L’Assommoir is a veritable tearjerker. The saddest women’s fiction ever.
Emile Zola, in Book #7 of his Rougon-Macquart cycle directs his Victorian male gaze on Gervaise, sister of Lisa and the female protagonist of The Belly of Paris (third book in the cycle). But Zola’s gaze, as you might expect, is neither fleeting nor superficial. His perception is filtered through the viewpoint of “literary naturalism.”
Known for approaching his writing like a social scientist who does extensive research, I can imagine him training a penetrating lens on Gervaise and dissecting her psyche before he commences to narrate her story. Is she a victim of circumstance, her personality, or fate as determined not by God but by late 1800s French society?
You can guess Gervaise’s fate from the French title of the book, L’Assommoir, which may be why some English translators preserved the original title. Others have chosen a popular meaning of the word; hence, “The Dram Shop” or “The Drinking Den.”
The Larousse French Dictionary defines “assommoir” in two ways: 1) a popular or slang usage translatable as “cheap drinks” and 2) the noun form of “assommer,” meaning “to knock out or to stun.”
“Knocked out or stunned” is what happens to Gervaise in the end:
She was very pretty, fair-haired and fresh looking at that time. Her washhouse in the Rue Neuve had chosen her as queen in spite of her leg.
Queen; yes Queen! With a crown and a sash for twenty-four hours — twice round the clock! And now oppressed by hunger, she looked on the ground, as if she were seeking for the gutter in which she had let her fallen majesty tumble
The second sense of the word works, too, though I would dispute the simplistic notion that the novel is a study of the devastating effects of alcoholism. Alcohol hastens Gervaise’s ruin and it kills Coupeau, her husband. But Zola sees beyond the alcoholism.
Zola’s intent in the novel is to trace how a young woman of modest hopes and dreams— to work quietly, always have bread and a tidy house, raise her children, not be beaten, and die in her bed—gets to the point of “seeking for the gutter” and pleading to a gravedigger to kill her and bury her.
No, it isn’t just alcohol that completes Gervaise’s destruction. It’s also
Unable to take her own wasted life, Gervaise laments that “misery did not kill quickly enough.” When her misery finally ends, she’s starving, cold and filthy in a cubbyhole under a staircase once occupied by an unfortunate old man she earlier showed compassion for.
Readers have noted similarities between Zola and Charles Dickens who also focused on the working class, but to my mind and this writer’s, Zola’s gaze is uncompromising. It’s unrelenting as well, reporting precisely what Zola has observed. And he doesn’t euphemize.
According to Mr. Ravenhill, Zola writes about characters who “crap and copulate as frequently as any real person … swore, used the slang of the streets, and had no time for moralising or philosophy.” He claims this stark reporting of reality offends British sensibilities; consequently English versions of L’Assommoir have been sanitized. We’re not hit by its full impact.
Here’s the softer Project Guttenberg version:
Tired young mothers in bedraggled skirts cuddle babies in their arms or sit on a bench to change diapers. Children run, squealing and laughing, pushing and shoving.
Then Gervaise felt herself choking, dizzy with anguish, all hopes gone; it seemed to her that everything was ended, even time itself, and that Lantier would return no more. Her eyes vacantly wandered from the old slaughter-house, foul with butchery and with stench, to the new white hospital which, through the yawning openings of its ranges of windows, disclosed the naked wards, where death was preparing to mow.
The same passage in a newer translation by Margaret Mauldon gives more detail in vivid, unsparing language truer to the original French version:
…bare-headed mothers wearing grubby skirts sat on benches rocking their long clothed babies in their arms or changing their nappies; swarms of runny-nosed , half-dressed brats lurched and crawled about, on the ground whining, laughing and crying. And then Gervaise felt she was suffocating; faint with anguish, she lost all hope, it seemed to her it was the end, their days were over, Lantier would never come back. Her vacant gaze wandered from the slaughterhouses, black with blood and stinking filth to the pale new hospital where she could see, through the yawning holes soon to be rows of windows, empty wards in which the Reaper would do his work.
Before this book, Zola had moderate success with earlier books in the cycle. “L’Assommooir” captured the interest of the French. It was an overnight sensation, ensuring the success of subsequent works.