The Rougon-Macquart Novels of Emile Zola (for English-speaking Readers)

Copyright © 2004-2009, Jack J. Woehr

Zola's novels deserve more attention today by English speakers, especially Americans, than in fact they receive: hence, this web page.

I'm not really a literary historian - I just play one on the Web.


Most popular French novelist

At the peak of European power and culture, in the Third Republic era of French literary and artistic supremacy within Europe, Émile Zola (1840-1902) was the most popular and widely-read French novelist among French speakers. (Victor Hugo, his elder contemporary, is to this day probably more widely read in translation.) Zola wrote with a journalistic eye, filling notebooks with facts gathered by personal observation and by correspondence with his network of experts preparatory to his work of authorship. He would then write a sketch of the projected work, and finally, write daily and methodically, sometimes for years, to produce his "experimental" and "realistic" novels. Zola's novels deserve more attention today by English speakers, especially Americans, than in fact they receive: hence, this web page.

Les Rougon-Macquart : The Rougon-Macquart cycle

Zola's most prominent work is the twenty-novel cycle (yes, 20!) Les Rougon-Macquart subtitled "Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire", that is, "The social and natural (e.g, anthropological, genetic) history of a family under the Second Empire". This series is not well known in the English-speaking world, though individual novels of the cycle have achieved popularity in translation, notably Germinal (1885) and  L'argent (Money) (1891). The most popular in French are Germinal and L'assomoir (The Dram Shop). Many of the Rougon-Macquart novels have been made into movies in France and have circulated with subtitles in the English nations.

Each book in the Rougon-Macquart cycle is woven from four thematic threads:
  1. First, each novel has an intricate plot, generally an engaging story about people caught up in the struggles of life and love and tragedies of life.
  2. Secondly, there is always woven into the story a social concern. Zola points out some political or social injustice or abuse. The most notable example of this thread in the Rougon-Macquart series is Germinal (1885) which deals with the working and social conditions of coal miners in northern France under the Second Empire.
  3. Thirdly was Zola's systematic indictment of the Second Empire (1851-1870), the semi-despotic, semi-parliamentary kleptocracy of Louis Bonaparte (Emperor Napoléon III) established by the coup d'etat of December, 1851. Zola had already projected ten novels of the series, and was in the course of finishing the first for publication when the Second Empire suddenly collapsed in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the Emperor himself being personally captured near the front lines at Sedan.
  4. Finally, there is Zola's fascination with science, notably genetics, in exposition of which he follows two branches of a family stemming from a common ancestress wherein certain salient characteristics, particularly pathological psychological bents, repeat in individual members generation after generation. The Rougons are prosperous but given to immense appetites for money and/or power. The Macquarts are more human but full of failings, notably an inheritance of alcoholism. Any member of either family, as a descendant of the common ancestress Adelaïde Fouque, may be subject to "excessive nervosity", i.e., congenital mental illness and breakdown at any time in life.

Though the novels of the Rougon-Macquart cycle all share common features, each nonetheless posesses one or more aspects which make the individual novel unique in the cycle. For one thing, Zola's style evolved over time, though he was already a mature novelist with Therése Raquin (1867) under his belt before commencing the Rougon-Macquart cycle. But more than any personal stylistic drift, Zola intentionally populated the cycle with several different types of novels. Journalist, idealist, polemicist that he was, Zola was pre-eminently an artist, one of great ability.

Thus, The most accessible and enjoyable first pick from the series for modern American readers is probably (due to its satirical humor) L'argent (Money).

Literary Qualities

Zola strove to write realistic novels, which led him to rich use of the vernacular language. This may seem obvious to modern readers, but it was quite controversial to the French literary world of the time whose fashionable exponents sat aloof and dissected their characters from an elite point of view rather than inhabiting the limited point of view of their characters. To his contemporaries, Zola's settings, plot developments and especially language were often shocking, especially in those instances wherein he meticulously detailed the lives of working-class people struggling in an era of genteel prosperity and greed to stave off the slow slide into family breakup, alcoholism, and starvation. Zola is capable at times of describing in clinical detail the squalid conditions in which some of his characters live, down to the very curses they hurl at their fate.

Despite his dedication to realism, some elements of Zola's novels are surrealistic, even supernatural, adding yet another piquancy to the work. La faute de l'abbé Mouret (Father Mouret's Transgression) is the most striking example of this aspect of the cycle, though as early as the first in the series, La fortune des Rougon (The Fortunes of the Rougon Family) surrealism makes its presence felt.

Whimsically and in a fashion somewhat inconsonant with the sobriety of tone which marks most of Zola's work, Zola's character names often contain clues to their personalities in the form of thematic names and/or puns.

