Though the novels of the Rougon-Macquart cycle all share common features, each nonetheless posesses one or more aspects which make the individual novel unique in the cycle. For one thing, Zola's style evolved over time, though he was already a mature novelist with Therése Raquin (1867) under his belt before commencing the Rougon-Macquart cycle. But more than any personal stylistic drift, Zola intentionally populated the cycle with several different types of novels. Journalist, idealist, polemicist that he was, Zola was pre-eminently an artist, one of great ability.Thus,
It is absolutely NOT necessary to read the series in the order Zola wrote it! In fact, that would be a mistake! While all the novels are well worth reading, some are, inevitably, better than others. The best way to get started is to read one that is exciting (L'Assomoir, Germinal, La bête humaine) or sexy (Pot-bouille) or one that deals with one of your own interests (La bonheur des dames - a department store, La bête humaine - trains) and then browse among the rest as the fancy takes you. The plot of each is self-contained, and while there is some interest in knowing who was the mother or father of the main character, the novels are psychologically complete in themselves as well. If you can't get far with a particularly dense one, such as L'Oeuvre, leave it for the time being and try another rather than plodding on resentfully. The Rougon-Macquart is so immense a banquet that if one dish doesn't please you, many others surely will.
¡¡ Spoiler - Spoiler - Spoiler !!
Here are synopses for the Rougon-Macquart novels I have read. Reading these synopses may spoil the plot for the new reader! The interpretations and opinions here are solely the responsibility of the author of this web page. I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies which may be found herein, some of which may arise in attempting to prevent the synopses from spoiling the plot.
Please note that titles of translations vary. Many I have not seen in translation so have translated the titles on my own.
If a title below is hyperlinked, it is linked to an online EText of the volume in question. Note: These links are now dated. Specifically, all the Rougon-Macquart novels are available online in French.
|Rougons and Macquarts who
fortune des Rougon (The Fortunes of the
Pierre Rougon, Ursula and Antoine Macquart.
Eugéne, Aristide, Pascal, Sidonie, Marthe Rougon
Jean, Lisa, Gervaise Macquart.
François, Heléne, Silvére Mouret.
Adelaïde Fouque of Plassans in south-central France is
heiress of a bourgeois family but marries a prosperous
peasant Rougon, who is her gardener. She has a son (Pierre
Rougon) by him. When Rougon dies, Adelaïde takes up
with a smuggler named Macquart, by whom she has an
illegitimate son and daughter (Antoine and Ursule
Prone to mental illness (today she might be diagnosed bipolar and paranoid schizophrenic) and given to careless, distracted, abandoned behavior, Adelaïde haphazardly raises all three children together, ignoring them for the most part. She remains deaf to the disapprobation of her community which is scandalized by her ongoing obsessive relationship with her ne'er-do-well alcoholic lover. Her children grow and marry, but Adelaïde becomes suspicious, withdrawn and sometimes catatonic after of the death of her lover at the hands of the gendarmes. She moves from her spacious home into the hovel of the deceased Macquart where she lives with her young grandson by Ursule, Silvére Mouret. As time passes, Adelaïde grows more withdrawn into mental illness and is offhandedly referred to by her extended family as "Tante Dide" (Aunt Dee). As fate and Zola would have it, by the end of the series, Tante Dide has outlived many of her descendants.
The action of The Fortunes of the Rougon Family begins at the dawn of the Second Empire, but large sections of the book are retrospective, taking us from the late 1700's when Adelaïde was born up to the literary present of the series, the period 1851-1870. It takes place in Plassans, a fictional region of provincial south-central France.
Zola's twenty-volume chronicle of the lives of Adelaïde's children and grandchildren (and eventually great-grandchildren) of the Rougons and Macquarts (and family branches-by-marriage such as Mourets, Quenus, Coupeaus, Lantiers) commences against the backdrop of the Napoléonic wars, the Restoration, the Second Republic, and the Second Empire. The focus is on Pierre Rougon and his Machiavellian wife Felicité as they plan to advance their fortunes at the time of the coup d'etat. In this they are constantly harried by importunate scheming of Pierre's half-brother, Antoine Macquart, whom Pierre has cheated out of his inheritance. Love interest is provided by the 17-year-old son of Ursule Macquart Mouret, Silvére Mouret, who is awakening to woman and to patriotism and is swept up in the worker-peasant rising for the Republic and against Louis Bonaparte (Napoléon III) at the time of the latter's 1851 coup.
