Mariette in Ecstasy

Mariette in Ecstasy

by Ron Hansen


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060981181
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/01/1994
Series: Harper Perennial
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 557,536
Product dimensions: 0.00(w) x 0.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Ron Hansen is the bestselling author of the novel Atticus (a finalist for the National Book Award), Hitler's Niece, Mariette in Ecstasy, Desperadoes, and Isn't It Romantic?, as well as a collection of short stories, a collection of essays, and a book for children. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Ron Hansen lives in northern California, where he teaches at Santa Clara University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Upstate New York.

August 1906.

Half-moon and a wrack of gray clouds.

Church windows and thirty nuns singing the Night Office in Gregorian chant. Matins. Lauds. And then silence.

Wind, and a nighthawk teetering on it and yawing away into woods.

Wallowing beetles in green pond water.


Cattails sway and unsway.

Grape leaves rattle and settle again.

Workhorses sleeping in horse manes of pasture.

Wooden reaper. Walking plow. Hayrick.


Limestone pebbles on the paths in the garth. Jasmine. Lilac. Narcissus.

Mother Céline gracefully walking, head down.


Mooncreep and spire.

Ears are flattened to the head of a stone panther waterspout.


Tallow candles in red glass jars shudder on a high altar.

White hallway and dark mahogany joists. Wide plank floors walked soft and smooth as soap.

Sister Dominique says a prayer to Saint Peregrine for her Canadian nephew's cancer as she dashes flour on a kitchen table and turns over a great slab of dough that rolls as slowly as a white pig.

Sister Emmanuelle hunches over a pink sewing cushion, her quick hands tying off bobbins and pins as she creates lace periwinkles for the white corporal that the holy chalice will rest on.


On the prioress's great pecan desk, a red Latin missal is shut upon a five-dollar bill. Tasks are written on a paper held down with a jar of India ink and a green fountain pen. Envelopes from patrons have been neatly slit open and are shuffled up in a blond wicker basket.

Sister Sabine is in a jean apron as she strolls toward the milking barn between Guernsey cows, her hands riding their caramel hides. She smells her palms and smiles.

Wings batter and bluster. Tree branches nod and subside.

East and the night sky gradually deteriorating. A nickel light is just above the horizon.

Sister Hermance waits in the hallway outside the sisters' cells. In her right hand are wooden castanets. She peers at a silver chatelaine watch that is attached to a waist-deep necklace of black satin ribbon. She pauses until the hour is precisely five. She then hoists her hand high, clicks the castanets twice, and cleaves the Great Silence by shouting, "In Jesus Christ, my sisters, let us rise!"

She hears six or seven sitting up and sleepily responding, "His holy name be praised!" and she walks down to the hallway's turning.

Sister Aimée stays lying on her palliasse just one more moment. She then gets up and hates the morning before achingly getting to her knees on the floor in order to pray an Ave Maria.

Mother Saint-Raphaël tugs her plain white nightgown up over her head. She is hugely overweight but her legs are slight as a goat's. Tightly sashed around her stomach just below the great green-veined bowls of her breasts are cuttings from the French garden's rosebushes, the dark thorns sticking into skin that is scarlet with infection. She gets into a gray habit, tying it with a sudden jerk. She winces and shuts her eyes.

Waterdrops from the night's dew haltingly creep down green reeds.

A rabbit skitters forward in the priest's garden and twitches a radish leaf with its nose before tearing it loose. Ears tilt as it hastily chews and settles over its paws.

Eighty years old and shrinking with age, his wrists as thin as pine kindling, Reverend Henri Marriott is sleeping in his house just outside the sisters' cloister, twisted up in his nightshirt, a hissing kerosene lamp still lit, a book of philosophy skewed beneath his left arm. His soft white hair is harrowed and wild and his week-old white beard is stained faintly with food. Teetering against his neck is a gold cross botonnée that he got at his first Mass in Louvain, Belgium, fifty-five years ago. When the porter raps twice on the house door, the priest wakes up with a sudden inhalation, a "huh" of astonishment., and then he hears Sister Anne trespass inside the house and sidle up to his bedroom door and pause and ask him, "Are you truly up, Père Marriott?"

"Yes. Completely-"

"You have High Mass today, too. You should shave."

She is just four years a widow. She wifes him out of habit. Henri Marriott says a prayer, as always, for Sister Anne's late husband, then sits up and tests his feet on the floor planks.

She asks, "Will you need our help getting dressed?"

With pain in his joints, he stands up and totters to his dresser, putting his hands flat upon it before saying, "Your priest is much better today, Sister Anne."

