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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1605

First published: La Debacle, 1892 (English translation, 1892)

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social criticism

Time of work: 1870-1871

Locale: France

Principal Characters:

Maurice Levasseur, a private in the French Army

Jean Macquart, his corporal

Delaherche, a textile manufacturer

Weiss, his secretary

Henriette, the twin sister of Maurice and the wife of Weiss

Fouchard, a shrewd farmer

Honore, his son

Silvine, Fouchard’s servant

The Story:

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 village near Sedan, to check the safety of property which they owned there. Weiss, caught in a battle which took place in the village, joined the French forces against the Prussians. Delaherche hastened back to Sedan. Meanwhile, Maurice experienced his first artillery barrage.

At Bazeilles the Prussians closed in on inferior French forces. Weiss, in his house, was joined by a small group of French soldiers and one civilian to make a last-ditch stand. Weiss was captured by the Prussians, and they prepared him to be shot. Henriette appeared, and despite her plea to be shot with her husband, she was pushed aside while the Prussians shot Weiss. Nearly out of her mind with grief, Henriette wandered about the field where the battle was still raging.

The 106th Regiment was decimated in a futile attempt to retake a strategic hill. When Jean was wounded, Maurice carried him to safety. Honore Fouchard was killed at his gun. Napoleon had a white flag raised over a city roof, but it was torn down. Delaherche’s factory was converted into a hospital, soon overflowing with wounded French soldiers. Napoleon sent General Reille to the Prussians with a letter of capitulation.

Maurice, Jean, and several survivors of the 106th Regiment made their way into Sedan, where Maurice met Henriette and learned of Weiss’s gallant death. They were engaged in a fight with Prussian Guards commanded by an officer whom Maurice recognized to be his cousin Gunther. Henriette kept Maurice from shooting Gunther.

By nightfall all had become silent except for the turmoil created by the movement of thousands of French troops into Sedan. The French were forced to accept the demands of Bismarck and Von Moltke.

The next day, Silvine went out to the battlefield and recovered the body of Honore. Henriette learned that Weiss’s body had been consumed in fires started by the Prussians at Bazeilles.

The surrendered French soldiers were herded together to await deportation to Germany. A few French officers who promised never to take up arms again were released. In the camp men were murdered for filthy scraps of bread and spoiled horseflesh. Maurice, who no longer believed in anything, nearly lost control of himself. Jean, a cool veteran of previous campaigns, placed himself and Maurice among soldiers of a regiment leaving for Germany. At a stop along the way, Jean procured civilian clothes from a sympathetic French girl who was selling bread. The pair changed quickly inside a tent and escaped into a forest. When they came to a Prussian outpost, Jean was wounded by rifle fire, but they managed to escape and made their way back to old Fouchard’s farm, where they found Henriette. Maurice went on to aid in the defense of Paris; Jean remained with Fouchard to be nursed back to health by Henriette.

The proclamation of the Second Republic was followed by the capitulation of Marshal Bazaine at Metz. Paris was invaded by the Prussians while frantic attempts were made to organize new French armies in other parts of France.

Goliath, employed by the Prussians as a spy around Sedan, came to Silvine seeking her good graces. Upon her refusal, he threatened to expose Fouchard’s connection with French partisans. When Goliath returned for his answer, two of the partisans, assisted by Silvine, killed him.

In Sedan, Delaherche became friendly with Prussian Captain Von Gartlauben, who was billeted in the Delaherche house; he found the captain’s friendship to be most advantageous in the matter of reestablishing his textile works.

Jean was well again and joined the Army of the North. Meanwhile, Maurice took part in the defense of Paris. Sick of the Republic, he deserted after the capitulation of Paris and took a room near the boulevards. When the Commune took command in Paris and civil war broke out, Maurice joined the forces of the Commune to fight against the Republican forces, of which Jean’s regiment was a part. The insurrectionists fired the city as they were pushed back. Maurice was bayoneted by Jean during night fighting in the streets. Jean disguised Maurice as a Republican soldier and took him to Maurice’s lodgings, where Henriette, who had come to Paris to seek Maurice, was waiting. There Maurice passed the crisis safely, but a later hemorrhage killed him. Jean was brokenhearted at having been the cause of his friend’s death. He told Henriette good-bye, with the feeling that here was a pinpoint of the desolation all France must know.

Critical Evaluation:

THE DOWNFALL is a part of Émile Zola’s compendious social ledger chronicling the fortunes of the Rougon-Macquart family in France during the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870). This work, like others by Zola, is an excellent historical-social document; it documents the social and intellectual proclivities of one articulate Frenchman in a way that only literature can.

In THE DOWNFALL, Zola angrily indicted the pompous and decadent posturings of French society, particularly the imperial court and the upper officer corps. He described an army top-heavy with sallow, aging, and porcine officers who suffered the collective delusion that the French military was as powerfully energetic and capable as it had been throughout the nineteenth century. The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) quickly shattered that myth. Zola made an incisive comparison between the two armies when he described the wizened appearance of the French emperor and that of the young Prussian faces marching toward Paris.

Zola was militantly nonmilitant. When he wrote this book, he saw a revival of the same kind of militarism which led to the Franco-Prussian war. By 1890, military circles in France, particularly the dashing General Georges-Ernest-Jean-Marie Boulanger, had gained a zealous following devoted to his program of revenge against Germany and the reclamation of Alsace-Lorraine, provinces taken from the French by the Germans in 1870. In Zola’s mind, such sentiments were folly. The key problems begging the attention of the French nation lay within French boundaries, not outside them.

As Honore de Balzac hoped to show in his novels, France had to marshal its forces to remedy the many social ills of the Third French Republic. France needed effective social legislation aimed at easing the plight of the urban working classes. THE DOWNFALL, like Zola’s other novels, expressed his sincere concern for the plight of France’s social outcasts.

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