The Fortune of the Rougons, by Émile Zola

This was my second read of The Fortune of the Rougons by Émile Zola: as I've said before, I'm working on a Zola website, and one of my more frightening goals is to write about each of his books. As it happens, I have written about this book for the site already - I finished the first draft of it over a week ago now and I'm currently working on The Kill, the second of the series, but I thought it would be helpful to write a few notes for this blog about each book.

The first time I read this I liked it a lot. It was exciting, not only because of the novel itself but because it is the first of the twenty Rougon-Macquart novels, the "alpha" as one translator, Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, wrote (please avoid his translations, if only because he boasted he changed one sentence out of every three). Firstly, it sets the scene for the whole of the series, introducing the characters who we will meet later, and giving a context to Zola's endeavours. As he wrote in his preface,
My aim is to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws. 
By solving the dual problem of temperament and environment, I shall attempt to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another. When I am in possession of every thread, and hold in my hands an entire social group, I shall describe the behaviour of this group as it plays its part in an historical period; I shall show it in action, with all its varied energies; and I shall analyse the aims and ambitions of its individual members along with the general tendency of the whole.
The small group of human beings are the Rougons and the Macquarts, descendants of strange and "quite mad" Adélaïde Fouque, who married Rougon, and after he died (very very soon after she died), lover of Macquart. The Rougons are the 'legitimate' side of the family tree, the Macquarts the illegitimate side. This "given society" is France during the time of the coup d'etat in 1851.

The Rougons are the royalists - the royalists who, in the space of two weeks, are more royalist than Prince Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (soon to be Emperor of the Second Empire), himself. Simply put, being royalists suit their ambition. Pierre (the legitimate son of Adélaïde) and Félicité (his wife) stand to gain a lot if Louis-Napoléon is successful and rewards those who have stood by him. On the other side, the Macquarts: Antoine, illegitimate son of Adélaïde, is a republican, "a rabid republican", which also suits his needs very nicely: it serves to embarrass Pierre and Félicité (owing to a long standing grudge), and cause them a lot of problems. Also on the Macquart side is Silvère, another republican whose beliefs are a kind of "a dreamworld of theory, a Garden of Eden where universal justice reigned", who is love with Miette; throughout this historical, anti-imperialist satire based upon blood and gold, betrayal and suffering, and the individual against the masses, there is also a very touching love story based upon Ovid's 'Pyramus and Thisbe' (found in Book IV of Metamorphoses).

There is nothing subtle about this novel. It is raw, early, young and angry Zola. His characters are generally ugly - Adélaïde is "a tall, pale, lanky creature", Félicité has the face of "a weasel", and her son Astride is "short, with an unfortunate face like the knob of a stick carved in the shape of a Punch's head". They're all hopelessly flawed: like all the Rougons, Pierre has a "sly ambition and insatiable desire", the sons Astride and Eugène are first presented as "fat and lazy", and Antoine Macquart only marries because he believes his wife "would be his beast of burden, an obedient, tireless animal." Out of the many characters in this novel, the only three appealing ones are Silvère, Miette (both of whom are far from idealised), and Félicité and Pierre's third son, Doctor Pascal, who, as Brian Nelson writes, is “Zola's delegate – a kind of mirror of the author, the Naturalist writer, within the text”. He has an interest in physiology, and, like Zola, heredity.

