*Paris. City in which the entire novel is set, with a particular focus on the dregs of nineteenth century Parisian society. The plot spans a number of years, a chronology that would include, historically, a series of political and social upheavals—the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire, the restoration of the French monarchy, and several revolutions of various kinds. Germinie Lacerteux shows the extent to which the French working classes and poor suffered because of political and social instability; in particular, the novel presents characters whose lives are without hope or a future.
At the time of the novel’s action, the Paris city limits are still clearly marked by its medieval walls. This kind of enclosure is echoed as well in the “exterior boulevards,” main roads inside the walls but which encircle the city. The Goncourts make frequent reference to the city walls, the boulevards, and many other sorts of walls—literal and figurative—in order firmly to establish their key notion—that Paris’s poor and sick have no escape.
*Montmartre (mon-MAR-treh). Hill situated on the northeast outskirts of Paris that is one of the city’s highest points. Montmartre is the scene of most of what takes place in Germinie Lacerteux; it is where Germinie goes to work for Mademoiselle Varandeuil, in the rue de Laval, and it is where she dies. Germinie is buried—without an identifying marker—in the Montmartre Cemetery, halfway down the Montmartre butte.
In the novel, and well into the twentieth century, Montmartre was a transitional area. In some senses, Montmartre was still part of the countryside, but Paris was encroaching, in the form of industry, homes, businesses, taverns, and prostitution. Ironically, the section in which Germinie lives and dies represents the city streets, which to some extent kill her, and the...
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