Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1051
Gervaise is waiting all night for her lover, Lantier, to come back to their quarters in Paris. When he finally comes home, he treats her brutally and does not display the least affection toward Claude and Étienne, their two children. He stretches out on the bed and sends Gervaise off to the laundry where she works.
When she was thirteen years old, Gervaise left her country town and her family to follow Lantier; she was only fourteen years old when Étienne was born. Her family was cruel to her, but until recently Lantier treated her kindly. Gervaise knows that Lantier was under the influence of both the dram shop and of Adèle, a pretty prostitute.
Gervaise is rather pretty, but she has a slight limp which, when she is tired, becomes worse; the hard life she lives also marks her face, although she is only twenty-two. She would be perfectly happy working hard for her own home and a decent life for her children, but all she has ever known is endless hardship and insecurity.
At the laundry she finds some relief in confiding her story to Madame Boche, an older woman who becomes her friend. Suddenly the children come running in with word that Lantier has deserted the three of them to go away with Adèle and that he took with him everything they own.
Gervaise’s first thought is for her children, and she wonders what will become of them. Soon, however, she is roused to anger by the insults of Virginie, Adèle’s sister; Virginie came to the laundry for the sadistic pleasure of watching how Gervaise would take the triumph of her rival. Gervaise is quite frail and much smaller than Virginie; nevertheless, she jumps toward her, full of rage. A struggle follows, in which the two women use pieces of laundry equipment and wet clothes to beat each other. Surprisingly, Gervaise, who gives all of her strength, comes out victorious. Virginie never forgives her.
Madame Fauconnier, proprietress of a laundry, gives Gervaise work in her establishment. There she earns just enough money to provide for herself and her children. Another person interested in Gervaise is Coupeau, a roofer who knows all the circumstances of her unhappy life. He would like for her to live with him. Gervaise prefers to devote herself entirely to her two small boys; but one day, when Coupeau proposes marriage to her, she is overcome by emotion and accepts him.
The situation is not very promising at first because the couple has no money. Coupeau’s sister and brother-in-law, who are as miserly as they are prosperous, openly disapprove of his marriage. Slowly, perseverance in hard work make it possible for Coupeau and his new family to lead a decent life and even to put a little money aside. Gervaise has quite an excellent reputation as a laundress, and she often dreams of owning her own shop. A little girl, Nana, is born to the couple four years later. Gervaise resumes working soon afterward.
This good fortune, however, cannot last. While Coupeau is working on a roof, Nana diverts his attention for a split second and he falls. Gervaise, refusing to let him be taken to the hospital, insists on caring for him at home. Coupeau somehow survives, but his recovery is very slow. Worse, inactivity has a bad effect on him. He has no more ambition, not even that of supporting his family. He also goes more and more often to the dram shop.
Meanwhile, Gervaise is preparing to give up her dream of a little shop of her own when Goujet, a neighbor secretly in love with her, insists that she borrow the five hundred francs he offers her as a gesture of friendship. She opens her shop and soon has it running successfully.
Goujet’s money is never returned. Instead, the family’s debts keep progressively increasing, for Coupeau remains idle and continues drinking. Gervaise, accustomed to a few small luxuries, is not as thrifty as she once was. Actually, she still feels quite confident that she will be able soon to meet her obligations; she has a very good reputation in the whole neighborhood.
At this point, Virginie returns, pretending that she has forgotten the fight in the laundry. At first, Gervaise is a little startled to discover that her old enemy is going to be her neighbor once more. Unprejudiced, however, she has no objection to being on friendly terms with Virginie.
Then Lantier comes back. When Gervaise hears from Virginie that he deserted Adèle and is seen again in the neighborhood, Gervaise is badly frightened. However, her former lover makes no attempt to see her and she forgets her fears.
Lantier waits to make a spectacular entrance. He chooses to appear in the middle of a birthday party hosted by Gervaise. Most unexpectedly, Coupeau, who by that time is continuously drunk, invites him in. During the weeks that follow, the two men become drinking companions. Later on, Lantier suggests that he might live and board with the Coupeau family. Gervaise’s husband, in a state of degeneration, welcomes the idea.
Although the agreement is that Lantier is to pay his share of the expenses, he never keeps his promise, and Gervaise finds herself with two men to support instead of one. Furthermore, Lantier completely takes over the household and runs it as he pleases. Still a charming seducer, he is extremely popular with the women of the neighborhood.
Gervaise herself begins to degenerate. Disgusted by her husband, she cannot find the strength to refuse the embraces of her former lover. Before long her work suffers from such a state of affairs, and she eventually loses the shop. Virginie buys it and, at the same time, wins the favors of Lantier.
Meanwhile, Nana, almost grown up, is placed as an apprentice in a flower shop. When she decides to leave home for the streets, Gervaise gives up all interest in life and joins Coupeau in the dram shop. After he finally dies of delirium tremens, she tries walking the streets, but nobody will have her, wretched as she is. Goujet’s timid efforts to help her are useless. Completely worn out by all the demands that were made on her, she dies alone.