Racine’s Athalie

Sophie’s love for literature indicates a woman who sensed the vital importance of story.  In the novel, we see her (already at age eight) recounting the story of Abélard and Héloïse to her best friend Célestine.  Much later in the novel, she narrates the mythical story of Arethusa to a young nun who is nursing her through an illness.

In the chapter entitled “Butterfly” (Part 2), based on a childhood memory of one of her Dussaussoy nephews, she recites a few lines from Athalie by the 17th-century playwright Jean Racine–the French equivalent of William Shakespeare.  She tells the impressionable Louis-Etienne a slightly edited version of Racine’s story of Athalie (a queen of Judah), stressing the queen’s love for her young grandson.

The play, which was Racine’s last and which many believe to be his greatest, includes the following lines (those that Sophie recites from memory). They reflect a prophetic state of mind and heart within the Jewish high priest, Joad.  Clearly these are words that Sophie would have taken to heart– words that ring with her own passionate feelings for Christ.

Mais d’où vient que mon Coeur   frémit d’un saint effroi?

Est-ce l’esprit divin   qui s’empare de moi?

C’est lui-meme, il m’échauffe,   il parle, mes yeux s’ouvrent,

Et les siècles obscures   devant moi se découvrent.

In English, the lines may be loosely translated as follows:  “But how is it that my heart is quivering with a sort of holy terror? / Is it the holy spirit that has carried me away? / It is the very thing, and she warms me, / she speaks, my eyes are opened, / and the obscure centuries that lie ahead of me reveal themselves.”

The painting below, by 18th-century French painter Charles-Antoine Coypel, depicts a moment in the play when Athalie questions the young Joaz, whom she does not know to be her grandson.


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