The Atheist's Mass
(La Messe de l’athée)
A Short Story by Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)
Study Guide
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Type of Work
Character Motivation
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Balzac Biography
Free Text in English
Free Text in French
Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
Based on a Translation From the French by Clara Bell
.......Horace Bianchon enjoys an outstanding reputation as a physician, surgeon, and developer of a system of theoretical physiology. While pursuing his education at a medical school in Paris, he studied under the great French surgeon Desplein, acknowledged even by his enemies as an extraordinary physician and teacher. As the narrator points out,
Desplein had a godlike eye; he saw into the sufferer and his malady by an intuition, natural or acquired, which enabled him to grasp the diagnostics peculiar to the individual, to determine the very time, the hour, the minute when an operation should be performed, making due allowance for atmospheric conditions and peculiarities of individual temperament.
.......But if Desplein had a godlike eye, there was nothing of the divine in his soul, for he was an atheist. He was as absolute in his belief that there was no God as he was supreme in his medical art. However, when he died, he took with him all his skill; he left behind no important discoveries, inventions, or medical breakthroughs. Thus, he was like a great stage actor rather than a great playwright. When the actor dies, so does his fame. When the playwright dies, his works survive to be performed again and again. 
.......When Desplein was alive, colleagues envious of his incomparable talent were always on the lookout for deficiencies in him to criticize. Finding none, they resorted to nitpicking about his moods or other manifestations of his personality. There was his eccentricity, for example. He might dress impeccably for a while, then neglect his appearance for a time. Or he might travel in a carriage one day, then walk the next. However, Desplein did have at least one good friend, Bianchon. 
.......In his college days, Bianchon was destitute, experiencing many a hardship while living in Maison Vauquer, a run-down boarding house in the Latin Quarter.1 But he was always cheerful and always willing to help others without expecting recompense. He was also forthright and modest. His qualities earned him the deep respect of others. Desplein, in particular, favored him and formed a strong bond with him. 
.......Desplein would take him with him on calls to homes of the wealthy, where patients would always put a jingle in Bianchon's pocket. On one occasion, Bianchon called Desplein’s attention to a poor man afflicted with a serious illness caused by lack of food and rest. After Desplein healed the man, he gave him money to help him pursue his trade. Later, the man brought a sick friend to Desplein, saying he would entrust him only to the great doctor, and the physician hospitalized the man’s friend and took care of him and, over time, other needy patients.
.......After completing his medical studies, Bianchon went on to become an important surgeon at the Hôtel-Dieu,2 the main hospital in Paris, where Desplein also practiced. 
.......One day at 9 a.m., Bianchon was crossing the street when he saw Desplein furtively entering the church of Saint-Sulpice3 on the Rue du Petit-Lion.4 Following him inside, Bianchon was surprised to discover the avowed atheist kneeling at an altar and then staying for mass, after which he made a contribution to the church and gave alms for the poor. Bianchon left without being seen by Desplein. It so happened that Desplein asked Bianchon to dine with him that day at a restaurant. Over dessert, the latter deliberately steered the conversation to religion. To bait Desplein, Bianchon said the mass was a shameful and ridiculous exhibition. Desplein agreed, declaring that it
has cost Christendom more blood than all Napoleon's battles and all Broussais'5 leeches. The mass is a papal invention, not older than the sixth century, and based on the Hoc est corpus.6 What floods of blood were shed to establish the Fête-Dieu, the Festival of Corpus Christi–the institution by which Rome established her triumph in the question of the Real Presence,7 a schism which rent the Church during three centuries!
.......Three months later, a physician at the Hôtel-Dieu who had seen Desplein at Saint-Sulpice asked him why he, an avowed atheist, had visited a church. Bianchon was with the two doctors at the time. Desplein explained that he was ministering to a priest with a knee affliction. The questioner accepted the answer. Bianchon knew, of course, that Desplein was lying. Thereafter, he decided to observe Desplein closely. Exactly one year after Bianchon saw Desplein enter the church, Bianchon posted himself outside Saint-Sulpice at nine o’clock and saw the great surgeon again steal his way inside and attend mass. After Desplein left, Bianchon asked a sacristan whether Desplein regularly visited the church. The sacristan told him that Desplein attended a mass four times a year–a mass that Desplein himself sponsored. 
