The Kill, by Émile Zola.

A part of The Fortune of the Rougons, the love story of Silvère and Miette, was a sort of re-write of Ovid's 'Pyramus and Thisbe' (found in Book IV of Metamorphoses). The Kill also has references to Ovid, this time to the story of 'Echo and Narcissus' (Book III of Metamorphoses), however it not Ovid but Racine, and by extension Euripides, that partly inspired The Kill. Zola wrote in a letter to Louis Ulbach (6th November 1871) that The Kill was to be the "new Phaedra": Phaedra, or Phèdre, a play by Jean Racine (written in 1676 and first performed the following year), was inspired by Euripides's Hippolytus (428BC), with themes of incest, lust, jealousy, betrayal, and revenge.

In the letter, Zola wrote,
I must point out, since I have been misunderstood and prevented from making myself clear, that The Kill is an unwholesome plant that sprouted out of the dungheap of the Empire, an incest that grew on the compost pile of millions. My aim, in this new Phaedra, was to show the terrible social breakdown that occurs when all moral standards are lost and family ties no longer exist. 
And, in the preface,
In the natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire, The Kill is the note of gold and flesh...  
I wanted to show the premature exhaustion of a race which has lived too quickly and ends in the man-woman of rotten societies, the furious speculation of an epoch embodied in an unscrupulous temperament, the nervous breakdown of a woman whose circle of luxury and shame increases tenfold native appetites. And, with these three social monstrosities, I have tried to write a work of art and science that should at the same time be one of the strangest chapters in our social history.
The Kill, first published in 1872, is the second of the twenty novel series, Les Rougon-Macquart. It follows the story of Astride, who we met in The Fortune of the Rougons: son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon, grandson of Adélaïde. He had the rather unfortunate description in Fortune as being "short, with an unfortunate face like the knob of a stick carved in the shape of a Punch's head", and clearly has grown no better looking: in The Kill, he is "short and sly looking" and "bent and bowed like a puppet". The Kill sees him in Paris, having changed his name to Saccard, conjuring images of wealth: in French, sac d'ecus means 'bags of money', and saccager means 'to sack'. As his brother Eugène observes, "Yes, it's a name that will make you a crook or a millionaire". Throughout Fortune, Astride was unable to decide whether to support the Republicans or the Royalists, and in The Kill, "he swoop[s] down on Paris the day after 2 December, like a bird of prey scenting the battle from afar".
He came in a great and hurry, furious at having taken a wrong turn, cursing the provinces, talking of Paris with the ravenous hunger of a wolf, swearing that he would never be such a fool again; and his bitter smile as she said these words assumed a terrible significance on his thin lips.
His wife, Angèle, dies and he goes on to marry the beautiful Renée (this idea is discussed at length in earshot of Angèle as she lies dying). As with Nantas, Émile Zola's short story published in 1878, Astride and Renée's marriage is one of convenience: as a result of rape, Renée is pregnant, so the marriage saves her social standing (as predicted, she goes on to have a miscarriage), and her dowry gives Astride much-needed funding to invest and speculate in real estate, stocks, and shares. George Moore notes, in his introduction to The Rush for the Spoils (another translation of La Curée, or The Kill) - "He gives her everything but an interest in life".

The three social monstrosities Zola eludes to are Paris, society, and capitalism. Renée represents Paris, Maxime, the son of Astride and Angèle, represents society, and Astride represents capitalism. Astride is, effectively, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine and chief administrator of Paris. Haussmann radically transformed Paris, destroying the old Paris and rebuilding it, making it, as Nelson writes, "a phantasmagoria of capitalist culture". There is a part early on in The Kill which demonstrates this attitude of destruction rather nicely:
With his outstretched hand, open and sharp as a sabre, he indicated how the city was being divided into four parts. 
"You mean the Rue de Rivoli and the new boulevard they're building?" asked his wife [Angèle].
"Yes, the great transept of Paris as they call it. They're clearing away the buildings round the Louvre and the Hôtel de Ville. That's just child's play! But it'll get the public interested. When the first network is finished the fun will begin. The second network will cut through the city in all directions to connect the suburbs with the first network. The rest will disappear in clouds of plaster. Look, just follow my hand. From the Boulevard du Temple to the Barrière du Trône, that one's cut; then on this side another, from the Madeleine to the Plaine Monceau; and a third cut this way, another that way, a cut there, one further on, cuts everywhere, Paris slashed with sabre cuts, its veins opened, providing a living for a hundred thousand navvies and bricklayers, traversed by splendid military roads which will bring the forts into the heart of the old neighbourhoods." 
Night was falling. His dry, feverish hand kept cutting through the air. Angèle shivered slightly as she watched this living knife, those iron fingers mercilessly slicing the boundless mass of dark roofs.
By Arthur Sjögren, 1910
(Publisher: Fröléen & Comp)
In this "theatre of excess" (Nelson), as Astride frantically speculates, Renée lives a materialistic, luxurious, but deeply unhappy life. In the first pages, Zola describes her in Paris, Paris filled with "golden glints", "straw coloured edges", "brass buttons", "a thousand glimmering lights", "quick flashes", "sparks", "glitter", and "dazzle", where she announces to her stepson Maxime, "Oh, I'm bored, bored to death". Maxime observes that she has "bitten every apple", and indeed she claims, "I want something different.... there is nothing different". As fortunes are spent on the remaking of Paris, so too are fortunes spent on Renée's appearance: her make up, her clothes, her way of living. Her actions, her incest with Maxime, Astride's son, represent the immorality of modernity, and the breakdown in family and family ties. Goldhammer observes, "For neither the speculation nor the incest would be conceivable without the modernity that is Paris". There is a breakdown in the 'private' sphere: there's a description of Astride's home, which sounds more like a busy street, and then in public there is behaviour that really ought to be kept private. Other than money, nothing is sacred. Nelson quotes Marx's The Communist Manifesto, which argues,
The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a more money relation.
Astride and Renée's marriage was profitable for them both, and Maxime and Astride calculate what they can gain from one another. Sins and betrayals are forgiven for the right price.

There is so much going on in this novel that I could go on all evening writing this, but I think I need to reign myself in a little now! In short, The Kill, I think, is a tragic tale. As Hippolytus suffered at the hands of the gods, Renée suffered at the hands of modernity. The incest between her and Maxime was inevitable, and like Hippolytus she was punished. This is a very old and dark tale despite the backdrop of a new and sparkling Paris.


Further reading:
  • Introduction to The Kill by Arthur Goldhammer.
  • Introduction to The Rush for the Spoils by George Moore.
  • Introduction to The Kill by Brian Nelson.
  • 'The Remaking of Paris: Zola and Haussmann' by Brian Nelson in The Literature of Paris, edited by Anna-Louise Milne.


  1. Wow! You are a Zola expert!

    I didn't read all of your post because this book is up next for me, but thanks for the background ……. it will be helpful.

    Can you recommend any books that cover this period in the political history of France? …… Preferably a book that won't take too long to read. I have a basic understanding but I'm more than happy to expand it.

    Have you read anything about whether it is better to read these in the publication order or the Zola recommended order? I'm reading based on the Zola order but I'm not sure if one is better than the other.

    1. I wish I was an expert!

      I'm using 'A Brief History of France' by Cecil Jenkins and 'A Concise History of France' by Roger Price, then looking up various things on the internet. Apart from the Brian Nelson intro, the rest are found online and they're really helpful. And, again, Brian Nelson's introductions are invaluable. I'm getting the most understanding from him, I reckon :)


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