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Poverty in Emile Zola's "L'Assommoir"
L’Assommoir is a nineteenth century novel, written by Emile Zola, that paints a picture of urban life in the slums of Paris. The novel tells the story of Gervaise, a woman who comes full circle through the different levels of poverty. It is a story that shows how poverty can control, trap, bring down, and eventually kill a person.
From the beginning, when Gervaise is living with her lover, Lantier, and her two children, the existence of having to live day to day is clear. Their life is controlled by poverty. Lantier does not bring home enough money to feed his family because he is out drinking and womanizing. Gervaise has to resort to selling their things to a pawnshop in order to feed her children.
The controlling grip that poverty has over these working class Parisians tightens and traps them. They can move up and down the ladder within poverty, but they can never escape. Gervaise moves up from the Hotel Boncoeur to a flat in the rue Neuve de la Goutte d’Or, to the first floor shop-front in the big building in the rue de la Goutte d’Or, and finally down to the sixth floor room in the big building. However, even in seemingly prosperous times, poverty is a trap. Gervaise had a dream of opening a laundry business. She and her husband, Coupeau, worked long, hard hours to put some money in savings. Their hard work had already paid off when they moved out of the hotel into their flat. They were also able to buy new furniture. This bit of prosperity, or luck, spurred them on to save enough money to open their business. Poverty wouldn’t allow this good luck to continue. Coupeau, a roofer by trade, fell from a roof onto the street. He was out of work for months with his injuries. Gervaise was forced to dip into savings to live and care for him.
Gervaise was able to open her business by borrowing money from Goujet. On the outside, she appeared as if she was moving up in the world. Even though she knew that she had to pay the debt, she wasn’t concerned. Just like the money from the pawnshop, this loan was easy money; she didn’t have to work long, hard hours to get it. This concept of easy money is one of the tools of poverty that led to Gervaise’s eventual downfall. Pawn shops, loans from friends and family, buying on credit, and falling behind on the rent without being evicted were easy ways to get money, or at least easy ways to get out of paying at the time.
Even if long term success was theoretically possible, for these characters, a glimpse of prosperity and an easier life was like a drug. They had to have it, even though they had not attained actual success. Poverty eventually put them in their place. Poverty slowly brought them down until they hit bottom. When the laundry business is prosperous, the money is flowing and credit around the neighborhood is good. So, the Coupeau’s spend more. Gervaise doesn’t seem to mind when Coupeau isn’t working on a regular basis. She even gives him money that she knows he drinks away. This ‘no worries’ lifestyle leads to laziness in these characters who once worked so hard. When things start to go bad, they don’t increase their will to work. In fact, Coupeau works less and less. Gervaise is once again in the position of having to pawn items to put food on her table. This time though, it is to make a party more lavish, not to keep from starving.
This slow decent is shown best in the view that the Coupeau’s have of alcohol. When the first get married, both believe that drinking spirits is awful. They feel that it ruins a person to drink anything more potent than wine. Drinking wine on a daily basis is an acceptable custom in Paris. After his accident, Coupeau begins to drink more heavily. Gervaise makes excuses because her husband was so badly injured. Coupeau grows used to his lazy drinking lifestyle. He doesn’t want to give it up when it is time for him to go back to work. He begins to realize that they are trapped by poverty; there is no point in working when it doesn’t get you anywhere. He begins to drink heavier as the years go by. In the end, Gervaise also turns to alcohol when she has hit bottom and given up; she gives in to poverty.
Another example of Gervaise’s decent is her relationship to men. As she is working toward success, she gets away from Lantier, her abusive lover, and marries Coupeau. When poverty bring her down, her morality slips with it. She falls in love with Goujet, but doesn’t act upon her love. Lantier comes back into her life. He moves into their home and eventually starts having sex with Gervaise. As she descends, she not only commits adultery, but she also violates the bond she has with Goujet.
Gervaise came full circle in this novel. She began at almost rock bottom when she was living in the hotel with Lantier. She climbed up the social ladder a few rungs, never leaving poverty, landing as an employer in the laundry business. Bad circumstances, laziness, living above their means and alcohol slowly brought her and Coupeau down into squalor. In the end, Gervaise is wandering the streets looking for a man to sell herself to so that she can eat. While she wanders, she finds herself back in the place she began, in front of the Hotel Boncoeur. To emphasize the cycle of poverty, Zola had Gervaise wandering in this circular route several times. She wanders around until she is staring old Bru, a symbol of the lowest level of poverty, right in the face. As she stares into the face of poverty, we can see that it has destroyed Gervaise. As Zola states, “It wasn’t even quite clear what she did die of. People mentioned the cold and the heat, but the truth was that she died of poverty, from the filth and exhaustion of her wasted life” (Zola 422).
Zola, Emile, L’Assommoir, New York: Penguin Books, 1970.
Written by Donna Hilbrandt, 2012.
© 2012 Donna Hilbrandt