Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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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(Great Characters in Literature)

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard Trask. New York: Doubleday, 1953. Discusses the Goncourts as representatives of the naturalist school.

Baldick, Robert. The Goncourts. London: Bowes, 1960. A brief but excellent survey of the Goncourts’ novels. Concentrates on biographical background to the novels. Also explores major themes and aspects of the Goncourts’ literary style. Cites Germinie Lacerteux as the precursor to the naturalist movement because the work concentrates on the lower classes. Asserts that the work served as a model for the Goncourts’ own later novels.

Billy, Andre. The Goncourt Brothers. Translated by Margaret Shaw. New York: Horizon Press, 1960. The standard biography of the Goncourts. Elucidates events from which the novels emerged. Also furnishes contemporary reaction to their novels.

Grant, Richard B. The Goncourt Brothers. New York: Twayne, 1972. Survey of the life and works of Jules and Edmond de Goncourt. Ordered chronologically, the book carefully integrates the lives of the authors with detailed stylistic and thematic analysis of all of their novels.

Nelson, Brian, ed. Naturalism in the European Novel: New Critical Perspectives. New York: Berg, 1992. Essays on the naturalist school in England, France, Germany, and Spain. Includes important discussions of the Goncourts’ role in the literary development of social documentary.