Perhaps Zola's greatest literary excellence is his ability to maintain the artful illusion of scientific impartiality while detailing the often sinister exterior and interior lives of his characters. Some are easy to hate, but Zola, given to caricature in his minor characters, never wholly condemns his major characters. Even the most vile with blood on their hands excite within us some degree of compassion and understanding when treated by the pen of the master.

I'm not really a literary historian - I just play one on the Web. Real literary historians probably know for a fact whether or not American author and later California gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair read Zola before writing The Jungle (1906).  The Jungle is structured and purposed and flavored very much like Zola's novels, particularly Le ventre de Paris and GerminalThe Jungle contains similar reformist and utopian socialist urges; presents a similar panoramic view of character and scene combined with a particularlist view of plot developments; and unfolds Zola-esque tragedy in a working-class family resulting from explotation, degradation and oppression.

Though his subject matter is often tragic, Zola's writing is spiced with bitter and delightful irony. The one modern American writer who perhaps resembles Zola in this single regard is Kurt Vonnegut. In contrast with Vonnegut, Zola was in many respects a harder worker, exerting journalistic attention to evidence-gathering, accurate detail and factual history in a manner worthy of James Michener, Jimmy Breslin or Studs Terkel. For the purposes of the novels, Zola often coalesced historical events or transposed them, but generally he was faithful enough to the historical record that his few artistic or accidental transpositions are footnoted in modern editions.

William Faulkner is one American author who chose to string a series of novels onto a meta-architecture somewhat like that employed by Zola in the Rougon-Macquart cycle. Yoknapatawpha County and its idiosyncrantic inhabitants serve Faulkner as Plassans and its farflung children serve Zola.

Zola not only wrote of history but also made it when he championed the cause of the wrongfully convicted Alfred Dreyfus, initiating that campaign with his immortal open letter to the president of the French (IIIe) Republic, J'accuse. That campaign may have led to Zola's untimely demise by carbon-monoxide poisoning; a half-century after the event, a man claimed to have blocked Zola's chimney as a "prank" to punish him for his attention to the Dreyfus case.

Rougon-Macquart Online

Project Gutenberg has many of the series online, both in French and in English translation. Also, there are many editions in French of all the novels and several notable translations of most of the series in English, though certain of the lesser-known volumes appear not to have been translated in recent times. For example, the most recent translation I have found of La fortune des Rougon, the first book of the series, is from the 1920's.

A list of the Rougon-Macquart novels follows with a brief synopsis of those which I have completed reading. English translations of the names are sometimes conjectural on my part, since I have only read three in English, the rest in French. However, a light search of the Worldwide Web suggests that all have been translated, often under different names by different translators and publishers. Again, Project Gutenberg is a good place to start looking.

Zola Online

Notes on the Second Empire

In 1848, the Restoration of the French monarchy which had followed the defeat and exile of Napoléon Bonaparte was overthrown by the working-class and middle-class uprising of 1848 which established the Second Republic. Louis Bonaparte became president of the 2nd Republic but was constitutionally limited to one term. As the election of 1852 approached,  Bonaparte and his partisans overthrew the Republic in the coup of 2 December, 1851. The Second Empire was declared, Louis Bonaparte was named the Emperor Napoléon III, and uprisings against the coup were brutally suppressed by summary execution or deportation.

The Second Empire (1851-1870), which, despite setbacks, grew progressively more socially liberal as it progressed, was essentially an era of greed, graft, stock jobbing and conspicuous consumption. The government was a kleptocracy maintained by the dispensation of favors to the loyal, usually the favor of looting one or another sector of a rapidly growing industrial economy. The middle class grew fat while the working class lost ground and was politically oppressed. However, massive public works (including the demolition of broad swaths of old Paris for the construction of the broad central boulevards of modern Paris) and railroad expansion were ceaseless and jobs were plentiful, though industrial safety was nearly unknown. It was under the Second Empire that the French dug the Suez Canal and planned the Panama Canal. In the same era, the French stock market went through several notable booms and busts, including the Crédit Mobilier scandal (fictionalized in L'argent), a swindle whose general outlines (the pumping of the stock price displacing any genuine business) were indistinguishable from the one perpetrated in modern times by the Enron corporation.

Though to American tastes a rather stuffy, hypocritical, corrupt and inefficient police state, the Second Empire favored monumental technological and social change and oversaw the transformation of France into one of the two most modern continental nations. The Second Empire was particularly unpopular in the United States as Napoléon III meddled in Mexico in contravention of the Monroe Doctrine and American national interest. The fatuous luxury of the Napoléon III's court and the French middleclass lifestyle of the time (as witnessed by the overstuffed deuxiéme empire parlor furniture!) also played poorly to the 19th century American public, to say nothing of the reputedly bumptious personality of the Emperor himself, who was gleefully derided in the American press by writers as diverse as Karl Marx (in articles in the New York Herald during the American Civil War) and Mark Twain (Innocents Abroad).

