Little reviews on little (and big!) books

L’Assommoir by Émile Zola

on November 20, 2013

‘Her dream was to live with decent people, because if you’re with bad people… it was like being hit on the head, it bashed your brains in, it smashed you flat in two shakes.’

If there is one author that everyone needs to have on their reading list, it’s Zola. I discovered him earlier this year at University, and I’m so glad I did. Despite still having read little of his work (which I’m remedying!), this novel ranks high on my favourite reads. L’Assommoir, roughly translated as The Dram Shop, is the 7th book in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart collection which focused on the fates of several branches of the family of the same name. I would certainly love to read all 20 books, but unfortunately only a handful have been translated from French. A word of warning though: this novel does contain some upsetting content, so please bear that in mind before you pick it up. His novels are often described as realist, in that they transcend what is proper for a bourgeois novel to contain, and instead focuses on the dirt and grime of life as it really was. This is definitely something Zola does not shrink from. L’Assommoir is filled with the sights, the smells, and the language of the street and the working classes – in fact, it’s the first Victorian novel I have come across where swearing is allowed, which must have been somewhat of a shock to readers in 1877! His novels became so controversial that people were fined and imprisoned for even publishing them.

The novel depicts Gervaise Macquart, who has moved to Paris with her partner, Lantier, and their children to start a new life. However, Gervaise soon falls for her neighbour, Coupeau, after Lantier runs off with another woman. After initial happiness and prosperity (resulting in Gervaise opening her own laundry), the cracks begin to show, with Coupeau increasingly turning to drink after he is injured at work. Ultimately, Gervaise is sucked into the sordid world of alcoholism alongside him, which proves to be her downfall. The reader is haunted throughout by images of dirt, alcoholism (the novel’s main topic), suicide, death, domestic abuse, and adultery (all very cheery!) The content is morbid to say the least, but Zola writes in such a way as to draw the reader in and lets us make our own opinions on every single one of the characters. He is one of the only authors I have studied that can make you sympathise with the main character in one chapter, and make you despise her in the next – a true talent in my book! 🙂

Zola claimed that he wanted the novel to be ‘a work of truth, the first novel about the common people that does not lie and that smells of the common people.’ The novel is saturated in filth, also relating to Gervaise’s decision to open a laundry for the people of the town. By using dirty laundry as one of the official subjects of L’Assommoir, Zola shows he is not afraid to take on the dirt of the people, wishing to report on the seedier side of life. The almost comical fight between Gervaise and another woman in the public wash-house expertly shows this seediness through both the working-class language used and the physical fight itself. I certainly flinched upon reading that ‘in the end she did manage to grab an earring, a yellow glass pear-shaped thing; she pulled, the ear split, and blood began to flow.’ Not something you would normally come across in a Victorian novel! This fetid environment eventually shapes the personalities of those who live within it, and it is fascinating to see Gervaise’s downward spiral through her eventual alcohol abuse. As a reader, I must say that I hated Gervaise – sorry for being quite blunt, but she really isn’t a character you can feel any real prolonged warmth or sympathy towards. It sounds very mean to say so, but Zola portrayed her in such a way that I really wanted to see her get her comeuppance for some of her actions (not that I wanted to see anything serious happen to her, but a bit of regret that was actually believable would have been nice!) She seemed to bring all of her misfortunes upon herself, not really planning how she will fix them. She couldn’t be redeemed, so when she fell, she fell hard. There are several shocks and twists in the novel which I won’t ruin here, but I can honestly say they kept me enthralled to the very end.

The very real problem of alcoholism plays a major part in Zola’s depiction of his town. Drink and environment serve to bludgeon and crush the human spirit and this is exactly what Zola shows with Gervaise. Her dream of living with decent people simply disappeared, and therefore she was metaphorically smashed flat. If you are looking for something exceedingly different from your average Victorian novel, for something with a little bit more controversy, for an edgy and gritty read, L’Assommoir is an excellent place to start.


2 responses to “L’Assommoir by Émile Zola

  1. […] been a while since I read any Zola (despite my best efforts to do so!) I loved L’Assommoir and his style of writing overall so, to be honest, it was inevitable how I was going to feel about […]

  2. […] depicts the events in this novel, but could also be used in reference to Zola’s novels like L’Assommoir and Thérése Raquin (see earlier reviews). The quotation is from Victor Duruy’s […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: