“And vulgar, ignoble farce was turned into a great historical drama.”
The twenty volumes in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series are set in France during the period 1851-1873, and the novels trace the fortunes of various members of the two branches of the same family. The Rougons are the legitimate, and so-called respectable branch whereas the Macquarts are fairly disreputable. Zola traces the hereditary influences of violence, alcoholism and prostitution through his characters as they nagivate the changing social landscape of life in the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71.
The first novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, The Fortune of the Rougons, is set in the town of Plassans in the south of France, and it begins in the year 1851 with two young lovers–Silvere and Miette–both swept up in the struggle between the Republic and the Second Empire. Miette is an orphan who lives with unpleasant relatives, and Silvere is from the notorious Macquart branch of the family. This novel sets the stage for the rest to follow.
After introducing the young lovers and their defense of the Republic, the novel then explores the background of the Rougon-Macquart family–and its matriarch, Adelaide Fouques–the last of the line of a wealthy landowning family whose “name died out a few years before the Revolution.” Adelaide–who could be described as either eccentric or mad–shocks the inhabitants of Plassans by marrying the peasant Rougon. They have a son named Pierre, but shortly after Pierre’s birth, Rougon dies suddenly. Adelaide creates yet another scandal when she begins co-habiting with an unsavoury poacher named Macquart–a man of “vagrant instincts, rendered vicious by wine.” Adelaide has two children by Macquart–Antoine and Ursule.
The small town of Plassans has a rigid class structure, so even as a child, Pierre is aware of the scandal involving his mother, Macquart, and her two illegitimate children. Pierre bides his time, and with brewing avarice and ambition, he schemes to ensure that his mother’s estate falls to him alone. As the title of the novel suggests, Zola traces the fate and the fortunes of the Rougons, and this sprawling novel covers Adelaide, her children, grandchildren and even mentions her great-grandchildren. It is in Pierre’s old age that he finally attempts to seize his moment of destiny by wresting power from Plassans’ officials in a coup d’etat by manipulating his connections with the Second Empire and Napoleon III. Pierre’s avaricious and ambitious wife, Felicite, loathes the Macquart branch of the family, and she’s quite prepared to spill blood in order to guarantee the Rougons’ ascension to power.
For those interested in French history or French literature, then this classic novel will prove to be an exciting introduction to the twenty volume series. The series covers the vital twenty-year period from 1851-1873–from the coup d’etat of 1851 that overthrew the Republic to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the destruction of the Second Empire. With this vast array of characters, it’s helpful to sketch a family tree. Zola’s approach to telling history through the fortunes of one extended family is brilliant. Adelaide–the last of a line of aristocrats–is a symbolic figure, and several of her character traits appear in slightly varied forms in her many descendants. Adelaide’s son, Antoine, for example, is a blend of both of his parents’ failings. As the novel continues, and new generations spring forth, traits reappear–sometimes in a twisted form. This beginning, meaty, and satisfying tale of the Rougon-Macquart family–“a pack of unbridled, insatiate appetites amidst a blaze of gold and blood” is highly recommended for lovers of Balzac. All the human vices are here in abundance–and the novel, heavy going in spots, is at once a glorious read and a savage examination of the worst of human nature.