A marvellous French historical website sympathetic to the Second Empire is found at

How to Enjoy the Rougon-Macquart

The following is submitted by Rhoda Koenig

It is absolutely NOT necessary to read the series in the order Zola wrote it! In fact, that would be a mistake! While all the novels are well worth reading, some are, inevitably, better than others. The best way to get started is to read one that is exciting (L'Assomoir, Germinal, La bête humaine) or sexy (Pot-bouille) or one that deals with one of your own interests (La bonheur des dames - a department store, La bête humaine - trains) and then browse among the rest as the fancy takes you. The plot of each is self-contained, and while there is some interest in knowing who was the mother or father of the main character, the novels are psychologically complete in themselves as well. If you can't get far with a particularly dense one, such as L'Oeuvre, leave it for the time being and try another rather than plodding on resentfully. The Rougon-Macquart is so immense a banquet that if one dish doesn't please you, many others surely will.

Synopsis of Volumes of the Rougon-Macquart Cycle

¡¡ Spoiler - Spoiler - Spoiler !!

Here are synopses for the Rougon-Macquart novels I have read. Reading these synopses may spoil the plot for the new reader! The interpretations and opinions here are solely the responsibility of the author of this web page. I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies which may be found herein, some of which may arise in attempting to prevent the synopses from spoiling the plot.

Please note that titles of translations vary. Many I have not seen in translation so have translated the titles on my own.


If a title below is hyperlinked, it is linked to an online EText of the volume in question. Note: These links are now dated. Specifically,  all the Rougon-Macquart novels are available online in French.
Year of publication
Rougons and Macquarts who participate
La fortune des Rougon (The Fortunes of the Rougon Family)
Adelaïde Fouque.

Pierre Rougon, Ursula and Antoine Macquart.

Eugéne, Aristide, Pascal, Sidonie,  Marthe Rougon

Jean, Lisa, Gervaise Macquart.

François, Heléne, Silvére Mouret.

Adelaïde Fouque of Plassans in south-central France is heiress of a bourgeois family but marries a prosperous peasant Rougon, who is her gardener. She has a son (Pierre Rougon) by him. When Rougon dies, Adelaïde takes up with a smuggler named Macquart, by whom she has an illegitimate son and daughter (Antoine and Ursule Macquart).

Prone to mental illness (today she might be diagnosed bipolar and paranoid schizophrenic) and given to careless, distracted, abandoned behavior, Adelaïde haphazardly raises all three children together, ignoring them for the most part. She remains deaf to the disapprobation of her community which is scandalized by her ongoing obsessive relationship with her ne'er-do-well alcoholic lover. Her children grow and marry, but Adelaïde becomes suspicious, withdrawn and sometimes catatonic after of the death of her lover at the hands of the gendarmes. She moves from her spacious home into the hovel of the deceased Macquart where she lives with her young grandson by Ursule, Silvére Mouret. As time passes, Adelaïde grows more withdrawn into mental illness and is offhandedly referred to by her extended family as "Tante Dide" (Aunt Dee). As fate and Zola would have it, by the end of the series, Tante Dide has outlived many of her descendants.

The action of The Fortunes of the Rougon Family begins at the dawn of the Second Empire, but large sections of the book are retrospective, taking us from the late 1700's when Adelaïde was born up to the literary present of the series, the period 1851-1870. It takes place in Plassans, a fictional region of provincial south-central France.

Zola's twenty-volume chronicle of the lives of Adelaïde's children and grandchildren (and eventually great-grandchildren) of the Rougons and Macquarts (and family branches-by-marriage such as Mourets, Quenus, Coupeaus, Lantiers) commences against the backdrop of the Napoléonic wars, the Restoration, the Second Republic, and the Second Empire. The focus is on Pierre Rougon and his Machiavellian wife Felicité as they plan to advance their fortunes at the time of the coup d'etat. In this they are constantly harried by importunate scheming of Pierre's half-brother, Antoine Macquart, whom Pierre has cheated out of his inheritance. Love interest is provided by the 17-year-old son of Ursule Macquart Mouret, Silvére Mouret, who is awakening to woman and to patriotism and is swept up in the worker-peasant rising for the Republic and against Louis Bonaparte (Napoléon III) at the time of the latter's 1851 coup.

