Zola: Plot Summaries

  My Rougon-Macquart bookshelf...

My Rougon-Macquart bookshelf...

These are plot summaries of those Rougon-Macquart novels in which I had the most direct hand in adapting. They're to save a bit of space in the individual programme articles.

La Fortune des Rougon [The Fortune of the Rougons] 1870

The story tells the founding history of the Rougon and Macquart clan. Adelaïde Fouque is the daughter of a market gardening family in the town of Plassans in Provence, southern France. After her father dies insane, she falls in love with the family's gardener, Rougon. She has a son, Pierre. But then Rougon dies and she takes up with a notorious local smuggler, Macquart, and has a son and a daughter, Antoine and Ursule. She also starts to experience seizures. There is a great rivalry between Pierre and Antoine in particular, especially after Pierre tricks his mother into selling the family home and allowing him to invest the proceeds in the Putsch olive oil business, not coincidentally run by Pierre's wife, the fiercely ambitious Félicité. Together they move into a smart address in the centre of Plassans and they start a salon in the 'yellow drawing room' attracting the conservative element of the town who come together once a week through the 1830s to talk about the return of an absolute monarch. But after 1848, French politics has turned in a leftish direction, to the horror of the conservatives. Meanwhile, Ursule has died leaving an orphaned son and Adelaïde agrees to take him in. They get on well and the boy proves to be a voracious reader, his imagination particularly fired by stories of justice and freedom. He meets a girl of his age, Miette, and they strike up a close friendship. In the early 1850s, Pierre's son Eugene has been in Paris agitating for the Imperial cause and against the Republic. Pierre gets secret forewarning of a right-wing coup. The Yellow Drawing Room is thrilled but then alarmed also to hear that, in response, groups of Republicans are massing in the countryside around Plassans to resist the coup. Silvère and Miette have also heard these rumours and run away to join the Republicans. The Republicans find Miette's presence a novelty and allow her to carry the red flag as they march. They pass through Plassans leave behind Antoine (at his own urging) as the Mayor of the town. The men of the Yellow Drawing Room decide they need to make a stand and, with comic incompetence and surprising success, manage to unseat Antoine. The people of Plassans initially greet Pierre as their hero but, as the Imperial troops fail to appear, they begin to fear that they have been abandoned. They bolt the gates to the town and looking from the battlements see the fires of the Republicans in the distance. Félicité discovers that Eugene has been supplying Pierre with secret information and understands why his messages haven't been getting through - she locates a new letter. She springs Antoine from jail and persuades Pierre to commit himself personally to protect the town. Aristide, another of Pierre's sons, edits a local newspaper and has been agitating for the Republican cause, but is waiting, opportunistically, to see which way the political wind is blowing before he commits to the new edition. Still marching with the Republicans Silvère and Miette admit their love for each other and imagine a long life together, marriage, children and more, but this is cut cruelly short when the group is ambushed and Miette is killed. A bedraggled but still strong Republican army return to Plassans, on the suggestion of Antoine (who has himself been steered that way by Félicité). But the reinforcements had arrived - this is what Félicité knew would happen from Eugène's letter. Aristide has been tipped off to support the Empire. There is a further massacre. Antoine himself is very nearly killed but he escapes. Silvère is arrested and executed. Aunt Didi is committed to an asylum. Pierre and Félicité conquest of Plassans is complete. France has an Emperor.