In The Fortunes of the Rougon Family we are introduced to many of the characters who will figure in the nineteen remaining books, notably including Pierre Rougon's son Pascal, a medical doctor who appears in several of the novels and who is the hero of the eponymous Le doctor Pascal (Doctor Pascal) with which Zola wrapped up the Rougon-Macquart series in 1893. Of particular interest is Gervaise Macquart, perhaps Zola's most striking female character, whose rise and fall is detailed in L'assomoir (The Dram Shop), and who was not mentioned in the original edition of La fortune des Rougon. Zola later rewrote and republished certain passages of La fortune des Rougon in order to work Gervaise into the cycle.
|La curée (The Contest for the Spoils)
Eugéne, Maxime, Charles Saccard (Rougon).
|The coup d'etat has
established Pierre and Felicité's son Eugéne
as a minister of the Second Empire. Another son, Aristide
Rougon, joins his brother in Paris to make his own fortune.
But Eugéne, recognizing his brother's character
flaws, in particular, an obsession with getting rich quick
only in order to spend without limit, insists that Aristide
operate under an assumed name; Aristide choses the surname
"Saccard" by which he is known for the rest of the
Engaging in land swindles at the municipal level as Emperor Napoléon III condemns and rebuilds much of central Paris, Aristide becomes wealthy, at least on paper, with a trophy wife and a palatial home built in monumental bad taste. Aristide's ups and downs in finance and in love provide the plot material of the novel; his many rises and falls on both scores will figure again later in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, notably in L'argent (Money).
La curée represents Zola's gleefully savage caricature of the middle-class opportunists who were the core constituency of the Second Empire, depicting them in pursuit of the curée, which is what the French call the spoils of hunt left to be torn apart by the pack of hunting dogs.
|Le ventre de
Paris (The Belly of Paris or The Fat and The
Aristide Saccard (Rougon).
|The year is 1856. Lisa
Macquart has married the docile bourgeois Quenu, a
charcutier. (A charcuterie is a hot-cuts
place, the way a delicatessen is a cold-cuts place). She
appreciates the security after growing up starving with a
drunken mother and father. But Florian, Quenu's brother,
who was sent to Devil's Island in the aftermath of the
working-class rising against Napoléon III's coup
d'etat, has escaped and returned to France.
Le ventre de Paris is set against the colorful and flavorful backdrop of Les Halles, the vast, multi-acre roofed but open-walled meat and produce market which was erected in north-central Paris under the Second Empire to improve food distribution to the capital city. (I visited the last remaining blocks of Les Halles before they were torn down for urban renovation in the 1970's.)
Otherworldly, idealistic, unselfish and priestly as his dedication to revolution against the Second Empire has made him, Florian nevertheless represents a threat to the warm, humid security which Lisa has come to enjoy with her husband and daughter. Florian's uprightness also serves unintentionally as a rebuke to the complacency of middle-class brother and sister-in-law and to his own fellow workers in Les Halles. Florian clearly has no place in the Second Empire's culture of greed; it only remains to be seen how the axe will fall.
|La conquête de
Plassans (The Conquest of Plassans)
François, Octave, Serge, Désirée Mouret.
|The year is 1856. The
Second Empire is well-established, as is the hegemony of
the Rougons in Plassans. But elections are now again being
held; all that remains is to make sure the "approved"
candidates win every seat. The powers of the Empire
personified by her son Eugéne (now a cabinet
minister) dispatch a meddlesome and stern provincial
Catholic priest to the aid of the political machinations of
Felicité Rougon. The priest and his mother move in
as boarders with François and Marthe Mouret, married
first cousins (he is the son of Ursule Macquart, she is the
daughter of Pierre Rougon) who are prosperous bourgeois.
