With The Fortunes of the Rougons, Émile Zola embarked on an ambitious project to write a comprehensive fictional history of the social, sexual and moral landscape of his era. By examining in minute detail the “natural and social history” of two branches of the same family, he intended to demonstrate his theory that character was inescapably determined by the twin forces of heredity and the environment.
In his preface to The Fortunes of the Rougons, Zola commented that the book could just as appropriately have been entitled Origins. It’s a reflection of the fact that as the first of his 20-book Rougon-Macquart cycle, much of this novel is concerned with introducing the members of the respective family branches. The Rougons are the legitimate side, loyal supporters of the Royalist cause who rise to occupy commanding positions in government and finance. On the opposite side of the political fence are the illegitimate disreputable Republican Macquarts. Both branches are descended from the strange and “quite mad”Adelaide Fouques who twice shocked the fictitious Provençal town of Plassans: first when chose as her husband a peasant by the name of Rougon and then, on his death, when she shacked up with an unsavoury poacher called Macquart
The fortunes and misfortunes of these families are set against the background of Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851 which resulted in the Second Empire under Napoleon III. As the novel begins, Republican opposition to the coup is gathering pace in Provencal. Idealism sweeps through the Var region. The region’s woodcutters and peasants begin to march towards Plassans, intent on seizing control of the town. In their midst are Silvère and Miette, two young lovers who get caught up in the patriotic fervour and join the march, a decision which ends in tragedy.
The novel isn’t really about these ill-fated lovers although it’s their moonlight assignation in a deserted cemetery with which the book opens. What Zola is really focused on is depicting how the imminent crisis exacerbates the tendencies in the Rougon and Macquart family to greed, treachery and murder.
The insurgents’ march provides Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité, with the perfect opportunity to achieve their ambition of power and influence. They calculate the fortune that will be showered upon them by a grateful Emperor if they can rally the loyalists and hold the town for his cause. They set about ingratiating themselves into the bourgeoisie of Plassans, using their “yellow drawing room” as a meeting place for the conservatives who support Louis-Napoleon. But their manoeuvring is threatened by the activities of Antoine Macquart, the illegitimate son of Adelaide, who sees the Republic as a way “to fill his pockets from his neighbour’s cashbox and even strangle his neighbour if he objected in any way…”
Zola’s portrayal of the clash between these characters, none of whom can be considered remotely sympathetic, is superb. Zola exposes them as manipulative, avaricious individuals whose desire for fortune becomes tainted with blood. In one key passage as Pierre and Félicité lie in bed and she explains her plans for the conquest of Plassans bring together themes of blood, greed and money.
They kissed each other again and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, staring unblinkingly at the pale, slumbering couple, who now reeked of crime under their sheets, and were dreaming that they could see blood raining down in big drops and turning into gold coins as they landed on the floor.
As that passage shows, there is nothing very subtle about this novel. Each member of the Rougon family has blood on their hands by the end of the novel, laying the foundations for the family’s future as “a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.”
It is a thrilling story. Fast-paced with some glorious set pieces in which Zola satirises and parodies, the extreme provincialism of Plassans, and the lack of principle in its inhabitants. Although the political dimension is central to the plot, it doesn’t require an exhaustive knowledge of the period (my Oxford World Classic edition contained a very useful summary plus family tree) to understand the issues which divide the Rougon-Macquart family and the citizens of Plassans. Zola’s writing, if not as powerful in The Fortune of the Rougons as in the later novels (particularly Germinal and La Bete Humaine), is still completely engrossing.
The Fortune of the Rougons was published in 1871, serialised in the newspaper Le Siècle. Émile Zola went on to publish a further 19 novels in the Rougon-Macquart series under the sub title of Histoire natural et social dune famille sous le Second Empire.
The sympathetic portrait of the insurgents seen in The Fortune of the Rougons stems from Zola’s own opposition to the Empire — he once referred to Louis-Napoleon’s coup as a bloodstain that could never be washed away — although he abhorred violence and did not believe in violent action.