La Curée [The Kill] 1871

Aristide has come to Paris to make his fortune (and changes his name from Rougon to Saccard). Initially his older brother Eugene, who has already begun to make his name in government circles, is unwilling to help him directly though he does pass some useful information his way. Aristide takes a job at the Town Hall, In the course of which he gets privileged access to information about future demolitions and building works. He has married a woman called Angèle and they have had had a son, Maxime. But Angèle is unwell and dies. Aristide's sister, Sidonie, also in Paris knows all sorts of secrets which she uses to her advantage. In this instance, she knows of the plight of Renée Béraud du Châtel, the teenaged daughter of a well-respected Republican family, who has been raped and is pregnant. She needs to be married quickly. Sidonie and Aristide negotiate a very handsome deal with the family and Renée and Aristide marry (though Renée has a miscarriage). This gives Aristide the money he needs to begin building a property development empire. With his insider knowledge he able to acquire properties which he know will be forcibly bought by the Government. He also able to infiltrate the Rent Committee so as to artificially inflate the value of these properties. But he needs more money and he has his eyes on Renée's dowry which he cannot touch without her consent. He begins to lend her money to get her into his debt. Meanwhile, his son, Maxime, arrives in Paris from his school in Plassans. Maxime is a somewhat effete child and Renée and her friends delight in treating him like a girl and involving him in their intrigues. However, one evening, when Renée sees Maxime with his girlfriend Louise, she is determined to have him for herself. Soon after a masquerade party, she takes him to a private restaurants where they begin a sexual relationship. This lasts a while, but Maxime eventually breaks it off. At a ball in the Saccard household, the engagement is announced of Maxime and Louise. In raging despair, Renée pleads with Maxime to elope with her. She has signed the deed transferring her inherited lands to Aristide, purely to secure the money she would need to run away with her stepson. But at the height of their passion, Aristide discovers the two. He takes the deed; he takes the money; he leaves her with nothing. As the novel ends we find that Aristide is planning yet more spectacular property speculation, that Maxime and Louise are indeed married, and we follow Renée on a sad carriage tour of her former haunts. In the final lines, Zola tells us that the following year she died.


Le Rêve [The Dream] 1888

Angelique was put into foster care very young soon after her birth (father unknown). She is passed from foster-family to foster-family ending up with an abusive couple who beat her so hard one Christmas that she flees the house. As the book begins she is discovered collapsed in the snow before the Cathedral of St Agnes in Beaumont, central France. She is taken in by Hubert and Hubertine, embroiderers to the priests of St Agnes. Angelique proves to be a quick learner and accomplished embroiderer. Picking up a book of saints (The Golden Legend), her imagination is filled with saints, miracles and martyrdom, of the pure love of Christ and the denial of the body. This denial is tested in two ways: first she hears about the Bishop's son, Felicien, heir to the noble and wealthy Hautecoeur family who built the now-ruined (and therefore endlessly Romantic!) castle of Beaumont; but she also catches sight of an attractive boy who is working to restore the stained-glass windows of the Cathedral. It is with the latter that she begins an awkward flirtation culminating in his declaration of love. Naive and head full of medieval religion persuades her that she may be sinning in her feelings for this boy and she endeavours not to see him again. But he comes to the house with a commission from the Bishop for a mitre and soon they are working cheek by jowl, she embroidering an extraordinary headpiece in shaded gold and he silently watching her. Then, one night, in her bedroom at the top of the house he comes to her, romantically appearing at the balcony. They declare their love to each other. The next day in Church, Angelique realises that this ragged boy and the Bishop's son are one and the same. She loves a noble and wealthy man. Hubertine prevents them seeing each other. Felicia's father, the Bishop, is against the match. Angelique seems confused about her feelings and begins to weaken.  She ails and it looks as if she will die. The Bishop comes to administer Extreme Unction but at the last minute, touched by her plight, he relents and gives her his blessing. She rallies. At the end of the book, it is her wedding day. The whole town is out  to cheer on the happy couple. They are wed but she is still sick and as she leaves the church, she collapses, dying in the doorway of the church.


La Bête Humaine [The Human Animal] 1890

 Jacques is a sexual psychopath. Whenever he becomes aroused by a woman, he wants also to kill her. Perhaps in an attempt to suppress or sublimate these desires, he has become a train driver and talks of the engine as his mistress. At the beginning of the novel, M Roubaud discovers that his young wife was, as a child, sexually abused by M. Grandmorin, President of the Railway Company for which he works. In a rage, he plans with his wife a way of killing Grandmorin on a train. To make it look like an opportunistic robbery, they take his money and watch but cut his throat and throw him from the train. There is an investigation and briefly Mr and Mrs Roubaud come under suspicion but evidence is not clear and the case fades away. But Roubaud's wife, Severine, has met Jacques and a relationship begins. Jacques is terrified but for now at least, his murderous psycho-sexual feelings do not manifest; even so, Severine suspects her husband is capable of brutality and she begins to drop hints that he might do away with their husband so that they can be together. Roubaud meanwhile has begun to be reckless and distracted, spending the murdered man's money on ill-fated gambling. Jacques's relationship with Severine angers Flore, the young servant girl who is in love with Jacques. She watches the trains go by and one day, her jealousy inflamed beyond endurance, she allows a cart of stone to cross the line as the train approaches. The crash is terrible but Jacques and Severine survive. (Floor does not; in horror at her failure and at herself, Flore walks into the tunnel and lets herself be destroyed by an oncoming train.) As he recovers, Severine continues to argue that her husband should be killed and eventually Jacques agrees. Roubaud is to be lured to the house at Broken Cross, the site of the crash and - as it happens - the site of the original abuse. But as they wait for him, Jacques's psychopathic urges swell up in him and in a moment of madness, he murders the woman he loves. Jacques flees as Roubaud arrives at the scene and is immediately blamed for the murder. Some months later, Jacques is back in a new train. He is now driving a train taking soldiers to the front. As they all set off, soldiers singing martial songs, Jacques and his engineer have an argument; the engineer believes Jacques is making moves on his girlfriend. The argument grows and becomes violent. The two fight in the cab of the train and locked together they both fall from the train to be cut to pieces by the wheels. As the novel ends, the train roars on, driverless and furious, soldiers singing, the wheels turning, heading towards the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War.


