Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Kill by Émile Zola

Title:  The Kill
Author:  Émile Zola
Published:  1872
Challenges:  The Classics Club; Literary Movement Reading Challenge (Naturalism)

Émile Zola is an artist: the pen is his paintbrush, and the pages are his canvas.  He paints in precise detail his setting, and decorates his characters in the fashions and styles of the day. Because of these ideals, I assumed that a book like The Kill would be considered written in the style of the realism movement; however, I have since learned that naturalists believed that realists failed to portray life as ugly or difficult - or we could add that they left out some truth about life.  If you have ever read Zola, you would agree that he knows how to present all of life: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Kill is the second volume in the Les Rougon-Macquart series.  The setting is the yet-to-be-born new city of Paris, as it is being thought out.  One of the main characters, Saccard (Aristide) Rougon, makes his mark and becomes a successful speculator, in more than just real estate.  He loves wealth; money is all he cares about.  And he is not alone.  It permeates the very culture of people he surrounds himself with.  

Sweet Doing Nothing - Auguste Toulmouche
French artist praised by Zola

When Saccard's first wife died, he made a business deal with a wealthy family to marry a young woman, Renée (in order to save her reputation because she was pregnant with another man's child). Saccard greedily inherited her money.  Meanwhile, Renée became personally and emotionally close with Maxime, Saccard's son from his first marriage, and they recklessly developed a semi-incestuous affair.  

I will stop there.  The Kill started off somewhat slow for me, but half way through, Zola made up for it.  As I said, Zola knows how to present all of life, including those behaviors that are difficult and uncomfortable.  There was an abundance of wicked greed and selfish gain, immoral vanity, debauchery and deception, gluttony and drunkenness, and uncontrollable appetites for pleasure and sin.  What a mess it all was!  

Vanity - Auguste Toulmouche

On a personal level, I felt hints of Madame Bovary peeking through.  Bovary was published in 1856, almost 20 years before The Kill.  Renée was this young woman in an uncompromising predicament. She was somewhat indifferent and bored with life, and she became attached to Maxime - not for any good reason that he provided because he was an irresponsible, thoughtless, egocentric young man. However, the reader can see how Renée's lifestyle and obsession with Maxime were spinning out of control, and she was the one who was going to be ruined in the end.  Meanwhile Maxime and his father, Saccard, walked away uninjured.  Maxime was a chip off the old block.

I pitied Renée, especially because it was obviously commonplace that she was being swindled and misused by Saccard.  For example, he devised a plan to sleep with his wife again, and he considerd, 
to capture Renée by the same trick that he would have played on a prostitute.  She was beset by an increasing need of money, and was too proud to ask her husband for help except as a last resort.  Saccard resolved to take advantage of her first request for money to win her favors, and to resume their long-served relations in the delight brought about by the payment of a large debt.
Auguste Toulmouche

Like Madame Bovary, Renée created her own mess and must take responsibility.  Too bad she did not receive sooner the advice of her only friend, Céleste, 
I would never have behaved as you did, Madame.  I often said to myself, when I found you with Monsieur Maxime: 'How is it possible to be so foolish about men!' It always ends badly.  I've always mistrusted them.
But it was too late for Renée.


  1. This book was absolutely depressing. I find Zola focuses more on the bad and the ugly than the good, but I must say, in the fourth book, Money, there is some good in it, although it's uncertain whether it will be corrupted (I haven't quite finished reading yet). After I read this book I needed a Zola-break for awhile, but now I'm back at it. If nothing else, Zola intimately understands all the bad aspects of human nature.

    I love your pictures, BTW ..... I'd never heard of Auguste Toulmouche.

    1. You could say that The Kill is about really rotten people doing really horrible things. Maybe Céleste is the last decent person in the whole story.

      When I was reading The Grapes of Wrath, I imagined that I was reading the American Zola - Steinbeck. (I'm calling him that; I've not heard either of them compared with one another, nor do I know if Steinbeck read Zola.) Maybe it was because Grapes reminded me of Germinal.

      Anyway, it felt like a similar scenario, in which everyone is just rotten, greedy, and ugly. However, in the case of Steinbeck, his Joads were supposed to produce sympathy, whereas I sense that Zola expects us to despise his Rougons.

  2. I've never read Zola. I must remedy that very soon. I like the artwork you put into your review! Awesome!

    1. My first Zola was Germinal. It was amazing.

  3. After reading this book I went to Paris and found the building on Ile St. Louis in which Renée grew up.
    I remember Zola's vivid description of Renée standing on a balcony watching the Seine flow past and wanted to see it for myself!
    I agree Zola did reveal the dark side of Parisian society ..the ugly and sordid. (morals).
    Enjoyed your review/comparisons with Steinbeck.

    1. Wow! What an amazing opportunity! I read that Zola made up his entire story, obviously, but he learned all he could about his setting and the fashions of the time. So I imagine he did a lot of observation of the city and people and the rivers, etc.

  4. I also love the Auguste Toulmouche pictures. I saw some of them you posted on Pinterest the other day and was fascinated. And what a great match for your Zola review! I'm afraid I have neglected to read Zola and am a little afraid to start. But I know I will venture soon into Zola territory. From all the references I keep running into Zola seems to be an essential part of a well-rounded classical education.

    1. I felt the same way w/ all the Zola fans writing about the Rougon series. I had to find out, and I am glad I started it.

  5. You're right. First half of The Kill felt rather flat, but Zola is Zola, and he paid it off with the ending.
    Right now I'm reading Pot Luck (Pot Bouille); so far it's slightly better than The Kill, and now I'm very looking forward to the ending. ;)

    1. Oh, good. I have a couple of Zola's scheduled for this year!