There are two men inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman
L'Assommoir (1877) is the seventh novel in Émile Zola's twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. Usually considered one of Zola's masterpieces, the novel—a harsh and uncompromising study of alcoholism and poverty in the working-class districts of Paris—was a huge commercial success and established Zola's fame and reputation throughout France and the world.
The novel is essentially the story of Gervaise Macquart, who was featured briefly in the first novel in the series, La Fortune des Rougon, running away to Paris with her shiftless lover Lantier to work as a washerwoman in a hot, busy laundry in one of the seedier areas of the city. L'Assommoir begins with Gervaise and her two young sons being abandoned by Lantier, who takes off for parts unknown; she later takes up with Coupeau, a teetotal roofing engineer, and they are married in one of the great set-pieces of Zola's fiction; the account of the wedding party's chaotic trip to the Louvre is perhaps the novelist's most famous passage. Through a combination of happy circumstances Gervaise is able to raise enough money to open her own laundry, and the couple's happiness appears to be complete with the birth of a daughter, Anna, nicknamed Nana (the heroine of Zola's later novel of the same title).
The second half of the novel deals with the downward trajectory of Gervaise's life from this happy high point. Coupeau is injured in a fall from the roof of a new hospital he is working on, and during his lengthy and painful convalescence he takes to drink. Only a few chapters pass before Coupeau is a vindictive alcoholic, with no intention of trying to find more work; Gervaise struggles to keep her home together, but her excessive pride leads her to a number of embarrassing failures and before long everything is going downhill. The home is further disrupted by the return of Lantier, warmly welcomed by Coupeau—by this point losing interest in both Gervaise and life itself, and becoming seriously ill—and the ensuing chaos and financial strain is too much for Gervaise, who loses her laundry-shop and is sucked into debt. She decides to join Coupeau in the drinking and soon slides into heavy alcoholism too, prompting Nana—already suffering from the chaotic life at home and getting into trouble on a daily basis—to run away to Paris for good. The novel continues in this unhappy vein until the end.
1879 poster for an American theatre production of L'Assomoir by Augustin Daly
Zola undertook a huge amount of research into the language of the street for his most realistic novel to date, using a large number of obscure contemporary slang words and curses to capture an authentic atmosphere. His shocking descriptions of conditions in working-class 19th-century Paris drew widespread admiration for their realism, then as now, and the novel remains one of the most powerful in the French language. It was taken up by temperance workers across the world as a tract against the dangers of alcoholism, though Zola always insisted there was considerably more to his novel than that. The novelist also drew criticism from some quarters for the depth of his reporting, either for being too coarse and vulgar or for portraying working-class people as shiftless drunkards. Zola rejected both these criticisms out of hand; his response was simply that he had presented a true picture of real life.
The title L'Assommoir cannot be properly translated into English. It was a colloquial term popular in late 19th Century Paris, referring to a shop selling cheap liquor distilled on the premises. The word is adapted from the French verb assomer (to stun, bludgeon or render senseless); perhaps the closest equivalent term in English is the slang verb-phrase "to get hammered." In the absence of a corresponding noun, English translators' attempts to render the title often fail to have the same bluntly onomatopoeic effect, resulting in translations with titles like The Dram Shop, The Gin Palace, The Drunkard etc. Most translators nowadays choose to retain the original French title. L'Assommoir has often been translated, however, and there are several unexpurgated English versions currently in print.
The central character of the novel is Hélène Grandjean née Mouret (b. 1824), first introduced briefly in La fortune des Rougon. Hélène is the daughter of Ursule Mouret née Macquart, the illegitimate daughter of Adelaïde Fouque (Tante Dide), the ancestress of the Rougon-Macquart family. Hélène's brothers are François Mouret, the central character of La conquête de Plassans, and Silvère Mouret, whose story is told in La fortune des Rougon.
The story takes place in 1854-1855. When the novel begins, Hélène has been widowed 18 months, living in what was then the Paris suburb of Passy with her 11-year-old daughter Jeanne. Her husband Charles Grandjean fell ill the day after they arrived from Marseilles and died eight days later. Hélène and Jeanne have only been into Paris proper three times. From the window of their home, they can see the entire city, which takes on a dreamlike, foreign, and romantic, yet inaccessible, character for them throughout the novel.