"We are so pleased," she says, and goes away.

Sisters who are still in their nightgowns and gray flannel robes are bent over the great tin washing bowls, rinsing their mouths and spitting, or soaping their hands and faces. Just to their left are sisters standing next to the indoor privies with demurely lowered eyes. Here alone there is one mercuryplated looking glass, which is no larger than a windowpane and hanging in a plain wooden frame. Sister Pauline is peering at herself in it as she tucks her hair and pins on the soft white veil of a novice, and then she sees Sister Saint-Léon just behind her shoulder signing Too long, here, you. Sister Pauline shrugs her regret and Sister Saint-Léon jots a note on her hand pad.

Reverend Mother Céline stands patiently in the vestibule just beside a sixteenth-century painting of the Annunciation. While the sisters get into their positions for the solemn entrance into the oratory for the canonical hour of Prime, the prioress does not speak but smiles or raises her hand slightly in greeting, and then she goes to her place next to Mother Saint-Raphaël and the great brass bell in the campanile rings...

Reading Group Guide


It is August, 1906. The Sisters of the Crucifixion are awakened--hours before dawn--to the knocking of Sister Hermance's wooden castanets. She pauses a moment, and then shouts, "In Jesus Christ, my sisters, let us rise." And they do, one by one, each entering with a different ritual into another day of devotion. Soon, they will all gather in church to pray for their new postulant--Mariette. In a country house not far away, Mariette, only seventeen years old, esteems her young body in an upright mirror, and, "haunting" it with her hands, passionately offers it to God.

In Mariette in Ecstasy, Ron Hansen conveys with breathtaking clarity the essence of a life lived within a religious order--a life punctuated by fervent, prayerful whispers; by Gregorian Chants; or by the caw of a crow somewhere beyond the church windows. With prose as spare as the unadorned halls of the Sisters of Crucifixion convent, he tells a story that is rich and complex, provocative and fascinating, and, at times, terribly unsettling. Through Mariette Baptiste, a young, beautiful prioress among many older (some embittered) nuns, he explores the confounding mysteries surrounding rapturous devotion to the divine.

Mariette enters the convent with a ceremony similar to that of a traditional Christian wedding. Wearing her mother's wedding dress and flanked by girlfriends, classmates, and villagers, she makes her way to the church. At the Church of Our Lady of Sorrow, she walks down a white runner to the prie-dieu. Amid the rite, the assessment of Mariette begins. Mother Saint-Raphael thinks that she is "too-pretty," but nonetheless, is pleased. Sister Honore glances atMariette, thinking unwillingly of another sister who was expelled from the Motherhouse for tattooing the Sacred Heart on her chest. Sister Philomene is overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, and prays for the grace to be just like Mariette.

Indeed, Mariette's presence in the priory has an immediate--and eventually profound--affect on the quiet, introspective nuns. Her devotion to Jesus is complete, and her reputation for lapsing into episodes of prayerful "ecstasy" inspires in her fellow sisters both reverent awe and bitter jealousy. Jesus appears to Mariette often, and they hope that by being close to her they are closer to him. They are jealous because each one of them--craving that intimate connection with Jesus--has sacrificed the worldly pleasures of the outside for a cloistered religious life. Why has he chosen Mariette, and not them? When Mariette's "ecstasy" culminates in a series of stigmatas, the peace of the convent is irrevocably shattered, and the mysteries inherent in divine possession are starkly laid bare.

However tempting it may be to fixate on the question surrounding the authenticity of Mariette's stigmata, to do so would be to skein only the surface of Ron Hansen's haunting novel. There are more profound mysteries in Mariette in Ecstasy: What feeds the human compulsion to connect with the divine? How closely related are religious rapture and sexual ecstasy? And why, through the ages, have we persistently searched and yearned for miracles? Ron Hansen doesn't presume to know the answers to these questions, and we, too, can only wonder. But by offering readers this exquisite, unnerving novel, he does suggest that that life abounds with mysteries richer than anything the human mind can easily comprehend. And that should be the only answer we need.

Questions for Discussion
  • Was the time in which the novel took place, 1906, incidental or was it essential to the narrative? If it had been written in the present day, would the story have been different? How? Do you think that society was more prone to believe in miracles at the turn-of-the-century than today? Has our desire for the miraculous increased or decreased with time? Why or why not?

  • Hansen meticulously wove into the narrative detail about the natural world surrounding the convent. Why do you think he did this? What effect did it have on the tone of the novel? Are there any other techniques that he used to set the mood of the convent that you found particularly effective?

