Earth (La Terre) by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson and Julie Rose

Earth (La Terre)As I come towards the end of my two-year Zola project, I am starting to feel a little bit melancholy.  What can I find to read that might bring as much sustained pleasure as reading the 20-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle?  Earth (La Terre) (1887) is 15th in the publication order but 18th in the recommended reading order; so for me after this all that’s left to read is only La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle) and Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal).  Oh woe!

Earth (also translated as The Soil) is a masterpiece.  It is a tale of terrible family conflict over land-ownership.  The peasants of this novel have such a distorted love of land that causes only toil and heartbreak, that they are prepared to abandon the ordinary impulses of humanity to keep it.

As with everything else he wrote, Zola researched his subject thoroughly, and it shows.  On the one hand there are lyrical descriptions of the landscape lush with the harvest or the desolation of a field after hail, and on the other there are crude, lewd descriptions of the earthy peasants, their drinking and carousing, their brutish work, their use and abuse of women, and their exasperating ignorance and stupidity.  As Brian Nelson says in his excellent introduction, Zola was not like other novelists of his era in idealising rural life; he wrote naturalism and he painted a frank portrait of what he saw on his research trip to the Beuce.  To quote Nelson:

The novelist attended a big cattle market, visited farms, conducted interviews, and took extensive notes.  This research is undoubtedly reflected in the remarkable particularity of authentic detail that informs his descriptions of the peasants’ world and his elaboration of scenes that evoke ‘the eternal round of things’. (p.118): the evening gatherings in the cowshed, weddings, baptisms, fairs, funerals, as well as the sowing, haymaking, and harvesting.  However, it did not alter (but rather, reinforced) his imaginative conception of the reality he wished to depict.  (Introduction, p. xv)

The story revolves around the fortunes of the Fouan family, into whose orbit Jean Macquart falls when he comes looking for work as a carpenter after his discharge from the army.  Estranged from his family and looking for a quiet life after the horrors of war, Jean finds himself attracted to life on the land and takes up work as a labourer.  Before long he finds himself feeling protective towards Lise and Françoise Mouche, and then in different ways, attracted to both.  Lise is pregnant to Buteau, the brutish son of old Fouan, but he’s abandoned her and taken off for elsewhere, partly because of a stupid row over land.

Old Fouan is a parody of King Lear: old and tired, he decides to divide his holdings between his three children, Fanny (respectably married to Delhomme); Buteau (a pig-headed oaf); and Hyacinthe, (a drunkard, gambler and poacher, known scandalously as Jesus-Christ).  The deal is that he and his wife will continue to live in the family home and all three children will pay him a pension.  There is one sordid scene after another while they haggle over every last sou, and in the end when they draw lots for who is to get which parcel of land, Buteau doesn’t get the one he wanted and he goes off in a huff.

As Zola makes clear, it’s the inheritance of land that results in these ignoble family quarrels.  After all the post-revolution redistributions of land, peasant families never had enough land to make a decent living.  Inherited land was redistributed into smaller and smaller parcels as it was shared amongst the offspring, and the only way that more land could be acquired was to marry it.  Women were prized according to the land they’d inherited, and where it was sited.  (It was most convenient if it were adjacent to a prospective spouse’s land, of course).

While Jean eyes off Lise as a prospective wife, Buteau eventually comes to his senses and returns to take up his share of the Fouan land and marry her, because she and her sister have inherited land from their father, and because Françoise is underage he will have the use of her land as well.  Jean then finds himself attracted to Françoise – but is also not averse to a little hanky-panky elsewhere as well, because, well, that’s how it is.  Two parish priests try and fail to establish a bit of morality but with only one or two exceptions, all the women in the novel sleep around, indoors and outdoors, with anyone at all.  The men, for their part, regard it as their right to take women as and when they please.  This might seem a bit confronting, but it is part of Zola’s intention to show that women are a commodity used to get land, and that the fecundity of the earth creates a lusty attitude to life that is natural in that society.

