L’Assommoir by Émile Zola
Zola was one of these names which I often saw in bookshops by virtue of being the very end of the Classics section, but which I actually knew very little about. A few weeks ago, when I mentioned my interest in Victorian Literature to a friend, she suggested that I have a look at Zola (and a couple of other French Victorian writers), and lent me L’Assommoir as a good place to start. I read Robert Lethbridge’s Introduction first, and was surprised to discover how influential this particular novel had been in Victorian France. In the Preface, Zola himself goes so far as to describe it as ‘the first novel about the common people that does not lie’ (p.3); whilst I am not sure how true a claim this is, Zola certainly doesn’t shy away from themes which other writers might be somewhat afraid to tackle. This was a somewhat uncomfortable novel to read which narratively subverted my expectations at almost every turn, and I can definitely see why it had such an impact on French society at the time.
L’Assommoir tells the story of Gervaise, a woman trying to provide for her family as they live in poverty in Paris. Determined to build a better life for herself, she uses her laundry skills to get a job and, ultimately, start her own shop; however, life for women without secure incomes in 19th century Paris is hard, and the circumstances she finds herself in mean that this better life is, before long, a distant dream. It is a novel of hardship, suffering, and tragedy, telling an uncomfortable story of those living in poverty who would rather die than carry on living in their present situation. Throughout the narrative, Zola uses Gervaise and the characters around her to explore themes of alcoholism, domestic abuse, women’s agency, sex, adultery, madness, disease, jealousy, betrayal, and manipulation. This is hardly an easy holiday read, but, from my limited research, it seems it was a very necessary narrative for the time. I think it is probably still a very necessary narrative for us now.
The novel hangs on the character of Gervaise: one of the reasons the narrative is such an emotionally difficult read is that in her Zola has created a character the reader is easily invested in. She is resourceful, hard-working, and generous from the beginning, making the best from a bad situation. She is fiercely independent and proud, never wanting to ask for help from others and determined to solve her own problems herself, no matter how bad they get. Yet she is a doomed character from the start, fighting a losing battle against circumstances as even her own optimism is turned into a contributor to her family’s downfall. The reader first encounters Gervaise in a day of despair and follows her journey as she works to fulfill her dream of being able to “get on with me work in peace, always have something to eat and a nice little place to sleep […] to die in me own bed, at home” (p.41). However, the relationship she begins with Coupeau is the beginning of the end for her, right there in the early chapters, and, despite the happiness they both feel when Gervaise’s shop is flourishing, it is her husband who proves the catalyst for Gervaise’s tragic end. She is not a victim, she is not completely absolved of blame, but she is by far the most sympathetic character in the novel. Coupeau, of course, has his own tragic end (as do many of the other characters in the novel) but it is Gervaise the reader is most invested in: this is her story, and her ending is the most emotional and the most symbolic.
At every step of the narrative, L’Assommoir subverted my expectations for a novel. I knew from the blurb, which was particularly spoiler-filled, certain plot points coming up. However, there were still a plethora of moments which took me completely off-guard; from the movement of specific characters, to the decisions they made. By far the biggest surprise for me was that there was no redemption, no catharsis, no sense in which any of these characters got a happy ending. Maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me but somehow, as Gervaise’s situation got worse and her behaviour changed, I still kept expecting a slight turn of fortune or some indication that she was a ‘good’ character who deserved a ‘good’ ending. Of course, Zola’s whole point here is that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters, and those who deserve ‘good’ endings don’t always get them; this is not a study of morality but a study of the effects of poverty. And it is an effective one, prompting the reader to think carefully about their assumptions and worldviews.
Overall, I would recommend L’Assommoir, but it is a book I would think carefully about the person I was recommending it to. For those who have an interest in the literature which shaped the 19th century, this is an important novel which should be taken into account more often than it currently is; after only a little research I can see that it has a solid amount of literary criticism surrounding it, yet I rarely hear it talked about. However, I do think that there are many who would struggle with the subject material and I would therefore be a little hesitant to recommend it universally.