(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In L’Assommoir, Auguste Lantier brings his wife, Gervaise, and two young sons, Claude and Étienne, from the country to a working-class neighborhood in Paris. Almost as soon as they arrive in the city, the couple quarrels, and the indolent Lantier leaves Gervaise for another woman, abandoning them in a squalid hotel with wretched and greasy furniture. With few friends, Gervaise must make her way on the streets of Paris, where she finally takes a low-paying job as a laundress in a neighborhood laundry.

Gervaise’s future looks hopeless until she meets and marries Coupeau, a zinc worker with whom she has a daughter, Nana. The lazy and greedy Coupeau turns out to be little better than Lantier, for he gambles constantly, often stealing money from Gervaise to pay his debts.

In spite of these obstacles, Gervaise is able to save enough money to open her own laundry and achieve some measure of prosperity. Neighborhood women begin to look up to her, and suddenly it appears that she and her family will be able to survive with some measure of dignity and wealth in Paris.

Gervaise’s momentary happiness comes crashing down around her when Coupeau falls off a roof, injuring himself so badly that he cannot work again. Thus begins his life of idleness and alcoholism. He begins to frequent the bar—L’Assommoir—that lends this novel its title. At the center of the bar stands a gigantic still, a powerful and inhuman machine that sucks life from those around it. Coupeau cannot control the attraction...

(The entire section is 627 words.)