Plot summary: L’assommoir, by Émile Zola

L'assommoir-OUPL’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.

Chapter 1

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.

Chapter 2

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.

Chapter 3

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.

Chapter 4

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.

Chapter 5

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.

Chapter 6

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.

Chapter 7

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.

Chapter 8

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.

Chapter 9

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.

Chapter 10

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.

Chapter 11

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…

Chapter 12

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.

Chapter 13

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
Title: L’Assommoir
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009
ISBN: 9780199538683
Review copy courtesy of Oxford’s World’s Classics.

Plot Summary: ‘The Fortune of the Rougons’

The Fortune of the Rougons (La Fortune des Rougon) was originally published in 1871 and is the first book of the Rougon-Macquart series. It contains a lot of background information of many of the characters that appear in the later novels. Despite this, it is not essential to read it first.

The novel takes place in the fictional Plassans, which is the setting for several of the early novels in the series. Apart from the family history, the main plot is about the coup d’état of Louis-Napoleon in December 1851 and how it affects the small town of Plassans. Louis-Napoleon had been voted in as President of France in 1848 following the revolution that ended the monarchy. This creates a three-way split in allegiances of the population of Plassans as well as in the whole of France. Very loosely the aristocracy support the monarchy, the bourgeoisie support the Empire and the workers support the Republic.

There are only two readily available translations of La Fortune des Rougon; Vizetelly’s translation from 1886 and Brian Nelson’s translation from 2012.

Please note that this is a plot summary and therefore full plot developments are revealed.

Chapter One

Set in Plassans, south of France, December 1851. An area of waste-land, which used to be a graveyard, called Aire Saint-Mittre atracts children, gypsies, lovers etc.

A man arrives on the edge of Aire St-Mittre at night carrying a rifle. He hides the rifle and sits on an upturned tombstone. A girl arrives. They are young lovers, he is Silvère and she is Miette. He is planning on leaving to join the Republicans. They walk about in the moonlight wrapped together in Miette’s brown cloak. They walk to the edge of town where they can hear muffled noises which grow louder. It’s the sound of a marching army singing the Marseillaise; they are marching to Plassans. As they pass, Silvère gets emotional. Silvère and Miette race to Plassans via a short cut but arrive at the same time as the army. The men at the head of the army tease Miette viciously about her father who was found guilty of murder. Miette only takes offence when he is also called a thief. Others back her up and she’s affected by the kind words that are now being said about her father. She takes up the banner and turns her cloak inside out to display the inner red lining. She appears to the others as Liberty and they are fired up with enthusiasm. Silvère runs off to get his gun.

Chapter Two

Plassans is divided into three groups: the nobility, the bourgeois and the workers. The nobility keep hidden away in their hôtels.

The Foques were a family of market gardeners before the revolution. Adélaïde Foque (b. 1768) became an orphan at eighteen. She was odd and rumoured to be mad. She married a young gardener Rougon, who was coarse and vulgar. After a year they had a son, Pierre Rougon (1787-1870). Rougon died after fifteen months of marriage and Adélaïde took a lover Macquart – he was a drunkard and would often disappear for long periods. She had two children by him: Antoine Macquart (1789-1873) and Ursule Macquart (1791-1840). They lived together in total freedom.

They rolled about on the vegetable patches, spent their days in the open air playing and fighting like little devils.

Adélaïde had fits. A skilled gardener looked after their land; he robbed them shamelessly.

By the age of seventeen Pierre came to see the house and the fortune as legitimately his. He was disgusted with the antics of his family and the thieving of the gardener. Adélaïde grew fearful of Pierre and became increasingly subservient to him. Pierre tried to use this to his advantage. He took over the house’s finances and sacked the gardener. Antoine was conscripted into the army and Pierre refused to buy him out of this obligation. Ursule married a hatter called Mouret and moved to Marseille. Mouret refused any dowry. Pierre suspected a trap.

Pierre now wanted to get rid of Adélaïde, but he would have preferred it if she left of her own free-will. News reached them that Macquart had been killed in Switzerland whilst smuggling watches. Adélaïde moved to his shack leaving Pierre in charge of the house. He now wished to sell the land and marry the daughter of a merchant. His attentions turned to Félicité Puesch, the daughter of an olive-oil dealer who was close to bankruptcy. Their marriage was agreed. His attentions turned to the sale of the land but it was legally his mother’s and Antoine & Ursule still had a claim. He managed to convince his mother to sell the land for fifty thousand francs with the promise of an annuity of six hundred francs.

Félicité and Pierre helped run the family business. After three years Puesch & Lacamp retired leaving the firm in the young couple’s complete control. The next few years were disastrous financially and they were close to liquidation several times. Félicité dreamt of being rich. Thirty years later her father died; she was expecting an inheritance but he had put his money into a life annuity. Pierre put on weight and became lazy and their business scraped by.

Félicité gave birth to three boys and two girls: Eugène Rougon (b.1811) (His Excellency Eugène Rougon); Pascal Rougon (1813-1873) (Doctor Pascal); Aristide Rougon (Saccard) (b. 1815) (The Kill & Money); Sidonie Rougon (b. 1818) (The Kill) mother of Angélique Rougon (The Dream); Marthe Rougon (1820-1864, The Conquest of Plassans)

Félicité gave up on making a fortune herself and now put all her efforts into her sons’ futures. She sent the three boys to the town’s main school which was a drain on the family’s budget. Two studied law, the other medicine. They complained that they had been educated above their station.
At the beginning of 1848 Eugène was nearly forty, portly, slow, languid, but was contemptuous of modest ambitions and fortunes. His heart wasn’t in his law practice. He looked towards Paris for his fortune. In January he moved to Paris sensing that something was about to happen.

Aristide was sly and had a taste for petty intrigue. He was without scruples and wanted to become rich fast. He was Félicité’s favourite son. He lived off his parents when he returned from Paris. He married Angèle, daughter of Commander Sicardot. He lent Pierre the dowry and used it to keep Pierre in his debt for four years. When Pierre repaid his debt Aristide and family moved out. Aristide and Angèle had a son, Maxime (b. 1840, The Kill).

Pascal was the black sheep of the family. He set himself up as a doctor in Plassans after his studies and he enjoyed the life of the provinces. He studied natural history in his spare time. He had few patients but only the poor would go to him. He was unmarried and he was oblivious of the coming events in Paris.

Pierre and Félicité retired in 1845 with forty thousand francs. They rented an apartment, consisting of three rooms. They still dreamt of being rich. Pierre had grown portly and looked wealthy.

The Revolution of 1848 found all the Rougons on the lookout, frustrated by their bad luck, and ready to use any means necessary to advance their cause. They were a family of bandits lying in wait, ready to plunder and steal.

Chapter 3

Plassans was essentially conservative and few predicted the coming Empire of Louis-Napoleon. Marquis de Carnavant used to visit the Rougons and was an enthusiastic Royalist supporter. The reactionary meetings started to take place at the Rougons. Others that turned up at the meetings included M. Isidore Granoux, an almond dealer; M. de Roudier, a rich landowner who could talk for hours; Commander Sicardot, Aristide’s father-in-law, who had a dominant personality; M. Vuillet, a bookseller and producer of a bi-weekly newspaper. Rougon became the public leader of the group.

In April 1849 Eugène left Paris to visit his father for two weeks. He attended the meetings but didn’t join in, though he spoke to Sicardot often. Vuillet was suspicious of his presence. Aristide supported the Republicans as he thought they’d win, he wrote in a democratic newspaper critically of the reactionaries in the town which brought approbation from the Rougon group. After meeting Eugène he wasn’t so certain who would win and backed off his support of the Republicans.

Before leaving for Paris on 1st May, Eugène had a long talk with his father. They seemed to have a plan but did not divulge anything to Félicité. Pierre ended up revealing to her their plan of him becoming the receiver of taxes.

News reaches the group about Louis-Napoleon sending troops to Rome to snuff out the recently created Republic. On 10th December Louis-Napoleon was voted in as President. The group broadly supported him, especially Pierre. By the following year the Rougon group had gained popularity as people tired of the Republic. The Marquis sensed that a coup d’état was now inevitable. He spoke to Félicité who realised this also.

It was now the beginning of January 1851. Félicité managed to get a key from Pierre and read the letters he’d been receiving from Eugène. From these letters it was apparent that Eugène was working for Louis-Bonarparte’s cause. She kept her knowledge a secret from Pierre and she worried about Aristide’s support of the Republic. She even managed to get Pascal to attend some meetings.

By the end of November the coup d’état was looking more likely as Louis-Napoleon was accused of seeking the position of Emperor. The Rougon group were now all on the side of the Empire and Sicardot had arms ready. On 1st December a letter arrived from Eugène which stated that the time had arrived, and that Pierre was to tell Félicité everything. However Pierre did not speak to her about it.
On 3rd December the news was officially announced. The mayor and the clergy came out in support of the Empire as it was opposed to their enemy, the Republicans. The democratic sub-prefect resigned and left Plassans. Aristide wrote an article attacking the coup although he visited the Rougons, intrigued with what they were plotting. He overheard Marquis and Félicité discussing recent events. Realising that the coup was going to succeed, he ran to the newspaper’s office and stopped his article being printed. Aristide now had to wait to see who would emerge as victors.