In The Fortunes of the Rougon Family we are introduced to many of the characters who will figure in the nineteen remaining books, notably including Pierre Rougon's son Pascal, a medical doctor who appears in several of the novels and who is the hero of the eponymous Le doctor Pascal (Doctor Pascal) with which Zola wrapped up the Rougon-Macquart series in 1893. Of particular interest is Gervaise Macquart, perhaps Zola's most striking female character, whose rise and fall is detailed in L'assomoir (The Dram Shop), and who was not mentioned in the original edition of La fortune des Rougon. Zola later rewrote and republished certain passages of La fortune des Rougon in order to work Gervaise into the cycle.
La curée (The Contest for the Spoils) 1871
Eugéne, Maxime, Charles Saccard (Rougon).
The coup d'etat has established Pierre and Felicité's son Eugéne as a minister of the Second Empire. Another son, Aristide Rougon, joins his brother in Paris to make his own fortune. But Eugéne, recognizing his brother's character flaws, in particular, an obsession with getting rich quick only in order to spend without limit, insists that Aristide operate under an assumed name; Aristide choses the surname "Saccard" by which he is known for the rest of the cycle.

Engaging in land swindles at the municipal level as Emperor Napoléon III condemns and rebuilds much of central Paris, Aristide becomes wealthy, at least on paper, with a trophy wife and a palatial home built in monumental bad taste. Aristide's ups and downs in finance and in love provide the plot material of the novel; his many rises and falls on both scores will figure again later in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, notably in L'argent (Money).

La curée represents Zola's gleefully savage caricature of the middle-class opportunists who were the core constituency of the Second Empire, depicting them in pursuit of the curée, which is what the French call the spoils of hunt left to be torn apart by the pack of hunting dogs.
Le ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris or The Fat and The Thin)
Lisa, Gervaise Macquart.

Pauline Quenu.

Aristide Saccard (Rougon).

The year is 1856. Lisa Macquart has married the docile bourgeois Quenu, a charcutier. (A charcuterie is a hot-cuts place, the way a delicatessen is a cold-cuts place). She appreciates the security after growing up starving with a drunken mother and father. But Florian, Quenu's brother, who was sent to Devil's Island in the aftermath of the working-class rising against Napoléon III's coup d'etat, has escaped and returned to France.

Le ventre de Paris is set against the colorful and flavorful backdrop of Les Halles, the vast, multi-acre roofed but open-walled meat and produce market which was erected in north-central Paris under the Second Empire to improve food distribution to the capital city. (I visited the last  remaining blocks of Les Halles before they were torn down for urban renovation in the 1970's.)

Otherworldly, idealistic, unselfish and priestly as his dedication to revolution against the Second Empire has made him, Florian nevertheless represents a threat to the warm, humid security which Lisa has come to enjoy with her husband and daughter. Florian's uprightness also serves unintentionally as a rebuke to the complacency of middle-class brother and sister-in-law and to his own fellow workers in Les Halles. Florian clearly has no place in the Second Empire's culture of greed; it only remains to be seen how the axe will fall.
La conquête de Plassans (The Conquest of Plassans)
Adelaïde Fouque.

François, Octave, Serge, Désirée Mouret.

Marthe Rougon.

Antoine Macquart.
The year is 1856. The Second Empire is well-established, as is the hegemony of the Rougons in Plassans. But elections are now again being held; all that remains is to make sure the "approved" candidates win every seat. The powers of the Empire personified by her son Eugéne (now a cabinet minister) dispatch a meddlesome and stern provincial Catholic priest to the aid of the political machinations of Felicité Rougon. The priest and his mother move in as boarders with François and Marthe Mouret, married first cousins (he is the son of Ursule Macquart, she is the daughter of Pierre Rougon) who are prosperous bourgeois. Felicité tames the rural crudity of the priest to her uses, but is unable to prevent the disruption of Mouret family life by the Rasputin-like charismatic and destructive influence of the priest upon Marthe Rougon. Only the roguish old Antoine Macquart, Marthe's uncle, spots the source of the disruption and attempts in his sly and malicious way to come to the rescue of his pet niece's happiness and to revenge himself upon Felicité at the same time.

Zola's ostensible political purpose in the novel of exploring the Second Empire's transformation of its early absolutist power into subsequent rigged democracy is almost entirely overshadowed by a ripping story about sinster external influence rupturing the lives and love of the vacuously content Mourets. The drama compiles a list of wrongs long enough to justify the ironic, horrific, devastating finale which Zola has planned for his characters, one fully as appalling as the finale of a Steven King novel.
La faute de l'abbé Mouret (Father Mouret's Transgression) 1875
Serge, Désirée Mouret.

