The Downward Slope: Zola’s L’assommoir


L’assommoir can be seen not only as a firmly constructed, hard-hitting novel of Paris slum life, but also as a vast canvas of colors and tones making the reader both actually see and feel the life of the poor in the baking sun amid the stench of moldering refuse or in the squalor of snow melting with filthy street waste.”

This excerpt from Angus Wilson’s “Afterword” (Signet Classic, 1962) sums up all that is so extraordinary and so depressing about the seventh novel in the great Rougon-Macquart chronicle. Setting out to write about every aspect of French society under the Second Empire, Zola crafted twenty exquisitely detailed novels over the course of two decades at the end of the 19th century. His formulation of literary Naturalism, where the writer attempts to study objectively and analyze human society through the lives of his/her characters, was so influential that it drove Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser, among others, to craft their own versions of American naturalism.

Zola believed that the novel should dive below the surface of everyday life, revealing the dirt, gossip, waste, greed, hostility, and bitterness that other writers refused to acknowledge. Inspired by the discussions of human evolution and natural selection raging around the world at the time, Zola wanted to use literature to expose and acknowledge the animal in all of us, the most basic instincts that still drive us no matter how “civilized” we attempt to be. He saw himself as a student of human behavior, and subsequently left a remarkable chronicle of one nation on the cusp of enormous change.

L’assommoir, a story of poverty, vice, and the wine shops that fueled the two, is one of those Zola novels that is hard to read, at times. For twenty pages, sometimes, Zola will describe in great detail scenes of domestic abuse, drunken rages, starvation, and sickness. It all adds up, ultimately, to a dense study of one part of the Rougon-Macquart family- the Lantier-Coupeaus, whose descent into abject poverty is tragic because it is so unnecessary.

Focusing on Gervaise, an impressionable and easily-persuadable girl, Zola asks us to understand the forces that ultimately drive her to an early death. Precisely because she is a trusting, good-natured young woman, Gervaise is taken advantage of by several men, and yet despite this, she manages to open a successful laundry. But as in all Zola’s novels, when things are going well you just know that the crash is coming. As her husband descends into drunkenness, helped along by many friends who encourage him to join them in the many bars and wine shops of the slum, Gervaise slowly loses her own drive and wish for respectability. As her business grows, so does her indolence and appetite, until she runs up massive debts and loses everything.

The slow- very slow- decay of her life, underscored by the desertion of her children (one becomes a prostitute, the central figure in a later novel, Nana), is painful because, despite everything, Gervaise continues to hope for happiness. Following her husband into a life of drunkenness, she forgets everything that she used to want in life. Malicious, gossiping neighbors and family members drive the stake in harder, until Gervaise has lost her will to live.

L’assommoir, then, is the kind of book that smacks you on the head with a figurative iron skillet, leaving you stunned, exhausted, but ultimately more compassionate and thoughtful. Zola presents us with unanswerable questions about nature vs. nurture, and the extent to which anyone can resist the pull of their own genetics. Oh, and the dude can write. So go find yourself a copy of L’assommoir and let me know what you think.

(cross-posted at Bookishly Witty)