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The first words in Zola's planning notes for L'Assommoir memorably summarise the goals and achievements of his representation of society throughout Les Rougon-Macquart: 'Show the milieu of the lower classes, and explain lower-class behaviour through this milieu' ['Montrer le milieu peuple et expliquer par ce milieu les moeurs peuple' (RM ii 1544)]. The key words of that celebrated focal statement are 'explain' and 'milieu'. Zola's fiction makes the social milieu an active force instead of an inert setting, an explanatory background that interacts with everyone and everything in the foreground. In L'Assommoir, the milieu explains why workers act, look and smell like workers. In other novels, other milieus explain why the rich act and smell rich, why the members of the bourgeoisie act and look bourgeois. No matter what their socioeconomic status, Zola's individual characters are always part of a collectivity wielding monumental influence on their personality and biography. One consequence is that Les Rougon-Macquart's delineation of characters is, invariably and imperatively, representation of society. Conversely, the cycle's representation of society explains, imperatively and invariably, how its characters become themselves. Zola's people exist in a social setting apart from which they would be someone else. That setting and the individuals within it constitute a whole. Neither is comprehensible without the other.
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