And these were bad times. It is not essential to have an in-depth knowledge about the 1848 Revolution, or the coup d'etat, but knowing a tiny bit really does give more meaning to the novel. The Second Republic, following the Revolution, was not what the people of France envisaged; as Zola writes, “... they became vaguely aware that they were being duped”. The people of France were growingly uneasy, dissatisfied and feeling they had been deliberately misled, despite initially believing France was undergoing great revolutionary change. The number of men eligible to vote (women at this point did not have the vote) had risen from under 250 000 to 9 million, however, following the elections on 23rd April 1848, the majority of those elected to the National Assembly were “moderates” (moderate Republicans), and over a third of the chamber were Royalists (perhaps reflective that despite the increase in those eligible to vote, the majority of those eligible lived in the conservative countryside), causing great dissatisfaction amongst the radicals. Although the new government reduced the working day to ten hours, and slavery was abolished, the new National Workshops, set up by Louis Blanc with the intention of providing work for the unemployed, were closed down on the 22nd June 1848. They had been a cause of conflict, known as the 'June Days'. In A Concise History of France, Roger Price writes,  
No effort was made to reassure the tens of thousands of unemployed that relief would still be provided. Indeed the government's threat to resort to force only reinforced the widespread disillusionment with legal political processes and the belief that with such an uncaring regime there was little alternative but to recommencer la révolution
The Barricade, rue de la Mortellerie,
June 1848 by Ernest Meissonier. 
The government responded with brutal repression, and the army and the National Guard, led by General Cavaignac, arrested over 25 000, 1 500 were shot without trial, and 11 000 imprisoned or deported. de Tocqueville and Marx interpreted this period as a class struggle between the 'bourgeoisie' and the 'proletariat' (Marx writing that the June Days represented the first battle in the class war), whilst conservatives saw the republican protesters as mindless savages. France was in crisis, which paved the way for Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte to stand for and win election. When it became clear that new legislature would prevent him from renewing his term as President, he began to disassociate himself from the Assembly, and, on 2nd December 1851, he launched a successful coup d'etat to dissolve it. Brian Nelson describes this period: 
There were armed movements of revolt, especially in the south, and the repression involved the killing of some 1,200 innocent citizens and the imprisonment of about 30,000 more; 10,000 were deported, and sixty deputies, including Victor Hugo, were expelled from France. Louis-Napoléon's seizure of power was thus achieved by fraud, duress, and murder, but it had the overwhelming backing of the French people.
Pierre and Félicité Rougon exploited this unrest, calculating to gain favour from Louis-Napoléon who would reward those who worked to further his restoration. As Zola wrote, “Like bandits, they lay in wait to rob the Republic; as soon as it's throat was cut, they helped to plunder it”. As in English, the French word "fortune" may be understood to mean both wealth and luck.

It is a thrilling read. It is exciting because mid-19th Century France generally is, it has a high-pace plot with appalling characters: one cannot imagine how low they will stoop to gain: it has to be read to be believed. Zola is like the French Dickens: his message is what is important here. This is not a story. It is gruesome because the times were gruesome. It is violent and bloody, because the times were, and the characters are avaricious and selfish, as Zola believed those in power were. This is not Les Misérables. Zola is no romantic.

Spending a long time with this novel, re-reading it, has made go from "liking it a lot" to absolutely loving it. It's quite deceptive: one can read this novel by itself, have no awareness of the Rougon-Macquart series, and little knowledge of the specifics, the history; the coup d'etat, and still love it and learn from it. I have to use the word "raw" again, because it is very raw. I once compared the opening with Dickens's Our Mutual Friend: it has that same bleak, gruesome, dirty feel, but it's amplified in Zola. And, if you are familiar with Zola and have read some of the Rougon-Macquart series, it's downright essential. This is where it all begins. We see, in this book alone, the affects of heredity, how characteristics may be inherited, or, indeed, how they may not. It isn't a case of x = y. It's far more complex than that.

So, if you want a good historical novel, this is a good one. And if you're a Zola fan, and you want to read more of the Rougons and the Macquarts, this is absolutely essential. It is, be warned, human nature at it's worst, but that really is part of it's appeal.


See also: The Kill.


  1. Wow! Can I just say, what a great review!

    1. Thank you :) I do love this book so much.

  2. I'm embarrassed to say I still haven't read this, though I am a huge Zola fan; but your post has inspired me to put it on my Christmas wish list. I am currently reading The Earth (my Classics Club Spin selection) and it's just great, I'm sure I'll zip right through it. And did you know there's a new translation of L'Argent coming out in 2014? I was looking at the OUP website the other day and I saw it -- very exciting! I've heard it's great and I think it's the newest English translation since Vizitelly. I hope they'll eventually publish new translations of all the Zola novels.

    1. Yes, I saw - really looking forward to it! I hope they will publish them all eventually. I have hope for OUP - it's not that long since Nelson's translation of Fortune came out, and that was also the newest translation since Vizetelly.


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