Zola also shows that peasant life not only breeds cynical politicians at the local and national level, it also creates tragedy for the vulnerable.  Palmyre’s brother is disabled, physically and intellectually, and he has a truly terrible life, finally meeting his end when he explodes in rage and tries to rape an old woman.  Françoise spends her young life fending off sexual assault by Buteau because he thinks that if he makes her his, she won’t be able to marry and therefore he can keep her share of the sisters’ inheritance.  Old Fouan’s children renege on their obligations, and he ends up trudging from one to the other in the cold and the rain, looking for a bed for the night:

Fouan stepped back, afraid that they might catch sight of him at the door, like a beaten dog crawling back to its food-bowl.  He was so overcome by shame that he was filled with a fierce resolve to creep into a corner and die.  They’d see if all he thought about was his food!  He went down the slope once more and collapsed on the end of a beam outside Clou’s smithy.  His legs were giving way under him and he lost heart completely as he sat in the dark beside the deserted road.  There was not a soul to be seen, for the evening gatherings had already begun and bad weather was keeping everyone indoors.  The rain had made the wind drop and was now teeming down. He did not feel strong enough to stand up and look for shelter.  With his stick between his knees, and his bare skull streaming with water, he sat motionless, stupefied by his wretched plight.  (p.346)

(The translation, as you can see, is excellent!)

The insularity of the peasant society can be seen in the way they react to the free trade versus protection issue.  Down at the tavern, the drunks gather to thrash the issues around.  (The women gossip at the market, and at Mass).  American wheat is flooding the market, and small scale farming can’t compete.  A lack of capital impedes one farmer’s efforts to innovate, and the positioning of a road meant to improve access to markets is manipulated to maximise government compensation rather than efficiency.  A free trade politician promising improvements that will never be delivered is more popular than his protectionist opponent, and communism and anarchism get an airing too.

The schoolteacher’s efforts to educate the next generation are doomed to failure, because for all the hot air, no one wants to change anything.  And that includes anyone trying to join this society where families have lived for generations and the only people ever to travel are the conscripts forced to fight in foreign wars.

So Jean Macquart, for all that he works hard and is a decent man, is always the outsider, and the novel concludes with his wife’s betrayal because he is not ever going to belong.

There are things you can only share with your own flesh and blood, keep buried in the little spot of earth where you have all grown up together, things which you must never, in any circumstances, be mentioned to strangers; and Jean was a stranger … (p.374)

Zola’s novel is rich in insights like this.  It’s an outstanding example of Zola’s storytelling in the service of a bigger picture, revealing the complexity of small village life without romanticising it or populating it with unrealistic quirky characters.  Highly recommended!

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Earth (La Terre)
Translated  by Brian Nelson and Julie Rose
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford World’s Classics series, 2016
ISBN: 9780199677870
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Cross posted at ANZ LitLovers

23 comments on “Earth (La Terre) by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson and Julie Rose

  1. BookerTalk says:

    I’m a long long way behind you in this series but it’s great to know he keeps up the quality and there is such a great to know there is this gem awaiting me. The way he portrays women as commodities here seems to echo Germinal in many ways.


    • Lisa Hill says:

      Yes, I’d like to know more about Zola’s attitudes to women: sometimes I think he is a bit too accepting of violence against them, and other times I think he’s exposing the violence in the way that Dickens was exposing poverty.


  2. I love your review! I’m trying to get into the series, but I started reading it in no order (it’s hard to find his books here where I live, and I have to revolve around second-hand bookstores, so I read them as I found them). I read La Terre last year and, I don’t know, I can’t find words to describe it, I felt like I wanted to read it without end, forever, it was such a pleasure!
    I am now reading #1, so I go back and forth on time, which is very interesting as well. I’ll catch up with your reviews as long as I keep reading 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lisa Hill says:

      Hello Fiorella, how nice to meet another enthusiast for Zola!
      I don’t think it really matters what order you read them in, I started with Germinal and then I read The Ladies Paradise and then I went back and started at the beginning, but really, although there is a ‘family tree’ connection between them, each one can be read independently, I think. I am just about to start reading The Debacle, and I had to have a real hunt for it… fortunately my wonderful library found a copy at another library and I picked it up yesterday. I just have to finish reading something else first…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Dagny says:

      I was like you, Fiorella, and read the books as I could find them. There are a few cases though that stand out. Doctor Pascal should be last as it contains spoilers for all the other books. Although if you’re like me, you’ll forget a lot of it as time goes by. Ideally, Pot Bouille should be read before Au Bonheur des Dames. In Pot Bouille, Octave Mouret is rather carefree; he’s out to have a good time and make his way in the world. He is also featured in Au Bonheur which commences just slightly later in time.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Last year I was lucky enough to get quite a number of the books, which are now waiting in the to-read pile. I know they work pretty well as stand alone books, but, at least with these, I’m going to read them in order.

