Sunday, September 13, 2015

Emile Zola - 'The Earth'

Jean-Francois Millet Man With a Hoe 1862
Oil on canvas, 80 x 99 cm
The eighteenth novel of Zola's twenty novel cycle about France's Second Empire period, The Earth focuses on the final member of the Macquart family: Jean Macquart. In The Fortune of the Rougons, Jean was introduced as a hard worker and a slow learner. His diligence eventually allows him to earn a trade in carpentry, but Zola makes it clear he'll never be more than a 'worker bee'. His father forces Jean to toil away, only to gamble and drink away his pay. He also flirts with any girl Jean shows an interest in, humiliating his son. One day, Jean gets his pay and runs away from home.

In The Earth, we pick up Jean's story after a good deal of time has passed. He is now twenty-nine, with a job as a farm laborer in the small town of Beauce. Since most of the townspeople grew up in Beauce, Jean is something of an outsider. The locals seem to have accepted him and nick-name him 'Corporal', referring to the fact that Jean spent a good deal of time in the army before turning to farming. He remains hard-working and raw, a true 'peasant' (which is how he comes across to the more polished and educated Maurice in Zola's next novel The Debacle).

The Earth is very well-written, with a broad scope both in terms of characters and subject matter. The cast includes all levels of the agricultural field: large landowners (Hourdequin), family farmers (the Fouan clan), subsistence farmers, even laborers and migrants. Zola spends a great deal of time painting the inter-relationships and social mores of the farming community, using the extended Fouan clan as a centerpiece. The family dynamics are - as expected - front and center. However, Zola also explores the economic issues and changing agricultural technology of the times. These, as well as the shadow of the Franco-Prussian war, influence life in Beauce but do not really alter it. Zola repeatedly links his characters to the earth itself, and it is the unending toil on the land that defines their existence. Everything else seems very far away, and characters that return to the town after going to live in Paris are almost treated like aliens from another planet.

A scene from La Terre, directed by André Antoine (1921)
Zola's massive scope allows him to successfully accomplish his obvious goal of painting a naturalistic portrait of the peasant or agricultural class (of which most of the characters belong, regardless of the internal hierarchies or pretensions some create amongst themselves). Despite this, The Earth is not as fully satisfying a novel when compared to other entries in the Cycle.

There are several reasons for this. First, there's little character development. The characters get older, marry, have children, pursue ownership of land, and (some) die. Through all of this, however, they are fundamentally unchanged. There is no growth or trajectory to their repetitive lives. They are like ants, working the land as if chained to it. This was certainly Zola's intent, as he wished to paint the drudgery of their work and poverty. However, it's a lot harder to stay interested as a reader.

In addition to the lack of character development, virtually all the characters are unsympathetic...and stay that way. The vast majority are depraved, greedy, miserly, and/or petty. They turn insignificant squabbles into multi-generational vendettas. They viciously betray and claw at each other - even the closest members of their own family - with very little prodding and usually for little (or no) gain. Finally, there is little at stake in this viper pit of a family. Zola paints his picture of Beauce implying that the depraved drama of the Fouans and the other families of the town will continue to play out year after year, generation after generation. The earth will always be there, while the people inhabiting and working on it are born and die. Even this is not a progression; it is simply bodies replacing bodies. And these new people will stir up new versions of the same depravity and jealousies as the prior generation did. So there is also no true resolution to the stories Zola tells in The Earth. His setting is a purgatory with no beginning or end. Jean's departure is one of the few true character-driven decisions in the entire novel (which is not short).

Structurally, The Earth performs a critical role in Zola's Cycle, as it completes a triad of social class analysis. The Earth shows the blackness of character among the poor of the Second Empire. Pot-Bouille and A Love Episode did the same thing for the middle class, while The Kill and - to some extent - His Excellency, Eugene Rougon did so for the wealthy class. Of course, almost all the books in the Cycle make bleak commentary about one class of society or another, usually with a member of the Rougon-Macquart family at the heart of everything. Given this role of the novel, I thought it was an odd choice for Zola to place Jean at the periphery of the cast of characters. It is the Fouan family, not Jean or any member of the Rougon-Macquart, that comprise the center of The Earth's plot and family dynamics. Jean plays a minor role in the novel until he contemplates marrying into the family. As I started reading the next novel The Debacle, which also features Jean Macquart as a main character, I formed a theory as to why Zola did this...but more on that in the post for The Debacle.

As well-written and well-conceived as The Earth is, I would not recommend it as a starting point for reading Zola or the Cycle. It's not that the story doesn't move or that Zola doesn't have a great deal to say within its confines. Rather, it's display of petty cruelties and corruption isn't a satisfying enough focus, aside from the shock value from the vileness of the characters. Some of their dysfunction is truly awful, and at times the work came off like an exploitation novel pandering to the prejudices and fears of the middle class. Zola is just as shocking and naturalistic in other books about the lower classes (e.g., L'Assommoir, Germinal, Nana) and yet he also delivers more of the trappings of a traditional story.

Reading The Earth is probably best done after getting the classics of the Cycle under your belt. By the way, I read the Douglas Parmee translation published by Penguin Classics and found it to be excellent.

On a related point. I only have two more Rougon-Macquart novels to go!!!!! What on Earth I'm going to do with all the extra time I'll have on my hands after I finish this challenge of reading the Rougon-Macquart Cycle is entirely beyond me!

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