Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 924

L’Assommoir is the seventh in a series of twenty novels written by Émile Zola about several generations of the Rougon-Macquart family. It is one of the first such generational series and is carefully shaped by the author according to his controversial ideas for a novel that would parallel, he hoped, the objective observation he admired in the natural sciences. His notion was to treat his characters something like guinea pigs in a world that he would create for them. Narrative impartiality and objectivity were paramount.

Not surprisingly, a public that had loved the romantic version of the poor offered them in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862) was outraged by the squalor that Zola describes in L’Assommoir. The raw language and the clear parallels that the author draws between his characters and barnyard animals disgusted many readers, who found such a depiction threatening to their belief that the human soul raises men and women above the frailties of their bodies. L’Assommoir also indicts readers who imagine the poor are ennobled by horrible living conditions.

Zola defended the book as the first novel about working-class people that does not lie about their daily lives. He claimed that the characters in L’Assommoir are not evil but ignorant and victimized by the crushing work that fills their days. Pointing to the collapse of Gervaise and the others, he described the novel as morality in action, implicitly teaching his readers a lesson in the consequences of alcohol, lethargy, jealousy, and irresponsibility.

Many find the novel quite painful to read, since the downfall of several of its well-meaning characters is relentless and even cruel. The narration and characterization are truly compelling, more like a classic Greek tragedy than a soap opera, and many readers find the experience one they never forget. Gervaise—with her limp, her youthfulness, her determination, her hard work, and her resilience in the face of great odds—wins over most readers, who cheer her success against Virginie and her initial financial good sense. Zola does all that can be expected of an author to offer readers a sympathetic character. This makes her destruction all the more painful. At the same time, he shows the less admirable side of her character—her self-destructive desire to please—and plots its effect in her disastrous decisions. She and Coupeau do not have enough character or self-definition to resist their environment; instead, they allow themselves to be shaped by it.

Except for the wedding party’s interesting trip to the Louvre museum, the novel takes place exclusively within a very cramped space around Montmartre cathedral in Paris. Part of Zola’s purpose in the novel is to demonstrate that the imperial grandeur that Louis Napoleon brought to Paris, the result of tearing down old tenements and replacing them with more expensive housing and broad boulevards, displaced the poorer elements of society and crowded them too closely together. The result, he shows in this novel and others of the series, is a kind of reverse evolution—a resurgence of the animal nature in his characters. The devolution accelerates under the influence of peer pressure, drunkenness, and physical abuse (the book’s title can also be translated “bludgeon”).

Zola was greatly influenced by Charles Darwin’s notion of evolution and genetic inheritance and by the social Darwinism that applied biological principles to social theory. Zola’s experiment in this novel is a demonstration of the depressing consequences of the survival of the fittest, since in the inhuman world of the nineteenth century Parisian poor, immoral characters such as Lantier and Virginie seem better suited to fight their way to victory. In later novels in the series, Zola charts the history of Gervaise’s daughter, Nana, whose prostitution brings her more raw success than her mother’s hard work and affability ever achieved. As weak as Gervaise may ultimately appear to be, however, her final decision to refuse Goujet’s love raises the melodrama to the level of tragedy. She has come to know her own limitations, and, loving Goujet as he loves her, she decides to go to her death alone rather than drag him down as well. The reader is left to decide whether the fittest deserve to survive.

Many critics consider L’Assommoir and Germinal (1885) the best of the novels in the Rougon-Macquart series because they most successfully wed Zola’s experimental techniques to his naturalism. These were the elements that Henry James so admired in Zola’s work and that influenced the American naturalists (such as Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Steven Crane, and Upton Sinclair). This is saying much, because the Rougon-Macquart series is considered the finest of his productions.

Zola was not as interested in portraying psychological states as in presenting the physical world in which his characters lived and in which their personalities took shape. In L’Assommoir, as in his other novels, the buildings, the gutters, the machines, take on an importance and prominence that had been missing in much earlier fiction. Rather than have his characters discuss the philosophy behind their existence, he “embodied” the ideas in the environment in which he placed his creations. It is of utmost importance to Zola that Gervaise and Coupeau were born in a particular place, to parents with a particular history, and that they ended up echoing each other’s characteristics in the way that—inevitably—would drag them down. Their heredity, their historical moment, and their environment determine the choices that are presented to them and determine the decisions they make in response.

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