Felicité tames the rural crudity of the priest to
her uses, but is unable to prevent the disruption of Mouret
family life by the Rasputin-like charismatic and
destructive influence of the priest upon Marthe Rougon.
Only the roguish old Antoine Macquart, Marthe's uncle,
spots the source of the disruption and attempts in his sly
and malicious way to come to the rescue of his pet niece's
happiness and to revenge himself upon Felicité at
the same time.
Zola's ostensible political purpose in the novel of exploring the Second Empire's transformation of its early absolutist power into subsequent rigged democracy is almost entirely overshadowed by a ripping story about sinster external influence rupturing the lives and love of the vacuously content Mourets. The drama compiles a list of wrongs long enough to justify the ironic, horrific, devastating finale which Zola has planned for his characters, one fully as appalling as the finale of a Steven King novel.
|La faute de l'abbé Mouret (Father Mouret's Transgression)
|The most surrealistic of
the Rougon-Macquart novels. Serge Mouret is the priest of a
tumble-down church near Plassans. He is personally and
spiritually devoted to Mary. Serge has never known woman
except mystically in his devotion to St. Mary, but illness
and amnesia thrust Serge into the care of a father and
daughter who inhabit the former park estate of a
Bourbon-era nobleman. There in the huge, seemingly
boundless pleasure garden run to riot in the absence of
care behind its crumbling walls, Serge becomes a figure of
Adam lost in Eden with a Eve-like guide who seems to hold
the answer to the mysteries of his devotion.
|Eugéne Rougon is the most powerful of Napoléon III's ministers, but scandal and opposition mounted by his jealous rivals force his retirement and retreat. Given to no vices and devoted to power for power's sake, Eugéne plans his comeback with the aid of an Italian adventuress whose offer of love he declines in order to preserve her usefulness to him as an advisor and co-conspirator.
|L'assomoir (The Dram Shop)
Claude, Étienne Lantier.
|The most shocking and
stirring of all the Rougon-Macquart cycle. Conceived in a
drunken passion and raised by her ne'er-do-well father
Antoine Macquart, Gervaise has two children while still in
her teens. She runs off to Paris where her lover deserts
her within a few months.
Gervaise Macquart's dreams are simple: a safe place to raise her children, enough to eat, not to be beaten, and to die happily in her own bed. She meets a sober workman, Coupeau, marries him and starts a successful laundry business. But her happiness is not to be complete: Coupeau, injured on the job, takes to drink and drags Gervaise with him down to ruin.
Zola's brutal exposé of the human cost of the widespread working-class alcoholism of the Second Empire aroused vehement criticism in literary circles of the time. This criticism ostensibly targeted the coarse, everyday language employed in the novel, but it was Zola's depicting the conditions of the working poor in realistic rather than in moralistic terms that seems to have aroused the ire of his critics.
|Une page d'amour
(A Love Story)
Grandjean (née Mouret),
Grandjean, orphan of Ursule Mouret (née Macquart, Antoine's
sister from La fortune des
Rougon), is the widow of Grandjean, a
working man. She resides in the outskirts of Paris with the
couple's daughter Jeanne Grandjean, who unfortunately
partakes of the Macquart hereditary neurological
disturbances, in particular, a kind of catatonic epilepsy.
Seizures brought on by emotional stress can leave Jeanne on
the brink of death for weeks. The disease has rendered
young Jeanne, on the brink of maturity, exceedingly
dependent on her mother and childishly, irrationally
jealous of any potential suitor or interloper.