Pascal Rougon.
The most surrealistic of the Rougon-Macquart novels. Serge Mouret is the priest of a tumble-down church near Plassans. He is personally and spiritually devoted to Mary. Serge has never known woman except mystically in his devotion to St. Mary, but illness and amnesia thrust Serge into the care of a father and daughter who inhabit the former park estate of a Bourbon-era nobleman. There in the huge, seemingly boundless pleasure garden run to riot in the absence of care behind its crumbling walls, Serge becomes a figure of Adam lost in Eden with a Eve-like guide who seems to hold the answer to the mysteries of his devotion.
Son Excellence Eugéne Rougon
Eugéne Rougon. Eugéne Rougon is the most powerful of Napoléon III's ministers, but scandal and opposition mounted by his jealous rivals force his retirement and retreat. Given to no vices and devoted to power for power's sake, Eugéne plans his comeback with the aid of an Italian adventuress whose offer of love he declines in order to preserve her usefulness to him as an advisor and co-conspirator.
L'assomoir (The Dram Shop) 1877
Gervaise Macquart.

Claude, Étienne Lantier.

Anna Coupeau.
The most shocking and stirring of all the Rougon-Macquart cycle. Conceived in a drunken passion and raised by her ne'er-do-well father Antoine Macquart, Gervaise has two children while still in her teens. She runs off to Paris where her lover deserts her within a few months.

Gervaise Macquart's dreams are simple: a safe place to raise her children, enough to eat, not to be beaten, and to die happily in her own bed. She meets a sober workman, Coupeau, marries him and starts a successful laundry business. But her happiness is not to be complete: Coupeau, injured on the job, takes to drink and drags Gervaise with him down to ruin.

Zola's brutal exposé of the human cost of the widespread working-class alcoholism of the Second Empire aroused vehement criticism in literary circles of the time. This criticism ostensibly targeted the coarse, everyday language employed in the novel, but it was Zola's depicting the conditions of the working poor in realistic rather than in moralistic terms that seems to have aroused the ire of his critics.
Une page d'amour (A Love Story)
Héléne Grandjean (née Mouret),
Jeanne Grandjeanne
Héléne Grandjean, orphan of Ursule Mouret (née Macquart, Antoine's sister from La fortune des Rougon),  is the widow of Grandjean, a working man. She resides in the outskirts of Paris with the couple's daughter Jeanne Grandjean, who unfortunately partakes of the Macquart hereditary neurological disturbances, in particular, a kind of catatonic epilepsy. Seizures brought on by emotional stress can leave Jeanne on the brink of death for weeks. The disease has rendered young Jeanne, on the brink of maturity, exceedingly dependent on her mother and childishly, irrationally jealous of any potential suitor or interloper.

The two live in an apartment rented from Dr. Deberle, a wealthy, married practitioner who, because of his proximity, becomes attendant upon Jeanne in preference to the family physician. The inevitable occurs : Deberle's and Héléne's hands meet over the sleeping child after the doctor has tended her in the aftermath of a convulsion. Will their unavowed love blossom, or does tragedy stalk the couple? If you know your Zola, you can guess the answer!
Anna Coupeau Anna (Nana) Coupeau is Gervaise Macquart's daughter (L'assomoir). By the time she is 15 years old she has found the secret of escaping her hungry, crumbling family and her father's beatings: she runs away to a life of street prostitution. Uncommonly beautiful, Nana is discovered by a producer of musical comedy. She becomes the most fashionable courtesan of the day in Paris as the Second Empire founders in rivalry with Prussia. By the age of 18 Nana has a child and is successfully devouring the immense fortunes of her wealthy lovers who vie to be ruined by her. Unable to find happiness, not in control of her passions, Nana throws away her wealthy way of life and launches herself into a void of self-destruction which has echoes in the biographies of certain modern celebrities.

Nana is the most thorough psychological treatment of sensuality and sexuality rendered by the hand of Zola, who possessed more than average skill in such writing. The sublime steaminess of this book as it sounds the abyss of insatiable desire has earned Nana more popularity in English translation than its place in the Rougon-Macquart cycle alone would assign it.
Octave Mouret Pot-bouille  is a bedroom tragi-farce with most of the action taking place in a thoroughly modern (heated stairwells!) apartment building populated entirely by ostensibly virtuous bourgeouis comme il faut (of proper manners and respectable conduct) and their less well-mannered servants. Zola treats the apartment building as a sort of "ant farm", in whose rooms and along whose passageways he observes and documents the less respectable private conduct of his characters as a means of deconstructing bourgeois hypocrisy.

