The Goncourt brothers, who are associated with the naturalist school in nineteenth century French fiction, were the first to create the documentary novel. Naturalist plots are frequently based on newspaper scandals and take place in brothels, hospitals, slums, and oppressive bourgeois interiors. Certain characters recur, among them hysterical women or prostitutes brought to ruin, disenchanted intellectuals, bachelors or unhappily married men, and hypocritical merchants. Typically, there is a wide range of discourse to ensure resemblance to reality. Naturalist novels are characterized by themes of disintegration and confusion as well as by ironic treatment of political and social institutions.
Germinie Lacerteux became a paradigm of naturalist texts. The novel documents the Goncourts’ own interaction with the working class, recording the life of their maid, who had served them faithfully for years. They were shocked to learn of her life of debauchery and of her death in a workhouse. Creditors had tried to collect money she owed for liquor, and through those creditors and other townspeople the Goncourts discovered that she had squandered her money on young men. In addition to interviewing friends and coworkers, they read studies on hysteria, a diagnosis that became a blanket term for a number of symptoms in the nineteenth century. They also visited ragpickers’ huts on the edge of the city and explored the dance halls while collecting material for Germinie Lacerteux.
In earlier novels, the Goncourt brothers had presented life as a series of discontinuous tableaux, and their characters had lacked personal history and been unattached to family or society. Because the Goncourts knew their maid, Rose, well, they were able to maintain continuity of character and story line in Germinie Lacerteux. The novel begins with an exposition of Germinie’s childhood and describes the death of her parents and the hardship of poverty. A series of episodes follows, showing Germinie as a passive victim in society; the episodes include neglect by a sister, rape at fifteen, the stillbirth of a child, and her drifting from job to job before finally settling at the residence of Mademoiselle de Varandeuil. During the course of her education in life’s miseries, Germinie learns to accept hard work and to expect...
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