In the next few days revolts occurred in surrounding towns. As the Rougon group met, news reached them that insurgents were on their way. Many left to hide; the commander left to join the his men. Félicité staged a scene where she tried to stop Pierre from leaving. It was agreed that Pierre would stay behind armed with fifty men. After the commander left the rest decided to lay low until it had all blown over. Pierre went to his mother’s to lay low.

Chapter 4

Antoine Macquart (half-brother of Pierre) moved to Plassans after the fall of Napoleon. He was idle and drunk and despised anyone that worked for a living. He was furious when he found out that Pierre had taken his inheritance. He went around town telling people how his brother had robbed him of his money. He would hang about outside Pierre’s shop being a nuisance. Eventually Félicité invited him in to discuss it and he eventually settled for two hundred francs, a new set of clothes and a paid apartment for a year. He soon drank his way through the money and couldn’t get any more money out of the Rougons.

Antoine learnt how to plait baskets and hampers so he could earn some money. After ten years of this he was fed up with working. He married Josephine Gauvadin (aka ‘Fine’) who worked at the market. She worked tirelessly whilst he idled away his time. When they drank they would fight. They had three children: Lisa Maquart (1827-1863, The Belly of Paris); Gervaise Macquart (1828-1869, L’Assommoir) and Jean Macquart (b. 1831, The Earth & Debacle). Gervaise was conceived when they were drunk; she was tall and lanky and had a limp. Jean was dull but liked to study. Lisa worked as a maid and moved to Paris in 1839 with her employer. Once Gervaise & Jean were earning money, Antoine had no scruples with living off them as well as Fine. Gervaise & Fine would drink anisette together when Antoine was out of the way.

Antoine supported the Republic as a way to get his revenge on society and the Rougons. Once the Rougons were trying to establish their position among the reactionaries Antoine was a source of embarrasment to them. Antoine, of course, enjoyed causing them embarrasment. He even threatened to publish the story of how Pierre had robbed his mother.

Antoine tried to find accomplices in his attacks on the Rougons. Aristide was wary of him. Meanwhile, his sister, Ursule and her husband, Mouret, were happy running their business. Ursule died in 1839 and Mouret later killed himself. Of their children, Francois (1817-1864, Conquest of Plassans) was employed by Pierre and he married Pierre’s daughter Marthe (1820-1864, Conquest of Plassans) . Silvère was taken in by Adélaïde (Tant Dide). Antoine tried to bend Silvère to his way of thinking. Silvère and Tant Dide were very fond of each other though a little distant. He would watch over her when she had one of her fits. Silvère was serious and largely self-taught, he became an apprentice to a wheelwright. He read Rousseau and considered himself a Republican. Antoine and Silvére would meet and talk politics and Antoine would try to turn him against the Rougons.

At the beginning of 1850 Fine died. Antoine sold many household items to raise cash, then turned to the children’s earnings. A month later Gervaise ran off to Paris with Lantier and her two children, Jean soon followed. He half-heartedly started making his baskets again.

Once the uprisings started in nearby towns after the coup Antoine saw his chance. He joined a group in the main square in Plassans and persuaded them to go to the Rougons house as they were enemies of the Republic. They couldn’t find Pierre as he had left (see end of Ch. 3). The main group from the other town entered Plassans at 11 o’clock and marched to the main square. They confronted the mayor and commander but quickly overcame them.

Silvère got involved in a tussle with a gendarme (Rengade) who was teasing Miette. Silvère believed that he had killed the gendarme and fled to his house, he didn’t notice that Pierre was there at first. Pierre tried to stop Silvère from leaving but Silvère pushed him out of the way as he returned to Miette and the other insurgents. As the insurgents were preparing to leave town Antoine persuaded them to leave him twenty men with which he could try to control Plassans.

Chapter 5

The insurgents leave Plassans to Orchères. By daybreak Miette is exhausted. Silvère convinces her to pass the banner to someone else and to take a short cut to Orchères so that they can take a rest. They talk and kiss when they’re alone.

Miette was nine when her father was tried for murder. She ended up living with her aunt, Eulalie Chantegreil and her husband Rébufat and Miette’s cousin, Justin. Her aunt died when Miette was eleven. Rébufat treated her like a farm labourer. They would tease her about her father. The well in the yard of Aunt Dide’s house was connected to the Foques’ property and could be used from both sides. One day the pulley broke when Silvère was using it and when he later built a new one he had to climb on the wall, from where he spotted Miette. They eventually spoke and got to know each other. They started to meet at the well by viewing each other’s reflection in the well via an aperture on each side of the dividing wall. Justin started to suspect something was going on, but he didn’t know what. They tired of seeing only each other’s reflections though. Silvère noticed the door that Macquart and Adélaïde had made and so he hunted for the key to this door in his house and eventually found it. He surprised Miette the following day by sticking his head round the doorway; they held hands and talked. Turning round Silvère was surprised to see Aunt Dide standing in the doorway, she had come to the well at that time by chance. It had been so long since she’d been there and there had been so many changes that she didn’t recognise the place. She then recognised Silvère and became distressed. Without speaking she took him by the hand, led him back to their side and threw the key into the well.

That evening Tante Dide had another attack. They didn’t use the door again but instead they started meeting at Aire Saint-Mittre where they continued to meet for two years. They also rambled over the countryside at night. For a while during the summer they swam in a stream where Silvère taught Miette how to swim. When their rambling tired them they would return to the Aire St-Mittre. One night Miette uncovered a tombstone where they could only make out some of the inscription, which read: ‘Here lies…Marie…died…’. (Miette’s real name was Marie).

Silvère and Miette had slept peacefully. They set out on their way to Orchères to join the insurgents. The insurgents are welcomed in Orchères. Silvère bumps into Dr. Pascal. News reaches the insurgents that events in Paris has gone against the republicans. They stay two more days in Orchères befoe the decision is made to leave. Before they could leave news reaches them that an army of soldiers is approaching. The fighting starts, some men flee. Miette is shot, she clutches her breast and falls, Silvère stays with her. Pascal arrives as Miette breathes her last breath; he pronounces her dead. Meanwhile the insurgents are being massacred. Eventually a gendarme appears and drags Silvère away from Miette.

Chapter 6

At five in the morning Rougon leaves his mother’s house. It seems like the city is dead. He is concerned that he’s lost his chance. On returning home he sees a silhouette of his wife in the window involved in a struggle. The key to the shed containing the arms is thrown to him on to the pavement. He rounds up Roudier and Granoux. He finds out from them that the insurgents left during the night. They round up thirty-nine men, collect the arms from the shed and march to the town hall. They find the guards asleep and go inside. Macquart is in the mayor’s office waiting for the insurgents to return. Rougon storms the office, in the tussle Rougon’s gun goes off and the bullet damages a mirror. Macquart is taken prisoner. Rougon issues a proclamation to the town and then returns to Félicité. It is dawn and they talk and dream of their future successes. Others arrive and praise Rougon Only Viuillet is missing but he soon arrives. He had installed himself in the post office during the chaos. They recount the heroic acts of the militia and the breaking of the mirror. Rougon leaves to go to the town hall.

By ten o’clock news of the events has spread through Plassans. News that Rougon has arrested his own brother and that the events had been achieved with only forty-one people was astonishing. The Rougons are applauded as model citizens. Félicité spots Aristide and tries to convince him to join them but he is still unsure who has the upper hand. Rougon takes over the mayor’s office, he visits the injured, including Rengade. People believe that the soldiers will arrive to save them, however by evening they are imagining that the insurgents are on their way. Vuillet is unwilling to print a paper fully supporting the Empire’s position as he is unsure how events will turn out. As rumours of insurgents continued, Rougon takes the others to Carnavant’s mansion which has a view over the surrounding area and where they stand watch throughout the night.

By morning everyone’s spirits are low. The gates are closed at midday. Rumours circulate that the coup d’état has failed and Rougon and Félicité are beginning to despair. They wonder why Eugène hasn’t written to them with news. They see a copy of Vuillet’s Gazette which attacks the insurgents violently and realise that only that morning he was too scared to print anything against them. Why the sudden change? Félicité goes to see Vuillet at the post office and as she suspected he had intercepted a letter from Eugène announcing the success of the coup d’état. Félicité makes a deal with Vuillet – his ambitions are low as all he wants is to be able to supply the college with books.
Félicité returns home with the intention of getting revenge on Pierre over the letters. She pretends that she believes that everything is lost. Pierre blows into a rage and blames his whole family and he eventually reveals that he’s been getting letters from Eugène. Rougon has an idea to regain control.

