The Song of Bernadette (novel)

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First UK edition
(publ. Hamish Hamilton, 1942)

The Song of Bernadette (German: Das Lied von Bernadette) is a 1941 novel that tells the story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, who, from February to July 1858 reported eighteen visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France. The novel was written by Franz Werfel and translated into English by Lewis Lewisohn in 1942.[1] It was extremely popular, spending more than a year on the New York Times Best Seller list and 13 weeks in first place.

The novel was adapted into the 1943 film The Song of Bernadette starring Jennifer Jones.


Franz Werfel was a German-speaking Jew born in Prague in 1890. He became well known as a playwright. In the 1930s in Vienna, he began writing popular satirical plays lampooning the Nazi regime until the Anschluss, when the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. Werfel and his wife Alma (Gustav Mahler’s widow) fled to Paris until the Germans invaded France in 1940.

In his Personal Preface to The Song of Bernadette, Franz Werfel takes up the story:

“In the last days of June 1940, in flight after the collapse of France, the two of us, my wife and I, had hoped to elude our mortal enemies in time to cross the Spanish frontier to Portugal, but had to flee back to the interior of France on the very night German troops occupied the frontier town of Hendaye. The Pyreenean départements had turned into a phantasmagoria – a very camp of chaos.
“This strange migration of people wandered about on the roads in their thousands obstructing towns and villages: Frenchmen, Belgians, Dutchmen, Poles, Czechs, Austrians, exiled Germans; and, mingled with these, soldiers of the defeated armies. There was barely food enough to still the extreme pangs of hunger. There was no shelter to be had. Anyone who had obtained possession of an upholstered chair for his night’s rest was an object of envy. In endless lines, stood the cars of the fugitives, piled high with household gear, with mattresses and beds. There was no petrol to be had.
“A family settled in Pau told us that Lourdes was the one place where, if luck were kind, one might find a roof. Since Lourdes was but thirty kilometres distant, we were advised to make the attempt and knock on its gates. We followed this advice and found refuge at last in the little town of Lourdes in the foothills of the Pyrenees.” [2]

Hunted by the Gestapo, the Werfels experienced anxiety for their hosts as well as themselves. A number of families took turns in giving them shelter. These people told the Werfels the story of Bernadette. Werfel vowed that, if he and his wife escaped, he would put off all tasks and write Bernadette's story into a novel.

When the Werfels reached the safety of America, Werfel kept his word. He died in 1945, and the Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles, having obtained the family’s permission, gave him a Christian burial.[dubious ] After the war, Franz Werfel was re-buried in Vienna.


The story of Bernadette Soubirous and Our Lady of Lourdes is told by Werfel with many embellishments, such as the chapter in which Bernadette is invited to board at the home of a rich woman who thinks Bernadette's visionary "lady" might be her deceased daughter. In side-stories and back story, the history of the town of Lourdes, the contemporary political situation in France, and the responses of believers and detractors are delineated. Werfel describes Bernadette as a religious peasant girl who would have preferred to continue on with an ordinary life, but takes the veil as a nun after she is told that because "Heaven chose her", she must choose Heaven. Bernadette's service as a sacristan, artist-embroiderer, and nurse in the convent are depicted, along with her spiritual growth. After her death, her body as well as her life are scrutinized for indications that she is a saint, and at last she is canonized.

The novel is laid out in five sections of ten chapters each, in a deliberate nod to the Catholic Rosary.

Unusual for a novel, the entire first part, which describes the events on the day that Bernadette first saw the Virgin Mary, is told in the present tense, as if it were happening at the moment. The rest of the novel is in the past tense.

Major themes[edit]

Werfel presents Bernadette as a young girl of artless simplicity and sincere piety who is regarded as stupid by those who do not know her well. He also depicts her as strong-willed and determined to carry out the wishes of the "Lady of Massabielle" whom she alone can see. Her fight, to have the Lady's existence and requests acknowledged and fulfilled, is played out against the larger canvas of French politics and the contemporary social climate. Explanatory digressions illustrate what Werfel perceives as an ongoing conflict between a human need to believe in the supernatural or in anomalous phenomena; a true religion, which should not address such "popular" manifestations; and the ideas of the Enlightenment and of atheism.

References to history, geography and current science[edit]

Apparently, Werfel obtained accounts of Bernadette from Lourdes families whose older members had known her. It is possible that a great deal of folklore and legend had been added to the plain facts by the time Werfel heard the tale.

Lourdes pilgrims often want to know more about Bernadette and do not realize that far from being a simple-minded shepherdess, she was a strong-willed young woman who stood by her story in the face of tough church and government inquiry. Werfel was able to work this aspect of her personality into his narration.

However, Werfel was not above fictionalization to fill in details or romanticize her story. He included a number of characters who did not exist,[who?] embellished others,[who?] and concocted a potential romance for Bernadette[citation needed] as well as a highly dramatic and fictionalized[how?] death scene. However, in the preface, Werfel states that readers will justifiably ask "What is true and what is invented?" Werfel answers that the most important events of the story are all true,[which?] and that it was easy[how?] to verify them because roughly only eighty years had passed between the events and the writing of the book. He declares: " The Song of Bernadette is a novel but not a fictive work".[3][clarification needed]

It seems to have been inspired in part by Émile Zola's Lourdes, a blistering denunciation of the industry that sprang up in Lourdes around the allegedly miraculous spring. Apparently Werfel believed the book might serve as a counterpoint to Zola's best-selling vitriol.[citation needed] One of his characters, Hyacinthe de Lafite, a member of the freethinkers' club that hangs around the town cafe, is a thinly disguised portrayal of Zola himself, re-imagined as a failed journalist/author who smugly casts Bernadette's experience in terms of the pagan history of the area.[citation needed]By the end of the book Lafite, the lady's "proudest foe", believing himself to be dying of cancer, is "lying on his knees" before the image of Bernadette's lady in the grotto.

Werfel goes into great detail about the cures at the Lourdes Spring, and has Dr. Dozous, the town physician, show Hyacinthe through the wards of the hospital, particularly a dormitory of women with a particularly virulent form of Lupus vulgaris in which the face rots and falls off. Werfel provides medical details and claims that some such women have been completely cured after washing in water from the spring, and reports that many more healings take place during the Blessing of the Eucharist ceremony which is held daily at the grotto. Most of these details seem to have been paraphrased from Zola's novel or from the research he did to write it.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Scheer, Monique (2012). "Catholic Piety in the Early Cold War Years;or, How the Virgin Mary Protected the West from Communism". In Vowinckel, Annette Vowinckel; Payk, Marcus M.; Lindenberger, Thomas. Cold War Cultures: Perspectives on Eastern and Western European Societies. New York: Berghahn. p. 147. ISBN 9780857452436. Retrieved 16 February 2015. 
  2. ^ Franz Werfel, "A Personal Preface" to The Song of Bernadette, The Viking Press, New York, 1942.
  3. ^ The Song of Bernadette, Ignatius Press; Rep Tra edition (October 1, 2006), page xiv. ISBN 978-1586171711

External links[edit]

  • Bernadette of Lourdes Author John Martin's [who abridged Franz Werfel's classic The Song of Bernadette] website