Octave Mouret is the son of François Mouret and Marthe Rougon (whom we met in La conquête de Plassans) and is the brother of Serge and Désirée Mouret (whom we read about in La faute de l'abbé Mouret). Octave is, as we would say today, "in touch with his female side" and has transplanted his budding career as a fabric and women's wear expert from Plassans to Paris where he hopes to climb to fortune by bedding women who can help him. Octave's bedroom antics turn him little or no profit as he dodges jealous husbands and evades the matrimonial enterprises of a corsetted harridan with two marriageable daughters of dubious character and even more dubious dowry. More importantly for Octave and for the Rougon-Macquart series, he becomes an employee of the store "Au bonheur des dames" ("Paradise for  Ladies") which he hopes to transform from a dark and dusty dry goods store into a new kind of store, the first department store in Paris. That store "Au bonheur des dames" is the centerpiece of the next novel in the series.

Pot-bouille  is the lightest book of the Rougon-Macquart cycle. The plot and style resemble in some respects the marriage-and-money potboilers of Zola's older English contemporary Anthony Trollope (in particular The Eustace Diamonds (1873) and  The Way We Live Now (1875)). Zola may or may not have been familiar with Trollope's work (ask a real literary historian!); in any event, Trollope, who spoke fluent French and had spent much time in France, died the same year Pot-bouille was published.

Pot-bouille takes the expected digs at Empire and Emperor, but only in order to demonstrate the cowardly acquiesence of the bourgeois characters, many of whom fancy themselves liberals and vote against the Emperor's slate of candidates, only to be rendered uneasy when the slate they vote for wins. Zola writes, "Without a doubt, the Emperor deserved a lesson; only, they began to regret having given him such a strong one."

The 1954 Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window and/or the short story upon which it was based perhaps were influenced by Pot-bouille.
Au bonheur des dames (Paradise for  Ladies)
Octave Mouret
Octave Mouret founds the first department store in Paris and finds true love. (I read this one many years ago in English before I grasped the overall structure of the Rougon-Macquart cycle and will have to refresh myself on the plot details!)
La joie de vivre (The Joy of Living)
Pauline Quenu,
Lisa Macquart,
Aristide Saccard (Rougon),
Claude Lantier,
Étienne Lantier
I am reading this one right now! Last one left unread (though I intend to re-read Au bonheur des dames in French)!! So far I know the following:

Pauline Quenu is orphaned when her mother, Lisa Macquart (see Le ventre de Paris), dies, closely followed by her father. She is 10 years old and endowed with the accumulated wealth of her avaricious shopkeeping family. The honest bourgeois cousins of her father, les Chanteau, with whom she is placed in Normandy, slowly and subtly and despite their own best intentions begin to devour her inheritance under the rubric of a projected marriage to her cousin Lazare Chanteau. Lazare is a bright but ineffectual dreamer whose engineering projects crumble repeatedly to ruin, taking with them tens of thousands of francs.
Étienne Lantier
Zola's most popular novel ever, and the most satisfactory exercise of many elements of the series's artistic framework as the destiny of individual characters plays out against the backdrop of social and political conditions.

It is 1868. Étienne Lantier, vagabond son of the deceased Gervaise Macquart (L'assomoir), finds work in the coal mines in northern France. He eventually leads the starving coal miners on strike. Zola gives us a tragic love story, a story rife with political and personal betrayal, a panoply of memorable characters marching across the pages of a chronicle of desperate need and flaming passions.

Although many of the economic abuses described in the book had already been reformed by the time of its writing, Germinal is the most stirring working-class novel of the cycle. Workers attending Zola's funeral in 1902 tossed their caps in the air and shouted "Germinal! Germinal!" as their beloved author was laid to rest.

In the course of this novel, Zola incidentally and almost impercetibly teaches us most of the contemporary technology and economics of coal mining, having toured the mines extensively preparatory to writing Germinal.
L'oeuvre (The Masterpiece)
Claude Lantier
Claude Lantier, son of Gervaise Macquart ( L'assomoir), was fostered out as a child to a prosperous old provincial bachelor who encouraged the boy's art interest. Returning as a young man and accomplished painter to Paris, Claude successfully helps found modern French art but is unable by reason of his family heritage of mental illness to complete his own masterpiece or to savor love and home life in a normal fashion. L'oeuvre is a profound psychological novel splashed with some of the best prose about color and light ever fashioned by a novelist. Zola's friend Paul Cézanne, believing to see something of himself in Claude in the pages of L'oeuvre, ruptured finally with the novelist after reading the novel.
La terre (Land or The Earth)
Jean Macquart Jean Macquart (son of Antoine Macquart introduced in La fortune des Rougon) has been discharged from the army into which he fled from his father. He settles in rural France where he falls in love. His betrothed stands to inherit her portion of land, thus breaking up smallholdings coveted for re-unification by more powerful members of her extended family. The stage is set for a tragedy of greed and betrayal.

