The Way People Die (Comment on meurt) by Émile Zola is (aside from being the most miserable title ever applied to Zola's fiction) a short story first published in Vestnik Evropy in August 1876 (the same year as the publication of His Excellency Eugène Rougon, and also the same year he was writing L'Assommoir, published in 1877).
This story is not unlike Priests and Sinners (also published in Vestnik Evropy) in it's structure: there are five chapters, each portraying a dying member of a social class (in Priests and Sinners it was priests of both different areas - cities, rural, etc., and social class). In each story we are told a little of the background of the person, the manner in which they die, and the immediate aftermath. Now, this may be a little convoluted, but it actually reminded me of the work of another great Frenchman - Émile Durkheim, a sociologist who, in 1897, published Le Suicide. The very basic idea behind it was that although suicide is perceived as a highly individual act, it is in fact greatly influenced by society. He largely focused on the suicide rates of Protestants and Catholics (Catholics being less likely to commit suicide), also comparing, for example, people with children, soldiers, Jewish people, and marital status. So, essentially, Durkheim argued that suicide was more predictable on a social level than one might think.
In Zola's The Way People Die, which is unconnected with Durkheim's work, Zola also portrays death in social terms. It begins,
The Comte de Verteuil was fifty-five years old. He came from one of the most illustrious of French families and was a man of great wealth. Disapproving of the government of the day, he had made the best use of his talents that he could. He had contributed learned articles to periodicals, which had resulted in his being elected to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. He had launched into various enterprises, devoting himself in turn to agriculture, stockbreeding, and the fine arts. For a short while he had even sat in Parliament where he had distinguished himself by the violence in the opposition.
Of each chapter, the Comte de Verteuil is the highest ranking of the soon-to-be-dead, and his death is met with great ceremony, though little feeling from his wife; their marriage, in keeping with their class, was an arranged one. From here, Zola works down the classes as it were: in the second chapter we meet Madame Guérard, a widow of the upper middle classes whose death sparks an almighty legal battle amongst her sons, the irony being she spent most of her life guarding her wealth from them, and from there to the third chapter and Madame Rousseau of the petite bourgeoisie whose death causes problems for her husband's shop-keeping. In the fourth we meet the Morisseaus of the working class, whose poverty brings the death of their young son Charlie, and finally into the lowest ranking working class: the death of Jean-Louis Lacor, whose death is met with acceptance and, at last, some genuine emotion.
One of Zola's most noticeable themes in his work, especially the Rougon Macquart novels, is class and the impact of the Second Empire. In The Way People Die he, not unlike Durkheim, studies death in the context of society and how it impacts on such a person and individual event. By its nature it is rather bleak, vaguely and very darkly humorous on the odd occasion. It's also I think a good example of Zola's approach to the study of society; that through observation, one can deduce certain universal rules. In The Way People Die Zola uses his observations of people's behaviour according to their class and applies it to their (obviously fictionalised) death. For that alone this is an interesting story, bitter too, and, I think, rather clever.
And The Way People Die was my first title for the Deal Me In 'Full Moon Fever' challenge. Next month: Coqueville on the Spree by Émile Zola.