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  • Print publication year: 1992
  • Online publication date: June 2012

Introduction

Summary

To consider Zola's novel about a washerwoman, Gervaise Macquart, who falls on hard times, takes to drink and dies in abject poverty, a landmark of world literature may seem at first to be an extravagant claim, requiring at least some preliminary justification. Though L'Assommoir did not by any means receive universal acclaim from contemporary critics when it first appeared nor for many years thereafter, its exceptional merits have come to be recognised in modern times and there are eloquent testimonies to its importance. Writing for predominantly English readers, one critic, Graham King, has hailed it as ‘one of the greatest masterpieces of literature, a work which heralded a new era in the craft of fiction’ (Garden of Zola, p. 124), whilst the eminent Zola scholar, F. W. J. Hemmings, has described it as an ‘indisputable masterpiece’, approaching ‘sheer artistic perfection’, proof alone of all of Zola's works ‘against the acid of purely formal criticism’ (Emile Zola, pp. 113–14). The Belgian critic, Jacques Dubois, who has done most to apply such acid tests, considers it to be ‘one of the great events of French literature’, a work that has earned its place ‘amongst the masterpieces of the modern novel’ (Introduction to the Garnier-Flammarion edition, 1969, p. 28). One could go on quoting similar statements, but perhaps the most telling recommendations have come, not just from critics, but from other writers, who, whatever their own artistic tendencies, have admired the artistry of the novel and been moved by its vivid, gripping representations.