This novel was both praised for its portrayal of the peasant life and mentality, and condemned as offensive to the peasant class as a whole. Zola, as was his wont, spent many months travelling and interviewing subjects in preparation for writing it, and stood by his work against all criticism. His critique of the status of the peasantry has echoes today, French agricultural protection of inefficient small tenure having preserved to the present day certain elements of the lifestyle Zola described 12 decades ago.
Le rêve (The  Dream) 1888
Angélique Rougon, Sidonie Rougon Angélique Rougon is the illegitimate daughter of Sidonie Rougon (sister of Eugéne and Pascal Rougon and Aristide Saccard). She is given up for adoption but mistreated, so she runs away, collapsing in the early hours of Christmas morning on the steps of a provincial cathedral. A childless couple who are the hereditary holders of a tenancy ajacent to the cathedral and who craft splendid garments for the rich and sacred garments for the church rescue her, raise her, teach her their art (at which she excels) and ultimately adopt her.

Angélique lives in "the dream" of all the sacred legends she has heard or read. She knows that one day her prince will come. And he does come, but their love is forbidden by the aristocratic father of the prospective groom. This father became a priest on the death of his wife. Now a bishop, he blocks the marriage until devout obedience and hysterical (in the Freudian sense) anxiety have consumed Angélique's health, at which point the bishop-father yields and the couple are married. Angelique kisses the groom, then collapses and dies on the steps of the church.

Le rêve juxtaposes the themes of rigidity of caste with the unintentional harm done by religious obscurantism, both of which Zola felt pervaded the Second Empire. Unlike those modern authors who portray as vile that which they condemn, Zola demonstrates great artistry in his sympathetic depiction of people whose will and vitality erode as they succumb to the soporific perfume of the Catholicism of the time. Zola had, by this time, encountered the writings of Karl Marx and was surely aware of the latter's characterization of religion as the "opiate of the masses", as there could hardly be a finer novelistic exposition of that political opinion than that found in Le rêve.

This book is similar to La faute de l'abbé Mouret but is less vigorous a story than that earlier work. It also lacks some of the depth of Zola's other works touching on the mystic. It might be termed an "attractive miniature" in the Rougon Macquart cycle. One might have though that Zola was running out of energy and ideas, but he was to follow this minor work with two of the most striking books of the cycle: La bête humaine and L'argent.
La bête humaine (The Human Beast) 1890 Jacques Lantier
The various stories of the Rougon-Macquart cycle are tied thematically, by character, scientific outlook and polemic purpose. However, each story is an exercise in telling a tale and each partakes of  its own unique flavor, allowing Zola to demonstrate the broad scope of his abilities.

La bête humaine is a murder mystery and suspenseful psychological thriller. As L'assomoir explored  working-class alcoholism by taking you into the private lives of several alcoholics,  La bête humaine explores murder by visiting the inner world of not one, but several murderers.

Jacques Lantier is the middle son (between Claude and Étienne Lantier) of Gervaise Macquart (whom we met first in Le fortune des Rougons, met again in Le ventre de Paris and read about at great length L'assomoir). Jacques Lantier actually was not part of Zola's original plan of Gervaise's offspring, but was retroactively added to the family tree in La bête humaine.

Jacques Lantier was left behind, the story tells us, when his teenaged mother Gervaise fled to Paris. Jacques was left  in the care of a loving widow, who later remarried. Somehow maternal abandonment has left him with a wellspring of uncontrollable rage against women (Zola thus anticipating later work of his contemporary Sigmund Freud), which bursts out when he sees their bare flesh. Up to the time of the novel, he has managed to keep his impulses under control.

While the polemic purposes of the Rougon-Macquart cycle are little advanced by the novel (with the exception of a few vignettes of the  Second Empire's version of the "good ol' boy network"), as a story this is one of Zola's best. One suspects Agatha Christie was a fan of Zola and had read La bête humaine.

Interestingly, much of the action takes place in Normandy. Surely Zola's friendship with his younger disciple Guy de Maupassant (at his height in 1890), whose short stories were almost uniformly set in de Maupassant's native Normandy, influenced the choice of locale for La bête humaine.
The following was submitted by Rhoda Koenig, who was kind enough to write about this novel before I had gotten around to reading it myself:

 This novel is about an express train, and it goes like one. There is a real engine, whose driver, Jacques Lantier, loves it as passionately as if it were a woman, until it is replaced in his affections by Severine, the wife of a stationmaster who bores and disgusts her. But the engine is a metaphor as well--for the Second Empire and, beyond that, for the terrifying world that was born in the nineteenth century, when science began to give man powers that outstrip his judgment and self-control.

