Thursday, June 26, 2014

L'Assommoir - a summary - Three years rolled away.

Here’s how you can tell how long I plan to write about L’Assommoir – I’m actually going to try to summarize it.

Gervaise Macquart is at a low point when the novel begins.  She is a teenage laundress from the provinces, mother of two sons, just now abandoned by her no-good parasite of a boyfriend, who has run off with another woman.  The catfight at the climax of the chapter is between the insulted Gervaise and that woman’s sister.  Later in the book, the sister takes in the parasite, who literally eats through everything she owns and then in turn abandons her.  He is a fine minor character, Lantier the sponge.

Gervaise, though, buckles down, working hard, saving money, marrying a reliable man, or at least a reasonable bet.  Their wedding, which fills Chapter 3 in one long, continuous scene, is a heck of a thing, perhaps now the standard by which I will judge future Zola novels.  Gervaise opens her own laundry shop, eventually employing three people, and despite some bad luck achieves a fair amount of success for a fair amount of time (“Three years rolled away,” Ch. 5, p. 179), culminating in the gluttonous birthday party – “orgies of cooking, feasts from which you came away round as a ball, your belly stuffed with a week’s supply” – in Chapter 7, right in the center of the novel.  Then everything unravels, but again, slowly.  It takes two chapters, for example, for the laundry business to fall apart.  L’Assommoir really only becomes a study of poverty in its last quarter, the last four chapters, where Zola grinds Gervaise down, step by step, as if through a hierarchy of poverty and misery.

The arc of the book, then, is about as simple as possible.  Start with nothing, work up to the possibility of some sort of escape, then tear away everything – money, family, health, dignity, even the streets she knows – piece by piece.

Once I map it out, I can see how symmetrical the arc is.  Chapter 7, the big feast, is the middle.  Chapter 6: the parasite returns; Chapter 8: Gervaise is back in bed with the parasite.  Chapter 5: Gervaise opens the shop; Chapter 9, she closes it.  Chapter 4: the husband starts drinking; Chapter 10, Gervaise turns to booze.  Chapter 3 is the wedding; Chapter 11 – now this is a curious one – this chapter is all about Gervaise’s daughter from that marriage, now a teenager herself, and is in effect a prequel to Nana, written three years later.  I will leave Chapters 2 and 12 and 1 and 13 as an exercise for the reader.

I did not pay enough attention to know if time passes symmetrically, but given Nana’s age at different points, it must be pretty close to balanced.

Maybe I should have made a table or some kind of diagram with arrows.  Use your imagination!

Now, I hope everyone remembers all this as I break the novel into pieces.  I hope I remember it.


  1. The Engish publisher of this novel was jailed briefly for obscenity. I only have access to old public domain translations. The publisher kept translations of Zola in print for many years and these old editions became must readings. I am currently reading The Earth, in the opening chapter a young girl helps a bull mate with a cow in a very graphic fashion that I bet caused a lot of blue stocking outrage.

  2. Guy Savage wrote a great post a few years ago about the Vizetelly translations where he gave examples of the cuts. He read a number of the old versions in order to read all 20 novels, but he makes it clear - if you have another option, use it.

  3. Sadly I don't have another option, I cannot rationalize spending near $200.00 for Zola novels and Manila has no public libraries. To me it us better than nothing.,

  4. Just came to make a comment and found that I am mentioned.
    Welcome back.
    I loved this novel for its earthiness, misplaced passion, brawling and seediness. I especially relished the way that Lantier and Coupeau tag-team Gervaise leeching off her labour and strength until they milk her dry.

    BTW there's an old film version of this which is delightful. Curious to see how it deals with the whole triangular relationship. But it does include the brawl at the laundry. Great stuff.

  5. Better than nothing - better than lots of things! But the $200 confused me until I realized a different assumption we're making. I ain't reading all 20. Highly unlikely.

    Guy, what a fine description of the book's virtues. Your efforts with Zola have been quite helpful.