L’assommoir was first published in 1877 and was the seventh book of the Rougon-Macquart series. The title is variously translated into English as The Drunkard, The Drunk, the Dram Shop and the Gin Palace. Like many of the colloquialisms in the original text, the title cannot be translated exactly: it refers to a drinking place selling cheap booze distilled on the premises and it plays on the French verb assommer which means to stun, or render senseless.
The main character is Gervaise Macquart, daughter of Antoine Macquart and sister of Lisa Macquart who features in The Belly of Paris (1873-4). The young Gervaise’s courtship with her teenage lover Lantier is recounted in the first novel of the series, The Fortunes of the Rougons (1871) and L’assommoir takes up the story from their arrival in Paris.
The novel is set in Paris, in a working-class enclave in the south-eastern quarter of the 18th arrondisement. (The Oxford World’s Classics edition has a map of the area and also a map of the building in which much of the action takes place.)
Please note that this is a plot summary so full plot developments are revealed.
Lantier and Gervaise are living in squalid conditions with their two small children Claude and Étienne, in a rooming house; they quarrel. Later, Gervaise is at work in the laundry when little Claude arrives bringing the key to their room, and the news that Lantier has left her. Madame Boche pretends sympathy for Gervaise, but enjoys telling her that Lantier has been seen with Adèle, one of the other women who works in the laundry. There is a vicious cat-fight between Gervaise and Adele’s sister Virginie, and then Gervaise goes home to discover that Lantier has taken everything, even the pawn tickets for her clothing.
Three weeks later, Gervaise and Coupeau the roofer are enjoying a drink at Père Colombe’s Assommoir. He wants to marry her but she demurs. She tells him that she’s not really interested in men, and that she had only taken up with Lantier to please him because she was too soft-hearted. She had hoped to live happily ever after but it hadn’t worked out and she doesn’t want a man. But she finds his voice coaxing.
Neither Gervaise nor Coupeau are drinking spirits, Gervaise because she saw the damage done in her family and Coupeau because his father, also a roofer, had been killed when he fell down from a roof when he was drunk. They leave the assommoir together, Coupeau to visit his sister Madame Lorilleaux who is married to a gold chain-maker. He usually eats with them, to save money. When they reach the building he suggests that they could live there together in one of the rooms for let, but she refuses. They continue to see each other, however, and eventually he pressures her into agreeing to marry.
Coupeau takes Gervaise to meet his sister and her husband in their dingy home, where they manufacture gold chains. The Lorilleaux are rude and unfriendly because they don’t think Gervaise is good enough for him, and they will miss the money Coupeau has brought to their housekeeping.
Gervaise hadn’t wanted a big wedding, but they end up spending a lot of money that they don’t have, to impress their friends and have a good time. The rain puts a bit of a damper on things, and the priest is a surly fellow who spoils the mood further. When they decide to visit the museum (the Louvre) to kill time before the wedding feast, they get lost inside the maze of rooms. Eventually they sit down to the meal – where everyone eats and drinks to excess – and Coupeau has to borrow more money to settle the bill. Gervaise is embarrassed by the drunken spree, and humiliated when Madame Lorilleaux calls her by the insulting name of Banban to her face.
Four years of hard work and prudent saving follow. The couple have paid off the debt from the wedding, and an offer from an eccentric art collector to educate the older boy in Plassans has reduced the strain on the budget. Gervaise works 12-hour days at Madame Fauconnier’s washhouse, but still keeps her home clean and neat. Coupeau works industriously as a roofer, brings his pay home and doesn’t drink. They are able to move into a nicer place in time for Gervaise to have her baby, Anna, nicknamed Nana. Even the Lorilleaux bring christening presents and all is going well.
At the christening dinner they become friendly with their neighbours the Goujets, an elderly mother and her son, a handsome blacksmith who is nicknamed Gueule-d’Or on account of his golden beard. He is a shy man, and Coupeau teases him but Goujet saves his life one night when they go sight-seeing the riots on the second of December. [Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851]. After that they are close friends.
Disaster strikes when Coupeau falls from a roof and is badly injured. Gervaise has been saving industriously to achieve her dream of having her own washhouse but their savings vanish in medical bills and Coupeau is unable to work for months. But the Goujets are very good to them and finally they offer to lend Gervaise the money to start up her own laundry, using the money that had been intended for Goujet’s marriage.
