L’Assommoir, variously translated as The Dram Shop, The Gin Palace, Drunk and Drunkard is said to be Zola’s masterpiece. Well, I haven’t read all of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, this is no. 13 in the recommended reading order so I have seven left to enjoy, but I can certainly attest to the brilliance of this one…
L’Assommoir is overwhelming. Like the very best of Dickens, it tells the story of an underclass with respect and compassion and it leaves its readers emotionally bereft. Its central character Gervaise begins the novel with such hope, and she rises to make a success of her humble life, only to stumble on a downward trajectory that can have no other resolution than degradation. Oxford Worlds’ Classics have compounded the melancholy with a superb portrait by Edgar Degas on the front cover. This image becomes quite haunting as you read…
The Rougon-Maquart novels are not a family saga, but Gervaise’s place in the family of Antoine Maquart serves to emphasise her tragedy. Her sister Lisa lives barely a mile away, confidently running a charcuterie and living a bourgeois lifestyle. But she might as well be on the other side of the planet: Gervaise’s life is a world away and their paths never cross. Would Lisa have rescued Gervaise if she knew about her circumstances? If you’ve read The Belly of Paris you know the answer to that question.
The fatal mistakes Gervaise makes begin early: she’s only fourteen when she has her first child by her feckless lover Lantier, and when they run away to Paris together in hope of a better life, he spends his way through a small inheritance and then abandons her and the two young boys. It is typical of his moral cowardice that he leaves it to the older boy, Claude, to bring her the room key that signals his departure, that she is hard at work in the laundry when she finds out in this humiliating way, and that he had insisted that very morning that she pawn her shawl and her chemises, money which he has now used for his new adventure. To compound Gervaise’s misery, he has dumped her for Adèle, sister of Virginie, one of the other washerwomen, and a degrading cat-fight ensues over this worthless man. But as the novel progresses, Zola uses both Virginie and Lantier to show Gervaise’s fatal apathy when she lets them both back into her life later on.
Zola’s characters are all marked by his view that human destiny is formed by heredity, environment and their place in time. Gervaise’s fatal flaw is her easy-going nature: she likes to please others and it’s easier to go along with the milieu that surrounds her.
Her only weakness … was being very soft-hearted, liking everybody, getting desperately fond of people who then put her through endless misery. So, when she loved a man, she wasn’t interested in all that nonsense, what she dreamt of was simply living together happily ever after. (p. 38)
Her dreams are not ambitious; what she wants is
to be able to get on with her work, always have something to eat and a half-decent place to sleep, bring up her children properly, not to be beaten, and die in her own bed. (p.421)
If only. Consigned to the seedy parts of Paris at the time when Haussmanisation was impacting on working-class communities and industrialisation was replacing artisanship, Gervaise supports her boys as a washerwoman and eventually – not without some reluctance – marries Coupeau, a teetotaller with a steady job as a roofer. Despite their good intentions they get into debt with the cost of their marriage because of their desire to put on a good show for their friends, but with hard work, a prudent lifestyle and offloading the older boy to an apprenticeship in Plassans, they recover financially, and begin saving towards Gervaise’s dream of running her own laundry. But destiny steps in when Coupeau has a fall from a roof and can’t work for a very long time. This has two fatal effects: Coupeau gets used to idleness and Gervaise has to use all her savings to support the family (which has now grown to include their daughter Nana).
One of Gervaise’s friends is the gentle giant, Goujet, a blacksmth. He loves Gervaise with a quiet passion, and he and his mother offer a loan that enables Gervaise to fulfil her dream. She moves her family out of their dingy rooms to a place of warmth and light, where she sets up her laundry to general acclaim. Industrious and careful, she is excellent at her work and everybody except her jealous in-laws admires her.
But Zola has structured the novel so that this success is the high point of Gervaise’s life, and portents of her future are already there. Coupeau fills his idle hours by boozing with his layabout friends, and lovely little Nana who might have been a support to her mother later in life, is running wild. The friends who admire and like Gervaise are also only too ready to listen to malicious gossip about her from her sister-in-law Madame Lorilleaux, and they’re also only too ready to encourage a lavish lifestyle that Gervaise can’t really afford because she has a loan to pay back to the Goujets.
It is heartbreaking to read about the downfall of this wonderful character. I suspect that it’s impossible to read L’Assommoir without becoming very fond of Gervaise. But apparently, (according to the introduction by Robert Lethbridge), Zola’s novel didn’t please anybody. Although it was a contemporary bestseller, conservatives didn’t like its dangerous socialist message and thought it proved that the working-class wasn’t fit to vote, and progressives were angry that it showed the underclass as feckless and irresponsible. But when we read it today we can see that Zola has rightly depicted some fundamental truths: that the underclass has the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their children as anyone else, but that their precarious finances make them vulnerable to life events which can plunge them into disaster from which there can be no return. Zola could not have written this novel the way he did, had there been a safety net to tide the family over Coupeau’s injury, and workers’ compensation for his inability to get back to work.