The two live in an apartment rented from Dr. Deberle, a wealthy, married practitioner who, because of his proximity, becomes attendant upon Jeanne in preference to the family physician. The inevitable occurs : Deberle's and Héléne's hands meet over the sleeping child after the doctor has tended her in the aftermath of a convulsion. Will their unavowed love blossom, or does tragedy stalk the couple? If you know your Zola, you can guess the answer!
|Anna (Nana) Coupeau is
Gervaise Macquart's daughter (L'assomoir). By the time
she is 15 years old she has found the secret of escaping
her hungry, crumbling family and her father's beatings: she
runs away to a life of street prostitution. Uncommonly
beautiful, Nana is discovered by a producer of musical
comedy. She becomes the most fashionable courtesan of the
day in Paris as the Second Empire founders in rivalry with
Prussia. By the age of 18 Nana has a child and is
successfully devouring the immense fortunes of her wealthy
lovers who vie to be ruined by her. Unable to find
happiness, not in control of her passions, Nana throws away
her wealthy way of life and launches herself into a void of
self-destruction which has echoes in the biographies of
certain modern celebrities.
Nana is the most thorough psychological treatment of sensuality and sexuality rendered by the hand of Zola, who possessed more than average skill in such writing. The sublime steaminess of this book as it sounds the abyss of insatiable desire has earned Nana more popularity in English translation than its place in the Rougon-Macquart cycle alone would assign it.
|Pot-bouille is a bedroom
tragi-farce with most of the action taking place in a
thoroughly modern (heated stairwells!) apartment building
populated entirely by ostensibly virtuous bourgeouis
comme il faut (of
proper manners and respectable conduct) and their less
well-mannered servants. Zola treats the apartment building
as a sort of "ant farm", in whose rooms and along whose
passageways he observes and documents the less respectable
private conduct of his characters as a means of
deconstructing bourgeois hypocrisy.
Octave Mouret is the son of François Mouret and Marthe Rougon (whom we met in La conquête de Plassans) and is the brother of Serge and Désirée Mouret (whom we read about in La faute de l'abbé Mouret). Octave is, as we would say today, "in touch with his female side" and has transplanted his budding career as a fabric and women's wear expert from Plassans to Paris where he hopes to climb to fortune by bedding women who can help him. Octave's bedroom antics turn him little or no profit as he dodges jealous husbands and evades the matrimonial enterprises of a corsetted harridan with two marriageable daughters of dubious character and even more dubious dowry. More importantly for Octave and for the Rougon-Macquart series, he becomes an employee of the store "Au bonheur des dames" ("Paradise for Ladies") which he hopes to transform from a dark and dusty dry goods store into a new kind of store, the first department store in Paris. That store "Au bonheur des dames" is the centerpiece of the next novel in the series.
Pot-bouille is the lightest book of the Rougon-Macquart cycle. The plot and style resemble in some respects the marriage-and-money potboilers of Zola's older English contemporary Anthony Trollope (in particular The Eustace Diamonds (1873) and The Way We Live Now (1875)). Zola may or may not have been familiar with Trollope's work (ask a real literary historian!); in any event, Trollope, who spoke fluent French and had spent much time in France, died the same year Pot-bouille was published.
Pot-bouille takes the expected digs at Empire and Emperor, but only in order to demonstrate the cowardly acquiesence of the bourgeois characters, many of whom fancy themselves liberals and vote against the Emperor's slate of candidates, only to be rendered uneasy when the slate they vote for wins. Zola writes, "Without a doubt, the Emperor deserved a lesson; only, they began to regret having given him such a strong one."
The 1954 Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window and/or the short story upon which it was based perhaps were influenced by Pot-bouille.
bonheur des dames (Paradise for Ladies)
|Octave Mouret founds the first department store in Paris and finds true love. (I read this one many years ago in English before I grasped the overall structure of the Rougon-Macquart cycle and will have to refresh myself on the plot details!)
|La joie de vivre (The Joy of
Aristide Saccard (Rougon),
|I am reading this one right now! Last
one left unread (though I intend to re-read Au bonheur des dames
in French)!! So far I know the following:
Pauline Quenu is orphaned when her mother, Lisa Macquart (see Le ventre de Paris), dies, closely followed by her father. She is 10 years old and endowed with the accumulated wealth of her avaricious shopkeeping family. The honest bourgeois cousins of her father, les Chanteau, with whom she is placed in Normandy, slowly and subtly and despite their own best intentions begin to devour her inheritance under the rubric of a projected marriage to her cousin Lazare Chanteau. Lazare is a bright but ineffectual dreamer whose engineering projects crumble repeatedly to ruin, taking with them tens of thousands of francs.
|Zola's most popular novel
ever, and the most satisfactory exercise of many elements
of the series's artistic framework as the destiny of
individual characters plays out against the backdrop of
social and political conditions.
It is 1868. Étienne Lantier, vagabond son of the deceased Gervaise Macquart (L'assomoir), finds work in the coal mines in northern France. He eventually leads the starving coal miners on strike. Zola gives us a tragic love story, a story rife with political and personal betrayal, a panoply of memorable characters marching across the pages of a chronicle of desperate need and flaming passions.
Although many of the economic abuses described in the book had already been reformed by the time of its writing, Germinal is the most stirring working-class novel of the cycle. Workers attending Zola's funeral in 1902 tossed their caps in the air and shouted "Germinal! Germinal!" as their beloved author was laid to rest.
In the course of this novel, Zola incidentally and almost impercetibly teaches us most of the contemporary technology and economics of coal mining, having toured the mines extensively preparatory to writing Germinal.
|L'oeuvre (The Masterpiece)
|Claude Lantier, son of
Gervaise Macquart ( L'assomoir), was fostered
out as a child to a prosperous old provincial bachelor who
encouraged the boy's art interest. Returning as a young man
and accomplished painter to Paris, Claude successfully
helps found modern French art but is unable by reason of
his family heritage of mental illness to complete his own
masterpiece or to savor love and home life in a normal
is a profound psychological novel splashed with some of the
best prose about color and light ever fashioned by a
novelist. Zola's friend Paul
Cézanne, believing to see something of himself
in Claude in the pages of L'oeuvre, ruptured finally
with the novelist after reading the novel.
|La terre (Land
|Jean Macquart (son of
Antoine Macquart introduced in La fortune des Rougon) has
been discharged from the army into which he fled from his
father. He settles in rural France where he falls in love.
His betrothed stands to inherit her portion of land, thus
breaking up smallholdings coveted for re-unification by
more powerful members of her extended family. The stage is
set for a tragedy of greed and betrayal.
This novel was both praised for its portrayal of the peasant life and mentality, and condemned as offensive to the peasant class as a whole. Zola, as was his wont, spent many months travelling and interviewing subjects in preparation for writing it, and stood by his work against all criticism. His critique of the status of the peasantry has echoes today, French agricultural protection of inefficient small tenure having preserved to the present day certain elements of the lifestyle Zola described 12 decades ago.
|Le rêve (The Dream)
|Angélique Rougon, Sidonie Rougon
|Angélique Rougon is
the illegitimate daughter of Sidonie Rougon (sister of
Eugéne and Pascal Rougon and Aristide Saccard). She
is given up for adoption but mistreated, so she runs away,
collapsing in the early hours of Christmas morning on the
steps of a provincial cathedral. A childless couple who are
the hereditary holders of a tenancy ajacent to the
cathedral and who craft splendid garments for the rich and
sacred garments for the church rescue her, raise her, teach
her their art (at which she excels) and ultimately adopt
Angélique lives in "the dream" of all the sacred legends she has heard or read. She knows that one day her prince will come. And he does come, but their love is forbidden by the aristocratic father of the prospective groom. This father became a priest on the death of his wife. Now a bishop, he blocks the marriage until devout obedience and hysterical (in the Freudian sense) anxiety have consumed Angélique's health, at which point the bishop-father yields and the couple are married. Angelique kisses the groom, then collapses and dies on the steps of the church.
Le rêve juxtaposes the themes of rigidity of caste with the unintentional harm done by religious obscurantism, both of which Zola felt pervaded the Second Empire. Unlike those modern authors who portray as vile that which they condemn, Zola demonstrates great artistry in his sympathetic depiction of people whose will and vitality erode as they succumb to the soporific perfume of the Catholicism of the time. Zola had, by this time, encountered the writings of Karl Marx and was surely aware of the latter's characterization of religion as the "opiate of the masses", as there could hardly be a finer novelistic exposition of that political opinion than that found in Le rêve.
