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

3 - The novel: themes and techniques


In the labyrinth

Whereas French critics have been more inclined to study the character ‘system’ in the novel, critics writing in the English tradition, faithful to a long-standing assumption that the hallmark of great novel writing is the creation of characters, have emphasised the ‘roundness’ of Gervaise's character, the uniqueness of Zola's humble protagonist. Angus Wilson, for example, has described her as ‘perhaps the most completely conceived character, belonging to that great class of submerged, unindividual figures that make up the very poor, to be found in all nineteenth-century fiction’ (Emile Zola, p. 122). ‘Neither good nor bad’, ‘in short, very likeable’ (‘sympathique’), are the terms with which Zola described his character in his preliminary notes. ‘Gervaise is the most likeable and the most tender of the figures that I have yet created,’ he wrote in his letter to Le Bien public (15 February 1877); ‘she remains good to the very end.’ L'Assommoir clearly conforms to the biographical tradition of the novel, as its first titles suggested, to the type of novel that traces the fortunes and misfortunes of a protagonist and engages the sympathy of readers, who see reflected in the character's failings the foibles of humanity, and sometimes their own. But Zola, with his characteristic sense of order, also instructed himself in his chapter plans: ‘Divide my characters into good and bad.’