The next day Félicité goes to the town hall to speak to Macquart. Macquart had got used to living in luxurious surroundings and his enthusiasm for the Republic is waning. Macquart agrees, in return for a thousand francs and freedom, to lead remaining Republicans in the town to the town hall where they will be ambushed. Rougon returns to the town hall. In town the tension is high. Granoux arrives at the town hall in the evening to support Rougon. Félicité convinces Aristide that the Republicans’ cause is lost. Macquart hides out at his mother’s house until the evening. He rounds up fellow republicans and marchs on the town hall where they are ambushed. The noise wakes up the town and many people think that the insurgents have entered the town. Granoux rings the tocsin. There are four corpses in the town hall which are left there for the town to see in the morning. The townspeople are now grateful for Rougon for defending them from an attack by insurgents. An army has arrived outside of town under Colonel Masson and M. de Blériot. Masson and Blériot enter the town to reassure the population. Aristide has written a pro-Empire edition of l’Independent. Blériot congratulates Rougon and Granoux publicly.

Chapter 7

The following Sunday the troops came back via Plassans. They had been involved in a recent massacre at Saint-Roure. A terror campaign is in full swing. Eugène writes that Rougon will receive the Legion of Honour and receivership of the taxes. They decide to celebrate by inviting other dignitaries to dinner. Rougon goes to his mother’s house where he meets Macquart and Pascal. Aunt Dide is on the bed raving. Macquart recalls that Aunt Dide had gone out for brandy and returned in a state of shock. Pascal tries to get Rougon to release Silvère. He pays Macquart and leaves to return home, to the dinner. Aristide and Rougon make peace.

People toast Rougon’s bravery and his upcoming decoration. At one point Félicité asks Aristide if he has any news of Silvère, whereupon he reveals how he was shot by Rengade: When the troops had returned they started massacring republicans at the Aire Saint-Mittre. People were beaten and shot. Rengade found Silvère amongst the prisoners and took him to be shot. Silvère was still in a daze. He was taken to the path near the tombstone where he used to go with Miette. Whilst kneeling, waiting to be shot he saw Justin watching from the wall and thought he saw Aunt Dide at the end of the path facing him. Then Rengade shoot him.

That evening the Rougons carry on enjoying their popularity. They toast the Emperor and decorate Pierre with a strip of satin in anticipation of his real decoration.

Plot summary: The Kill, by Emile Zola

La Curée (The Kill) (1871-2 / 1874) is the second novel in the publication chronology of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, but it is third in the recommended reading order.  It’s the story of ‘uncontrollable appetites’ let loose by the Second Empire, and where His Excellency Eugene Rougon (1876) is about the lust for power, The Kill is about the lust for money and the lust for pleasure.  The main male characters,  Saccard and his son Maxime, are from the Rougon family, i.e. the legitimate offspring of the matriarch, mad Adélaïde Fouque.  Renee, Saccard’s second wife, is brought into this milieu by her marriage.

The Oxford Classics edition (2004, reissued 2008) includes an introduction by its translator, Professor Brian Nelson of Monash University Melbourne which explains the historical context of the novel.  Page numbers below refer to this edition.

Please note that this is a plot summary and therefore full plot developments are revealed.

Chapter One

The Kill begins with a traffic jam in the Bois de Boulogne.  Zola introduces two of the central characters, Renee and her stepson Maxime in their barouche, among a crowd of other wealthy Parisiennes in their expensive carriages. When the traffic starts up again they all move along in the same direction ‘as if the front carriages were dragging all the others behind them’ (p. 7)

Everything seems to be metaphor in this introduction: the carriages follow each other as their owners slavishly follow fashion; the blurring of the boundaries between the park and the city alerts the reader to the way moral and social boundaries will be transgressed.  It doesn’t take long before they do:

Renee is briefly aroused from her languid reverie by Maxime’s taunts: he sees Laure d’Aurigny and reminds her that when her husband bought Laure’s fabulous jewels, the gift was also a way of helping Laure to pay her debts.  Obviously the (as yet unnamed) husband has been playing away from home, but Renee can’t muster any serious jealousy, she’s satiated by all her luxuries, and she’s bored.  The Bois reminds her of the glades of the gods and their ‘divine incests’ and this allusion to the absence of incest taboos in the Greek mythology [1] points to what comes next.

Renee talks to her stepson about being bored by her many lovers; she wishes she were independent like Laure.  To shock her in return, Maxime jests that he fancies a nun for a lover, and Renee’s recognition that he too wants to transgress taboos makes her realise what she wants.  She rests her ankle on his warm leg, but he ignores it.

They arrive at their mansion, an extravaganza like a miniature version of the new Louvre.  It takes Renee an hour and a half to dress for dinner, and she takes the opportunity to muse about her past life as the daughter of a respectable bourgeois family. She feels nostalgia for that sober, sombre life, and resolves to curb her extravagances.

But that doesn’t last long.  When she turns up downstairs to meet her guests she is dressed in an amazing frou-frou as notable for the violets all over it as for the fact that she is showing a lot of flesh.  (Flesh and gold are two major themes in this novel, says Nelson in the introduction to the Oxford Classics version) and here Renee embodies them both.

Conversation at this dinner party exposes the other themes: property speculation, outrageous commercial loans to finance the property boom, the blurring of social boundaries with the presence among the aristocrats of two bricklayers who’ve made a fortune in the boom, and rising rents as developers build on the land blitzed by Haussmann’s boulevards.

And Renee?  She is roused to jealousy when she sees Maxime with Louise, the unattractive young woman he is destined to marry because she has money.

[1] Juno and Jupiter were brother and sister, and also married.

Chapter Two

Chapter Two provides the back stories of Aristide and Renee.

The imagery Zola uses emphasises the predatory nature of his character Aristide Rougon : he is a bird of prey, waiting to swoop on Paris.  Unlike his brother Eugene  who was in the right place at the right time when Napoleon III’s coup d’état took place, Aristide had compromised himself with his allegiance to the Republican cause.  When the monarchy was restored, he was lucky to stay safe and sound.  He bitterly regrets his folly and has come to Paris determined to improve his lot.

One obstacle is the hapless Angèle.  As far as Aristide is concerned she is an insipid burden, especially since she insisted on bringing her four-year-old child Clotilde to Paris.  However, Aristide insisted that their son Maxime stay in Plassans, finish school and stay with his grandparents.

In Paris, Aristide is intoxicated by the city:  he wants to ‘hurl himself into the furnace in order to mould the gold like soft wax with his fevered hands’. (p. 43) He visits Eugene – who, (as we learned in His Excellency Eugene Rougon) is a rising star in French politics.  Aristide expects Eugene to find an appointment for him and is a bit put out when Eugene tells him he will have to wait a bit.  He must live frugally in the meantime and he doesn’t like that at all.  When a position finally comes along, it’s a disappointment: not enough status and not enough money.  Eugene is disgusted: his lust is for power and he thinks that craving money is vulgar and puerile. He takes Aristide down a peg or two: he reminds him that he – having failed to finish his studies in law – doesn’t have the qualifications even for this job, and it’s no good acting ‘like an impatient schoolboy’.  He tells him that the position of an assistant surveying clerk at the Hotel de Ville is a good stepping stone to bigger and better things.   (Little does Eugene know just how good a stepping stone it’s going to be).

Along with advice about not causing any scandal, he gives Aristide a bit of money and suggests a change of name from Rougon so that they are not associated with each other.  They tweak his wife’s name to Saccard because Aristide thinks it sounds ‘as if you’re counting five-franc notes’.  Despite all this help, Aristide is peeved about being lectured by Eugene and he hates having to ask him for money.  Yes, we can tell that Aristide is going to get Eugene off his case as fast as he can.

Before long he gets a promotion, more from greasing around his colleagues than through any hard work or aptitude, and his salary nearly doubles.  This comes just in time because Angèle’s health is failing, and Clotilde is looking pale too, from being cooped up in dingy rooms.  But Aristide doesn’t change his poky lodgings, he wants to stay out of debt.  (Which, if you’ve read Balzac, is no mean feat in Paris.)  He makes sure he’s obliging at work, and he makes sure that he hears about all the scandals that might be of use to him.  (Which they eventually are).

Well, the Empire is proclaimed, strict censorship is imposed and Paris settles down to enjoy itself – because it’s certainly not safe to be involved in politics.  It’s no wonder Zola had to flee when this book hit the streets, when he writes things like:

‘The Empire was on the point of turning Paris into the bawdy house of Europe.  The gang of fortune-seekers who had succeeded in stealing a throne required a reign of adventures, shady transactions, sold consciences, bought women, and rampant drunkenness. In the city where the blood of December had hardly been washed away, there sprang up, timidly as yet, the mad desire for dissipation that was destined to drag the country down to the level of the most decadent and dishonoured of nations.  (p. 49)

Aristide is on to the potential for speculation quickly – he’s in the right job to be in the know.  The surveyor’s department is the one marking out the neighbourhoods for Haussmannization; he knows where the profits are to be made. Alas, he doesn’t have the initial capital to get himself started.

Enter his sister Sidonie, who is a somewhat shady widow and a dealer of some sort.  Her real business, however, is scandal: she inveigles her way into the confidence of people, learns their secrets and offers her services as a problem-solver.  Her favourite thing to do is to get involved in litigation, but she’s also good at arranging marriages for girls who ‘get into trouble’.  And this is how she helps to get her brother Aristide started on his path to fabulous wealth.