L'Argent [Money] 1891

Aristide Saccard was declared bankrupt a while ago and is a sad figure in the Bourse, reduced to petty trades and tiny profits. He rents an apartment from an eccentric widow and has befriended Caroline Hamelin, whose brother Georges, is an engineer with plans for major works in the Middle East. Saccard begins to gather the board for a new investment bank which will fund Georges's schemes. The Universal Bank is launched, some of the shares secretly bought by the bank itself through an intermediary and its prospects talked up by newspapers that Saccard has secretly bought. War is threatened in Europe which hits the Bourse but, through his brother, Saccard gets advanced notice of an armistice and uses the opportunity to buy up shares at rock-bottom prices and then sell them at enormous profit when peace is declared. His reputation made, the bank goes from strength to strength, although still it is buying its own shares and Saccard's rival, Mr Gundermann, is convinced it is overvalued. Saccard is in a relationship with Caroline, though secrets from his past and present threaten to derail him. An illegitimate child is discovered with some signed IOUs promising to support it that Saccard defaulted on exposes him to blackmail; meanwhile, his dalliance with the mistress of a senior government minister marks his card. Successive share issues are based on flimsy financial foundations, which both Georges and Caroline suspect, but still the share price continues to rise. Gundermann attacks the Bank, but Saccard manages to defend it, the price rising to 3060 francs per share (from Fr500 only two and a half years before). But when his mistress turns against him, supplying details of the accountancy frauds to Gundermann, the Universal cannot survive the concerted final assault and the share price collapses to Fr850, ruining hundreds. Saccard is sentenced to five years in prison but while on bail waiting for the appeal he flees the country.


Le Docteur Pascal [Dr Pascal] 1893

The final book of the Rougon-Macquart cycle takes place in 1873 and 1874, back in Plassans. Dr Pascal lives with his niece, Clotilde, whom he adopted. He is a doctor but divides his time between his rounds, his experimental medical treatments, and his great project, amassing a genetic history of the Rougon and Macquart families. Clotilde is religious and disapproves of his atheistic faith in science. Félicité is very uneasy about these dangerous family secrets being gathered and tries to have Clotilde steal or destroy them. At atmosphere of terrible suspicion hangs over the house until a night when he opens the files to her, explains his project. They separately realise they have feelings for each other. Pascal tries to deal with these by marrying Clotilde off to his colleague Dr Ramond, though she turns him down, and Pascal and Clotilde begin an affair.  Their housekeeper, Martine, also very religious, is at first scandalised but comes to accept it. However, the family is falling apart. Félicité visits Antoine [see The Fortune of the Rougons] and watches as he burns himself to death in a drunken coma. Charles, an illegitimate son of Maxime, is haemophiliac and during a visit to Aunt Dide in the asylum, he bleeds to death as she watches. This shocks her into recalling the traumatic death of Silvere (also see The Fortune of the Rougons) and she dies the next day. Pascal's equanimity is shattered by the disappearance of M Grandguillot who had looked after Pascal's money. Now they are penniless, though Pascal still buys extravagant presents for his beloved Clotilde. Maxime asks Clotilde to come to Paris and nurse him through an illness. Pascal sees it as a way to save her from poverty and ignominy and, though neither of them want it, Clotilde goes. Pascal, left alone, declines; he starts to experience terrible chest pains but he still won't send for Clotilde, even when he receives the news that she is pregnant. Eventually he gives in and writes to her to come, but it is too late and when she arrives he has died. Félicité seizes her opportunity and while Clotilde is asleep sneaks in and burns the papers. A year later, Clotilde has had the child and reflects that, despite everything, he is the embodiment of hope.