.......Seven more years passed and Desplein continued to attend mass on the appointed days. Finally, Bianchon decided to follow Desplein into the church and kneel beside him during the mass. Desplein did not seem at all surprised to see Bianchon. When they left church, Bianchon said, “I have caught you three times going to mass–You! You must account to me for this mystery, explain such a flagrant disagreement between your opinions and your conduct. You do not believe in God, and yet you attend mass? “
.......Desplein answered, “I am like a great many devout people, men who on the surface are deeply religious, but quite as much atheists as you or I can be."
.......As they passed into the Rue de Quatre-Vents, a slum, Bianchon asked Desplein why he was having a mass said four times a year. Desplein pointed to the top floor of a building, noting that sponsorship of the mass was prompted by events that took place when he lived there. 
.......Desplein said he had endured great suffering in the place: “hunger and thirst, want of money, want of clothes, of shoes, of linen, every cruelty that penury can inflict. 
.......He lived there alone, with no one to help him pay the costs of his medical education or lodging. For breakfast, he ate a stale roll. He was so poor that he could afford dinner only every other day. But he persevered, studying hard–sometimes an entire night.
.......One day, the landlord evicted him, effective the following morning,  because he could not pay his rent. The landlord also evicted a neighbor, Bourgeat, simply because he was a lowly water carrier. With nowhere to go and no money to rent a cart to haul away his meager furnishings, Desplein spent a restless night wondering what to do. However, in the morning, Bourgeat offered to transport Desplein’s belongings in a cart he had rented. In addition, he proposed that they join forces to find  a new place to lodge. So off they went.
.......After finding two affordable rooms, they settled in and dined together daily. Over time, Bourgeat had saved nearly enough money to buy a horse and a barrel for his trade. However, he decided to make all his money available to Desplein, who was struggling to complete his medical studies. Of this extraordinary generosity, Desplein said:
That man, my friend, understood that I had a mission, that the needs of my intellect were greater than his. He looked after me, he called me his boy, he lent me money to buy books, he would come in softly sometimes to watch me at work, and took a mother's care in seeing that I had wholesome and abundant food, instead of the bad and insufficient nourishment I had been condemned to.
.......One day Bourgeat told Desplein that he once had a dog, his only companion. He took it with him wherever he went, even to mass–which was often, because Bourgeat was a devoted Catholic. Not once in twelve years did the dog bark in church. After it died, he wondered whether the church would permit priests to say masses for it. It was a touching story, and Desplein never forgot it.
.......After becoming a house surgeon at Hôtel-Dieu, Desplein had to move to the hospital. He felt an “indescribable, dull pain” in doing so. But Bourgeat was proud at having had the opportunity to help him. With his wages, Desplein bought Bourgeat the barrel and horse he had always wanted. Bourgeat was deeply moved, and a tear came to his eye.
.......By and by, Bourgeat became ill. Desplein nursed him back to health, but two years later the man relapsed and none of Desplein’s magic could save him. Remembering that Bourgeat had been a devout Catholic, Desplein arranged to have four masses said for him every year at Saint-Sulpice. Further, Desplein attended these masses and even prayed that
Great God, if there is a sphere which Thou hast appointed after death for those who have been perfect, remember good Bourgeat; and if he should have anything to suffer, let me suffer it for him, that he may enter all the sooner into what is called Paradise.
Desplein concluded his story by telling Bianchon that he would give away everything if he could have the kind of faith that Bourgeat had. 
.......After Desplein died, Bianchon never assumed that he died an atheist. The narrator says, “Will not those who believe like to fancy that the humble [Bourgeat] came to open the gate of Heaven to his friend as he did that of the earthly temple on whose pediment we read the words–"A grateful country to its great men."8

