The Drinking Den (Penguin Classics) New Ed Edition, Kindle Edition
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- Length: 484 pages
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The sad heroine of the tale is Gervaise Macquart. A good-hearted, well-intentioned young woman, Gervaise is burdened with a lover who is a wastrel and two sons (four and eight). Lantier, the lover, seduced her when she was fourteen. Thinking she would escape a life of rural poverty and a father who beat her, she fled with Lantier to Paris. However, they quickly ran through the little money they had. Lantier decided he wanted someone more fun than the mother of his children. He took off with their last few sous; he even took the pawn tickets. Leaving was the kindest thing he ever did for Gervaise.
Shortly, Gervaise pulls herself together and goes to work as a laundress. She is pursued by a neighbor, the sturdy Coupeau. He’s none too bright, but he’s cheerful and devoted. He is also a sober man with a steady job. He’s a roofer (so he doesn’t dare drink. . .much.) However, Gervaise has had enough of men and refuses him, time and again. At last, desperate, he proposes marriage. Worn down by his persistence and pitying his apparent sincerity, Gervaise accepts.
This couple works hard, struggles, and scrapes by. They scrimp and save. They have a baby girl. Every once in a while, they splurge, partly to enjoy themselves and partly to impress the neighbors. They meet a blacksmith, Goujet, who lives with his widowed mother. The four of them are upright people who seem to be on course to ride above the tide of poverty and despair all around them. In fact, Gervaise has saved up nearly enough money to take out a lease on a bigger place and open a laundry shop of her own.
No such luck. Coupeau is hard at work one morning and falls off the roof.
He doesn’t die. Gervaise devotes herself to nursing him back to health and, to everyone’s astonishment, he recovers. But after a convalescence of more than a month, then two, he finds he prefers not working. And if he’s not working, he can drink with his buddies. Gervaise’s savings disappear. Goujet comes to the rescue, lending Gervaise the money to open her shop, but this may be a mixed blessing.
For some time, hard work again seems to pay off for Gervaise. Unfortunately, no matter how hard she works, she can’t keep her head above water as Coupeau descends into drunkenness and dissipation. And then, Lantier returns.
It is a train wreck from here on out, but the sad thing is, even from the beginning, even rooting for Gervaise to succeed, you always know there isn’t any hope. They are swimming in an ocean of poverty and despair. It’s only a matter of time before Gervaise, too, gives up.
The book is astounding in its meticulous attention to detail and its psychological characterizations. Zola follows a Naturalistic method of writing– and the book is painfully real.
"Her dream was to live amongst decent people, because if you kept bad company, according to her, it would hit you like a blow from a mallet, break your head and flatten a poor woman in no time"
Gervaise is a laundry-woman who knows what is like to be poor, abused, and abandoned by a lover to bring up two children. Miraculously, given that this is 19th century Paris, she manages to turn it around. With the support of a caring and supportive new husband M. Coupeau the roofer, the generosity of a neighbour-lender M. Goujet and his mother, and by dint of sheer grit and determination, she becomes the proud proprietor of a successful laundry business. Surely, knowing where she came from, she will not let the idyll slip away. Yet, by end, "no one even knew what exactly she died of. There was talk of cold and warmth, but the fact was that she died of poverty, or the filth and weariness of her own life."
Of course in reality it is more complicated than that. A classic illustration of self-fulfilling prophecy in both directions. Success breeds success, of course. On the way up. But on the way down you have no shortage of detractors who wish your downfall. Chief amongst these are M and Mme Lorilleux, Coupeau's sister and brother in law. Opposed to the marriage in the first place, jealous in the extreme when Gervaise shows signs of success, they are the first to spread gossip rumour and innuendo as soon as they spot chinks in the armour.
An unfortunate roofing accident for M. Coupeau has incapacitated him, temporarily, we all want to believe, as he is a hard-working and honest man.
But he is not emotionally equipped to recover from setback, and soon the comforts of his incapacitation, the medical care funded out of Gervaise's savings, and the success of her business make him delay his return to work. As do the increasingly frequent visits to the drinking den. When he increasingly keeps the company of men such as "Bec-Salé (also known as Drinks-Without-Thirst)" you know where fate is taking him.
New dependants arrive in the Coupeau household. A baby daughter. Mme Coupeau, the mother (foisted by the Lorilleux). And unbelievably, M. Lantier, the former lover. All supported by Gervaise. If this were a play, at every act of generosity the audience would be willing Gervaise not to take it on. But she does, and runs up more debt from her benefactors the Goujets.
And she has a further opportunity to avoid the impending train crash. M. Goujet, physically strong and emotionally stable, works at the forge, a classic hero. Gervaise frequently stops by and cannot help but be entranced by his masculinity. A close friendship develops. We hope he will be the deus-ex-machina that will prevent the unfolding tragedy. On several occasions, and even as she is descending into disaster, he entreaties her to elope with him, confident that he can care for her and her children.
In the end though there is to be no happy ending. There are many factors at play here, some voluntary, others of weak-will, aided and abetted by a cruel and gossiping society. But Zola had a single-minded agenda in this book, and he was determined to execute it:
"I set out to show the fatal collapse of working family in the poisonous environment of our city slums. With drunkenness and laziness come the loosening of family ties, the filth of promiscuity and the gradual abandonment of decent feelings; then, in the end, shame and death. Quite simply, this is morality in action."
It was ever thus.
[A word on the translation - clear, and captures the essence. Easy for the lay reader, and hence an important contribution to opening out this important work to a wide readership.]
Although this book is depressing and does not have the usual happy ending, I would advise reading this book, especially for those who write. Watch as a master, Zola, paints pictures in words that are as alive as film!