On the night the novel opens, Jeanne has fallen ill with a violent seizure. In panic, Hélène runs into the street to find a doctor. Eventually, she begs her neighbor Dr. Henri Deberle to come attend Jeanne, and his ministrations save the girl's life. Later that week, Hélène goes to thank Dr. Deberle, and befriends his wife Juliette and her circle of friends, including Monsieur Malignon, a handsome, wealthy man-about-town who is exceptionally comfortable in female society.
Hélène's only friends are a pair of stepbrothers who were friends of her husband's: Abbé Jouve, the officiating priest at the parish church of Passy, and Monsieur Rambaud, an oil and produce merchant. The Abbé asks Hélène to visit one of his invalid parishioners, Mother Fétu. While Hélène is at her squalid apartment, Dr. Deberle pays a medical call. Mother Fétu immediately realizes that the Hélène and Deberle know each other and, seeing them so shy with one another, she immediately begins to attempt to bring them together. At a later visit, Mother Fétu arranges to leave the two of them alone together, but Dr. Deberle leaves before either can express their attraction.
Juliette throws a party for the wealthy children of the neighborhood. At the party, Dr. Deberle passionately confesses to Hélène in private that he loves her. She leaves the party in confusion. On contemplating her life, Hélène realizes that she has never really been in love; though she respected her late husband, she felt no love or passion for him. She finds, however, that she is falling in love with Dr. Deberle.
During May, Hélène and Jeanne begin attending church, where they regularly meet Juliette. Dr. Deberle frequently meets them after church ostensibly in order to escort his wife home, and continues to act as escort even on those evenings when Juliette doesn't attend services. At the end of the month, after Hélène's passion for Dr. Deberle is replaced by a passion for the church, Jeanne has another seizure. Her illness lasts three weeks, during which she is assiduously attended by Hélène and Dr. Deberle to the exclusion of all others. At last, the Doctor uses leeches and Jeanne recovers. Having saved her daughter's life, Hélène admits that she loves the Doctor.
However, as Jeanne recuperates during the ensuing months, she witnesses Hélène and the Doctor talking quietly together and realizes that he is taking her place in Hélène's affections. She is then consumed by intense jealousy and refuses to see him. The symptoms of her illness return whenever he is present, until at last Hélène drives him from her home.
Hélène realizes that Malignon has been pursuing Juliette and the two are planning an assignation. She learns from Mother Fétu that Malignon has taken rooms in her building, and guesses that this will be the place where the he and Juliette will meet. When Hélène goes out ostensibly to bring Mother Fétu some shoes, but in reality to look at the rooms (Mother Fétu thinks she is arranging a place for Hélène and the Doctor to meet), Jeanne is extraordinarily distressed to be left alone, especially because Hélène gives no explanation for not taking her along.
The next day, Hélène attempts to warn Juliette not to keep her rendezvous with Malignon, scheduled for that afternoon, but she is unable to do so. Hélène slips a note into the Doctor's pocket with the address and time of the assignation. That afternoon, she decides to go to the apartment and stop the rendezvous, but before she can go, Jeanne insists on going with her. Hélène tells her she cannot go, and Jeanne becomes hysterical at being left and at being lied to. She says that she will die if she is left behind. Hélène goes anyway. At the apartment, she is met by Mother Fétu, who, feeling she has played the part of Hélène's procuress and confidante, lets her into the apartment with a knowing glance. Hélène successfully stops the rendezvous, but just as the prospective lovers part, Henri enters. He thinks that Hélène has arranged for them to be alone together. Hélène gives in to her feelings, and the two of them make passionate love at last.
Meanwhile, Jeanne, left alone, furious and confused and jealous, makes herself sick by hanging her arms out of her bedroom window in the rain. Growing increasingly lethargic and listless, she believes her mother does not care for her anymore, especially after witnessing her mother and Dr. Deberle exchange silent, knowing glances while planning a family excursion to Italy. Eventually, she falls seriously ill, and Deberle diagnosis her with galloping consumption (the same disease her grandmother Ursule died of) and gives her three weeks to live. In due course, she dies. Hélène is completely grief-stricken, feeling responsible for her daughter's death. Two years later, she marries M. Rambaud and the two return to Marseilles.
