*La Beauce (lah bohz). Extensive flat plains of central France that have historically been the country’s bread basket. The finery and wealth of its main cities, especially Chartres, Châteaudun, and Orléans, which Zola describes only occasionally, are based on a higher level of commerce, which entails a variety of associated professionals, such as lawyers and notaries. This novel reflects a different reality, one of extreme simplicity in village life and family relations that make Chartres seem distant.
Zola underlines the monotony of the Beauce plains by describing the main (indeed only) road connecting Châteaudun and Orléans as straight and flat, visible at a distance only because of its neighboring line of telegraph poles. Villages are “islands of stone,” whose only identifying marks emerging out of the wheat fields are church steeples. A few windmills, clearly important for agricultural work at harvest time, break the monotony of the flat horizon, but remain practically immobile most of the year.
Rognes (rohn). Beauce village that is the primary setting for this story of peasant family life and labors. Zola modeled Rognes on the real village of Romilly-sur-Aigre, located four kilometers east of the larger town of Cloyes. The area surrounding Rognes does not offer the same guarantees of soil fertility found in the heartland of the Beauce region. Inferior fertility earns it a separate designation in the popular mind as the “lice-ridden” Beauce.
Zola portrays Rognes itself in terms that suggest sparseness. From the distance, only a few peaks of houses appear at the base of the village church, whose gray stone clock tower provides shelter for several “families of very old crows,” a hint that the village has little attraction for younger inhabitants. A notable exception to this bleakness occurs in the early fall when, during the harvest season, the whole village reeks of grapes, and a week of gaiety and open drunkenness accompanies the opening of the previous year’s new wine. Here images of Dutch Renaissance paintings of peasant debauchery are clearly meant to reappear in the fields around Rognes.
*L’Aigre (laygr). Small river that runs through Rognes, carving out a narrow valley that forms a dividing line between the distinct regions of the Perche and the plains of the Beauce. Away from the village, the fields on both sides of the river offer Zola many scenes of peasant activities, especially in the season of the grain harvest, when the wheat crop resembles a yellow moving sea, upon which the ribbon of the Aigre seems to float.
*Chartres (shart). Town that is the site of one of France’s most famous medieval cathedrals, located on the majestic Eure River. Chartres stands in stark contrast to the villages depicted in the novel. Some lesser figures in the village setting, such as Madame Charles, find themselves transplanted from Chartres to the countryside as a consequence of marriage. Madame Charles seeks any opportunity she can find to revisit the quaint Chartres streets of her youth, with their memories of sophisticated facades, mahogany furnishings in mirrored salons, and hints of the perfumed atmosphere of city life.
*Le Perche (leh persh). Pastoral region north of the Beauce. Although adjacent to the plains of the Beauce, the soils of the Perche are quite different. The cereal crops that have always guaranteed the prosperity of regional cities like Chartres give way to rich pasture lands ideal for animal grazing. As a result, the very appearance of villages in the Perche is distinct, surrounded by groupings of highly valued horses whose name, “percherons,” recalls their native fields.
Bazoches-le-Doyen (bah-ZOSH-leh-dwa-YAN). First village on the side of Rognes opening to the plains of the Beauce. Although most of the novel’s...
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- Critical Essays