The action takes place in Paris, France, in the first half of the 19th Century. 


Desplein: Surgeon with unsurpassed skill. He boldly avows atheism but attends a Roman Catholic mass four times a year. 
Horace Bianchon: Highly respected surgeon who studied under Desplein. One day, he sees Desplein entering a church to attend mass and decides to monitor Desplein to find out why he, a thoroughgoing atheist, kneels in a pew to hear mass. 
Bourgeat: A poor man who helped Desplein when the latter was an impoverished medical student.
Sacristan: Roman Catholic priest’s assistant responsible for preparing and maintaining vestments, chalices, and altar cloths and for seeing to the day-to-day operation of the sacristy, a room in a church–usually behind the main altar–where chalices and vestments are kept and where a priest robes himself for mass.

Type of Work

“The Atheist’s Mass” is a short story that is part of a larger work, The Human Comedy (La Comédie humaine), consisting of more than 90 novels and short stories knitted into a gigantic tapestry. The Human Comedy is divided into the following sections: (1) "Scenes From Private Life," (2) "Scenes From Provincial Life," (3) "Scenes From Parisian Life," (4) "Scenes From Political Life," (5) "Scenes From Military Life," (6) "Country Life," and (7) "Philosophical Studies." "The Atheist's Mass" appears in "Scenes From Private Life." It was published in January 1836 in La Chronique de Paris and incorporated into The Human Comedy in 1844. 


Balzac tells the story in limited third-person point of view in which the narrator enters the mind of only one character, Bianchon. The thoughts of Desplein become known only when he verbalizes them in his conversations with Bianchon. 


The structure of “The Atheist’s Mass” consists of the following:

1. An exposition providing information about the education, work, and accomplishments of the two main characters; about the personality ....of Desplein; and about the relationship between Desplein and Bianchon when the latter was an impoverished medical student. 
2. The presentation of the “riddle”: Why does Desplein, an atheist, go to church to attend mass? Here, Balzac piques the curiosity of the ....reader, who must read to the end of the story to discover the answer. 
3. The account of Bianchon’s close observation of Desplein to learn the reason for the atheist’s godly behavior.
4. Desplein’s explanation of his behavior. 
5. Bianchon’s conclusions about Desplein. 

Character Motivation

In “The Atheist’s Mass,” it is easy to see that Bourgeat’s driving motivation is to do what is right in the eyes of God. As for Desplein, his driving motivation is to deliver superior treatment. But it is interesting to note that superior treatment has a double meaning in this story. To Desplein’s envious colleagues, the term refers to the ability to heal with superior skill. To Desplein, the term refers to the ability to heal with unstinting compassion, thanks to the influence of Bourgeat. And Bianchon? We are told at the beginning of the story that he is "a physician to whom science owes a fine system of theoretical physiology, and who, while still young, made himself a celebrity in the medical school of Paris." Whether, after hearing Desplein's story, he will follow in his mentor's footsteps is an open question.


To draw his characters or to make observations, Balzac uses similes and metaphors that burn, cut, rip, or present easy-to-visualize images of people, places, and things. In other words, reading Balzac is to see and feel what the words portray. Following are examples of Balzac's imagery.

His [Bianchon's] earliest studies were guided by one of the greatest of French surgeons, the illustrious Desplein, who flashed across science like a meteor. 
Ses premières études furent dirigées par un des plus grands chirurgiens français, par l'illustre Desplein, qui passa comme un météore dans la science.
Metaphor comparing Desplein to a meteor (météore).

They [Bianchon and Desplein] had already exchanged thoughts on quite equally serious subjects, and discussed systems de natura rerum, probing or dissecting them with the knife and scalpel of incredulity.
Ils avaient déjà, sur des points tout aussi graves, échangé des pensées, discuté des systèmes de natura rerum en les sondant ou les disséquant avec les couteaux et le scalpel de l'Incrédulité.
Metaphor comparing thoughts (pensées) and systems (systèmes)to objects that can be cut; metaphor comparing incredulity to cutting instruments (couteaux, scalpel).

I hardly know whether in later life we feel grief so deep when a colleague plays us false as we have known, you and I, on detecting the mocking smile of a gaping seam in a shoe, or hearing the armhole of a coat split. 
Je ne sais pas si plus tard nous éprouvons autant de chagrin par la trahison d'un confrère que nous en avons éprouvé, vous comme moi, en apercevant la rieuse grimace d'un soulier qui se découd, en entendant craquer l'entournure d'une redingote.
Personification/metaphor comparing a shoe that has ripped open (un soulier qui se découd) to a mocking smile (rieuse grimace).