Zola's plan for the Rougon-Macquart novels was to show how heredity and environment worked on the members of one family over the course of the Second Empire. In Une page d'amour, he specifically links Jeanne with her great-grandmother, the family ancestress Adelaïde Fouque (Tante Dide), who was possessed by the same seizures, and her grandmother Ursule, who died of the same disease.
In Le docteur Pascal, Zola described the influence of heredity on Hélène as "innateness," a "chemical blending in which the physical and moral natures of the parents are so amalgamated that nothing of them seems to subsist in the offspring." She is one of the "normal" members of the family. Jeanne is described as an instance of "reverting heredity," where the family neuroses have skipped one or more generations. Jeanne thus inherits her grandmother Ursule's "brain affection," which Ursule inherited from her mother Tante Dide. The descriptions of Tante Dide's seizures in La fortune des Rougon are similar to the descriptions of Jeanne's seizures in Une page d’amour. Jeanne probably also inherited her grandfather's (Ursule's husband, the hatter Mouret) tendency to obsession (Mouret hanged himself a year after his wife's death in a cupboard where her dresses were still hanging), a characteristic she also shares with her uncle François in La conquête de Plassans.
In Le docteur Pascal, Zola tells us that Hélène and Rambaud continue to live in Marseilles (this novel is set in 1872). They have no children.
Nana 1880, is the ninth installment in the 20-volume Les Rougon-Macquart series, the object of which was to tell "The Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire", the subtitle of the series.
A year before he started to write Nana, Zola did not know anything yet about the Variétés. It was Ludovic Halévy who invited him to see an operetta with him on February 15, 1878 and took him backstage. Halévy told him innumerable stories about the amorous life of the star—Anna Judic whose ménage à trois would become the model for Rose Mignon, her husband, and Fauchery—and also about famous cocottes such as Blanche d'Antigny, Anna Deslions, Delphine de Lizy, and Hortense Schneider, an amalgam of which was to serve the writer as the basis for his principal character.
Nana tells the story of Nana Coupeau's rise from streetwalker to high-class cocotte during the last three years of the French Second Empire. Nana first appears in the end of L'Assommoir (1877), another of Zola's Rougon-Macquart series, in which she is portrayed as the daughter of an abusive drunk; in the end, she is living in the streets and just beginning a life of prostitution.
The new novel opens with a night at the Théâtre des Variétés. The Exposition Universelle (1867) has just opened its doors. Nana is 15 years old (the number 18 mentioned in the book is not more than a fig leaf). Zola had taken care to make this clear to his readers by publishing an elaborate family tree of the Rougon-Macquarts in the newspaper Le Bien Public in 1878 when he started writing Nana. Zola describes in detail the performance of La blonde Vénus, a fictional operetta modelled after Offenbach's La belle Hélène, in which Nana is cast as the lead. She has never been seen on a stage, but tout Paris is talking about her. When asked to say something about her talents, Bordenave, the manager of the theatre (he calls it the brothel), explains that a star doesn't have to know how to sing or act: Nana has something else, dammit, and something that takes the place of everything else. I scented it out, and it smells damnably strong in her, or else I lost my sense of smell. Just as the crowd is about to dismiss her performance as terrible, young Georges Hugon shouts: "Très chic!" From then on, she owns the audience, and, when she appears only thinly veiled in the third act, Zola writes: All of a sudden, in the good-natured child the woman stood revealed, a disturbing woman with all the impulsive madness of her sex, opening the gates of the unknown world of desire. Nana was still smiling, but with the deadly smile of a man-eater.
