The Atheist’s Mass by Honoré de Balzac

La Messe de l’Athée
The Atheist’s Mass

Desplein, who has taken Bianchon under his wing, is always interested in cases involving Auvergnat water-carriers.

One day, while in the area of Saint Sulpice, Bianchon sees Desplein slipping into the church by a small side door. When asked about Saint Sulpice that evening, Desplein tells Bianchon that Madame la Duchesse d’Angouleme had recommended him to a priest with a bad knee.

One year later, Bianchon again sees Desplein entering the church. This time he questions the sacristan and learns that Desplein founded the mass and attends it four times a year.

Seven years later, Bianchon again is outside Saint Sulpice when Desplein enters. He questions him after the mass and at last learns the story.

As they walk, Desplein points to the sixth story of a house on one of the worst streets in Paris and says he lived there for two years. He was extremely poor, eating little and without a sou. His aunts, not realizing fully his situation had sent him some fine linen which he could have sold except he did not have forty francs with which to pay the freight. His allowance was thirty francs a month.

Desplein’s sixth-floor neighbor was a water-carrier from Saint-Flour named Bourgeat. As he arrived home one evening, Bourgeat told Desplein that they were both being evicted; Desplein for being behind in rent and Bourgeat because of his occupation.

The next morning, Bourgeat tells Desplein that he has rented a cart and there is room for both their belongings. He has been saving money for a cart and house and gives some of his savings to Desplein to redeem his trunk (telling him to keep his linen, not sell it) and pay the back rent. Late that evening, the two men are finally able to find lodgings. Thus begins a wonderful friendship.

Bourgeat took care of all Desplein’s needs and finances; he grieved when Desplein left for his residency at Hotel Dieu. Desplein dedicated his thesis to this true friend. He also saved his money, paid Bougeat back and bought him a horse and water-cart. It was Bourgeat who gave Desplein his most precious possession: the case of instruments mounted in silver.

Bourgeat, worn out from work and deprivation, eventually died in Desplein’s arms, despite the latter’s supreme efforts to save him. He had been a devout Catholic, yet had never scolded Desplein for his lack of religion. Years earlier, when wondering about the ultimate fate of a beloved dog, Bourgeat had wondered if masses could be said for dogs. When he fell ill in his final days, he had entreated Desplein to do everything possible to enable him to have the help of the church and Desplein had Mass said for him every day.

Bourgeat had no family; only Desplein was in his funeral procession. As soon as he was able, Desplein endowed a Mass for Bourgeat at the beginning of each season. Desplein attends the mass and prays.

It was Bianchon who cared for Desplein during his final illness.


Read it here

Summary by Dagny, February 2009


2 comments on “The Atheist’s Mass by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This is one of Balzac’s more straightforward – and thus I think better – tales. There are no deviations from the story line, and the story has a message of the value of compassion and love and faith. Saintsbury says that “by the common consent of competent judges, it takes rank with the novelist’s very best work. Humorously, Saintsbury declares because it is brief it makes it impossible for Balzac to indulge in “those digressions from which he never could entirely free himself when he allowed himself much room.” Amen, Professor Saintsbury.


  2. I love this one. We often see or hear of Desplein very briefly in his capacity as a doctor. It’s nice to get his back story and some of his personal life.


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