      I’ve been looking for The Ladies Paradise everywhere (specially after watching BBC’s The Paradise) here, but I could only find a French edition, a language I’m sadly not very good at (yet). It was fun, though, while reading Pot Bouille, realizing who Octave was. It was a very entertaining story!


      • It’s available in a BBC linked edition of the Oxford Classics. It costs £1.39 from


      • Lisa Hill says:

        Where are you based, Fiorella? Can you access online stores like the Book Depository (free delivery) and Amazon (which has some second-hand copies)?
        We are very lucky here in Australia, we have Brotherhood Books, which is a charity selling second-hand books. I’ve been able to get quite a few out-of-print treasures from them, and the books have been very cheap especially if I buy a whole lot and once and get a discount on delivery. (But they wouldn’t be cheap if you added international postage, I’m sure).


        • I live in Buenos Aires, Argentina.I know Book Depository is a great source, but I haven’t looked for the books online because I don’t have a credit card, and online shopping is a bit tricky here, lately. Buenos Aires is a city known for its many bookstores, so sometimes it only takes a little bit of hard, work, waiting and patience. That’s how I found 14 out of 20! But, no doubt, I’ll end up buying online as last resource 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Lisa Hill says:

            Yes, online is a last resort for me too. It’s very important to support our local bookstores. Besides, I find I enjoy the hunt and the feeling of satisfaction that I get when I finally get the book!


  3. Savanah says:

    Ive read a book about Zola’s life, it was worth every sentence. It was written by Armand Lanoux and it’s called Bonjour Monsieur Zola. I dont know if it came out in English, i read it in Hungarian, but if you can i definitely recommend to read it. I started to make notes for myself that i wanted to remember from it, i soon realized, its almost something on every page… You not just learn about his life, but also about the circumstances his works were created. Magic.

    Im happy the oxford classics just came out with the Earth. I will order it soon. After that only 1 will be missing from my RM collection 🙂


  4. Sorry, that should read Staples Press


  5. […] by Lisa Hill’s review of Zola’s novel of peasant life, The Earth or La Terre, I have read it in a translation by […]


  6. Dan says:

    I’m a little more than half way, reading the Penguin translation. It’s hard not to try to compare this to Germinal. I do like the part where I’m at now in the book with old Fouan getting shuffled back and forth living with Hyacinthe. I was hoping for more farming stuff in the beginning and less the provincial life overview. I have the french and was curious about the dialogue of the characters, etc. I think I read a criticism by a contemporary that it was a little too polished to be real. But Zola is fantastic writer.


    • Lisa Hill says:

      Hello Dan, and welcome:) It’s always nice to meet up with someone who likes Zola!
      La Terre is one of my favourites, and for the reason you’ve alluded to: the authenticity of the family life. Those squabbles over the land, and the way they treat old Fouan, it’s as unforgettable as King Lear IMO.


  7. Conrad says:

    A masterpiece indeed. This is one hell of a novel. I’d thought Germinal was excellent, but I found myself grabbed by this one even more. There are some terrific characters, La Cognette is a mini-Nana, the flatulent rake Hyacinthe, Fouan the ex-patriarch. Jean the protagonist sometimes seems a bit flat by comparison.

    Once again money (and its absence) has a huge influence on how the characters fare. And a relatively small amount can make the difference from a fairly comfortable existence and abject poverty. Buteau is a fairly big man in Rognes, wealthy enough to hire Palmyre’s labour (and work her to death), but his family is so poor that a gift of used linen from the Charles’ “confectionery shop” is a cause for celebration. La Grande is proverbially wealthy, yet she goes to other people’s houses every night to save the cost of a candle. Her abandonment of her grandchildren (Palmyre and Hilarion) is horrific, and I wanted to see her die horribly so we could see what destruction her famous would wreak amongst the family. Even Hardequin, with his big farm is only short way from ruin, and with the American grain set to flood the market that looks very likely.

    There is so much more going on in this one, I can’t even begin to do it justice.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Lisa Hill says:

    Oh, Conrad, what you say is so true. It’s impossible to do Zola justice, *chuckle* I don’t know why I try!


  9. Conrad says:

    Well I’m glad you do, I still haven’t convinced anyone I know to actually read any of Zola’s novels, so here’s the only place I can discuss them!


    • Lisa Hill says:

      Ah well, that’s true in my real life as well. I don’t know many f2f readers who read like I do, and of course, we don’t necessarily share the same taste. This is where the web is just so brilliant, we can always find someone somewhere who likes the same books!


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