The novel then goes on to show how Nana destroys every man who pursues her: Philippe Hugon, Georges' brother, imprisoned after stealing from the army, his employer, for Nana; Steiner, a wealthy banker who is ruined after hemorrhaging cash for Nana's decadence; Georges Hugon, who was so captivated with her from the beginning that, when he realized he could not have her, stabs himself with scissors in anguish; Vandeuvres, a wealthy owner of horses who burns himself in his barn after Nana ruins him financially; Fauchery, a journalist and publisher who falls for Nana early on, writes a scathing article about her later, and falls for her again and is ruined financially; and Count Muffat, whose faithfulness to Nana brings him back for humiliation after humiliation until he finds her in bed with his elderly father-in-law. Becker explains: "What emerges from [Nana] is the completeness of Nana's destructive force, brought to a culmination in the thirteenth chapter by a kind of roll call of the victims of her voracity" (118).
When Nana's work is done, Zola has her die a horrible death from smallpox: What lay on the pillow was a charnel house, a heap of pus and blood, a shovelful of putrid flesh. The pustules had invaded the whole face, so that one pock touched the next. While outside her window the crowd is madly chanting To Berlin! To Berlin! (the time is July 1870, after the Ems Dispatch), Venus is decomposing. And this is, Zola implies, what is about to happen to the Second Empire.
Nana Title Page of the original French Edition
The novel was an immediate success. Le Voltaire, the French newspaper that was to publish it in instalments from October 1879 on, had launched a gigantic advertising campaign, raising the curiosity of the reading public to a fever pitch. When Charpentier finally published Nana in book form in February 1880, the first edition of 55,000 copies was sold out in one day. Flaubert and Edmond de Goncourt were full of praise for Nana. On the other hand, a part of the non-reading public, spurred on by some critics, reacted to the book with outrage. While the novel is held up as a fine example of writing, it is not especially true to Zola's touted naturalist philosophy; instead, it is one of the most symbolically complex of his novels, setting it apart from the earthy "realism" of L'Assommoir or the more brutal "realism" of La Terre (1887). However, it was a great deal more authentic than most contemporary novels about the demimonde.
Nana is especially noted for the crowd scenes, of which there are many, in which Zola proves himself a master of capturing the incredible variety of people. Whereas in his other novels -- notably Germinal (1885) -- he gives the reader an amazingly complete picture of surroundings and the lives of characters, from the first scene we are to understand that this novel treads new ground.
Flaubert summed up the novel in one perfect sentence:
Nana tourne au mythe, sans cesser d'être réelle.
(Nana turns into myth, without ceasing to be real.)
Édouard Manet, who was much taken with the description of the "precociously immoral" Nana in Zola's L'assommoir gave the title "Nana" to his portrait of Henriette Hauser. The painting was rejected by the hanging committee for the Paris Salon of 1877.
Niki de Saint Phalle, when asked about her own Nanas, is reported to have stressed that it was not an intellectual connection to Zola that she was aiming at, but more a kind of "fusion" with the opulent forms of Rubens. This in a way ties in with Paulus' description of Blanche d'Antigny, the principal model for Nana: Not a beauty in the classical Greek sense. But what a complexion! What an opulence of forms! A Rubens!!
Nana became popular, in spite of or, as some say, because of the opprobrium it garnered.
Becker, George J. Master European Realists of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1982.
Zola, Émile. Nana. Colette Becker, ed. Paris: Dunod, 1994. Selections translated by Chris St. Pierre.
Zola, Émile: Nana, translated with an introduction by George Holden, Penguin Classics, London 1972.
Pot-Bouille is the tenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series by Émile Zola. It was first serialized between January and April 1882 in the periodical Le Gaulois before being published in book form by Charpentier in 1883.
The novel is an indictment of the hypocritical mores of the bourgeoisie of the Second French Empire. It is set in a Parisianapartment building, a relatively new housing arrangement at the time, and its title (roughly translating as stew pot) reflects the disparate and sometimes unpleasant elements lurking behind the building's new and decorative façade.
Pot-Bouille was first translated into English by Henry Vizetelly in 1886 and Percy Pinkerton in 1895; both translations are available in reprints. There have been other English translations through the years (as Piping Hot!, Pot Luck, Restless House, and Lesson in Love), the most recent being by Brian Nelson for Oxford World's Classics (1999).
