The Conquest of Plassans by Emile Zola

“She felt a pleasure in his harshness.That iron hand which bent her, and which held her back upon the edge of the adoration in the depths of which she would like to annihilate herself, thrilled her with ever renewed desire. She remained a neophyte, making but little advance in her journey of love, being constantly pulled up, and vaguely divining some yet greater bliss beyond. The sense of deep restfulness which she had first experienced in the church, that forgetfulness of herself and the outside world, now changed, however into actual positive happiness. It was the happiness for which she had been longing since her girlhood, and which she was now at forty years of age, at last finding; a happiness which sufficed her, which absorbed her for all the past-away years, and made her egotistical, absorbed in the new sensations that she felt within her like sweet caresses.”

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 Conquest of Plassans is the fourth novel in the series, but in many ways it serves as a sequel to the first novel, The Fortunes of the Rougons. In the first novel, a struggle to seize power of the small, provincial town of Plassans take place against the backdrop of the coup d’etat. The second and third novels, The Kill and The Fat and the Thin are both set in Paris. The fourth novel, however, is a return to Plassans and a return to some of the characters we met in The Fortunes of the Rougons. In the time lapse between the first and the fourth novels, a Royalist Marquis is elected as deputy, and this is a sign that the struggle for political power is afoot once again.

The Conquest of Plassans centers on the Mouret family. The family consists of Francois Mouret, a retired merchant, his wife (and cousin) Marthe, and their three children, Octave, Serge, and Desiree. The Mourets seem to be a fairly normal family. Marthe and her husband are not particularly close or affectionate with each another, but the years have created a necessary compatibility. Rose, an elderly, cantankerous servant resents Mouret, but her complaints are mostly restricted to grumbling. Mouret has a lightly adversarial relationship with his mother-in-law, Felicite Rougon.

When the novel begins, Mouret has impulsively decided to let the second floor of his spacious home to Abbe Faujas and his elderly mother. Since the new tenants are complete strangers, Marthe is extremely reluctant to have them in her home. She fears a loss of privacy, but her objections are overruled, as they usually are, by her husband. Mouret has no respect for priests, and while he considers them “lazybones,” he knows he’ll have a reliable tenant. Mouret squashes Marthe’s fears, but ironically, it’s not long before Mouret becomes increasingly more uncomfortable with the priest in his home. Mouret cannot quite explain his feelings, but they are manifested in an obsession with the priest’s activities, and the priest’s presence seems to “affect him with a kind of nervous uneasiness.” He tells Marthe: “what bothers me about these confounded priests is that one can never tell what they are thinking about, or what they are up to.” Meanwhile, Marthe, a lonely woman who’s never been particularly religious begins to find solace in religious activities, becoming increasingly and dangerously fanatical in her devotion to the church and Abbe Faujas.

The Conquest of Plassans is a marvelous addition to the Rougon-Macquart series. Each one of these novels examines different aspects of human behaviour, and in The Conquest of Plassans, the issue of “the priest in the house” is central. A perfectly normal family allows a seemingly harmless priest into their home, and nothing is ever the same. Slowly and subtly a shift in the power structure takes place, and Mouret is oblivious to this at first. He only wakes up to the fact that he’s no longer master in his own home when the situation is too far-gone to correct. Marthe’s allegiance to her husband–which was grounded in familiarity and conditioning–shifts to the priest Faujas. While Faujas is content to receive acknowledgment of his superior authority, Marthe’s adulation for the priest is imbibed with suppressed longings and ultimately the need for sexual gratification. Since the priest cannot address Marthe’s misplaced passion adequately, Marthe’s expressions of religious devotion become alarming acts of sublimation. Over time the situation in the Mouret home spirals out of control leading to a tragic conclusion.

Zola’s wonderful novel explores the Mourets’ decaying marriage in intimate detail while also exploring the political situation in Plassans. Faujas, an agent of the Empire arrives in town shabby and a laughing stock, but by the end of the novel, he has everyone’s fear and respect. Faujas engineers a clever coup involving the town’s political power structure without the townspeople even being aware that there’s more afoot here than meets the eye. Faujas is an incredibly real character–an ambitious agent who makes the fatal mistake of inviting his ne’er-do-well sister and her lowlife husband to share in the bounty of the Mouret household. Many familiar characters reappear here: Felicite Rougon, family matriarch Adelaide Fouque (still locked up in a mental asylum), and the shady, devious Antoine Fouque.

The Conquest of Plassans dissects the claustrophobia of small town life–the gossip, the deceit and the ambition of petty officials while analyzing human greed and the disintegration and slow destruction of the Mouret family. City officials mince and prance at soirees at the Rougon household, and while they smile to one another, their words are laced with poisonous gossip and bitter envy. They are “like hyenas sitting around waiting for a piece of carcass.” Loyalty and integrity are replaced by ambition and greed, and the good, the decent, the naive and the unambitious are trampled underfoot in the stampede to divide the spoils.

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