But there was no safety net, and Gervaise (like everyone else) likes the Good Life, and it’s just too easy to let loan payments slide and to spend more than she’s got on a splendid celebration of her name day. And it’s on that fateful day, depicted in a magnificent set piece by Zola, that Lantier slithers back into her life. Coupeau, who’s a bit pickled, goes outside to tell Lantier to stop hanging about and upsetting Gervaise, but he ends up bringing him inside to join the feast. This is partly because Coupeau is a terrible judge of character at the best of times, and partly because Lantier is a master salesman of his tawdry product, that is, himself. It doesn’t take long for him to ingratiate himself so thoroughly that he moves in, starts interfering in the laundry and bossing about the family, and takes turns with Coupeau to beat Gervaise whenever the mood takes them. Not only that, but Lantier also sabotages Coupeau’s unenthusiastic efforts to get back to work …
Needless to say, you can’t go on sprees and work as well. So, after Lantier joined the household, Coupeau, who already hardly raised a finger, got so that he didn’t so much as touch his tools. When, fed up with not earning, he did find himself a job, his mate would track him down at work and tease him mercilessly on seeing him hanging from a knotted rope like a ham that was being smoked; he’d shout to him to come down and have a quick one. That settled it, the roofer would walk off the job and start a binge that went on for days, for weeks. First rate, those binges were a general inspection of all the bars in the neighbourhood, the morning’s boozing slept off at lunchtime and resurrected in the evening; round after round of rotgut stretching into the night like Chinese lanterns at a party, until the last candle and the last glass were consumed. (p. 257)
Squalor descends and at first Gervaise does little but shrug her shoulders in resignation. She didn’t run after her man; indeed if she caught sight of him in a bar she’d go the long way round so as not to make him angry. (p.266) But the time comes when she thinks she may as well join the men in a drink, and then – despite her kind heart and good intentions – it’s all downhill from there. Lantier is after her, and after her business, and everything he does conspires to bring Gervaise down so that he and Virginie can have their revenge.
All the characters, one way or another, symbolise the values in conflict: industriousness, diligence, cleanliness and self-control versus idleness, laziness, filth and self-indulgence. But the one who prefigures Gervaise’s own sordid downfall is an innocent. Lalie Bijard, the child who becomes mother to the other small children after her alcoholic father beats his wife to death, does not – unlike Gervaise – have any choices at all. Her final moments are classic 19th century sentimentality, but no less powerful for that:
Gervaise, meanwhile, was trying her best not to burst into tears. She reached out with her hands, wanting to comfort Lalie, and as the ragged sheet was slipping off she pulled it right down, intending to remake the bed. The poor little body of the dying child was thus exposed. Lord Jesus, what a heart-rending, pitiable sight! The stones themselves would have wept. Lalie was quite naked, with only the remnants of a bodice round her shoulders to serve as a nightgown; yes, quite naked, the nakedness of a martyr, bleeding and tortured. There was no longer any flesh on her, her bones poked through her skin. From her ribs to her thighs thin purple weals reached down, where the whip’s bite had left its vivid imprint. A blue-black bruise circled her left arm, as if the jaws of a vice had crushed this delicate limb, no thicker than a matchstick. On her right leg, there was a gash that hadn’t healed, some nasty wound that must have reopened each morning as she hurried round doing her chores. She was nothing but a bruise from head to toe. Oh what butchery of childhood – that dear little chick crushed under a man’s heavy foot; what infamy – that feeblest of creatures dying under the burden of such a cross! People in churches venerate martyred virgins whose naked flesh is not so pure. Gervaise had crouched down again, forgetting to pull up the sheet, overcome by the sight of this pitiful nothing, lying there sunk into the bed, as with trembling lips, she tried to say a prayer.
‘Please, Madame Coupeau…’ whispered the child.
In her great modesty, and full of shame for her father’s sake, she was trying to pull up the sheet with her short little arms. Bijard stood there stupidly, staring at the corpse he was responsible for, and rolling his head about slowly like an animal that’s bothered by something. (p. 401)
It’s not possible to read this without thinking of today’s little children brutalised by their own parents: Chloe Valentine, Daniel Valerio and the anonymous ones still suffering unchecked abuse. Alcohol used to excess, and now the use of illicit drugs too, still combine with community indifference to allow these things to happen. Gervaise, notwithstanding her tears and prayers, leaves the surviving small children to their fate. Zola shocked his readers with L’Assommoir and it seems tragic that in the 21st century we still rely on shocking media stories to force action in this area of need. (If you have time, do read ‘Child abuse and the media’ by Chris Goddard and Bernadette J. Saunders (2001) on the Australian Institute of Family Studies website – it makes it clear that it is media coverage prompting public outrage that gets action on family violence).
Given its sordid subject-matter, why is L’Assommoir the favourite Zola novel of so many? I think it’s because of the brilliant way this novel is structured to make the reader care about the central, lovable character of Gervaise. The novel’s realism captures the environment in which this humble woman rises to success and then stumbles into tragedy. Instead of judgemental moralising, Zola depicts the pathos of her fall with careful observations that show her helplessness to save herself or anybody else.
Well, what next, to surpass this masterpiece of Zola’s? It’s L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece), the story of Gervaise’s son Claude, the struggling artist in Paris. I’m going to love that one, I’m sure, because I always enjoys novels about artists.
Author: Émile Zola
Title: L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop)
Translated from the French by Margaret Mauldon
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press) (Oxford World’s Classics series), 2009
Review copy courtesy of OUP.
Do yourself a favour: do not read the freebie editions that you can download: Zola used 19th century vulgar colloquial slang for much of the dialogue, which will either be sanitised or excised from the freebies, or incomprehensible if you try to read the original in French. This title is notorious for being very difficult to translate for contemporary readers. I recommend this translation by Margaret Mauldon (which also has a comprehensive introduction about all kinds of aspects that I haven’t covered here i.e. the politics of the era and the symbolism), but the OUP edition is (of course) the only one I’ve read. However, whatever you choose, make sure that it is a recent translation, uncensored and with annotations that explain the geography of the novel; the significance of the ribald songs and slang; and the cunning way that Zola made allusions to politics in ways that evaded trouble at a time when there was savage repression of any political critique.
Fishpond: L’Assommoir (Oxford World’s Classics)
Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers