Study Guide

The Downfall

by Émile Zola

The Downfall Summary

Summary (Essentials of European Literature)

Corporal Jean Macquart, a sturdy French peasant, led the squad of infantry of which Private Maurice Levasseur was a member. The squad was a part of the 106th Regiment of the Seventh Corps of the French Army. A state of war existed between France and Prussia; the year was 1870. At the outset, it had been felt in France that the war would be nothing more than a quick promenade to Berlin, but shortages of equipment, the rivalry of the French commanders, and quick Prussian success made the outcome of the conflict doubtful.

Maurice, a scapegrace who had enlisted to get away from financial troubles in Paris, believed in the evolutionary necessity of war. As a member of the middle class, he loathed Jean, whose peasant common sense was unendurable to him.

Misinformation and lack of information led the leader of the Seventh Corps to order his divisions to fall back from their positions around Mulhausen, in Alsace. Defeat was in the air. Civilians, having heard that the Prussians were sweeping all before them, were fleeing westward. Demoralized, the troops threw away their packs and rifles. At Belfort, the corps entrained for Rheims, where the retreating and disorganized French forces were regrouping.

Prussian victories cost Emperor Napoleon III his command of the French armies. Napoleon, however, with his official entourage, remained with the troops. In Rheims, Maurice learned from battle veterans that the Prussians were young, healthy, well-organized, and well-equipped. He lost all hope for France when he caught sight of the sickly emperor in Rheims.

The army was ordered to march to Verdun. Mendacious ministers and journalists lulled the French forces into a false sense of security. When the troops reached the Ardennes, there were marches and countermarches, for the positions of the Prussian armies were unknown by the French commanders. Regiments became mobs as the French approached Sedan. By that time, Maurice had become reconciled to his fate, and had even grown to admire Jean, whose steadiness had kept the squad together.

Near Sedan, Maurice, Jean, and Honore, an artilleryman, rescued Honore’s father, old Fouchard, from pillaging soldiers. There, Honore also promised to marry Silvine, Fouchard’s servant, who had had a baby by Fouchard’s hired hand, Goliath. The hired man was suspected of being a Prussian spy, for at the beginning of hostilities he had disappeared from the Fouchard farm.

Sedan was a place of confusion, where men were separated from their units because there was no discipline and no organization. In the confusion, Jean and Maurice met at the house of Delaherche, a Sedan textile manufacturer, whose secretary, Weiss, was the husband of Maurice’s twin sister, Henriette. After a rest, Jean and Maurice rejoined their regiment. Napoleon III accompanied the troops to Sedan.

As the French poured into Sedan, it became evident that the Prussians were drawing a ring around the fortified town. Weiss and Delaherche went to Bazeilles, a...

(The entire section is 1236 words.)