He [Bianchon] carried his poverty with the cheerfulness which is perhaps one of the chief elements of courage, and, like all people who have nothing, he made very few debts. As sober as a camel and active as a stag, he was steadfast in his ideas and his conduct.
Il portait sa misère avec cette gaieté qui peut-être est un des plus grands éléments du courage, et comme tous ceux qui n'ont rien, il contractait peu de dettes. Sobre comme un chameau, alerte comme un cerf, il était ferme dans ses idées et dans sa conduite.
Simile comparing Bianchon to a camel (chameau) and a stag (cerf).

These gilded idiots say to me [Desplein], "Why did you get into debt? Why did you involve yourself in such onerous obligations?"
Ces imbéciles dorés me disent: Pourquoi donc faisiez-vous des dettes? pourquoi donc contractiez-vous des obligations onéreuses?
Metaphor comparing wealthy persons to objects layered with gold (imbéciles dorés). 

Bianchon knew the mysteries of that temperament, a compound of the lion and the bull, which at last expanded and enlarged beyond measure the great man's torso, and caused his death by degeneration of the heart. 
Bianchon connaissait les mystères de ce tempérament de lion et de taureau, qui finit par élargir, amplifier outre mesure le buste du grand homme, et causa sa mort par le développement du cœur.
Metaphor comparing Desplein's temperament (tempérament) to the qualities of a lion (lion) and a bull (taureau).


The climax of the story occurs when Desplein reveals why he attends mass.

The Title

The English title of the story, "The Atheist's Mass," is both an oxymoron and a paradox; the French title, "La Messe de l’athée," is a paradox. But whether in French or English, the title expresses a contradiction: that a person who denies the existence of God has arranged for a mass to be saida mass at which the person says prayers. 


Humanity, not knowledge, makes a man great. Desplein’s medical colleagues deeply envied him for his knowledge of medicine and his unsurpassed ability to treat his patients. So envious were they of Desplein that they criticized him for the slightest faults–his occasional deviations in the way he dressed, for example. But Desplein’s true greatness lay not in his medical skill–formidable as it was–but in his unheralded work on behalf of the poor. Desplein himself apparently did not fully appreciate the importance of charitable undertakings until the humble water carrier, Bourgeat, set an example for him. Though a man of meager means, Bourgeat made his life savings available to Desplein so that he could complete his medical education. Moreover, “Bourgeat did all my errands," Desplein told Bianchon, "woke me at night at any fixed hour, trimmed my lamp, cleaned our landing; as good as a servant as he was as a father, and as clean as an English girl. He did all the housework . . . sawed our wood, and gave to all he did the grace of simplicity while preserving his dignity, for he seemed to understand that the end ennobles every act.” After gaining prominence as a physician, Desplein–a man known for meanness, according to his detractors–began treating poor patients, telling one of them to bring all of his poor friends to him. He also repaid his benefactor, Bourgeat, for his kindnesses, buying him a barrel and a horse for his trade. In addition, after Bourgeat died, Desplein arranged to have masses said for him four times a year–and attended each one of them himself even though he claimed to be an avowed atheist. It may well be that Desplein's humanity ignited a spark of faith in his soul. 
Humble faith understands what proud science cannot. Bourgeat was unshakable in his belief in God and in the inherent goodness of creation. Before he met Desplein, he had only one friend, his dog. But it was the best of dogs, one that knew enough not to bark in church. After he met Desplein, he saw the future doctor as good–a man who could heal, another Christ–and did everything in his power to help Desplein. Bourgeat understood what science could not: that God does not manifest Himself under a microscope. One must look for Him in the faces of the poor and the sick and the downtrodden–and sometimes in the quiet recesses of a church, where even a dog recognizes a divine presence. 
Appearances are deceiving. The narrator says that  Desplein's life "was marred by many meannesses, to use the expression employed by his enemies." The narrator also says that "in his heart he mocked at everything; he had a deep contempt for men." But the reader discovers later that Deplein's private life was marked by many kindnesses and that he had a deep respect for poor and downtrodden men, to whom he generously gave of his time and money.
Envy breeds enmity. Desplein's colleagues envy him for his enormous medical skills. To bring him down to their level, they criticize him for the tiniest fault and gossip about him, calling him a mean man. Envy can turn quickly into enmity, it seems.
Hard times forge sturdy character. The three central characters–Desplein, Bianchon, and Bourgeat–all endure hard times before their lives change for the better. But their poverty helped make them what they became. As the narrator says, "Burning poverty . . .  is a sort of crucible from which great talents are to emerge as pure and incorruptible as diamonds, which may be subjected to any shock without being crushed."
The sick heal the sick: While Desplein heals the bodies of poor persons, the latter seem to heal the soul of the spiritually ailing Desplein.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1.  At the end of the story, the narrator tells the reader, "After Desplein died, Bianchon never assumed that he died an atheist." What is ....your view? Was Desplein an atheist at the time of his death? 
2.  Why does Desplein decide to help Bianchon?
3.  Will Bianchon carry on Desplein's tradition of helping the poor?
4.  At the end of the story, does Bianchon imply that Desplein was entombed in the Panthéon along with other great citizens of France?
5.  What does the anecdote about the dog add to the story?
6.  Write an informative essay about the history and traditions of the Hôtel-Dieu of Paris.


