L’Assommoir by Emile Zola

“Coupeau was very foul-mouthed and called her revolting names. Lantier, on the other hand, chose his insults with care, thinking up expressions that people just don’t use and which hurt her even more. Fortunately you get used to anything; in the end the abuse and unfair accusations the two men heaped on her just slid off her delicate skin as if it were oilcloth. She even reached the point where she preferred them cross, because on those occasions when they were being nice they pestered her more, they were always after her, so that she couldn’t even iron a bonnet in peace any longer. They’d make her cook them little dishes, which they wanted salted, or not salted, they’d make her say first one thing then another, they’d make her coddle them and swaddle them in cotton wool. By the end of the week her head was spinning and her limbs aching, and she’d stare about her wild-eyed, in a complete daze. It uses a woman up, a job like that does.

 
L’Assommoir (roughly translated to The Dram Shop) is considered one of Zola’s masterpieces. It’s novel number seven in Zola’s phenomenal twenty-volume Rougon Macquart series. L’Assommoir follows His Excellency–a novel that details the political machinations of Eugene Rougon–the most powerful member of the Rougon family. L’Assommoir is a return to the misfortunes of the Macquart branch of the family, and like The Fat and The Thin (the third in the series) the novel focuses on a poor neighborhood of Paris.

Yes, Coupeau and Lantier were using her up, that’s the right word, burning her at both ends like a candle.”

L’Assommoir is the story of the life of Parisian laundress, Gervaise, and as a novel it is a complete change of pace from His Excellency. To place Gervaise in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, she is one of the poverty stricken members of the Macquart branch of the family. Gervaise is the daughter of Antoine, and Gervaise’s sister Lisa appeared as a prominent character as the wife of a butcher in The Fat and The Thin.

When L’Assommoir begins, twenty-two year old Gervaise is living in Paris with her lover, Lantier and has borne two sons. Still in the flush of youth, healthy, beautiful, and with skin that has the “milky transparency of fine porcelain,” Gervaise slaves away as a washerwoman in a hectic laundry in one of the worst slums in the city while Lantier refuses to work. He sponges off of Gervaise, abusing her into the bargain. One night, Lantier doesn’t return home after a night drinking. He’s involved in another relationship with a woman named Adele. When he decides to return to the couple’s pitifully bare room, Lantier forces Gervaise to pawn some of their last possessions, and then he runs off with Adele. But a young roofer, a teetotaler named Coupeau, has had his sights fixed on Gervaise for some time. Within a few weeks, Coupeau begins to court Gervaise, and the two live together and eventually wed. One of the greatest scenes in the novel describes the wedding party as they traverse across Paris visit a museum and end up with a dinner in the Moulin-d’Argent.

At first Coupeau and Gervaise are a happy, productive couple. They begin to prosper and Gervaise dreams of having her own laundry. She gives birth to a girl named Nana, but then tragedy strikes when Coupeau has an accident that wipes out Gervaise’s savings. Friends, the Goujets, lend Gervaise the money to open her laundry, and at first she’s very successful. But overextended, burdened with debt and with a husband who turns to drink, gradually Gervaise slips morally and spiritually down a path from which there is no return.

L’Assommoir is a phenomenal novel, but at the same time it’s easy to see why it was/is so controversial. Zola does not depict the poor as victims of society as much as victims of themselves and their vices. Those who are tightfisted survive and prosper, and generosity is something Zola’s characters cannot afford. After all, those who show kindness to others in L’Assommoir are hardly rewarded in kind. Gervaise is a generous, loving woman who freely admits that her greatest weakness “was being very soft-hearted, liking everybody, getting desperately fond of people who then put her through endless misery.” Unfortunately, she’s swept up in the idea of her own affluence, and forgets that her security–like most of us–comes from working hard and saving.

Some of the novel’s best scenes come in the realism of the descriptions of the settings–the Lorilleux’s workshop, the dram shop, and the heat and the noise of Gervaise’s laundry. A few evocative sentences, and I felt as though I was in the same rooms as these characters.

The novel is peppered with horrible characters: those who hoard and jealously guard their resources, refusing to share in adversity (the Lorilleux, Coupeau’s sister and brother in law who make gold chains, turning their tiny apartment into a hellish workshop.) There’s a similar theme in The Fat and The Thin when Lisa clearly sees her brother in law as a threat to her prosperity, and therefore he had to be destroyed. Then on the other end of the spectrum, there are the leeches: the seductive Virginie and Lantier. While Virginie acts from revenge, Lantier manages to deftly leap from one domestic situation to another, bleeding off the sweat and labour of others until, leaving a hollow out shell, he moves onto the next victim.

L’Assommoir also introduces Nana (the subject and title of the ninth novel in the series). Reading about Nana’s origins, her complete moral corruption, and her sallies into prostitution, we know that she will lead an interesting, tumultuous but ultimately tainted life, poisoning everyone who makes the mistake of worshipping her. But L’Assommoir is Gervaise’s story–her decline and her miserable end. What a phenomenal novel.

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11 Comments

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

11 responses to “L’Assommoir by Emile Zola

  1. Marvelous review of L’Assommoir. Gervaise is one of my favorite characters in all of literature. I admire her struggle, even though she is eventually overwhelmed.

    Typo in the paragraph beginning “At first Coupeau and Gervaise”. You must have been thinking of Nana as you typed “Friends, the Goujets, lend Nana the money”.

  2. Thanks for catching that. Have you seen the old film version of Gervaise? The plot was cleaned up a bit, but it’s worth catching nonetheless.

  3. No, I haven’t seen any of those old B&W movies. Would sure love to. Only discovered Zola around eight or ten years ago.

    • Gervaise is available via Criterion. You remember the scene early on with the fight over Lantier, well it’s included in the film. The plot glosses over the whole aspect of the three-way relationship but what else can you expect for the 50s?

  4. Thanks! The fight in the wash house? Yes, I remember it.

    One of the most horrific scenes to me was when Coupeau fell from the roof. I’m sure that was in the movie. But yeah, they may have had to omit Nana watching Gervaise and Lantier at night.

    Did you know Roger Vadim did a movie of The Kill starring Jane Fonda as Renée? The Game is Over, 1965. I haven’t seen it. One of the gals in the group has a photo from it on the cover of her book.

  5. I loved L’Assommoir and this reminds me why. I read L’Assommoir a few months before getting to Nana so I got to enjoy watching her drift away into her own story. When I did read Nana, it felt like I had just continued right past this book into the natural sequel (though there is, of course, one book between them…).

    I’ve read only the 3 predictable Rougon-Macquart novels (with Germinal still one of my absolute favorite books ever), but I can safely set L’Assommoir in the category of “phenomenal” as well. Though I can’t compare the series’ titles very well, in comparison to other books I’ve read it certainly ranks very high. Thank you for writing this wonderful piece on this wonderful book.

    • Thanks for the comment: I was fascinated by seeing young Nana in embryo. We are not fortunate to see all the major characters going through the process of change, but here I throughly enjoyed the view of the young Nana quickly discovering that work isn’t for her, and yes, I agree that Nana does seem to be a very natural sequel.

  6. Lichanos: Nana does seem to be a fav for filmmakers. I saw an early BBC version. Wish it was on DVD.
    Glad you liked Witchfinder General. I watched Vincent Price in a great noir last night: His Kind of Woman

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