Angèle‘s health conveniently continues to decline, and Madame Sidonie sees an opportunity.  She knows of a young lady in urgent need of a spouse.  Angèle is not quite dead yet, but that doesn’t stop Sidonie from whipping round to the deathbed and sussing out Aristide as the potential bridegroom.  The young lady’s father is livid, (of course) and so the girl (yes, it’s Renée) and her accomplice Aunt Elisabeth have cooked up a story of the repentant seducer wanting to ‘atone for his momentary lapse’ by marrying her .  All Aristide has to do is pretend to be the father of Renée’s baby.   Fortunately Renée is very wealthy so this is quite an attractive bargain for any man on the make.

At first Aristide has some qualms (after all, Angèle’s still not dead yet), but his greed gets the better of him, and he’s none too careful about concealing his plans from the dying woman.  Which makes her death rather an angst-ridden moment:

Her eyes also betrayed the terrified amazement of a sweet and inoffensive nature that discovers at the last moment the infamy of this world, and shudders at the thought of the many years living with a thief. (p. 58)

But hey, she forgives him, and with the wife out of the way it’s easy to dispose of Clotilde as well: she gets sent off to stay with Eugene’s other brother Pascal as a companion for him.  (He’s a bit lonely, because he’s devoted to his scholarly research).  Sidonie then starts negotiations with Renée’s aunt (Papa declines to have anything to do with it).  Sidonie just happens to know of some posh furnished rooms (vacated by a priest who needs to rent them out) and he kits himself out in some fine clothes using the proceeds of selling his own furniture.   He cleans up well enough, presumably, although he is 40, short, and unattractive.

So now we learn Renée’s back story:

Her father, M Béraud du Châtel is an old bourgeois whose own father, a Republican, was killed during the Terror. (1793, when enemies of the Republic – real and imagined – were purged).  Béraud was a Republican too, and rather than serve as a judge under Napoleon III, he retires, an inflexible and gloomy old man of 60.  His wife had died young, in childbirth, leaving Aunt Elisabeth to take care of the children.  She played favourites and neglected Renée, who runs wild when at 19 she finally leaves the convent she’d been sent away to.  When she comes home in disgrace, Aunt Elisabeth is mortified and thinks it’s all her fault for neglecting Renée, and so she becomes Renée’s accomplice in deceiving her father with the story about the repentant seducer wanting to marry her.

The negotiations for the marriage contract are long and complicated: suffice to say that Aristide is delighted with his new financial situation, quite pleased to have a pretty wife and more than capable of using great cunning to get started in property speculation. (Renée’s not so wildly enthusiastic about him, but needs must.  Like many a young women then and now, she fails to keep an eye on what he’s doing with her property.)

Using his new money from Renée’s dowry,  Aristide uses his insider knowledge from the surveyor’s department to buy up apartments in areas about to be dissected by the new boulevards, and with Sidonie’s help he sets about inflating the value of it by engineering fictitious tenants paying very high rent.  This means that he gets paid much more compensation than he should.  He knows the dirt about two members of the Compensation Authority so they stave off any inconvenient scrutiny of his application for compensation.  Yes, Aristide Saccard is on his way.

(Eugene, by the way, was quite impressed by all this, and comes to the wedding.  Sidonie on the other hand makes herself scarce, she’s too shabby and would betray Aristide’s humble origins to old  M Béraud (who condescends to shake his hand at the wedding.)

Oh, and by the way, Renée does have a miscarriage, just as Sidonie foretold she would…

I do have some qualms about Renée’s story: she was actually raped, but Zola has a kind of ‘move on and avoid scandal’ attitude to this.  Today, I think we would all know that she would be very fragile psychologically, and whatever the imperative to avoid scandal might be, her mental state would impact on any relationship with a male.   But she seems to be insouciant, happily buying dresses and jewels etc, which is not really credible.

The other point which made me feel uneasy was the characterisation of the Baron Gourard.  He’s a paedophile, a fact which Aristide uses to gain advantage over him.  And that seems to be Zola’s only comment on the matter.

Chapter Three

Chapter 3 provides the back story of Maxime, a curious character indeed.

Maxime had been left behind in Plassans in the care of his grandparents when Aristide moved to Paris, but when he turns 14 he’s allowed to join his father and Renee.  She effects a transformation: from country bumpkin with a schoolboy haircut to a smart, effeminate young man in stylish clothes.  To the envy of his friends he goes to school driving a tilbury, but he spends most of his time hanging around with Renee, (who’s not much older than he is).  He takes a great interest in women’s fashion, going with her to couturier’s rooms – a development in the retailing of women’s fashions that was new at the time, providing a place for women to meet and socialise while they wait for their appointment with the great ‘Worm’.

Cheeky and confident, before long Maxime seduces a housemaid, who has to be sent away with an annuity.  Aristide pays this without demur; Renee thinks it’s funny.

Aristide, meanwhile, is getting richer.  The household is dedicated to pleasure, always full of people, laughter and vulgarity.  But they never spend time together as a family, and Aristide treats both Renee and Maxime as his children.  Zola explains in just enough detail how he was involved in buying, selling, trading, banking and so on, all of it sailing close to the wind as he takes one gamble after another – while for Renee, he is the perfect husband, never home to cause her any trouble, and an obliging banker for her extravagance.  For his part, he likes having Renee decked out in lavish finery, and he uses her  sometimes as an unwitting accomplice when he sends her to use her winning ways with a Minister or government functionary.  (And when she sets sail for one of these missions, he tells her to be ‘good’, knowing that she won’t be. )

Renee is a complex woman, says Zola.  She lives by conflicting principles.  She is honest and bourgeois like her father but she in intensely curious and she has unspeakable longings.  The rape made her feel that evil is written within her and so she feels that she may as well not struggle against it.

So she has one lover after another, bourgeois enough to feel guilty afterwards at times when she is bored.  She has migraines, but always recovers enough to enjoy herself.  She’s not afraid to play away outside her own society either: one of her lovers, Georges, is a bloke who picked her up on the street one night, and she meets him an Madame Sidonies.  (Which is useful to Sidonie, because now she has a scandal that she can use against Renee when she needs it.  It makes up a bit for being trumped as Renee’s procurer by a Madame de Lauwerens, who while maintaining her own virtue, holds salons where men and women of society can meet and flirt with each other.  It’s a much more elegant and sophisticated way of matching up would-be lovers than Sidonie’s old-fashioned ways.

Sidonie is a faithful friend to Maxime as he enters his 20s and enters society.  Zola calls him a strange hermaphrodite, which means, I think, that he is bisexual.  Drawing on his theories about heredity and behaviour, Zola attributes Maxime’s sexuality to his mother Angele’s passivity and weakness, and his father’s greed and wild appetites.  Maxime is a Rougon who has become refined, delicate and corrupt.  Nothing surprised or disgusted him; vice was his natural way.  These three were not a family, they were an investment company, and they felt no need to hide their pleasures from one another.  Aristide and Maxime even use the same courtesans, meeting each other on the way in and out.

A marriage is set up for Maxime, with Louise de Mareuil, daughter of one of Aristides’ cronies.  Louise is consumptive, unattractive and prone to the same debauchery as her dead mother, but she’s rich.

For Renee, always bored with her fatuous life, the highlight of her life is when she finally manages to get to the Tuileries and meet the emperor.  The significance of this snippet at the end of the chapter is that it signals how society at its highest levels now accepts the nouveau riche into its ranks.

Chapter Four

Chapter 4 is basically a long slow seduction scene as Renee and Maxime spend more and more time together in increasing intimacy.  The catalyst for their incest is an actress’s ball: it’s not seemly for a lady who’s caught the eye of the Emperor at the Tuileries to be seen there but to Renee’s jaded taste it looks like fun so she makes Maxime take her there.

She dresses in a black domino (cloak and mask) and off they go, but it turns out to be rather dull.  So they head off to one of Maxime’s private after-hours haunts (where, as Renee knows, he takes his lovers).  There they become lovers, and although Renee feels guilt-stricken the next day she gets over it very quickly and soon their love-making is routine.

Zola mercifully doesn’t labour the point, but unlike most 19th century novelists, he makes it quite clear what they’ve done,  even though he doesn’t describe the act itself. He describes instead the voluptuous luxury of Renee’s rooms, all gold and flesh, pink and white, bearskin rugs and whatnot. I found it a bit kitsch.

In between the initial seduction and the first reprise, Saccard comes to see Renee.  For the first time he refuses to pay one of her extravagant dressmaker’s bills, and this is because his speculations have become so entangled that he owes money everywhere and it’s all a pack of cards about to fall.  He doesn’t tell the truth, of course, but uses this situation to persuade her into parting with long withheld dowry property.  She signs the bill of sale partly out of ignorance about what he’s doing and partly out of repressed guilt.

Siddonie comes to see Renee too, when she’s having one of her post-indulgence migraines.  Renee confides in her about the unpaid bill, and Sidonie offers to help.

Chapter Five

Maxime and Renee are intimate everywhere.  Servants don’t suspect because they’re so close to each other anyway.  Celeste catches them at it one day but she is discreet, she says nothing to anyone and even warns them of any approaching danger.