Gervaise’s laundry is a great success. She is honest, reliable and careful with the clothes and all her customers admire her. Madame Lorilleaux is jealous and constantly snipes about Gervaise behind her back, and the locals enjoy joining in any gossip, but Gervaise is obliging and kind-hearted and she is ready to forgive the whole world. She indulges Coupeau who is still not at work and has started drinking, because she would rather have peace at home than nag him about it. At first he is a good-natured drunk, drinking wine rather than rotgut spirits, and wanting to kiss his wife rather than do her any harm. But as time goes by Goujet – who is a frequent visitor, nursing his unspoken love for Gervaise – has to protect Étienne from Coupeau’s kicks, so he takes him on as a future apprentice at the bolt factory. Nana, however, at only six years old, is starting to run wild.
Madame Coupeau is now too old to work as a cleaner any more, and since her daughters Madame Lorilleaux and Madame Lerat won’t have her, Gervaise takes her in.
Gervaise starts visiting Goujet at the forge, on the pretext of seeing her son Étienne. She watches the men make bolts by hand, and is then taken to see the machines in the adjacent factory manufacture the same bolts in a much shorter time (which is why Goujet’s pay-rate has been cut from 12 to 9 francs a day). Every Saturday Gervaise also visits Madame Goujet to deliver the washing, which she has been doing without payment in part-payment for the loan with the remaining money coming from the laundry takings. She had paid off about half of the loan like this when one day one of her creditors hadn’t paid her and she had to borrow more money to pay the rent on the shop. Then she was short to pay her workers on a couple of occasions, and now she has slipped into the habit of paying these loans only through not charging for the washing instead of with her earnings. Money is being frittered away because she has become self-indulgent and likes to have little luxuries. But on this occasion she needs money to pay her coal supplier and so she asks for payment for the washing. Madame Goujet rebukes her only mildly, reminding her that it’s no way to pay off the debt.
On the way home Gervaise bumps into Virginie, the girl she had the fight with at Madame Fauconnier’s. They become wary friends, and enjoy gossiping together although Gervaise is uneasy about the way Virginie keeps bringing up the subject of Lantier. Gervaise finds herself visiting Goujet more and more often at the forge because it is a refuge from her fears of Lantier’s return.
Things take a turn for the worse, however, when she is returning home one day and sees Coupeau drinking rotgut spirits. She is already deep in despair when she returns home to find the building in an uproar because – witnessed by his own small children – M. Bijard is viciously beating his wife.
Gervaise puts on a lavish feast to celebrate her name day, even pawning her wedding ring to pay for it all. Coupeau has to be dragged out of the assommoir to join the guests, but is grumpy and sour. At the last moment when Madame Coupeau can’t attend because of her sciatica, Gervaise invites Père Bru to join them so that there isn’t the unlucky number of thirteen at table. Everyone is singing drunken songs when they become aware of Lantier out on the street observing the party through the window. Coupeau goes out to ‘sort him out’ but comes back bringing Lantier as a friend to join the party.
Lantier becomes a regular visitor, ostensibly to see his child Étienne but inveigling his way into the household. Coupeau enjoys going out boozing with him and he invites him to move in – but in order to accommodate him, they have to make inconvenient adjustments to the laundry which hampers the work to be done. Lantier is a layabout who pays neither rent nor board, and he discourages Coupeau from taking even casual work, but he worms his way into their affairs and Gervaise’s unease grows. One day when he almost kisses her, Goujet witnesses it and is very upset. Gervaise denies any interest in Lantier, but Goujet doesn’t believe her. He shocks Gervaise by offering to take her away, somewhere like Belgium and she refuses because she wants to retain some dignity as a married woman with children.
Madame Bijard dies an excruciating death from kicks to the belly, and on her deathbed exonerates Bijard so that he escapes the scaffold.
Coupeau goes on an extended bender with Lantier, and doesn’t come home for several days, giving Lantier the opportunity to make a move on Gervaise. They go to a café-concert together, and when they return home they find Lantier in a deplorable state in the bed. Lantier invites Gervaise to his bed because she can’t step over the vomit and filth to get to her own. She gives in, blaming Coupeau, and little Nana sees her as she makes her way to Lantier’s room.
Things go from bad to worse. Madame Coupeau is grumpy and bad-tempered as she goes into her final decline, and the household is disorganised. Madame Lorilleaux is gossiping about Gervaise and Lantier so the whole neighbourhood knows, and Madame Goujet takes Gervaise to task about the laundry not being done properly, sacks her and demands that some money be paid off the loan. Goujet privately countermands this but he is so hurt by her behaviour with Lantier that he asks her to go. Gervaise leaves the quiet, orderly home with feelings of regret but she no longer cares about the fecklessness, poverty and squalor at her own house. They scrape along, Lantier and Coupeau taking it in turns to knock her about. Some days they have nothing to eat at all, and to Gervaise’s humiliation, Lantier suggests letting Virginie and her husband take over the laundry.
