The Earth / La Terre


Inspired 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 Douglas Parmée (Penguin Books, 1980). I can’t compare the translation to the newer Brian Nelson translation, but it seemed quite adequate with no archaic language and plenty of the sexual and scatological details that censors don’t like. Actually, I didn’t like them much either – it was the quantity rather than the quality which turned me off about half way through. And yet, some of it is very funny (and I am sure intentionally so), such as the account of the farting contests.

The amount of violence Zola depicts is disturbing. It is not occasional and related to some perceived wrong or strong emotion, but constant and normal. Everything of value relates to violence: sex, money, possessions, relationships, the land. And just off from violence is mockery of the weak and unsuccessful. Violence is an equal-opportunity technique, with the women just as violent as the men. It is both offense, as when two sisters attack each other for their possessions, and defense, as when Francoise repeatedly resists rape by her brother-in-law. The result of successful violence is to establish a claim. If Buteau succeeds in raping Francoise, then he can claim her loyalty and service. He says that he has succeeded, even though he has not, in order to establish this claim with others. Far from being condemned, it is what everybody expects. When Francoise finally leaves the household, it is not the possibility of pleasure that Buteau misses; he misses the opportunity to pinch her and to grab her tender parts.

The importance of the land and of ownership of the land is a central theme in the novel. Many American novels of this period and a little later also make that a principal theme. In O Pioneers!, brothers tell their sister that they are the family because they bear the family name and thus have the stronger claim to the land. Developing that land has not been a romantic enterprise but hard, often disappointing labor which has been performed by all. In Cather’s short stories, the gifted and ambitious leave the land, knowing that engaging with it will drain all their energies and talent. Fast forward to the Depression and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Just as Zola’s peasants feared, financial interests are taking over the land which has demanded so much and given so little to those who worked on it and loved it.

These are novels of disappointment. I had already met Jean Macquart in Le Debacle. That is also a novel of disappointment, and on a national scale.

7 comments on “The Earth / La Terre

  1. Dagny says:

    I’m in agreement with you, Nancy. I barely made it through this one when it was a group read in 2007. There were so many distasteful scenes that it didn’t make for a pleasant read–which, of course, it wasn’t supposed to be. I couldn’t leave it unread though as it was part of the Rougon-Macquart series.


  2. Jonathan says:

    This is certainly ‘one of’ my favourite novels of the R-M series—possibly ‘the favourite’. It is because it’s so brutal that I liked it so much; I couldn’t think of any contemporary British author writing something so vicious and nasty. I don’t think the reader comes away liking, or having any respect, for a single character—which will be a problem for some readers. La Bete Humaine has nearly as much violence in it but it is more stylised violence, I guess, more like a Hitchcock murder; The Earth is, well, earthy.


    • SilverSeason says:

      Yes it is earthy and that is all right with me because Zola is trying to show a certain way of life and how it is governed by the obsession with getting and holding land. There was so much continuous violence, however, that I wondered if he could have made his point with less. Less is not what Zola does, as I know by now. Two other novels with lots of violence are Germinal and LeDebacle. Again, almost too much, but he makes his point.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think Zola was a realistic writer, hence his wish to depict life for 19th century peasants as it was, hard, brutal and poverty stricken, often leading to a coarsening of the peasant’s life, fining it down to getting enough to eat and to hold on to what you have. This was a departure in 19th century France. It does make it a tough read, but it is one of the realities of 19th century life.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lisa Hill says:

    I think the violence and vulgarity were intended as a counter to the romantic notion of peasant life. Writers still do this today, sanitising the animal welfare issues and the insularity of ignorant people who are resistant to change.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lisa is absolutely right, even at this time the pre-Revolution view of peasant life lingered on.


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