One day Renee dresses Maxime up as a cousin wearing a dress, and it takes a while for her bosom friends to realise it’s him.  (Renee has two ‘at-homes’ these days, one for everyone, and one just for her closest intimates.) They think his cross-dressing is a great joke and won’t let him change out of the costume.  This hermaphrodite aspect of Maxime’s sexuality hints at a same-sex aspect of the incest, a sort of lesbianism, which makes it even more shocking.

Renee’s own costumes become ever more elaborate and costly, including one which alludes to her predatory nature with deer-hunting scenes embroidered all over it, with matching accessories.

Renee and Maxime no longer enjoy summer at the seaside, they need the hothouse of Paris as a stimulant and Maxime hates the sea: he won’t go in it, i.e. he doesn’t want to be cleansed of his sins.

But eventually Maxime tires of Renee and he becomes amenable to the marriage that his father is arranging: he is to marry the consumptive hunchback Louise, a prospect only attractive because of her large dowry and the likelihood of her impending death.  Maxime has never had any money and Renee has always paid for everything, indulging every whim, but he would like to be rich.   Saccard is keen on the marriage because his own finances are always precarious: they’re a ‘pack of cards always ready to fall’.  He’s still after Renee’s property – his latest ruse to get hold of it is quite elaborate but it falls through because Maxime in a fit of pique tells Renee that Saccard is duping her.

The debt-free Saccard who arrived in Paris so long ago is now up to his neck in debt.  Renee’s debts are astronomical, and now she’s short of money too because Saccard is beginning to refuse to pay her bills.  She even goes to her father to borrow 50,000 but backs out at the last minute, intimidated by the sober atmosphere of the house and her own memories of the simple life she led as a child.  She doesn’t even tell Aunt Elizabeth about the financial scrape she’s in even though Worm the couturier is threatening to cut her credit and she’s terrified of a lawsuit.  Instead she goes to Siddonie, but foolishly offends her by rejecting her idea of taking on M. de Saffre who’s very keen on her and would happily lend her the money she needs.

Everybody is duping everyone else.  Renee is even lying to Maxime about Saccard restoring normal marital relations with her.  She feels it is degrading to be sleeping again with her husband  so when Maxime sees a man leaving her room she tells him it’s M. de Saffre.  Maxime of course finds out the truth when one day Saccard starts waxing lyrical about the joys of married life – and that jealousy is what triggers Maxime’s revelation that Saccard is trying to trick Renee out of her property.

Maxime is sour on both of them, and it looks as if things are going to get nasty.

Chapter Six

Zola begins this extraordinary chapter with a series of tableaux held at Saccard’s mansion, a lavish form of entertainment usually based on scenes from well-known myths or plays.  It is followed by an extravagant ball.

The tableaux is an adaptation of the myth of Narcissus and Echo.  The director is a Prefect, M Hupel de la Noue, and he has spared no expense in exercising his intellectual pretensions (though it’s not in very good taste). It stars Maxime as Narcissus dressed as a hunter in search of prey and Renee dressed in increasingly scanty outfits as Echo, who is trying unsuccessfully to seduce him.  In the first scene she takes him to Venus in the hope that Venus will help her, but he is disdainful.  In the second scene she tries to tempt him with the riches of Plutus but that fails too.  In the third scene, Plutus and Venus take their revenge, turning Narcissus into a flower, leaving Echo to die, her love thwarted.   There’s a lot of gold and a lot of flesh on display.

In between the scenes, the men talk business and politics, relating one financial scandal after another while Saccard waits impatiently for his brother Pierre, the Minister, to arrive so that he can announce the forthcoming marriage of Maxime and Louise.  Eventually Pierre turns up, rather disdainful of the whole show, but ends up colluding in it by compromising himself terribly with promises of one sort or another including an offer to make Maxime an auditor to the Council of State.

Meanwhile Siddonie, dressed as a sorceress, is up to something.  She’s in cahoots with Saccard, and she’s keeping a watchful eye on Renee.

After the tableaux, there is a monstrous ball.  Renee reappears dressed up as a Tahitian, wearing very revealing tights and a transparent blouse which leaves nothing to the imagination. Some of the ladies are a bit shocked, most think it’s a great joke, and (of course) the men are all delighted.   The house is decorated as if it’s a forest, and the musical instruments are mostly brasses i.e. an allusion to hunting horns.  The guests hurl themselves after the food, grabbing, gorging, and ‘capturing it’ in the crush of greedy gluttony.  There is a sequences of dances in which the men as hunters go after the women as prey.  It’s all very undignified and vulgar and everyone ends up dishevelled and drunk.

Anyway, eventually Renee finds out about the marriage and she is distraught.  She pursues Maxime, hauls him up to her bedroom, grabs him by the wrists to prove her superior strength and insists that he can’t marry Louise, they must run away to Italy together.  But Siddonie has alerted Saccard to the fact that a man has been seen going to Renee’s room, and he turns up just in time to see Renee kissing Maxime on the mouth.  He is taken aback, to say the least, but recovers nicely when he sees that Renee has finally signed over the property to him (so that she would have the money to go to Italy).  He decides to be a man of the world about it, Maxime decides that Paris is more fun than Italy, and the pair of them go downstairs together, leaving Renee to ponder her worthlessness.  Saccard doesn’t care enough about what she has done to even get angry, and Maxime doesn’t want her.

Chapter Seven

This short chapter ties up the loose ends.

Three months have gone by.  Maxime comes back to Paris, a rich widower because Louise has died of consumption as she was expected to. He reconciles with his father – though he doesn’t take his advice about ‘investments’.  Saccard is still speculating, still presiding over precarious finances, and still ripping off the system with inflated compensation demands for buildings he’s purchased.

Renee has no one in the end, not even her maid Celeste.  The loyalty she’d assumed was simply Celeste’s determination to stick it out till she’d saved up enough money to be financially independent and go back home.  She takes the opportunity to tell Renee some home truths, and also reveals that Baptiste, the sober-sided butler, isn’t what he seemed: it wasn’t the horses he was interested in, it was the grooms.

Renee takes a ride alone in the Bois.  There is a reprise of the opening scene of the novel with all the characters making a reappearance in their carriages, culminating in the arrival of the Emperor, reminding Renee of her former triumph.  Overcome by shame she goes home to her father and shortly afterwards dies of meningitis, leaving her father to pay the astronomical couturier’s bill.

Lisa Hill ANZ LitLovers (The Zola Project)

Plot Summary: ‘La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret’ by Émile Zola

La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret was originally published in 1875 and is the fifth book of the Rougon-Macquart series. It has been translated into English as Abbé Mouret’s Transgression, The Abbé Mouret’s Sin and The Sin of Father Mouret. The main character is Serge Mouret, son of François Mouret & Marthe Mouret (née Rougon) who all appear in the fourth book of the series, La Conquête de Plassans (1874).

The whole novel is set in a small village called Artaud in the south of France, possibly in Provençe. An excerpt of an early passage from the novel describing the inhabitants of the village can be found here.

Please note that this is a plot summary and therefore full plot developments are revealed.


While Serge Mouret prepares for mass, the boy Vincent arrives late. Serge performs the mass to an empty church. While this is taking place his housekeeper, Teuse, chases sparrows out of the church. Near the end of the mass Désirée (Serge’s 22 year old sister who has a low mental age) noisily enters the church carrying some newly-hatched chicks. Teuse tries to get her to be quiet and leave while the service is in progress.

After mass Serge has breakfast standing up and Teuse fusses around him and grumbles. He announces that he’s going out and will return for lunch at eleven o’clock. He walks into the village of Artaud. All the inhabitants are inter-related: ‘They inter-married with unblushing promiscuity’. Serge had asked to come here as he liked the isolation from the rest of the world. Serge meets Friar Archangais, who is pulling Vincent by the ear. Archangais does not have a good word to say about any of the inhabitants of the village. He tells Serge that M. Bambousse’s eighteen year old daughter, Rosalie, is pregnant by Fortuné.

Serge meets Fortuné and questions him over the pregnancy. Fortuné is willing to marry Rosalie but it’s her father who objects to the marriage as Fortuné is poor. Serge goes to see Bambousse and suggests a prompt marriage. Bambousse is having none of it and verbally abuses Rosalie. He throws clods of mud at her when she says she wants to marry Fortuné.

On his way home Serge meets Dr. Pascal who is in a horse-and-trap and is off to see Jeanbernat, an eighty year old man who lives on the derelict Paradou estate and had had a stroke the previous night. Serge accompanies Pascal just in case he is needed. They enter Paradou Park which is less than three miles from Artaud; it is completely over-run with vegetation. Jeanbernat is on his feet and appears to be ok. He is a committed atheist and is reading the philosophy books that were left in the large building. They talk and drink wine. Albine enters and she promises to give a nest of blackbird chicks to Serge’s sister. When they leave by the wall to the park, Serge can hear what seems to be an animal running along with them but on the other side of the wall. When they reach the end of the wall they hear a cry of ‘au revoir’ from Albine.

