Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Zola's metaphors - the hunt, fire, gold and flesh

The title, The Kill, La Curée, is the first metaphor.  I understand that the term has more precise associations in French than in English.  Emma calls  la curée “the moment when dogs kill the animal they are hunting,” while translator Brian Nelson defines it as “the part of an animal fed to the hounds that have run it to ground” (Oxford Worlds’ Classics ed., x), and I assume they are both right.  Although English loses the association with dogs, the term can mean either the act or the animal, so in literature it means both.

Paris, for example, is one of the novel’s “kills,” torn to scraps by the scavengers following Haussmann, but the Second Empire and the construction of the boulevards is also the moment of the killing.  Renée, the novel’s heroine, is another “kill,” or actually two, her property one, her body another, and of course the climax of her story is the “moment.”  Emma runs through a few more.  It is a rich metaphor.

Odd, then how little use Zola makes of it.  He only has so much room.  Here he is completely explicit, but see where he goes:

Meanwhile the Saccards’ fortune seemed to be at its height.  It blazed in the heart of Paris like a huge bonfire.  This was the time when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches.  The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months.  The city had become an orgy of gold and women.  (Ch. III, 112)

And the paragraph continues, piling on more metaphors, new ones, and repeating old ones (“the voluptuous nightmare of a city obsessed with gold and flesh”).  Imagery of the hunt must share space with other thematic strains, with fire, especially, and with “gold and flesh.”  The entire novel is done up in gold and pink.  The décor is, frankly, in questionable taste.  Let me save that for another post.

In an earlier scene, Saccard is dining on top of Montmartre, surveying the city, just like you can do today, except that you will see the actual boulevards, while Saccard sees the future ones.  He chops up the city with his hands, showing his wife (his first wife) what will be.

His dry, feverish hand kept cutting through the air.  Angèle shivered slightly as she watched this living knife, those iron fingers mercilessly slicing up the boundless mass of dark roofs.  (Ch. II, 69)

He slices the city into four parts and feeds it to his hounds, “’Paris slashed with sabre cuts, its veins opened.’”  But the hunt is again, just one metaphor.  The setting sun on the city is “a shower of gold dust,” and the houses “catch fire and melt like an ingot of gold in a crucible.”  Saccard exults that “’whole neighbourhoods will be melted down, and gold will stick to the fingers of those who heat and stir the mortar’” (68).

Saccard spends a later scene skillfully extracting money from Renée, all the while messing in finely described detail with the fire in her room:  “Renée felt uneasy as she watched him making a large hole in the cinders to bury the end of a log” (136).  As far as I can see, the language of the hunt is not used at all in this scene, but Zola has already established the association.  The “huge bonfire” in the heart of Paris that is already linked to the hounds is moved into Renée’s bedroom.  Saccard’s “living knife” goes to work on his wife’s fortune, which he melts down right in front of her.

This is pretty much how The Kill is written, beginning to end, or one way it is written.


  1. Great post. This metaphor is present all along the novel. It's like a thin but strong Ariadne thread which guides the reader.


  2. This is a great post! There is something so wonderfully excessive about Zola, and I don't mean untrue, or inaccurate, just picking up that golden thread and running with it for all he is worth.

  3. Excessive, yes. He seems to make everything bigger or wilder or something. Like the crazy colors in those late Renoirs.