Like Zola's earlier novel L'Assommoir, the title is extremely difficult to render in English. The word pot-bouille is a 19th century French slang term for a large cooking pot or cauldron used for preparing stews and casseroles, as well as the foods prepared in it. The title is intended to convey a sense of disparate ingredients—the various inhabitants of the building—mixed together to create a potent and heady mix like a strong stew. The overall impression is to hint at the greed, ambition, and depravity which lies behind the pretentious façade of the outwardly well-behaved bourgeois apartment block. There is no real equivalent word in English to convey this. The closest English term would probably be an expression such as melting pot.
Pot-Bouille recounts the activities of the residents of a block of flats in the Rue de Choiseul over the course of two years (1861–1863). The characters include:
The Campardons. Madame Campardon has a mysterious medical condition that keeps them from having sex. The husband is having an affair with her distant cousin, who eventually moves in and manages the household while continuing the affair. Despite their best efforts, they cannot conceal this arrangement from their daughter Angèle, who learns all the secrets in the building from the family servant.
The Duveyriers. Monsieur Duveyrier detests the bourgeois respectability of his wife's household, particularly her piano playing, and takes refuge with a bohemian mistress Clarisse—an arrangement that suits his frigid wife perfectly. When Clarisse aspires to domesticity and respectability, Monsieur Duveyrier attempts suicide and later begins an affair with one of the maids.
The Josserands. Madame Josserand is relentless in her hunt to find husbands for her daughters. Zola compares the business of husband-hunting to prostitution, and indeed Madame Josserand trots her daughters out in society to snare any man who will have them, under the cover of respectability and decorum. Madame Josserand instills her contempt for men (including her husband) in her younger daughter Berthe, who is able to compromise Auguste Vabre and force a marriage.
The Vabres (Théophile and Valérie). The wife, described as neurotic and somewhat hysterical, is involved in multiple, loveless affairs—it is common knowledge that her son is not her husband’s—and the husband is a hypochondriac living in perpetual suspicion of his wife's behavior.
The Pichons. Going through the motions of marriage, they have subjugated all passion in every aspect of their lives, including rearing their daughter, subduing any romance (Madame Pichon has an affinity for the novels of George Sand) beneath cold, hollow propriety.
Complicit in condoning the behavior of these characters are the local priest and doctor, who use their official positions to cover up everyone's moral and physical failings. The characters' habits and secrets are also guarded by the concierge, who selectively turns a blind eye to everything going on. The sham respectability of the residents is contrasted with the candor of their servants, who secretly abuse their employers over the open sewer of the building's inner courtyard.
The novel follows the adventures of 22-year-old Octave Mouret, who moves into the building and takes a salesman's job at a nearby shop. Though handsome and charming, Octave is rebuffed by Valérie Vabre and his boss's wife Madame Hédouin before beginning a passionless affair with Madame Pichon. His failure with Madame Hédouin prompts him to quit his job, and he goes to work for Auguste Vabre in the silk shop on the building's ground floor. Soon, he begins an affair with Berthe, who by now is Auguste's wife. Octave and Berthe are eventually caught, but over the course of several months, the whole community tacitly agrees to forget the affair and live as if nothing had happened, thereby restoring the veneer of respectability. Octave marries the now-widowed Madame Hédouin, and life goes on in the Rue de Choiseul the way it has always done, with outward complacency, morality, and quiet.
Zola's plan for the Rougon-Macquart novels was to show how heredity and environment worked on members of one family over the course of the Second Empire.
The family representative in Pot-Bouille is Octave Mouret, first introduced briefly in La fortune des Rougon and playing a larger but background role in La conquête de Plassans. Octave is the son of first cousins Marthe Rougon and François Mouret and great-grandson of Adelaïde Fouque (Tante Dide), the ancestress from whom the family members inherit varying degrees of what today might be called obsessive-compulsive disorder. Zola describes him in Le docteur Pascal, the final novel in the series, as an example of indirect heredity, bearing a physical resemblance to his uncle Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon). Like his uncle, Octave is obsessed with power, in the nephew's case over women. He is not ruthless or predatory, but uses his charm and good looks to captivate women.
In addition to examining Octave as representative of the Rougon-Macquart line, Zola explores the effects of personal history and environment on the other residents of the apartment building.
Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies' Delight or The Ladies' Paradise) is the eleventh novel in the Rougon-Macquart series by Émile Zola. It was first serialized in the periodical Gil Blas and published in novel form by Charpentier in 1883.