He returns home at two o’clock and Teuse is furious as his lunch is cold. Désirée is asleep after a busy day clearing out her farmyard. At six o’clock Désirée cajoles Serge to have a look at her animals. Serge is overwelmed by the animal smells while Désirée takes delight in it. Serge particularly dislikes the goat. She shows him her new acquisition, a piglet.

It’s Thursday and Father Archangais always dines at the vicarage on a Thursday. Archangais doesn’t think Serge will have much luck getting Bambousse’s permission to marry off his daughter to Fortuné. Albine turns up and gives Désirée the blackbird’s nest with three chicks. Serge describes his visit to the Paradou that morning. After tea, some girls from the village decorate the church with foliage for the service for the month of the Virgin. Teuse and Serge help organise the decoration. The girls clamber about the church giggling and playing about. When everyone has left, Serge starts praying to the Virgin Mary which lasts for more than an hour. He recalls his days in the seminary.

In his bedroom he lights a fire and further recalls his youth and his days in the seminary; how he wished to be pure and virginal; how he was shocked by the sins of others; how he studied hard; at night he would feel a presence and awake on the floor. ‘In this past of his he found nothing but enormous purity, perfect obedience’. He feels tired and wonders if he is ill. He feels feverish and wonders if it was caused by his walk in the sun, the shade of Paridou Park or the stifling heat of Désirée’s farmyard. Looking down at the village of Artaud at night he thinks that as quiet as it was it ‘was not dead enough’. His thoughts turned to Albine. He is overcome with the ‘exudations of humanity’. He asks the Holy Virgin for help. He wishes that he could have remained a child as ‘only a child can pronounce your name without befouling it.’ He is overcome and loses consciousness.


Serge has been sent by Dr. Pascal to Paradou to convalesce. He is attended by Albine alone; no-one else visits, not even Dr. Pascal. Albine declares that what Serge needs is affection. At first he just stays in bed unable to move. After a period of rain in which Serge seems to get worse he asked for the shutters to be opened and the sun streams in. He begins to sit up near the window and then to venture outside. He starts to walk on his own again. On his first attempt outside, Albine cries, ‘Why, you’re just like a tree trying to walk.’ In the sunshine, bathed by light, Serge is coming to life. One day they attempt to walk in the woods but Serge is tired and falls asleep. Albine lies next to him. When he awakes he doesn’t recognise her, though he claims that he had been dreaming of her and that he loves her.

One day they walk into the sunken garden, surrounded by all types of flowers and other vegetation. The following day they stay indoors and tell each other stories. Albine tells him how the lady of the house died in Serge’s room and that she was buried somewhere in the garden. They agree to find the spot. A week later they find three willows near a brook. Albine is convinced that this is their spot. She asks if Serge wants to be her husband.

They still want to find the tree where the lady of the house was buried. One day they go to a region of the park that neither had previously visited. They walk on through the trees and vegetation. They feel that they are close to the tree, but they are lost. They declare their love for each other and kiss. Eventually they find their way home.

In the days following this kiss they are embarrassed and spend time apart but eventually resume their walks. On one walk they notice that part of the wall has a hole in it. They now feel that the park is now theirs. One day Albine announces to Serge that she has found the tree and after much prevarication Serge agrees to go with her to see it. Once there they both felt healed of an unbearable tension. They kiss and make love; the surrounding trees and creatures seem to be encouraging them. Serge feels complete, masculine, his senses sharper. They realise that they are lost. Albine feels as if someone is after them and she wants to hide. They continue walking until they reach the wall at the point where there is the hole. Through the hole they can see Artaud. Serge watches the village and Albine becomes more fearful that he is drifting away from her. He can see his church and his memory returns. He falls to his knees and cries, ‘Dear God!’ Friar Archangais appears on the other side of the wall, his fists clenched in anger. Serge goes through the hole. Albine weeps.


Serge has returned as vicar. It is early morning and he is marrying Rosalie and Fortuné. The baby is in the church as well. Once they are married they go to work. Désirée now has a cow.

They have breakfast, though Serge does not eat. Teuse talks about his time away and about the Reverand Caffin, Serge’s predecessor. Serge now rarely leaves the church. He starts to carry out repairs to the church and paint much of the vicarage.

Teuse and the Friar played Bataille in the evenings. Whilst they are playing Serge leaves to go to the newly-wed’s house to bless their bedroom. The Friar doesn’t see the point of this but follows Serge to keep an eye on him. On their way they meet Jeanbernat who recognises them and mocks them and tussles with the Friar. He has the Friar in a lock and threatens to cut his ear off. Serge intervenes and Jeanbernat leaves. Serge continues to the newly-wed’s house and blesses the bedroom.

The next Sunday Dr Pascal arrives during mass. He has come from Paradou and announces that Albine is not well. He says that Serge should go to see her as she looked after him when he was ill. Serge refuses.

One Sunday Albine arrives and Désirée takes her to the stable while Serge is giving his class. When Désirée falls asleep she goes to see Serge. She says that she has been waiting and tries to lead him away, but he continues to pray. She says to Serge, ‘You are mine’ but Serge declares that he belongs to God and that he has sinned. She says she knows nothing of God and calls him a coward. She remembers life at Paradou together and compares it to his present life in his ‘dungeon’. All she sees is suffering in the crucifixes. Before she leaves she says that she will wait by the opening in the wall every evening for him.

Later on Serge confesses to Jesus that he still loves Albine. He speaks to Jesus but when he asks Jesus to give Albine back to him, Jesus is silent. Serge feels abandoned. Each day he grapples with this problem, until one day he wakes reborn. He remember the joy he felt when he was at Paradou; he stands up in the church and states that ‘There is nothing, nothing. God does not exist’ and shudders. He feels damned and believes that the church is falling down around him. Désirée enters and brings Serge back to reality.

The next day Serge sleeps late. He looks out of the window at the walls of Paradou and can’t decide whether to go to Albine. He starts to think of the details of the elopement and how difficult it would be. The next day he is still tussling with the problem when, on an impulse, he leaves the church and heads for Paradou. When he reaches the wall the Friar is there sleeping. He goes through the gap – Albine is waiting. She notices that he looks grim and asks him if he loves her – he says he does. They plunge deep into the garden but Albine realises that he doesn’t love her. Serge complains of the cold and of being tired whilst Albine talks of the life they will lead together. Serge talks of his love of the church. Albine takes him to the tree but Serge only weeps; she tells him to get out of the garden. As Serge leaves, the Friar is waiting for him.

Albine feels betrayed by both Serge and the garden. She walks deep into the garden. She realises that she will ‘die amid flowers.’ She collects as many flowers from the garden as possible and takes them to her room. When night falls she goes to her room, seals herself in and dies of asphyxiation.
Pascal arrives to tell Serge the news of Albine’s death and then rushes off to Paradou. Jeanbernat is digging a grave under the mulberry tree. The doctor checks Albine and then informs Jeanbernat that she will have to be buried legally in the graveyard.

It’s morning. The Artaud butcher has come to slaughter Désirée’s pig. There are two funerals: one for Albine and the second for Rosalie’s child. Serge conducts the service. As the coffin is about to be lowered Jeanbernat arrives. Before anyone can do anything he pulls a knife and chops off the Friar’s right ear and throws it on the ground, then leaves. They lower Albine’s coffin into a grave next to Rev. Caffin. There is a noise from the farmyard and Désirée announces gleefully that her cow has given birth.

Plot Summary: ‘Pot Luck’ by Émile Zola

This is a plot summary of Pot Luck by Émile Zola (originally published as Pot-Bouille, 1882) and as such contains full plot details of the novel. As there are many characters in this novel it can get a bit confusing so I have tried to clarify the relationship between the characters in the summary. It’s aimed at people who have already read the novel, maybe a long time ago, who wish to remind themselves of the plot details. It is not intended to be read as a substitute for the novel – Pot Luck is one of the best novels of the Rougon-Macquart series and I’d thoroughly recommend reading it in its entirety.

Chapter I

Octave arrives at a four-storey house on Rue Choiseul, Paris. He meets M. Gourd, the concierge and M. (Achille) Campardon, whom Octave knows through Campardon’s wife. Octave is shown his room and they meet some of the tenants; his neighbours are the Josserands on one side and the Pichons on the other. While Campardon shows Octave his rooms he warns Octave that he must not make a noise or have women visitors. He talks about Gasparine, Octave’s female cousin, who had been involved with Campardon back in Plassans. Octave talks about his immediate past – he’s been in Marseille for three years and has been travelling around for another two. Compardon has found a position for Octave at his workplace, The Ladies’ Paradise, and they go to see his employer, Mme Hédouin. While Octave is shown around the shop he overhears Gasparine and Campardon arranging a meeting. Octave finds Mme Hédouin attractive as well as the fellow employee, Mme Valérie. On returning to his room he encounters the Josserands returning home.

