This is no Naturalist work. La Faute de l’abbé Mouret stands out as unique in the Rougon-Macquart series. It does not detail, as most other Zola novels do, the deterministic effect of social conditions and heredity on human action. Far from being guided an intensified realism, this novel is a symbolic romance, a kind of Paradise Lost, with the two main characters taking the roles of Adam and Eve in the Garden before and after the fall.
That garden, an overgrown Provençal folly built by some long-forgotten nobleman, contains in it an encyclopedic inventory of vegetations, a collection that no climate could ever support in one place. The hero is more Tristan or Tannhäuser than Étienne Lantier or Eugène Rougon.
This book combines ecstatic, mythic, High romance elements with an anatomical cataloguing the natural world. Virtually every imaginable fruiting and flowering plant, along with fungi, ferns, and conifers, is described. These plants provide s sensory overload of sights, smells, tastes, feels, and (sometimes even) sounds – Zola's typical synaesthesia taken to a new extreme. And the smells and tastes range from sweet to bitter, from wholesome to corrupt and fetid.
The garden/estate is called Paradou (hint, hint), and is in habited by a mysterious elusive virgin, at one with nature, a sylph named Albine. Outside the garden wall exists the real world, a dry, subsistence-level Provençal village. The hardscrabble inhabitants have little use for the poor parish church, to which the hero, Serge Mouret, a devout young curate with a delusive case of Mariolatry, has been assigned. The austere Mary-worship is unmistakably sequel. He eventually gets so depleted by his religious ecstasy that he falls into a come. He is transported by his cousin, Doctor Pascal Rougon, to the enclosed garden.
There Albine murses him with his growing enjoyment of the lush beauties of nature, outdoor exercise, and a near-complete forgetting of his religious ecstasy. In the labyrinthine garden, the plants offer up food for body and soul, and all gets sampled. Finally, it all leads up to a sexual liaison.
At that point, "Adam" is rescued from the "Garden of Eden." He reacts in horror to his experiences, and becomes even more ascetically religious, this time substituting his Mary-worship with a self-identification with the crucified Jesus. The rejected and bereft Albine kills herself, seemingly through an overdoes of calla lilies, in a bank of which he buries herself.
The borderline between Naturalism and Symbolism can be thin, and it is significant that these two literary movements are contemporary. It’s as if the intensification of the real world to the highest degree tunes form an objective sociology to a distorted magnifying glass, in the way that great twentieth century literature (Joyce, Eliot, Kafka) start form the intensification of everyday life and reach into myth and symbol. This tendency keeps recurring in Zola; and in Father Mouret it is at its most intensive.
The garden is presented as an alternative to the desiccated Catholisicim of Mouret. Albine explains her animistic faith to the waking priest:
Voyez-vous, lorsqu’on vit tout seul, on finit par voir les choses d’une drôle de façon. Les arbres ne sont plus des arbres, la terre prend des airs de personne vivante, les pierres vous racontent des histoires. Des bêtises, enfin. Je sais des secrets qui vous renverseraient.
You see, when you live alone, you end up seeing things in a funny way. Tees are no longer trees, the earth intakes on the airs of a living person, the stones tell stories. Fooolishness, really. I know secrets that would bowl you over.