Reading Zola | L’Assommoir an introduction

Reading Zola in April with Fanda @Classiclit has become a tradition and a treat; something I look forward to every year. Zola’s Paris novels in particular, fascinate me.

Zola was the master of detail.

Between lived experience and strenuous research, Zola immerses his readers into the life and times of his Rougon-Macquart characters. Zola not only lived in the area of Paris that he situates his characters in for L’Assommoir, he also wrote copious notes about the streets and businesses to be found in the area while relying on working class dictionaries of the time to help him get the slang just right [Alfred Delvau’s Dictionnaire de la langue verte (1866) and Denis Poulot’s La Question sociale; Le Sublime, ou Le Travailleur comme il est en 1870 et ce qu’il peut être, (1870)].

Given how many historic novels and histories I have read about Paris over the years, I thought that there was nothing new for me to learn (she says facetiously)!

The early action in L’Assommoir takes place during the summer months of 1850 in the area just outside the octroi wall that surrounded Paris, at the foot of Montmartre. What?

I hope I’m not the only one going octroi? What on earth is that? A wall around Paris? Really! And how did I not realise that once upon a time Montmartre was not really Paris, but an outlier village all on it’s own?

My one brief visit to Paris in 1991 was never going to fill in the many gaps I have re Parisian history, and obviously all that reading I have done since, hasn’t really explained things in a way for me to grasp these [basic] facts. Victor Hugo provides an overwhelming amount of detail in Les Miserables, but by the time his characters got to Paris, I was running out of steam, and let much of those chapters about barricades and street fighting wash over me.

Previous Zola’s have been in other areas of Paris – Les Halles food market during 1858 (in The Belly of Paris) and the Bois de Boulogne area during the Haussmannisation of Paris during the mid-1860’s in La Curee. In L’Assommoir, Zola takes us back in time before Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s public works program had begun.

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, won the first presidential elections ever held in France, on 10 December 1848. He immediately set out to modernise Paris.

But by the end of his first (and only) term as president (the Constitution only allowed for one term), his plans for modernisation were moving too slowly. He staged a coup d’état with the help of the army and declared himself Emperor Napoléon III. It was at this point that Haussmann came onto the scene. His brief was to ‘aérer, unifier, et embellir‘ (ventilate, unify and beautify) Paris.

Paris is the heart of France. Let us apply our efforts to embellishing this great city. Let us open new streets, make the working class quarters, which lack air and light, more healthy, and let the beneficial sunlight reach everywhere within our walls.

Napoléon III
Aristide-Michel Perrot (1793–1879) cartographer 

In 1850, the area at the bottom of Montmatre was working class, over-crowded and filthy. And on the outside of the Octroi.

During the reign of Louis XVI, the fermiers généraux were in charge of collecting taxes for the king. They suggested he should build a wall around Paris to make it easier to collect taxes on produce coming into Paris. The wall was to be 24 kilometers long with 55 entrance gates. Octroi was the name of this particular tax. Incidentally, the fermiers généraux became very rich. They were influential patrons of art and music and connoisseurs of luxury items such as fashion, jewellery and home furnishings.

The wall was designed and built between 1784-1791 by architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1743-1794) who had the propylaea of Ancient Greece in mind when designing the monumental gateways placed at each entrance. The wall was about 2m high and encircled Paris at a distance of about 5km from the centre. Building was not permitted within 11m of the interior of the wall. The wall was bordered on the outside by a boulevard, and on the inside by a chemin de ronde (a raised protected walkway).

I read somewhere that evading the tax by jumping over the wall became a common practice…which lead to the sport of pole vaulting!

Barrière d’Enfer, otherwise known as the Barrier from Hell

In 1846 the 33km long Thiers wall was built a little further out purely with fortification of the city in mind (it included 94 defensive bastion forts, 17 entrance gates plus numerous smaller gates for locals). The octroi, or farmers general wall was demolished in the 1860’s as part of the Haussmannisation project, although some of the gates remain to this day. The boundaries of Paris were pushed out to meet the Thiers wall instead, when the number of arrondissements increased from twelve to the present day twenty.

In L’Assommoir, Gervaise Macquart, with her two young children, Claude and Étienne lived near one of the entrance gates, the Barrière Poissonnière.

