Zola, in L’Assommoir, uses arbitrarily chosen objects within the world of the novel to create elaborate patterns that reinforce or undermine or comment upon the surface meaning of the story. The objects are not necessarily symbolic in whatever sense critics use that word, although they may become symbolic in some way to one or more of the characters. Or the characters may not notice them at all; only the author and the more attentive readers can see the pattern.
Zola learned to do this from Gustave Flaubert. I wrote about the technique in the context of Madame Bovary a couple of years ago. I do not know if anyone believed what I wrote, since it is contrary to a lot of ideas about what fiction should do.
To the right of the water tanks the steam engine’s slim smokestack exhaled puffs of white smoke in a strong, steady rhythm.
Being used to puddles, Gervaise did not bother to tuck up her skirts before making her way through the doorway, which was cluttered with jars of bleaching water. (Ch. 1, 18-19)
Gervaise has entered a laundry, that is all that is happening here, but Zola has now introduced, right next to each other, the Puddle Theme and the Steam Engine Theme. I should probably only follow one of them in this post. Puddles it is. A few pages later, the Puddle Theme is expanded into the Colored Puddle Theme:
When she was through, she went over to a trestle and hung upon it all her things, which began to drip bluish puddles onto the floor. (I, 24)
What is this besides ordinary, and kinda dull, detail about a Parisian laundry? Why even notice it?
In the next chapter, Gervaise first enters the tenement where she will spend most of the rest of the novel.
Down the center of this entranceway, which was paved like the street, a rivulet of pink-dyed water was flowing. (Ch. 2, 51)
To get through the entranceway she had to jump over a wide puddle that had drained from the dye shop [thus, the pink]. This time the puddle was blue, the deep blue of a summer sky; and in it reflections from the concierge’s small night lamp sparkled like stars. (Ch. 2, 71)
Maybe a reader remembers the blue puddles from the laundry, maybe not. At this point, I was looking for them, although I do not think I caught them all. Here is another, from Chapter 6, the chapter that greatly develops the novel’s romantic subplot, a great positive moment in Gervaise’s life:
Over a puddle of muddy water that barred the way two planks had been thrown. She finally ventured onto the planks, then turned to the left,… (Ch. 6, 183)
One of the things she sees on the other side of that puddle is a big steam engine; also a man who “could feel within himself as much damn power as a steam engine” (189).
Now, the end. Gervaise has hit bottom.
She had to step over a black stream, the overflow from the dyers, that went streaming and cutting its muddy way through the whiteness of the snow. Black was the proper color to go with her thoughts. The lovely soft pinks and blues of other days had flowed far away! (Ch. 12, 466)
A number of other themes have been pulled together, as I would expect in a climactic scene. I believe I see a difference from Flaubert here: Zola actually reminds his readers of (some) of the earlier colored puddles. Flaubert is a harsher master. I’m supposed to be paying that kind of attention. And in fact, under the tutelage of Flaubert and Nabokov and a few other writers, I have trained myself to at least try to keep up with this kind of patterning, which, frankly, is awfully hard to do the first time through a novel, and often leads to a lot of dead ends and red herrings.
Not the puddles, though. For the re-read, someday, I will track down the ones I missed, and the near puddles and slant puddles. I have a crackpot idea about Gervaise’s sensitivity to color. I need another trip through the novel to support (or discard) this idea.
Ah, this is the fun stuff. The posts will all be downhill from here.