The story begins with a vivid description of an overcrowded graveyard in the fictional French village of Plassans which was moved, and became a place where children played and gypsies camped. Two young lovers meet there, Silvere and Miette on the cold night that Silvere plans to go off and join an insurgency to defend the Rupublic. Next we get a flashback — the neurotic Adelaide marries a peasant named Pierre Rougon and has a son by him they name Pierre. After her husband dies, she takes a lover, a rough drunk with wanderlust named Macquart. She has two children by him — Antoine and Ursule (later the mother of Silvere). Adelaide allows the children to run wild, and soon Pierre sets about getting rid of his two bastard siblings, and selling off his mother’s land to steal the family fortune. Pierre marries the avaricious Felicite and has three sons — Eugene, Aristide and Pascal, along with two daughters (who don’t figure into this novel). Eugene and Aristide inherit their mothers avaricious temperament. Pierre and Felicite operate an olive oil business and manage to get by and send their sons to school, but when they retire, they’re embittered that they were unable to build a fortune, nor do their sons seem to be likely to do it for them. Meanwhile Pierre’s half-brother Antoine returns from a life in the military and wants his share of the family fortune, which Pierre refuses him. Antoine becomes a layabout who complains about the Rougons, and marries so he can live off of his wife and children (none of them will figure into this novel, but will later in the cycle). As lazy as he is, Antoine still resents his poverty and becomes a staunch republican, while his brother Pierre is on the side of the aristocrats who want a monarchy. All of this builds up to a number of battles within the Rougon-Macquart family.
A big theme here is freewill and the power of genetics and environment over the individual — here we’re specifically talking about greed, neuroticism and alcoholism. You can see how the characters genetic dispositions, along with their environment makes them who they are. Zola doesn’t seem to be the type to agree that we have freewill. In the Preface Zola states, “Heredity, like gravity, has its laws.” At the very least we do not get to choose what we “like” or are disposed towards.
In this novel Zola introduces us to the main characters of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and they’re almost exclusively greedy, backstabbing cowards. Zola states, “There are some situations that benefit only corrupt individuals. These people lay the foundations of their fortune where more sober and more influential men would never dare to risk theirs.” In times of crisis it seems the worst have a way of rising to the top by exploiting people’s insecurities. Here we find a cynical, ruthless couple who are willing to step on anyone to get ahead, even stage massacres to do so. The allure of power and wealth corrupts them to the core. The few wholesome characters here meet bad ends, while the cowardly and cunning get ahead. One young dreamer is motivated by genuine, if naive love for his country, yet he meets a bad end compared with others who are merely trying to exploit the situation for their own ends. The character of Felicite is interesting as a sort of Lady Macbeth figure — she’s the real brains behind her husband, without him knowing it. She regrets her evil actions at times, but only briefly, as necessary evils in her attempt to create a “family dynasty.” Almost everyone in this book is a total coward. Take the character of Aristide who normally writes a pro-Republican column in his newspaper, but when things come to a crisis he puts his arm in a sling and pretends to be injured so he cannot write and pick a side. He too is just after money and waits to see which side will win out.
This novel is is well-written, admittedly I wasn’t as involved in this story as I was in “The Drinking Den” for example which I absolutely loved, but it builds up to some pretty good scenes, and some downright heart-wrenching ones as well. There’s a lot of switching back and forth in time as Zola tells us of the various characters which will be seen in later books of the series. The attitude here is so cynical, it’s hard to imagine something like this being written in America for example, although there are American novels written in the naturalist vein, which I hope to explore.