Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 955
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 exploitation.
The story also traces Germinie’s quest for love. Her first love centers on religion. Catholicism provides a temporary outlet for her emotional needs, but her devotion is ultimately disappointed by her displaced and unrequited love for a priest. Germinie informally adopts her sister’s niece, only to experience that loss as well. She acts as a foster mother to Monsieur Jupillon, but motherly love eventually turns to obsessive, romantic love, exacerbated by jealousy. Pregnancy brings only temporary joy, since she must hide her physical state from her mistress and give away her child. The decline of Germinie’s personal circumstances is attributed to her consistently foiled attempts at love. Fate becomes a physiological imperative. Germinie’s temperament is described as lymphatic, sluggish in thought and action; she is sensitive and anxious and has a need for love and maternity.
Rather than representing the simple opposition of illusion and reality, multiple realities coexist in the character of the protagonist. Germinie embodies the victim, the ideal servant, the obsessive lover, the alcoholic, and the thief. Although the novel appears to depict a simple psychological decline, on closer examination, the positive traits typical of her younger years continue to be revealed even as she lapses into despair. The concept of a multiple personality is demonstrated by the use of mirrors: Germinie is frequently confronted with her own image in the mirror and, in the end, recoils from her own reflection.
The story depicts class issues as well as individual psychology. The Goncourts do not limit misery to the lower classes. Mademoiselle de Varandeuil, who had been tormented by a tyrannical father, shares similar experiences—but not sympathy—with Germinie. The difference in social class makes a friendship between the two women impossible. Germinie learns that class distinctions form insurmountable barriers. The Goncourts demonstrate how poverty not only makes everyday survival difficult but also limits possibilities.
Germinie’s psychological development, while played out in the artificial and corrupt atmosphere of Paris, is set against a natural backdrop. Nature’s beauty heightens her bitterness, but nature also grows more ominous. The narrator emphasizes the sameness of the road of life and the gathering night of oblivion. At the end of the novel, funereal winter reigns. There are images of enclosure and there is absence of communication. The Goncourts are conscious of the stylistic possibilities of exhausting a place through detailed description. Both painters themselves, they likened the technique of description to that of mimetic painting.
Like many naturalist novels, Germinie Lacerteux does not contain documents such as newspaper articles or court records. Instead, dialogue and thought are transcribed, with little narrative or interpretive intervention. Free indirect discourse approximates the collective voice of the audience rather than the voice of an individual narrator. The language of the novel stresses corruption and depicts a society in its death throes. At the end of society, there are no more doctrines, and there one can find unusual, prodigious, free adventurers who risk everything in art and life.
Germinie Lacerteux is recognized as one of the first novels in the naturalist tradition; the novel draws a documentary portrait based on authentic observation and a record of existing conditions. In the preface, the Goncourts repudiate any desire to titillate with the graphic subject matter. Contemporaries were, however, shocked by the clinical descriptions of Germinie’s sexuality and the realistic detail of lower class squalor. While the novel was condemned as pornography and only experienced mild popularity, Germinie Lacerteux became a model for Émile Zola and other great writers of the period.
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