Chapter II

Mme Josserand and her daughters, Berthe & Hortense, have left Mme Dambreville’s party and walk home. The daughters grumble as they’re getting muddy. Mme Josserand grumbles about not being able to marry her daughters and her ineffectual husband. They pass Octave on the stairs. M. Josserand is working late to earn a few francs. M. & Mme Josserand argue. The girls are hungry but can’t find much food when they go to the kitchen. The kitchen is in a mess. Back upstairs M. & Mme Josserand argue again. He states that her father never paid her dowry which infuriates her. She claims that her rich brother Bachelard has promised to pay dowry for Berthe, but M. Josserand is not so sure he’ll pay. They continue to argue and Hortense asks them to stop. She says that they are capable of getting husbands for themselves. This infuriates Mme Josserand as Hortense is infatuated with Verdier who has already had a mistress for fifteen years. She then criticises Berthe for letting another marriage slip through her fingers at the party that evening. The women go to bed while M. Josserand carries on working through the night.

Chapter III

Berthe & Hortense sit on either side of Bachelard at a dinner at the Josserands’. They encourage him to drink as they’re trying to get twenty francs out of him. Their simple brother, Saturnin, is making a mess with his food. At one point Berthe & Hortense start to playfully search Bachelard’s pockets for money. Meanwhile, people start to arrive for the soiree. They finish dessert. Berthe takes Saturnin upstairs while the diners join the other guests. Mme Josserand is upset that the Duveyriers haven’t come. Berthe plays the piano for the guests. Dr Juillerat arrives in the middle of the performance. Berthe has to go and see to Saturnin who’s making a racket upstairs. Mme Josserand has Octave in her sights for marriage to Berthe, Mme Juzeur thinks the landlord’s son, Auguste Vabre, would be a better match. Verdier arrives. Octave can’t keep his eyes off Valérie. Mme Josserand overhears Octave and his friend, Trublot, talking disparagingly about Berthe. She encourages Berthe to concentrate on Auguste and Berthe agrees. The guests leave.

Chapter IV

The next day Octave concentrates on his plan to seduce Valérie. Octave, though, is concerned that the Pichons might get in the way. At lunch the Campardons they reveal to Octave that they let their daughter, Angèle, go with Mme (Marie) Pichon to the park and that the Pichons have very strict principles. Octave decides to make the Pichons’ acquaintance. By helping Marie with her pram one day he gets to know her.

Every Sunday Marie’s parents, M. & Mme Vuillaume, come to visit. This Sunday Octave is invited in to meet them. They bore Octave with their prudish talk. They don’t agree with couples having more than one child. Mme Vuillaume explains how they brought up Marie, for example she didn’t read a novel before she was eighteen. When she could read one she became attracted to André by George Sand. Octave has to leave and tries to avoid them each Sunday. One day Octave meets Marie who is in a fluster as she doesn’t know how to dress Lilitte. Octave is astonished but helps her. Octave offers to lend her Campardon’s copy of André, which he brings round the next day. He visits her several times when Pichon is out and is both intrigued and annoyed by her.

One day Octave meets Valérie’s maid on the stairs. She asks Octave to help as Valérie is having a fit. When she comes round Valérie is surprised to see Octave there and apologises to him. She seems at ease being semi-naked in front of him. He catches her round the waist but she rebuffs him; Octave leaves. He goes past the Pichon’s door and sees Marie in there and asks her about the book. Marie seems to try to kiss him. He starts to lead her into the bedroom but she stops him. He forces himself on her on the table. Meanwhile the book has fallen on the floor which damages the corner. Pichon returns home.

Chapter V

Reception at the Duveyrier’s. Octave is embarrased that the only conquest he has had in Paris is Marie. The Josserands plan their moves before going to the Duveyrier’s. It is crowded when they arrive. Mme (Clotilde) Duveyrier plays the piano; M. Duveyrier doesn’t like music. Octave notices that Mme Hédouin is there. Mme Josserand pushes Berthe on Auguste. M. Vabre, the landlord, explains his work cataloguing the paintings at the Salon, though he has no interest in art. Mlle Dambreville & Léon Josserand arrive. The men talk politics in the parlour; the women talk about their servants. Meanwhile, Octave flirts with Mme Hédouin. Clotilde asks Octave about his singing voice; he’s a tenor. Clotilde plays the piano while the male singers accompany her. Auguste and Berthe hide behind the curtains. When the music is over Berthe cries out and attracts everyone’s attention. Mme Josserand lets it be known that Bachelard will pay a fifty thousand franc dowry. The guests talk about morality and religion. Duveyrier says that religion makes marriage moral. Trublot points out to Octave that Duvreyier has a mistress. The guests start to leave. The Josserands are happy with how things have turned out. As for the dowry, Mme Josserand is certain that things can be sorted out with Bachelard.

Chapter VI

It’s Sunday and Octave is in bed; he feels certain that Mme Hédouin will fall for him. He gets the key for the attic from M. Gouard. M. Gouard spots a woman leaving the building and confronts her but she manages to leave. Octave spots Trublot when he’s up in the attic. He’s hiding there until he can leave – he’s been sleeping with the cook, Julie along with more of the servants. They listen to some of the servants’ gossip that’s shouted from the windows that open on the backyard. They discuss their masters’ lives and foibles. Octave notices a well-dressed woman leaving a room on the second floor. Out of curiosity he follows her out of the building. M. Gouard bows to her as she leaves. Octave shows some lace samples to Mme Juzeur. He kisses her fingers but she doesn’t let him go further.
Octave goes to the Pichons’ for dinner in the evening. When the Vuillaumes leave, Pichon takes them to the bus station which takes about two hours. Octave starts kissing Marie but Saturnin arrives and interrupts them. Marie refuses to go to Octave’s room. They open a window and hear M. Gouard accusing the carpenter of carrying on with prostitutes. The carpenter protests that the woman is his wife, but M. Gouard gives him notice to leave. Octave notices Trublot in the hallway – he’s goiong to see Adèle (Josserands’ maid).

Chapter VII

The Josserands have been asking Bachelard to dinner almost every evening. Mme Josserand confronts him one evening about the dowry but he manages to escape without committing himself. The next day M. & Mme Josserand and Berthe go to see him at work. They ask him about the fifty thousand franc dowry. Bachelard gets nervous and pleads poverty but M. Josserand knows better as he does the books for him. Bachelard brings up an insurance that they had on Berthe that came to fifty thousand francs. Mme Josserand states that it’s elapsed. Bachelard says that they should mention this insurance and agree to pay the dowry in installments. M. Josserand isn’t impressed but Mme Josserand can see the advantages of it.

The next day Octave & Trublot meet Bachelard in an inn. He’s drunk and having a row with someone. They join him and his employee, Gueulin and talk about women. Bachelard takes them to his mistress Fifi to show her off to them. He is very attentive to her and kisses her goodbye. They go back to the inn as they have an appointment with M. Josserand. They then go to Clarisse’s and talk to Duvreyier about the mariage with Auguste and the proposed insurance as dowry. Duvreyier accepts and they agree to meet at the notary’s in a few days time. A few days later the marriage contract is signed. Saturnin is taken away to an asylum as he was becoming too dangerous.

Chapter VIII

The civil marriage between Berthe & Auguste is to take place and people are meeting in the Josserands’ drawing-room. The Josserands paid for the wedding out of money that was left to Saturnin. Théophile Vabre (son of the landlord) arrives in a furious state; he’s found an incriminating letter belonging to Valérie and he thinks she’s having an affair with Octave. Auguste Vabre turns up – he has a headache. They all go to the church and Théophile confronts Octave during the service. Even the priest notices something is going on at the back of the church. Octave shows an example of his handwriting to prove that the note is not his. It’s later and everyone is still talking about the note. Théophile confronts Valérie again; she starts to have convulsions and is taken into another room. She eventually recovers but Théophile still wants to know who wrote the note. Josserand tells him that the note was intended for the maid which Théophile eventually believes. Théophile and Valérie eventually join the party and dance together while Octave dances with Mme Hédouin. Bachelard is drunk and disgraces himself by doing an indecent dance. Back at the apartment block Octave and Berthe bump into each other on the landing.

Chapter IX

Octave arrives at the Campardons’ for dinner. Mme (Rose) Campardin and Gasparine get to know each other. It’s revealed that M. Hédouin has fallen ill. Octave is still intent on becoming Mme Hédouin’s lover. Rose suggests that Gasparine should move in with them. One day M. (Achille) Campardon comes home early and finds that Gasparine is in the process of moving in. Octave leaves and goes to the Pichons’ for dinner. They’re arguing with the Vuillaumes who are disgusted that Marie is having another baby. She’s five months pregnant which coincides with her encounter with Octave. Octave takes them all out for an expensive meal.

Octave regularly helps Mme Hédouin with the receipts. One time when they’re alone Octave reveals his ideas about expanding the shop and tries to kiss her. She is disappointed in him as she thought he was more serious than the others. He resigns out of embarrassement but she doesn’t see why he should.
When he visits the Campardons’ he often comes across Achille & Gasparine kissing. Achille doesn’t go out in the evenings now. Octave goes out for a walk and meets Berthe. She’s heard that he’s left the Ladies’ Paradise and offers him a job in her & Auguste’s drapery. He accepts.