1.  Latin Quarter (Quartier Latin): Section of Paris on the left bank (rive gauche) of the Seine River, south of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. .....In medieval, Renaissance, and later times, the Latin Quarter was the site of the University of Paris, which consisted of many colleges, .....including the famed Sorbonne. Until 1789, the university's students and their teachers spoke only Latin in class, in cafes, and on the .....streets. Consequently, the university environs became known as the Latin Quarter. The area had a vibrant intellectual life that spawned .....important social, cultural, literary, artistic, and scientific developments. 
2.  Hôtel-Dieu: Hospital founded in 651 on the Île de la Cité, a small island in the River Seine that is connected to the rest of the city by .....bridges. The Île de la Cité is the site of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The term Hôtel-Dieu refers to the principal hospital of a French .....city. Thus, other cities in France each have an Hôtel-Dieu. Today, the Hôtel-Dieu of Paris boasts an outstanding staff of physicians. .....Until the Renaissance, it was the only hospital in Paris.
3.  Saint-Sulpice: Second largest church in Paris. Balzac attended Mass there when he lived nearby. The church gained widespread .....attention after Dan Brown referred to it in his novel The Da Vinci Code. Brown's information was inaccurate. 
4.  Rue du Petit-Lion: Street on which the Church of Saint-Sulpice was located. Today, the street is know as Rue Saint-Sulpice.
5.  Broussais, François-Joseph-Victor: French physician who bled patients with leaches and prescribed fasting. He gained a wide .....following early in the 19th Century.
6.  Hoc Est Corpus: Incomplete reference to hoc est enim corpus meum (for this is my body). A priest speaks these words at the part of .....the mass known as the consecration, in which a wafer of bread becomes the "Real Presence" of Christ, although the bread itself does .....not change in appearance. Christ spoke the words hoc est corpus meum in His native language at the Last Supper, as reported in the .....gospels of Matthew (26:26), Mark (14:22), and Luke (22:19) and in 1 Corinthians 11:24.
7.  Real Presence: See No. 6.
8.  A grateful country to its great men. (Aux grands hommes, la Patrie reconnaissante.) Inscription above the entrance of the Panthéon, a .....domed building in the Latin Quarter of Paris honoring the memory of great citizens of France. It was constructed as the Church of .....Sainte-Geneviève between 1758 and 1789, but became a public building during the French Revolution (1787-1799). Among the more .....than seventy illustrious persons whose remains are entombed there are Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Voltaire (François-Marie .....Arouet, 1694-1778), Mirabeau (Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, 1749-1791), Émile Zola (1840-1902), Alexandre DumasPère (1802-1870), and .....Louis Braille (1809-1852).