In the miserable winter, Madame Coupeau dies, but they put on a good show for her funeral even though they have no money to pay for it. Gervaise is stunned when Goujet goes away without helping her with a further loan, and she succumbs to the demand that she hand over the shop to her rival Virginie.
The Coupeaus have moved into two rooms on the sixth floor and Gervaise has to bear the humiliation of the Poissons moving into her old home and setting up her old laundry as a fine grocery. Lantier, while still compromising Gervaise’s reputation with regular visits, is now setting his cap at Virginie. Coupeau thinks it’s a fine joke when Lantier cuckolds M. Poisson with Virginie, and Lantier makes it his business to make sure that the two rivals remain friends, at least on the surface.
Nana makes her First Holy Communion and she is apprenticed to Madame Lerat (Coupeau’s sister) as a flower-worker. But the winter is very severe, and everyone in the neighbourhood suffers from the harsh weather. In the old days many of them came into Gervaise’s laundry where it was always warm, but now they shiver in unheated rooms or worse. Gervaise sinks so low that one day in despair she even finds herself calling on M. Bazouge the undertaker to beg for death to take her. He laughs at her, telling her that death comes in its own good time. On the way back to her room, Gervaise feels ashamed of her despair when she sees the courage of her neighbour, eight-year-old Lalie Bijard – who has become mother to her smaller siblings and endures the same brutal beatings that had killed her mother.
Coupeau’s drinking has become so extreme that he is sometimes admitted to hospital at Sainte-Anne with delusions. He can’t be relied on for anything, and Gervaise drinks with him because she might as well. She drinks anisette, the very drink she had decried as so pernicious in her youthful days of optimism. She gets so drunk that Lalie fears her.
Nana has entered puberty, and is a wild young woman. She is vain and capricious, and looking for trouble. She has finished her apprenticeship at the flower-shop, but she doesn’t like the work and the girls she works with are not respectable. Madame Lerat tries to protect her from a lascivious button-manufacturer, but Nana runs away from home when the poverty and squalor at home becomes too much for her. Gervaise has become a slattern, fat and lazy and [Zola says, but no modern reader believes it] indifferent to the kicks and beatings she gets. She works now for Virginie as a char, where Lantier delights in telling her about Nana’s degradation. She has dumped her ‘old gent’ and is dancing in disreputable local dance halls. Coupeau drags her home from one of these places one day but it doesn’t last long and she takes off again. Again it is Lantier who reports on her whereabouts to Gervaise: Nana has been seen in a carriage with a fine gentleman…
Gervaise is starving. Everything has been sold and she is so desperate she asks Madame Lorilleaux for help but is refused. She goes into the Bijards, where little Lalie has kept everything scrupulously clean despite her poverty. But Lalie is in bed, desperately ill, and as Gervaise sees to her horror that the child is covered in whip marks, M. Bijard arrives, roaring drunk and waving his whip to attack her again. Gervaise takes the whip from him but she cannot make herself stay to watch the child die. She goes out into the wind and snow to get some money from Coupeau who’s boozing in the assomoir with his pal Mes-Bottes, but he insults her and she goes off to beg in a wealthier part of Paris where Houssman’s demolitions have created vast new avenues and splendid new apartment blocks. She decides that she will prostitute herself, but she is too ragged and filthy for anyone to want her. In the depths of her degradation she approaches old Père Bru, who is also begging there. Finally she meets Goujet, who in pity takes her home and gives her something to eat. In shame she mistakes his love for desire and opens her bodice, but all he wants from her is a kiss. He is so overcome by what she has become and the loss of his dreams about her, that he draws away from her and she flees into the night. Back in her room she is overcome by despair and goes grovelling to Père Bazouge the undertaker, begging him to do away with her.
Gervaise scrounges some money from her son Étienne but soon receives notification from the hospital at Sainte-Anne that Coupeau, who has been missing from home again, is dying. She takes her time about getting there, having little feeling left for him. He is suffering delirium tremens and hallucinations and is at death’s door. The doctor warns her that she will suffer a similar fate if she drinks too but she is too far gone to care. She goes back home to the news that Virginie now has everything that she once had: the shop, money, and now Lantier as well.
Coupeau dies after four days in agony, and Gervaise struggles on for some months doing less and less casual work because she is too slovenly to do anything properly. She is evicted from her room, and after Père Bru is found dead in his bolt-hole under the stairs, she ends up taking his place and dies in the same way, not found until someone noticed that she hadn’t been seen for two days. Père Bazouge, sozzled as usual, buries her with as much tenderness as he can…
Author: Émile Zola
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009
Review copy courtesy of Oxford’s World’s Classics.