Chapter X

Octave now spent more time at the Duveyriers’. Mme Duveyrier pretends that M. Duveyrier is working when he is really seeing his mistress, Clarisse. The Duveyrier’s servant, Clémence, comes in with news that M. Vabre has collapsed. Mme tells Octave to get her husband – she knows where he really is.
M. Duveyrier, Bachelard, Trublot & Gueulin are at a restaurant having an expensive meal. Bachelard intends to show off Fifi to his guests. Duveyrier mentions that Clarisse is waiting for them so Bachelard then decides that they should go to see Clarisse. When they arrive her flat is empty and Duveyrier is distraught. Octave arrives and he tells Duveyrier that he is wanted as his father-in-law is dying. Duveyrier and Octave go off in a cab; when they arrive the doctor is there but he doesn’t think Vabre will last long.

Chapter XI

The next morning everyone knows about Vabre’s illness and they speculate on his will. Octave goes to Berthe’s shop and tells them the news about Vabre; Mme Josserand is furious at Octave for not letting them know sooner as she’s suspicious of the others. Auguste and Berthe go to see Vabre. Clotilde and Théophile are there with their spouses. They argue. It’s revealed that there is no will. M. Vabre dies and his funeral is two days later.

Octave flirts with Marie, then goes to see Mme Juzeur and flirts with her; she claims she can’t relax with the corpse in the house. While the coffin is being taken out of the building a new female tenant, a boot-stitcher, arrives for the carpenter’s old room. After the funeral the family start to argue over the inheritance. They could find no will or money, except for 734 francs. They found notebooks with evidence of his gambling and evidence that he’d re-mortgaged the house. All that remains is the house which is worth three hundred thousand francs and only half of the mortgage has been paid. It is agreed that the house will be sold. After some dubious arrangements Duveyrier gets the house for one hundred and forty thousand francs and the others are furious. He then agrees to charge no rent to Auguste and Théophile for five years.

Chapter XII

Saturnin returns as the home refuses to look after him if he’s sane enough to sign over money to his parents; he goes to live with Berthe. Berthe becomes more like her mother and treats her husband the same way that her mother treated her husband. They take on a new servant girl, Rachel. Auguste resents the money that Berthe spends and they bicker constantly. Octave starts buying things for Berthe while reporting on Berthe to Auguste. Saturnin helps Berthe and Octave to get together. Saturnin often threatens to harm Auguste. One time after an argument Berthe locks herself in her room and Saturnin stands guard. He allows Octave to see her but not Auguste – Octave and Berthe make love.

Chapter XIII

One day Octave comes across M. Gouard spying on the tenants, which makes him nervous. He is afraid that he and Berthe might get caught. One night Berthe comes to visit Octave and she stays the night. She wakes late and is scared about getting back downstairs without being detected. While Octave occupies Marie, Berthe makes her escape down the outside stairs. She manages to get back to her flat but Rachel is in her room; she tips her to keep her quiet. Octave goes out. When he returns he talks to M. Gouard, who points out to Octave the boot-stitcher who is obviously pregnant. M. Gouard has given her notice to quit. Octave flirts with Mme Juzeur in her room. Octave and Berthe meet less frequently as Berthe is frightened of getting caught by Auguste and Octave is frightened of getting caught by M. Gouard. September approaches and Rachel is going to be away for a few days. Octave suggests that he and Berthe should meet in her room. On the planned night Octave gets there first and waits. He bumps into Trublot outside the room; Trublot reveals how Duveyrier has had Adèle and he tells Octave all the other goings on in the house. At four o’clock Berthe still hasn’t arrived. Octave can hear Trublot and Adèle next door. Berthe arrives in the morning and is surprised to see Octave still there. She couldn’t come to him at night because it was all too squalid. They listen to to the servants’ chatter at the back of the house and arrange to meet the following week. Berthe leaves and Octave overhears the servants talking about M. Hédouin’s death. The boot-stitcher is evicted.

Chapter XIV

Auguste is away in Lyons. At dinner with the Campardons’ Achille reveals to Octave that Duveyrier has found Clarisse. At ten o’clock Octave leaves, Rose goes to bed and Gasparine & Achille sleep together. Octave has a drink with the Pichons and the Vuillaumes and flirts with Marie when they’re alone . He forces himself on her again and then goes to his room to wait for Berthe, who turns up after midnight. They talk and begin to argue then go to bed. As soon as they’re in bed Auguste starts knocking on the door and shouting, he then breaks the door down. Auguste and Octave scuffle. Berthe runs out the room and hides in the Campardons’ flat. Gasparine and Achille comfort her but Gasparine is ashamed of her behaviour. They try to get her to go to her parents’ but in the end Marie takes her in.

Chapter XV

The next day the tenants are talking about the night’s escapades. Auguste reveals that he’s going to challenge Octave to a duel. He wants Duveyrier to be his second but he is with Clarisse. They go off to find her new address. They meet Bachelard who reveals that he’s found Fifi and Gueulin together. They eventually find Clarisse’s house. Clarisse is now very fat. Duveyrier, Trublot, Bachelard & Auguste go to a restaurant. After a large meal Auguste returns home; the duel is forgotten about.
Octave meets Mme Hédouin who offers him a job. He then meets Valérie and they talk. He returns to his flat; Duveyrier and Bachelard arrive and lecture him about his behaviour. Octave mentions that he is leaving the building. Duveyrier goes to see Auguste and interrupts Saturnin, who is having one of his violent fits and is threatening to kill Auguste. Saturnin is taken away again.

Chapter XVI

Marie takes Berthe back to Mme Josserand. Berthe and Hortense talk about the events and Hortense reveals that she’s still intent on marrying Verdier even though his mistress had just had a child. The next morning M. Josserand doesn’t go to work as he is unwell. He does not yet know what has happened though. During breakfast Mme Josserand accuses Adèle of stealing the food and dismisses her. Mme Dambreville arrives and is shown into a waiting room. She’s upset because Léon is now seeing Raymonde, her niece and she asks Mme Josserand to try to influence him. As Léon is expected she decides to waits for him. Meanwhile Auguste arrives and is in a belligerant mood. M. Josserand thinks the disagreement is over the dowry but they start talking about the adultery. Mme Josserand doesn’t defend Berthe’s actions but she says that Auguste is to blame as he doesn’t know how to treat a wife. It soon turns nasty and M. Josserand now understands. Auguste leaves in a temper and the Josserands bicker amongst themselves. Mme Dambreville is still in the house. She says she’ll now agree to the marriage beween Raymonde & Léon as long as they live with her. While the others are busy M. Josserand has fainted and knocked his head.

Chapter XVII

Months pass. Octave is back at the Ladies’ Paradise and people are talking of marriage between him and Mme Hédouin. He, however, remains emotionally distant from her and he concentrates on the expansion of the shop, which includes buying Vabre’s shop. Mme Hédouin raises the subject of marriage between them.

Duvreyier, now the landlord, asks Auguste to make up with Berthe for the sake of propriety. He suggests that Auguste take her back on the condition that the Josserands pay the full fifty thousand dowry. Since he lost Fifi, Bachelard is constantly drunk and rude but will not pay the money which infuriates Mme Josserand as Bachelard paid the same amount to Gueulin to marry Fifi. The doctor and the priest arrive to see M. Josserand who is dying. Bachelard won’t pay the money so the Josserands say that Auguste will have to have Berthe back first. Auguste misses Berthe. Duvreyrier urges Auguste to make it up with his wife.

Duvreyrier’s relationship with Clarisse is getting worse. Clotilde has caught the servants Clémence and Hippolyte together and urges them to marry. Later on Hippolyte reveals that he’s already married.
M. Josserand dies before Mme Josserand can arrange a bedside reconciliation between Auguste and Berthe. After the funeral Auguste and Berthe make up. Meanwhile, Marie gives birth to another child. Duveyrier is driven away by Clarisse and he buys a revolver. He thinks about killing himself at the funeral but tries it later in the toilet but he just blows his jaw off.

Berthe dismisses Rachel who then reveals all their secrets to anyone that will listen. Octave and Mme Hédouin announce their marriage.

Chapter XVIII

Adèle is nine months pregnant though no-one, including herself, was aware of this. She goes into labour in her room and tries not to make too much noise. The birth is relatively straight forward; she wraps the baby up and puts it on the building’s entrance and returns to bed. She has the next few days off work.

The Duveyrier’s hold a dinner. Auguste gets irate at the thought of Octave arriving and threatens to leave if he turns up. Octave arrives late; Auguste fumes but doesn’t leave. Octave joins the choir. Duveyrier’s voice is now more distinguished since his suicide attempt. They discuss the case of a woman who was guilty of infanticide. It turns out that it was the boot-stitcher who couldn’t feed her baby. They’re shocked by the increase in debauchery of the lower classes. The women discuss the servants and they reproach Adèle. Duveyrier meanwhile has a new mistress. Auguste tries to leave but Berthe refuses. He gets a migraine. It all seems as if everything has returned to normal. The novel ends with the servants discussing their employers. Adèle tells the others that she’d had a bad stomach ache.