Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Muriel Schmid


Religion in the Age of Enlightenment, Denis Diderot, La Religieuse


D enis Diderot's novel, La Religieuse, has traditionally been read as a diatribe against convent life. Diderot's critique is then described as twofold: first, he strongly condemns the common practice of forced vows; and second, he describes life in a convent as fundamentally unnatural, leading individuals to perverse behaviors. Suzanne Simonin, the third daughter of a Parisian lawyer, is the main character of the novel, and her fate illustrates Diderot's critique. As the reader discovers in the course of the narrative, her birth is the result of an affair, and her mother regards her illegitimate daughter as a source of guilt and shame. When she is sixteen, Suzanne is therefore sent to the convent as a way for her parents to safely make her disappear from their life. In a last attempt to escape her fate, Suzanne publicly refuses to pronounce her solemn vows during the official ceremony and begs her parents to spare her from convent life. In response to this public scandal, she is sequestered in her parents' home; under their pressure and lack of compassion, she finally agrees to enter the monastic life. Once Suzanne is trapped in a religious life she did not choose, the novel tells the story of the abuses she suffers at the hands of both her fellow nuns and the Mothers Superior, ultimately supporting Diderot's argument against the very principle of convent life. Each Mother Superior who takes care of Suzanne's community seems to personify a form of perversionobsessive mysticism, sadism, and lesbianism-that Diderot attributes to negative religious experiences. Diderot has been credited with using a typology and a terminology in his descriptions that stems from a newly formulated analysis of feminine sexuality on the one hand, and emotional disorders (e.g., hysteria) on the other.