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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.