The novel is set in the world of the department store, an innovative development in mid-nineteenth century retail sales. Zola models his store after Le Bon Marché, which consolidated under one roof many of the goods hitherto sold in separate shops. The narrative details many of Le Bon Marché's innovations, including its mail-order business, its system of commissions, its in-house staff commissary, and its methods of receiving and retailing goods.
Au Bonheur des Dames is a direct sequel to the previous book in the Rougon-Macquart series, Pot-Bouille. Like its predecessor, Au Bonheur des Dames focuses on Octave Mouret (b. 1840), who, at the end of the previous novel, married Caroline Hédouin, the owner of a small silk shop. Now a widower, Octave has expanded the business into an international retail powerhouse occupying (at the beginning of the book) most of an entire city block.
The events of Au Bonheur des Dames cover approximately 1864-1869.
The novel is a straightforward narrative telling the story of Denise Baudu, a 20-year-old woman from Valognes who comes to Paris with her brothers and begins working at the department store Au Bonheur des Dames as a saleswoman. Zola describes the inner workings of the store from the employees' perspective, including the 13-hour workdays, the substandard food, and the bare lodgings (for the female staff). Many of the conflicts in the novel spring from the struggles for advancement and the malicious infighting and gossip among the staff.
Denise's story is played against the career of Octave Mouret, the owner of Au Bonheur des Dames, whose retail innovations and store expansions threaten the existence of all the neighborhood shops. Under one roof, Octave has gathered textiles (silks, woolens) as well as all manner of ready-made garments (dresses, coats, lingerie, gloves), accessories necessary for making clothes, and ancillary items like carpeting and furniture. His aim is to overwhelm the senses of his female customers, forcing them to spend by bombarding them with an array of buying choices and by juxtaposing goods in enticing and intoxicating ways. Massive advertising, huge sales, home delivery, a system of refunds, and innovations such as an in-store reading room and a snack bar further induce his female clientele to patronize his store in growing numbers. In the process, he drives smaller, specialty shops out of business.
In Pot-Bouille, Octave is depicted as a (sometimes inept) ladies' man who seduces or attempts to seduce women who can give him some type of material (social or financial) advantage. This characteristic is carried over in Au Bonheur des Dames. Here, he uses a young widow to influence a political figure (modeled after Baron Haussmann) in order to have frontage access to a huge thoroughfare (the present day rue de Quatre-Septembre) for the store.
Despite his contempt for women, Octave finds himself slowly falling in love with Denise, whose inability to be seduced by his charms further inflames him. The book ends with Denise admitting her love for Octave. Her marriage with Octave is seen as a victory of women over a man who refuses to be conquered and whose aim is to subjugate and exploit women using their own senses.
Zola's plan for the Rougon-Macquart novels was to show how heredity and environment worked on members of one family over the course of the Second French Empire. In this case, the environment is the department store.
Octave Mouret is first introduced briefly in La fortune des Rougon. He plays a larger but background role in La conquête de Plassans, which focuses on his parents, the first cousins Marthe Rougon and François Mouret. As an innovator and a risk-taker, Octave combines his mother's imagination with his father's business sense, making the department store the perfect milieu for his natural gifts.
He also inherits from his great-grandmother (Adelaïde Fouque or Tante Dide) a touch of what today might be called obsessive-compulsive disorder, manifested in his intense commercial drive and his obsession with dominating female consumers.
Octave's brother is the priest Serge (La faute de l'Abbé Mouret), who serves as guardian to their mentally challenged sister Desirée.
In Le docteur Pascal, the final novel in the series set in 1872-1873, we learn that Octave and Denise are married and have two children. (Octave also appears briefly or is mentioned in La joie de vivre and L'œuvre.)
Typical of Zola's novels, the physical location of the fictional store in the novel is worth noting. Located along the rue du Dix-Decembre equidistant from the Opera Garnier (under construction in the storyline of the novel) and the Palais Brongniart (the Parisian stock market), Zola's department store is meant to highlight the confluence of 'feminine' shopping and 'masculine' finance. Both the stock market and the theatre are central elements in other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series (L'argent and Nana).