The Fat and The Thin by Emile Zola

“Those colossal markets and their teeming odoriferous masses of food had hastened the crisis. To Florent they appeared symbolical of some glutted, digesting beast, of Paris, wallowing in its fat and silently holding up the Empire. He seemed to be encircled by swelling forms and sleek, fat faces, which ever and ever protested against his own martyr-like scragginess and sallow, discontented visage. To him the markets were like the stomach of the shopkeeping classes, the stomach of all the folks of average rectitude puffing itself out, rejoicing, glistening in the sunshine, and declaring that everything was for the best, since peaceable people had never before grown so beautifully fat.”

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 two branches of the same family. The Rougons are the legitimate, and so-called respectable branch whereas the Macquarts are illegitimate and fairly disreputable. Zola traces the hereditary influences of violence, alcoholism and prostitution through his characters as they navigate 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 Fat and the Thin is the third novel in the Rougon-Macquart series. Following The Kill, The Fat and The Thin is a complete change of pace. While The Kill, a tale of tragic adultery, lust and greed, takes place in the lavish drawing rooms of wealthy Parisians, The Fat and the Thin takes place in the marketplaces of Paris. Now at this point, I am going to say that I drew a Rougon-Macquart family tree when I decided that I was serious about reading these twenty volumes. I’m so glad I did this as I refer back to it frequently and it really helps me keep track of the characters. For me, The Kill was an emotionally devastating read, and turning to The Fat and The Thin, such a complete change of venue, shook my Rougon-Macquart bearings. So I returned to the family tree and reoriented myself to the various characters.

When the novel begins, Florent arrives exhausted and half starved in Paris. He’s returning to the only home he knows after escaping from prison in Cayenne. Tragically caught up in the bloody events of the 1851 coup, Florent, who was guilty of being in the wrong place in the wrong time, was scooped up in the aftermath, and condemned to exile. After spending years in prison, and enduring indescribable hardships, Florent returns to Paris to seek his younger brother, Quenu. In Florent’s long absence, Quenu has married Lisa, the daughter of Antoine Macquart, and together they run a prosperous pork-butcher shop.

At first, Quenu is thrilled to see Florent again. Long thought dead, Florent’s return completes Quenu’s happiness. Florent’s sister-in-law, Lisa also welcomes Florent. But Florent’s welcome is short lived. Irreparably scarred by his years of imprisonment, Florent’s Republican ideas have jelled into revolutionary thoughts. He simply doesn’t fit in with the rest of the fat, sleek, content Quenu household. Practical-minded Lisa, while aghast at Florent’s tales of injustice, is horrified at any hint of scandal and obsessed with respectability. She expects Florent to be able to move on with his life and pushes him to accept a post in the vast marketplace, Les Halles (known as the stomach of Paris) as a fish inspector.

Florent’s attempts at normalcy and respectability, ironically, help secure his downfall. In his position as fish inspector, he crosses paths with La Normandie, a statuesque fish seller. Antagonistic towards Florent at first, La Normandie eventually establishes an acquaintance with Florent in order to flaunt the friendship to her jealous sister, and also to annoy her rival in the marketplace, Lisa Quenu. Florent’s relationship with La Normandie, although based in innocent interest in her fatherless child, stirs resentment against him, and causes local gossips to spy upon him and spread vicious lies.

Bovine Lisa, placid, content and unwilling to allow any person–including Florent–to threaten the security of her family is a major character in the story. To her, “the breakneck freaks of politics did not provide one with food,” and Florent’s ideals are dangerous. But “Florent was fated to return to politics. He had suffered too much through them not to make them the dearest occupation of his life.” Florent is pushed back to his political ideals when he begins hanging out at the local tavern in order to avoid the increasingly hostile atmosphere at Quenu’s butcher shop. Evenings spent in the company of drunken loudmouths encourage Florent to develop his plans for a revolution. In isolation, Florent’s ideas spin out-of-control and reach astronomical proportions, and even though he is not guilty of any concrete actions, he’s guilty of anti-Empire thoughts.

The vast Les Halles marketplace of Paris, while teeming with life, is also packed with death, blood and cruelty. There are pages devoted to describing the preparation of blood sausage, and the odors of fish guts left rotting on the sidewalks, pages devoted to describing the slaughter of various animals slated to end up on a market stall. This corrosive, inescapable atmosphere sickens Florent:

“The rain of the afternoon had filled the markets with malodorous dampness, and as they wallowed there in the centre of the city, like some drunken man lying, after his last bottle, under the table, they cast all their foul breath into his face. He seemed to see a thick vapour rising from each pavilion. In the distance the meat and tripe markets reeked with the sickening steam of blood; nearer in, the vegetable and fruit pavilions diffused the odour of pungent cabbages, rotten apples, and decaying leaves; the butter and cheese exhaled a poisonous stench; from the fish market came a sharp, fresh gust; while from the ventilator in the tower of the poultry market…a fetid current rising in coils like the sooty smoke from a factory chimney.”

The Fat and The Thin refers to the idea that these are “two hostile groups, one of which devours the other, and grows fat and sleek and enjoys itself.” And this idea–which seems almost a version of the survival of the fittest–is certainly endorsed by this novel. The fat, the sleek, the prosperous and the respectable destroy Florent, a man whose slight figure arouses suspicion in the rapacious vendors of the Paris marketplace, and in The Fat and the Thin, symbolically, the human appetite is pitted against the human soul…and the soul loses. In The Kill, human appetites gravitate towards lust, desire and greed, but in The Fat and the Thin, Zola presents the reader with an entirely different set of equally destructive appetites.

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