This book is similar to La faute de l'abbé Mouret but is less vigorous a story than that earlier work. It also lacks some of the depth of Zola's other works touching on the mystic. It might be termed an "attractive miniature" in the Rougon Macquart cycle. One might have though that Zola was running out of energy and ideas, but he was to follow this minor work with two of the most striking books of the cycle: La bête humaine and L'argent.
|La bête humaine (The Human Beast)
|Aristide Rougon (Saccard),
whom we met in La
fortune des Rougon and whom we came to know
intimately in La curée, finally comes up
with the perfect money-making machine: he founds a banking
corporation ostensibly intended to invest in developing
French interests in the Near East. Actually, the real
business of Saccard's Universal Bank is manipulating its
own stock price after the fashion of the failed Enron
corporation in modern times. On the road to a ruin
triggered in part by Saccard's overt antisemitism towards
powerful French Jewish financiers, Saccard inadvertently
betrays and swindles even those he loves, all the while
believing his own fantasies about ever-increasing
prosperity and an endless rise in the stock market.
Although Zola leaned towards pathos, he was far from humorless: L'argent is a satire of the Crédit Mobilier scandal which rocked the last years of the Second Empire. There is disaster, but no real tragedy, and in the end, the scoundrel absconds under the protection of his cabinet minister brother to thrive and swindle another day.
Largely due to its satiric tone, L'argent is probably the most accessible of the Rougon-Macquart series to the modern American reader.
|Le débâcle (The
|Jean Macquart (whom we
last left in the aftermath of tragedy in La terre) has re-enlisted in the army for
the Franco-Prussian War that ends in French defeat, the
capture of Emperor Napoleon III at Sedan, and the
occupation of Paris. Corporal Macquart mentors a young
bourgeois private named Maurice. Maurice at first disdains
the barely literate peasant corporal, but under the rigors
of war bonds with the generous Macquart and ends up being
drawn across class lines into the uprising of the Paris
Zola intended to conjure up again the emotions which had been felt by the French in their defeat by means of this novel written twenty years after that defeat. He also wished to pin the blame for the debacle on Napoleon III's kleptocracy and the incompetent, venal generals who rose to power in the Second Empire. In other words, Zola created a sort of novelistic, 19th century "Farenheit 9/11", one which earned him the kind of hostility and accusations of being a carrion bird that Michael Moore is currently garnering at this writing in the summer of 2004.
Zola was, however, committed to fairness even to his opponents, and exercised a journalistic rigor and self-discipline unknown to Moore. Zola never imputed to political leaders and historical figures deeds for the occurence of which he did not possess sound documentary evidence, and often treated his enemies with sympathy and presented profound psychological insight into their very human motivations. In particular, in The Debacle a minor didactic theme is the debunking of the centuries-old myth of the French people that every defeat of their army throughout French history can only have been the result of treason by the generals.
|Le docteur Pascal
|Zola finally writes
himself into the story as the aging Dr. Pascal. It is 1873.
Pascal Rougon has laboriously chronicled the lives of his
fellow descendants of Tante Dide (who herself lives on
silently in a mental hospital, over one hundred years old).
Pascal's aged mother Felicité wants to bury the
sordid origins of the family and the criminal trail of its
great fortune and power (which fortune has survived the
fall of the Second Empire) so wishes to burn Pascal's
biographical and medical notes. At first Felicité is
aided in her campaign by her granddaughter Clotilde Rougon,
the daughter of Aristide Rougon (Saccard), Pascal's niece
who lives in Plassans as a ward of Dr. Pascal. Clotilde is
religiously devout and mystical, and believes Dr. Pascal's
medical researches and experiments contrary to divine law.
But Clotilde is awakening not only as a woman but as an
intellectual, and becomes devoted to Dr. Pascal's
researches and falls in love with his person.
Essentially all the Rougon-Macquart descendants figure in the story. Le docteur Pascal has been called the meta-novel which recapitulates the "social and natural history" of the Rougon-Macquart family, closing the book on the dark chapters and personalities and raising up a torch of hope for the future in the person of one last newborn descendant of Tante Dide.