  • Discuss Mariette's relationship with her father. Do you think that she replaced him with Jesus because she was devout, or because there was discomfort in her relationship with him? If you sensed discomfort, where do you think it came from?

  • Was her sister, Annie, wrong for remaining so distant from Mariette when she entered the convent? How did her family ties to her sister affect her assimilation into the culture of the convent? Do you think that it was a coincidence that they both chose a religious life?

  • At one point in the novel, during "evening recreation," Mariette and Sister Genevieve perform a playlet that they have written from the bible. The scene (pg. 82-83) is a romantic exchange between a bride and a bridegroom. How did its performance affect the sisters watching it? Did they find it inappropriate? Did you find it inappropriate? In general, how do the sisters express their sexuality in the convent?

  • One of the themes of the novel is the relationship between sexual desire and religious ecstasy. Have the sisters' sexualized their devotion to Jesus? How? Did you notice that some of the nuns fixated on the physical manifestation of Jesus? Did it affect their dispositions?

  • What do you think inspires someone to choose a life of religious devotion? Is it an escape? Are the reasons for selecting this course in life different for men than they are for women? How? Are they different for individuals of different religions?

  • Many of the sisters were jealous of Mariette. Why? Is it surprising that such a physically painful experience--stigmata--implies holiness? Do you think that the individuals that experience it are blessed or cursed?

  • How did you feel about Mariette? Do you believe that a person can be so consumed by religious ecstasy that they precipitate "miracles"? Do you believe in miracles?

  • Why do you think that Ron Hansen chose to end the novel the way in which he did? Was it realistic? Is it possible to return to a normal life after experiencing what Mariette experienced? Did her post-convent life seem "normal" or was she, in spirit, still devoted only to Jesus? Did it change how you felt about the authenticity of the event that unfolded in the convent? About the Author: "I am challenged when I write from a woman's perspective or set my work in a historical period, because there is so much more that I have to imagine" says Ron Hansen. Hansen has been imaging fictional worlds since his childhood in Nebraska. His first two novels, Desperadoes and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, retell Wild West legends. His other novels are Hitler's Niece and Atticus, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Nebraska, a collection of short stories, received an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He also wrote the screenplays for Mariette in Ecstasy and for Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

    Hansen graduated from Creighton University in Omaha, and went on to the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop where he studied with John Irving. He is now Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Professor in Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University in northern California. Hansen earned a Masters degree in spirituality from Santa Clara in 1995.

