The French author Roger Martin du Gard (1881-1958) portrayed the conflicts in man's consciousness between religion and science against the backdrop of the social upheaval in France during the early 20th century.
Roger Martin du Gard was born at Neuilly-sur-Seine on March 23, 1881, the son of a lawyer. In 1892 he began studying at the Catholic École Fénelon and met a leader of the Catholic modernist movement, the Abbé Marcel Hébert; their friendship lasted until the priest's death in 1916. After studying literature at the Sorbonne, Martin du Gard enrolled in the École des Chartes to prepare himself as an archivist and paleographer. In 1905 he successfully defended his thesis Les Ruines de l'Abbaye de Jumièges and was awarded the diplôme d'archivistepaléographe.
In 1906 Martin du Gard married Hélène Foucault. During their honeymoon in North Africa he drew up a plan of his first novel, Une Vie de Saint. Inspired by the Abbé Hébert, the novel was to be a detailed biography of a country priest. Realizing that his ambitions outdistanced his capacities, he abandoned his work in 1907. But his experience provided him with familiar material for his next venture. He decided, he says in his memoirs, to tell the life of a young and presumptuous writer, André Mazerelles, lacking talent but not illusions concerning his ability. In Devenir! (1908) he relied upon the traditional third-person narrative, which allowed ironic observation on character and situation.
Martin du Gard immediately began work on a long novel (Marise) based on the life of a woman and developing the themes of solitude and death. Again he realized that his experience was too limited; he abandoned Marise, publishing only a fragment as a short story, L'Une de nous (1910). That same year he began work on "a long masculine monograph, the destiny of a man and the history of a conscience." This novel, Jean Barois (1913), traces the evolution of a scientist and journalist from the religion of his youth to his espousal of science as the only source of truth and certainty and, finally, to his return in weakness and old age to Catholicism. The novel strives to be a symbolic concentration not only of a man's life but also of a spiritual crisis in pre-World War I France.
After World War I Martin du Gard began work on his long saga novel, Les Thibault. Six volumes were published: Le Cahier gris and Le Pénitencier (1922), La Belle saison (1923), La Consultation (1928), La Sorellina (1928), and La Mort du Père (1929); they represented only a third of the projected work. Realizing that his original plan for Les Thibault was much too cumbersome, he decided to abandon it and graft a new conclusion onto the old stock. L'Été1914, in three volumes, appeared in 1936, and Épilogue in 1940.
In Les Thibault, Jacques Thibault, a revolutionary, and his brother Antoine, a doctor and man of science, attempt to fashion a meaningful life in a world without God. Into this double pattern, Martin du Gard introduces a third alternative, that of art and passion, in the person of the Thibault's childhood friend Daniel de Fontanin. Neither alternative can permanently fill the void left by God's absence, but only Antoine's adaptability and moderation enable him emotionally to survive the disaster of World War I. Although he, too, is a victim of the war, his diary, kept as he approaches death, is intended as a model of will and reason for the edification of his nephew Jean-Paul.
In 1937 Martin du Gard won the Nobel Prize for literature. After 1940 he published little. He died on Aug 22, 1958, at Bellême.
Further Reading on Roger Martin du Gard
There are several useful biographies and critical studies of Martin du Gard: Robert Gibson, Roger Martin du Gard (1961); Denis Boak, Roger Martin du Gard (1963); and David L. Schalk, Roger Martin du Gard: the Novelist and History (1967). Recommended for general historical background are Guy Chapman, The Dreyfus Case: A Reassessment (1955); Alfred Cobban, A History of Modern France (2 vols., 1957-1961; rev. ed., 3 vols., 1962-1965); and Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890-1914 (1966).