Zola's image is a simple but terrifying one--a train racing along, belching fire and screaming, with no one at the controls. From the first chapter, when a train at a Paris station "asks" for a place with its bleating noises and a husband becomes mindlessly, reflexively brutal when angered, we see the machines behaving like people and the people behaving like machines. Those who are not motivated by sex are obsessed with money: A minor character who repeatedly tries to poison his suspicious wife for her hidden wealth finally succeeds, in a uniquely repulsive and ingenious way.

There are many sympathetic, even tender, passages in the novel, but for the most part this intense, at times lurid, work is not so much about sex and violence but sex AS violence: "The door of terror opened over the black chasm of sex, love even unto death, destruction for fuller possession."

The inherited taint of the Rougon-Macquart surfaces in Jacques, who is the brother of Claude (L'Oeuvre) and Etienne (Germinal) and was abandoned in their country birthplace by his parents, Gervaise Macquartand her lover Lantier, whom we meet in Paris at the start of L'Assomoir. Zola, needing another character for this novel, had to invent another Lantier son after L'Assomoir had already been published.
L'argent (Money)
Eugéne, Aristide Rougon
Aristide Rougon (Saccard), whom we met in La fortune des Rougon and whom we came to know intimately in La curée, finally comes up with the perfect money-making machine: he founds a banking corporation ostensibly intended to invest in developing French interests in the Near East. Actually, the real business of Saccard's Universal Bank is manipulating its own stock price after the fashion of the failed Enron corporation in modern times. On the road to a ruin triggered in part by Saccard's overt antisemitism towards powerful French Jewish financiers, Saccard inadvertently betrays and swindles even those he loves, all the while believing his own fantasies about ever-increasing prosperity and an endless rise in the stock market.

Although Zola leaned towards pathos, he was far from humorless: L'argent is a satire of the Crédit Mobilier scandal which rocked the last years of the Second Empire. There is disaster, but no real tragedy, and in the end, the scoundrel absconds under the protection of his cabinet minister brother to thrive and swindle another day.

Largely due to its satiric tone, L'argent is probably the most accessible of the Rougon-Macquart series to the modern American reader.
Le débâcle (The Debacle)
Jean Macquart
Jean Macquart (whom we last left in the aftermath of tragedy in La terre) has re-enlisted in the army for the Franco-Prussian War that ends in French defeat, the capture of Emperor Napoleon III at Sedan, and the occupation of Paris. Corporal Macquart mentors a young bourgeois private named Maurice. Maurice at first disdains the barely literate peasant corporal, but under the rigors of war bonds with the generous Macquart and ends up being drawn across class lines into the uprising of the Paris Commune.

Zola intended to conjure up again the emotions which had been felt by the French in their defeat by means of this novel written twenty years after that defeat. He also wished to pin the blame for the debacle on Napoleon III's kleptocracy and the incompetent, venal generals who rose to power in the Second Empire. In other words, Zola created a sort of novelistic, 19th century "Farenheit 9/11", one which earned him the kind of hostility and accusations of being a carrion bird that Michael Moore is currently garnering at this writing in the summer of 2004.

Zola was, however, committed to fairness even to his opponents, and exercised a journalistic rigor and self-discipline unknown to Moore. Zola never imputed to political leaders and historical figures deeds for the occurence of which he did not possess sound documentary evidence, and often treated his enemies with sympathy and presented profound psychological insight into their very human motivations. In particular, in The Debacle a minor didactic theme is the debunking of the centuries-old myth of the French people that every defeat of their army throughout French history can only have been the result of treason by the generals.
Le docteur Pascal (Doctor Pascal)
Zola finally writes himself into the story as the aging Dr. Pascal. It is 1873. Pascal Rougon has laboriously chronicled the lives of his fellow descendants of Tante Dide (who herself lives on silently in a mental hospital, over one hundred years old). Pascal's aged mother Felicité wants to bury the sordid origins of the family and the criminal trail of its great fortune and power (which fortune has survived the fall of the Second Empire) so wishes to burn Pascal's biographical and medical notes. At first Felicité is aided in her campaign by her granddaughter Clotilde Rougon, the daughter of Aristide Rougon (Saccard), Pascal's niece who lives in Plassans as a ward of Dr. Pascal. Clotilde is religiously devout and mystical, and believes Dr. Pascal's medical researches and experiments contrary to divine law. But Clotilde is awakening not only as a woman but as an intellectual, and becomes devoted to Dr. Pascal's researches and falls in love with his person.

Essentially all the Rougon-Macquart descendants figure in the story. Le docteur Pascal has been called the meta-novel which recapitulates the "social and natural history" of the Rougon-Macquart family, closing the book on the dark chapters and personalities and raising up a torch of hope for the future in the person of one last newborn descendant of Tante Dide.