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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1277

As Jean Macquart finishes sowing each furrow with grain, he pauses and gazes over the wide, rich plain. As far as he can see, farmers are scattering their wheat, anxious to finish sowing before the frosts come. He meets and talks with Françoise about the coming division of old Fouan’s...

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As Jean Macquart finishes sowing each furrow with grain, he pauses and gazes over the wide, rich plain. As far as he can see, farmers are scattering their wheat, anxious to finish sowing before the frosts come. He meets and talks with Françoise about the coming division of old Fouan’s property among his sons and son-in-law. In the notary’s office, plans for the division are being discussed with anger. Fouan cannot bear to lose the land that took all of his strength to work and that he loved more passionately than his wife. The rent and food he asks in return for his property seem excessive to his children, who, now that the land is within their grasp, intend to keep as much of its yield as possible. Buteau declares that the old man has money saved in bonds. This claim so enrages Fouan that he exhibits some of his old ferocity and authority. Finally, the notary completes the transaction and arranges for the surveyor to divide the land.

Buteau draws the third lot of land. He declares that it is the worst and refuses to take that part of the property. His refusal distresses Lise, Françoise’s sister, for Buteau is her lover and she is pregnant. She hoped that when he obtained the land he would marry her.

Old Mouche, the father of Lise and Françoise, has a stroke and dies in his home. As the village women watch by his deathbed, a violent hailstorm lays waste the village crops. The peasants examine the damage by lamplight, their animosities forgotten in their common anguish at this devastation. Lise and Françoise stay in the house after their father’s death. Lise’s son is born and still Buteau does not marry her. Jean becomes a constant visitor in the household. Believing that he is attracted by Lise, he proposes to her. Before accepting him, she decides to consult Buteau because of the child. At the autumn haymaking, Jean and Françoise work together. While the girl stands atop the growing rick, Jean forks up bales of hay to her. She is flushed and laughing, and Jean finds himself violently attracted to her. Because he is years older than Françoise, he is greatly upset when he suddenly realizes that it is she who drew him to the house and not Lise.

Jean and the sisters meet Buteau at the market in Cloyes. Because Lise now has property of her own and because he at last accepted his share of land, Buteau decides to marry Lise. Buteau is now delighted by the land, and he plows and sows with vigor and passion, determined never to relinquish one inch of the earth. As the wheat grows, its rolling greenness covers La Beauce like an ocean. Buteau watches the weather as anxiously as a sailor at sea. Although Françoise wishes to have her share of the land decided, Buteau manages to avoid a final settlement.

When Fouan’s older son, nicknamed Jésus-Christ, takes to buying brandy with the money that Buteau grudgingly gave his parents as their allowance, Buteau is so infuriated that he strikes his mother to the floor. Rose does not recover, and she dies three days later. That leaves Fouan completely alone. Finally, much against his will, he decides to make his home with Delhomme, his son-in-law.

By harvest time, the green sea of wheat turns to a fiery gold, and the whole village works at the harvest. Meanwhile, Jean is tormented by his desire for Françoise. Finally, exhausted by her struggle to resist his attentions, she yields to him. Buteau, fearing he might lose both the girl and her land, asserts that they can never be married while Françoise is under age.

Fouan is bullied and restricted in Delhomme’s home; he has no money for tobacco, and he is allowed little wine. Completely miserable, he goes to live with Buteau and Lise. There he is appalled by Buteau’s pursuit of Françoise, whose resistance makes Buteau so angry that even Lise expresses the wish that her sister would surrender in order to have peace once more in the household. Françoise, however, continues proudly to refuse Buteau, and she is gradually transformed into a domestic drudge.

In desperation, Françoise agrees to marry Jean when she is of age. Fouan, drawn into these household quarrels, is no happier than he was with Delhomme. At last, because Buteau and his wife begrudge every mouthful of food that he eats, he accepts Jésus-Christ’s offer of a home. Jésus-Christ was the only one of Fouan’s children without a passion for land. Although it distresses Fouan to see his hard-won acres go to buy brandy for Jésus-Christ, he enjoys the jokes and the occasional excellent meals cooked in the nearly ruined house by Jésus-Christ’s illegitimate daughter.

Before the time of the vintage, Jésus-Christ discovers that his father is spending his bonds on an annuity by which he hopes to acquire some land of his own once more. Amazed, first Fanny and then Buteau try to bribe the old man to return to them. Fouan’s relationship with Jésus-Christ is never close again after the discovery.

After a final explosion with Lise, Françoise leaves the house and goes to live with her aunt. It is arranged that she should soon marry Jean and claim her full share of the property. The ill will between the sisters intensifies when the land is divided and Françoise secures the house at auction. Buteau and Lise move to an adjacent house, where Fouan joins them, fearing that Jésus-Christ will steal his bonds.

Jean and Buteau are forced to work side by side in the fields. One day, while Jean is fertilizing the earth, Lise tells Buteau that Fouan suffered a stroke and that she will bring the doctor. To everyone’s surprise, the old man recovers. During his illness, however, Lise discovers his bonds. When she refuses to return them, he leaves.

Homeless and desperate, Fouan wanders to Delhomme’s farm, where he stays wearily looking into the house. Next, he goes to Jésus-Christ’s hovel, but fear and pride again prevent him from entering. That night, during a terrible storm, Fouan, wretched and exhausted, drags himself around to look once more at the land he owned. Finally his hunger becomes so great that he returns to Buteau, who jeeringly feeds him.

Françoise is pregnant. Enraged by the fear that the property might not revert to him and by the fact that Jean’s plow cut into their land, Buteau, aided by Lise, rapes Françoise. With revulsion, the young woman realizes that she always loved him. In her jealousy, Lise knocks Françoise against a scythe in the field, and the blade pierces her abdomen. As she lies dying, Françoise refuses to will her share of the farm to Jean; although he is her husband, she still regards him as an outsider. After her death, Jean is evicted from the land.

Greedy for more money and terrified that the old man will betray the manner of Françoise’s death, Lise and Buteau murder Fouan by smothering him with a pillow and then setting fire to his bed. Jean Macquart, having no further ties with La Beauce, decides to become a soldier again. After a final tour of the land, he leaves the region forever. He reasons that if he cannot cultivate the land, he will at least be able to defend the earth of France.

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