Prominent among his later fiction, Paul Bourget’s (1852–1935) The Night Cometh takes as its focus competing worldviews of life and the burden of death. Set in a World War I-era hospital, the novel’s narrator, Marsal, is a doctor who cannot fight at the front, as he would like, due to a lame foot. Instead, he dedicates himself to a surgical practice devoted to soldiers with injuries of the nervous system; within the context of the novel, Marsal functions as a seemingly neutral ground from which to consider the actions and beliefs of the other characters. His mentor and teacher, Michel Ortègue, is a brilliant physician and a firmly entrenched atheist. Ortègue marries the beautiful Catherine Malfan-Trévis, 20 years his junior. As the daughter of a physician, she shares Ortègue’s scientific outlook and loves him deeply. In contrast, her cousin Ernest Le Gallic, a young soldier with whom she shared a happy childhood, is a stalwart Catholic. He visits their clinic before returning to the front, and it becomes clear that these two men of Catherine’s life share a devotion to her but little else, clashing on matters of politics and especially religion.
Meanwhile, Ortègue is suffering from pancreatic cancer. Because the physical pain causes major changes in attitude and demeanor, his condition is not unnoticed by his wife or his staff, but he tries diligently to cover the pain, eventually by self-administering morphine. When the narrator confronts Ortègue about his condition at Catherine’s pressing, Ortègue admits to having cancer but asks that the truth be kept from his wife; their mutual lies break down when Ortègue collapses from pain and from symptoms of morphine withdrawal during surgery (he had tried to stop in an effort to resume his practice). When Catherine is finally informed of her husband’s diagnosis, she agrees to a suicide pact with him to prove her love.
The household is thrown into further trauma when Le Gallic arrives injured from the front. Ortègue decides to take no action to remove the bullet lodged in the young man’s brain; it becomes clear that jealousy of this young and (previously) vital man is clouding his medical judgment. The focus of the novel shifts to the triangular tension among these two men and their mutual love, Catherine. Her cousin, devoted to his Catholic faith, takes a starkly different view toward the pain he suffers and to his eventual death than Ortègue does toward his own. The disparagement between the two men finally centers on this philosophical difference: The young man is resigned to his death and accommodates its fact, while the older man clings to the belief that there is no beyond and thus rails against both pain and his eventual demise.
Catherine is left in the middle, having promised to kill herself with her husband out of love, yet she becomes increasingly aware that the demand for the suicide pact was unfair. Also, in the presence of her cousin, the companion of her youth, her spirituality is being awakened. Torn between demonstrating her fidelity to her husband and surviving him to provide help (she is a nurse in the clinic) to the many future soldiers who may need it, she is also torn between the two worldviews that define each man whom she loves.
Both men die in markedly different ways. Catherine lives on, in a somber, monastic existence devoted to doing good. The novel ends with the narrator’s musing about the two different systems of religion represented by the older man and the younger. He concludes that the Catholic way is, at the end of the day, more useful. These events are set against the backdrop of the war and the narrator’s own sense of futility through the accident of his birth: his lame foot.
With its essentially limited plot, the novel’s forte is the psychological portraits of its small cast. The Night Cometh combines the scientific concern that marks much of Bourget’s early oeuvre with the overtly Catholic moral intention that characterizes his later fiction.
BIBLIOGRAPHY 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, 1976