Germinie Lacerteux

by Edmond de Goncourt, Jules de Goncourt

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*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 country, where she longs to be and where, on at least two occasions, she is happy. The city, with its numerous concentric circles of walls, is a prison for Germinie and others of her kind; the countryside beyond the walls is everything the city is not—open, free, and fresh—a symbol of hope for the future.

The steep streets of Montmartre are, in the novel, as many of them remain in the twenty-first century, lined by high stone walls. The streets thus become narrow, sometimes dark tunnels that lead to the top of the butte. The final chapters of the novel contain several images of asphyxiation and choking and eventually tell how the walls in Germinie’s tiny apartment, which she never leaves in the last months of her life, weigh in and on her. In tragic logic, Germinie dies of consumption—unable to breathe. Ultimately, for Germinie Lacerteux, the streets of Montmartre lead not up to the open spaces of Clignancourt and beyond but only down the hill to the Montmartre Cemetery—where her unmarked grave lies next to a wall that borders a slope. One final cruel stroke in a sad story.

Rue de Laval

Rue de Laval. Nineteenth century Paris street that no longer exists, having been destroyed during urban renewal or absorbed into the city under another name. Mademoiselle Varandeuil moves here after all of her family members have died. She formerly lived at a much better address, in the rue Taitbout, closer to the Seine River and to the heart of Paris society. However, Mademoiselle wants to be nearer to her deceased relatives, who are buried in the Montmartre Cemetery.

For most of her life, the rue Laval is the center of Germinie’s activity. She shops here, makes friends here, becomes entangled in a number of sordid affairs, loses herself in alcoholism and addiction,...

(This entire section contains 793 words.)

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works the streets as a prostitute. As she falls lower and lower, she lies in the street’s gutters, where the rain that falls is already muddy. Indeed, even before her death, Germinie becomes earth, is earth-colored, sinking as low as one can go.


*Clignancourt (kleen-ah-KEWR). Hamlet north of Montmartre. In the novel, this is where the countryside begins, where Germinie acquires a real sense for what lies beyond the streets, the slums, and Paris’s walls. She has the same insight during a later trip to Vincennes, a forest on the eastern edge of Paris. Germinie’s story is one of ups and downs, real and metaphorical, of attempts to climb out of the streets into daylight and open spaces. For one reason or another, including her own lusts and poor judgment, she repeatedly slips down and back into the abyss of poverty and self-ruin. She never gets beyond the city’s old fortified walls, and the Goncourts make reference after reference to less spectacular but equally sinister walls that oppress Germinie throughout her life.


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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.


Critical Essays