L’Assommoir by Emile Zola

ZolaFrom Amazon: L’Assommoir (1877) is the story of a woman’s struggle for happiness in working-class Paris. At the center of the story stands Gervaise, who starts her own laundry and for a time makes a success of it. But her husband soon squanders her earnings in the Assommoir, a local drinking spot, and gradually the pair sink into poverty and squalor. L’Assommoir was a contemporary bestseller, outraged conservative critics, and launched a passionate debate about the legitimate scope of modern literature.

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I decided to read L’Assommoir because I recently finished The Painting Girls, in which the staging of Zola’s L’Assommoir plays a role. And the subject of alcoholism fits in with Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which I just finished reading.

So now I am finished with L’Assommoir. My first reaction: So what? Of course that’s not really an acceptable reaction, is it?!

Zola is the most prominent writer of the naturalist literature of the 19th century. The term naturalism describes a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings, whose characters are inescapably shaped by social conditions, heredity, and environment. Maybe I need to read the entire cycle of Les Rougon-Macquart novels to fully grasp Zola’s concept, especially the heredity aspect. But even reading L’Assommoir by itself, I can see his point of how social conditions and environment influence the protagonists.

The one thing Zola does very well in this novel is outline how people slowly become immune to circumstances that at one point were unacceptable to them. For example, at the beginning, Gervaise is very much against drinking alcohol. She is disgusted by the people she sees passed out in the gutter. Coupeau as well does not drink much. But as the years pass, and things are going well, Gervaise starts to have a glass of wine with dinner and Coupeau sees no harm in stopping by a wine store with a friend. Once they have lost their initial reluctance, it becomes easier and easier for them to slowly step over a boundary that used to be insurmountable. And after that first step, it’s easy to keep going. It is almost frightening to see the emotional detachment with which Gervaise ultimately regards Coupeau when she sees him passed out in the gutter.

The same slow decline can be seen in Gervaise’s behavior towards her former lover when he returns to the neighborhood, her work ethic, and her attitude towards money. While she was frugal and hard-working in the beginning, her husband’s laziness and her neighbors’ easy attitude towards borrowing money and buying on credit spreads to Gervaise. Her surroundings make her forget the goals and dreams she had when she first met Coupeau. In the end, Gervaise gets sucked back into poverty, until it fully consumes her.

Zola’s naturalist approach also becomes very clear when he describes Coupeau’s physical decline. Coupeau spends his last days at the hospital, having lost almost all control over his body. While reading that part, I felt like the doctor who observed Coupeau’s physical and mental state. It is all very clinical, with very little emotional involvement.

And that I think is the problem I had: I felt very little emotional involvement while reading. I simply didn’t care too much for Gervaise or any of the other characters. There were parts where I shook my head at her poor choices and other parts where I felt sorry for her, but overall, it had very little impact on me. I can understand how this novel stunned and outraged contemporary readers, but it just didn’t do it for me.

With all this being said, I still want to read Zola’s Nana fairly soon, just to see what happens to her. But since I have now read two books in a row that have dealt with the bleak subject of alcoholism, I am twisting this book string a little bit towards a lighter read. So I picked Susan Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Like L’Assommoir, that book takes place in Paris. Apparently, Auguste Renoir was goaded by Emile Zola’s negative criticism when he created the painting that gives Vreeland’s novel its name. I then plan to stay in Paris to read The Paris Wife and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald for Jazz Age January hosted by Books Speak Volumes and also The Paris Architect, which is on one of my reading challenges for 2014. It all looks pretty neat right now, doesn’t it?

Have a wonderful Christmas! Happy Holidays!

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4 comments

  1. I just finished the book and had the same detached feeling…no real .emotional involvement and just accepted it at face value. The only character I felt some sympathy for was Goujet. There were many sections of the book I felt Zola used as ‘filler’. Epic descriptions about trivial matters….

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