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    Mariette in Ecstasy 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
    NJouy More than 1 year ago
    Mariette in Ecstasy begins with short, pithy sentences that read more like poetry than prose. While the scene breaks-switching from traditional dialogue and description to seemingly out of place dialogue and back-are confusing at first, hang in there. It all makes sense by the end. Or at least the style does. The story itself is full of twists and turns, and by the end I wasn't sure what to believe. But that, I think, is the point. Faith and life don't get to be wrapped neatly up in "happily ever after" or "and then everyone died"-like a Shakespearean play; there are always loose-ends, doubts, what-ifs. Hansen plays with assumptions and characters as one might play with clay: molding here, detailing there, cutting pieces away, and adding more. I recommend this book to anyone of any faith or belief, anyone who enjoys good prose and poetry, anyone who simply wants a thought-provoking read.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This story is carefully crafted and artistically rendered, but unfortunately, the story line is just too preposterous for my taste.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Meticulous, subtle, exquisite!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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    LitStudentIJ More than 1 year ago
    Overflowing with vivid imagery and incredible descriptions Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen, proves to be an engaging novel. Mariette is a beautiful young girl who believes she was called to follow in the footsteps of her older sister and join a convent. She gives herself completely over to God and is very devout. Despite Mariette's apparent faithfulness because of her teenage tendencies and "high-strung" nature there are speculations on the truthfulness of her claims. Throughout the novel Hansen continually surprises the reader with unexpected outcomes and the outcome is a surprisingly compelling novel.
    abazoorose More than 1 year ago
    Ron Hansen does a tremendous job in this novel. I found myself stopping time and time again, amazed at the beauty of his wording. His poetic descriptions leave an indelible impression as he paints the peaceful and disturbing world of convent life. Mariette's story is a confusing one, but one that is thought-provoking as it borders on the miraculous. Once this high-spirited girl enters the convent, the sisters' lives are never the same. Hansen often connects the sacred with the sensual, blurring the line between what is human passion and spiritual ecstasy. Regardless of what one thinks about signs like stigmata and bodily mortification, this book is a beautifully told work about a young woman's passion and growth.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Hansen's prose-style reads like satin, Haiku or seductive free verse. The plot is so close to Agnes of God, the play, that I found myself struggling with it. 'Ecstacy' both soothes and puzzles but Hansen kept you on the edge of your seat as the cliche goes.Would it turn out to be Agnes of God? It becomes an engrossing whodunnit about the mystery of faith ( and just who dun her) it's not without a little Freudian insight. The final part was truly eerie as Mariette's soul glides between obsessional neurosis slash hysteria or a manifestation of innermost faith. I did feel as if something were omitted, but it just might have to become a twice-read tale of spine-tingling suspense
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Confusing, thought provoking and bare, this novel enlightens the reader almost as much as it confuses. Author Ron Hansen's sparse, semi-poetic style reveals little about individual characters, but provides an outline of how life thrives in a convent, free of idyllic intrusion. The spaced structure of Mariette informs the content by visualizing clean and simple lines, which imply the bareness of a convent. The nuns live simple lives, unadorned and bare, and their status is reflected in the style of Hansen¿s writing. To some it may detract from the ¿quick read¿ it appears to be. But to others the open structure enhances the experience of 'Mariette in Ecstasy'. There are times when the prose is wonderfully descriptive, and other times when it is distressingly vague. It seems the scenery has more of an emphasis than the characters. But perhaps the setting functions as a character in itself, and the descriptions of nature reflect the internal thoughts and hearts of the characters experiencing these various seasons. Winter storms rage, people¿s opinions change, and love comes and goes. The cycle of life and death repeats itself. Some confusing aspects of the novel are the repeated double-entendres and the constant subliminal innuendos. Certain areas of foreshadowing are hard to ignore, such as when Sister Agnes is telling Mariette he rules of the house, which include the following: ¿She should expect, too, that she will be tempted to have particular affection for some of her sisters. Such affections are not permitted. For Jesus Christ ought to be their grandest passion¿¿ (18). Other small things mentioned can be taken either way, and the word ¿ecstasy¿ could mean both sexual passion and inexplicable consumption with the Christ. The conflict between these to is never resolved, and it makes one wonder how far people will go to find their bliss, or to achieve their ultimate ecstasy. The conclusion does not reveal the true character of Mariette, though many things are insinuated. A close, contemplative reading will bring one closer to the true intent of the author, and no doubt have a greater impact on those who seek truth within 'Mariette', besides the intriguing story of a nun filled with uncontrollable and unrequited passion.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Mariette in Ecstasy is one of the greatest books I¿ve read, even though it was written in an unusual style. A beautiful and intriguing book Ron Hansen narrates through a young nun¿s faith in Jesus. The story has poetic intensity from William Carlos Williams, which pictures cannot describe. Hanson draws beautiful paintings through words. Some of the paragraphs were written in cinematic style, which we see pictures in our minds through what Hanson are describing to us. It was necessary for the author to go with this style to present beautiful images. He uses this technique skillfully and describes wonderful imagery displayed through the novel. Some paragraphs had theological contributions to add flavor to the story. Hanson uses present tense in the novel, which shows current actions taking place at that moment in time. It shows us cinematic settings in its poetry-written style in which Hansen describes his setting and characters. I really like this book on a spiritual and literature level, especially when written in this poetic style. I don¿t find my many books that are written in this style and I am thankful for I have finally found one. This book really shows the struggle between a Catholic nun, trying to have a deep relationship with God, and confront her superiorities. I curiously wanted to know what was going to happen to Mariette, who later in the book gets to meet Jesus when nobody is around. Hanson does a good job writing novels like this and I hope that I will have more time to read his novels in the future.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This is a beautifully written poetic exercise in psyco-sexual religious fantasy. Although on the surface the author seems to have done the homework, anyone who has lived the life of monasticsm knows how vividly innacurate a portrayal of religious life this is! A great read, but please know it is fiction not religion.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Without a doubt, Mariette in Ecstasy is good writing but an accurate portrayal of life in a cloistered monastery? No! Not of the 1900's, 1920's,1930's or now. Hansen draws for us a powerful image of Mariette but most of the book is loaded with an undercurrent of a certain errotica. Hansen also drew much of his stuff from the writings of St. Gemma. It's great reading, however. Just remember, it isn't true to life!
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    In my opinion 'Mariette in Ecstasy' is so well written that even people who don't care at all for organized religion or spiritual pursuits will still like it. The book is quite short, almost more novella than novel and in style almost more poetry than prose. It's highly evocative and beautiful in describing the winter desolation of a rural convent in 1906. The plot has to do with a young trainee who experiences unusual and controversial spiritual phenomena (which I'd rather not go into).