The hotel stood on the Boulevard de la Chapelle, to the left of the Barrière Poissonnière. It was a ramshackle two-storey building, painted reddish purple up to the second floor, its shutters rotted by the rain….[Gervaise] looked to the right, towards the Boulevard de Rochechouart, where butchers in bloodstained aprons were standing about in groups in front of the slaughterhouses….To the left her eyes followed a long stretch of avenue and came to rest almost opposite, at the white mass of the Lariboisière hospital, then still being built. Slowly, from one end of the horizon to the other, her gaze followed the boundary wall, behind which, at night, she sometimes heard the screams of people being murdered.

Those on the other side of the wall (where the Lariboisière hospital was being built) generally called it the Telegraph barrier, as it was the gateway to the Chappe telegraph on the bell tower of the Church of Saint-Pierre de Montmartre.

June Days, 1848 | Charles-François-Édouard de Beaumont (1821-1888)

The Poissonnière barrier was the scene of fighting in June 1848 between workers from the building, metalworking, transport and clothing trades, who barricaded themselves inside the building against the Second Republic troops. Sadly for the workers, these revolutions (the June and earlier February one that resulted in the abdication of King Louis Philippe) only increased the power of the bourgeoise at the expense of the working class.

…her gaze kept returning to the Barrière Poissonnière, and she craned her neck, becoming slightly dizzy as she watched an endless stream of men, horses, and carts flowing down from the heights of Montmartre and La Chapelle through the two squat tollbooths.

I found a few more images of the neighbouring Saint-Denis barrier (also called the La Chapelle barrier). They show how rural this part of Paris still was well into the mid 1800’s. According to the notes in my OUP edition translated by Brian Nelson, these areas were ‘independent communes…outside the administrative boundary of Paris‘.

I have learnt a lot in just one chapter. And thanks to the research binge it stimulated I can now picture where Gervaise is living and what she sees when she is out walking. For that is where the power of this story lies – a story about working class people narrated by a working class character, using the language of the working class. Zola’s vivid, precise descriptions bring Gervaise and her world into sharp focus, allowing us to empathise with her situation. It becomes almost impossible to ignore or look away when, as Atticus Finch so famously said, “you climb into [her] skin and walk around in it”. Zola was hoping that some of his bourgeois readers would learn to see what he had seen.

Curiously, this incredible realism was described as ‘filth’ and ‘pornographic’ by many of his contemporaries. This controversy however, helped make L’Assommoir a popular success. In defence Zola says in his 1877 Preface, “my characters are not bad, but only ignorant and brought low by the conditions of sweated toil and poverty.”

Time to go and tackle chapter two! I promise not to write a post for every chapter 😀

Her vacant gaze wandered from the old slaughterhouses, black and stinking of blood, to the pale new hospital where, through the gaping holes soon to be rows of windows, she could see empty wards where death would come to claim its victims. She was dazzled by the brilliance of the sky opposite, behind the boundary wall, as the sun rose higher and higher over the vast awakening of Paris.

1831 Abattoir Slaughterhouse Montmartre

My Zola Bibliofile:

This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

8 thoughts on “Reading Zola | L’Assommoir an introduction

  1. As always, a great post of a comprehensive reading, Brona!
    I didn’t even remember reading about the Barrière Poissonnière. But learning about these things is the best way to read (and admire) Zola’s novels, as we (try) to see what he saw. You made me wanting to re-read L’Assommoir!

    P.S. I don’t mind reading your post for every chapter! 😛


    1. I’m noticing more in this novel so far, than his previous ones, how we see things through Gervaise’s eyes – from what she sees looking at the window, as she’s walking along the street, in the wash house etc. It feels very immediate and tangible.

      Chapter two has been Gervaise and Coupeau getting to know each other, although I’m keen to find a picture of the still that fascinates Gervaise in the l’assommoir. It is one of those instances where Zola gives a machine human qualities.


  2. I’ve never read any of Zola’s fiction, but back in High School, I was a member of our speech contest team, and my piece was reading his speech about Dryfus (a Jewish soldier wrongly accused of treason). It was beautifully written… I have a copy of Germinal on my shelf, though.


    1. Zola’s Dreyfus speech is very famous – he was forced to flee to England for a time afterwards.
      Germinal was my first Zola and is agreat place to start – it’s incredibly powerful and certainly one of my favourite Zola’s to date.

      Liked by 1 person

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