From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
L'Assommoir (1877) is the seventh novel in Émile Zola's twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. Usually considered one of Zola's masterpieces, the novel - a harsh and uncompromising study of alcoholism and poverty in the working-class districts of Paris - was a huge commercial success and established Zola's fame and reputation throughout France and the world.
The novel is essentially the story of Gervaise Macquart, who was featured briefly in the first novel in the series, La Fortune des Rougon, running away to Paris with her shiftless lover Lantier to work as a washerwoman in a hot, busy laundry in one of the seedier areas of the city. L'Assommoir begins with Gervaise and her two young sons being abandoned by Lantier, who takes off for parts unknown; she later takes up with Coupeau, a teetotal roofing engineer, and they are married in one of the great set-pieces of Zola's fiction; the account of the wedding party's chaotic trip to the Louvre is perhaps the novelist's most famous passage. Through a combination of happy circumstances Gervaise is able to raise enough money to open her own laundry, and the couple's happiness appears to be complete with the birth of a daughter, Anna, nicknamed Nana (the heroine of Zola's later novel of the same title).
The second half of the novel deals with the downward trajectory of Gervaise's life from this happy high point. Coupeau is injured in a fall from the roof of a new hospital he is working on, and during his lengthy and painful convalescence he takes to drink. Only a few chapters pass before Coupeau is a vindictive alcoholic, with no intention of trying to find more work; Gervaise struggles to keep her home together, but her excessive pride leads her to a number of embarrassing failures and before long everything is going downhill. The home is further disrupted by the return of Lantier, warmly welcomed by Coupeau—by this point losing interest in both Gervaise and life itself, and becoming seriously ill—and the ensuing chaos and financial strain is too much for Gervaise, who loses her laundry-shop and is sucked into debt. She decides to join Coupeau in the drinking and soon slides into heavy alcoholism too, prompting Nana—already suffering from the chaotic life at home and getting into trouble on a daily basis—to run away to Paris for good. The novel continues in this unhappy vein until the end.
Themes and criticism
Zola undertook a huge amount of research into the language of the street for his most realistic novel to date, using a large number of obscure contemporary slang words and curses to capture an authentic atmosphere. His shocking descriptions of conditions in working-class 19th Century Paris drew widespread admiration for their realism, then as now, and the novel remains one of the most powerful in the French language. It was taken up by temperance workers across the world as a tract against the dangers of alcoholism, though Zola always insisted there was considerably more to his novel than that. The novelist also drew criticism from some quarters for the depth of his reporting, either for being too coarse and vulgar or for portraying working-class people as shiftless drunkards. Zola rejected both these criticisms out of hand; his response was simply that he had presented a true picture of real life.
Albert Millaud, in Le Figaro of 1 September 1876, denounced Zola's novel even before its publication was complete: 'It is not realism, it is smut; it is not crudity, it is pornography.' ("Ce n'est plus du réalisme, c'est de la malpropreté ; ce n'est plus de la crudité, c'est de la pornographie").
The novel's original French title L'Assommoir is virtually untranslatable into English. It was a colloquial word popular in late 19th Century Paris, referring to a shop selling cheap liquor distilled on the premises. The word is adapted from the verb assomer (to stun, bludgeon or render senseless), conjuring up images of a place one might go to drown one's sorrows and drink oneself into oblivion. English translators' attempts to render this noun into English often fail to have the same bluntly onomatopoeic effect, resulting in translations with titles like The Dram Shop, The Gin Palace, The Drunkard etc. Most modern English-language texts nowadays opt to retain the original French title. L'Assommoir has been extensively translated into English, and there are several faithful and unexpurgated modern translations currently in print.