental” intentions.
Greslou eventually declares his love to Charlotte on a walk. Soon after her rejection of his love, she leaves for Paris and agrees to marry a friend of her brother’s, a blow to Greslou. Upon her return, he again declares his love and suggests that he would commit suicide if she does not intervene. She does intervene, returning his love under the condition that he agree to a suicide pact, which he does. At the crucial moment, Greslou reneges, while she goes through with the plan. In his monograph, he argues that he bears no accountability for her death since she was responsible for the self-poisoning. Before her death, Charlotte had written to her older brother, and he remains the only person other than Greslou and Sixte aware of the truth: that she in fact killed herself. Charlotte’s brother burns the letter but later relates to the court what he knows. Greslou is freed based on this evidence; the freedom is shortlived, as upon his release Charlotte’s brother shoots Robert Greslou, killing him.
Faced with this confession and the needless deaths of two young people, Sixte realizes that it is an indictment of his views, his philosophy. The novel ends with Sixte, professed atheist, recalling lines from the only prayer he knows, the “Our Father,” his transformation sealing the moral imperative of the story and offering critics ammunition for the characterization that The Disciple is more parable than novel.
Austin, Lloyd James. Paul Bourget, sa vie et son oeuvre jusqu’en 1889.
Paris: E. Droz, 1940. Autin, Albert. Le disciple de Paul Bourget. Paris: Société française, 1930.
Mansuy, Michel. Un moderne: Paul Bourget de l’enfance au discipline. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1960.
Singer, Armand E. Paul Bourget. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976.