Monday, March 26, 2012

The Laundress on L’Assommoir - A Classic Challenge March: Setting

Firstly I must admit that this challenge, hosted by November Autums is absolutely challenging. Every month we must deal with certain different topics to discuss from the books we read. For March, it’s about “Setting”. Fortunately, I have chosen L’Assommoir by Émile Zola for my classic reading of March. Zola’s writing always put everyday life strongly in detail. The most interesting setting in L’Assommoir is not the dram shop (l'assommoir) itself, but the laundress of Gervaise (the female protagonist in this book).

"From far away, in the centre of the black row of the other shop-fronts, her shop seems to her full of light, so cheerful and new, with its pale blue sign on which the words "High Quality Laundering" were painting in big yellow letters. In the window which was closed at the back with little muslin curtains and papered in blue to show off the whiteness of the linen, there were mens' shirts displayed and womens' bonnet hung by their ribbons from brass wires. She thought her shop was pretty, the color of the sky. When you went inside there was still more blue, the paper was a copy of a Pompadour chintz, showing a trellis entwined with morning-glories; the workbench was a huge table with a thick cover; it took up two thirds of the space and was draped in a piece of cretonne printed with big bluish leaves, that hid the trestles. Gervaise would sit down on a stool, panting slightly with pleasure, delighted by how beautifully clean it was and gazing fondly at all her new equipment. But invariably her eyes went first to the cast-iron stove, where ten irons could heat at the same time, arranged round the grate on sloping stands."

From that scene I can see that Gervaise is very proud of her new laundress. She set it up neatly and cleanly, which will give a good impression to the neighborhood (her future customers). I think Gervaise is a woman with a business touch, she knows how to attract customers. Laundry equals to cleaning, so a clean shop reflects clean work on laundry. Look at how Gervaise uses white and blue color for the laundress which reflect cleanliness and freshness.

Laundress is a common business in 19th centuries--the setting of this book, which Émile Zola describes very detailed here. It's like I myself sit down together with Gervaise, watching her doing her works, and felt the heat from the stove when they were ironing. I think these are Zola's strength in his writing. The laundress is of course showing Gervaise's up and down. She achieved success with the laundress, and she fell down with it too. We could certainly not change this setting, because the laundress is actually Gervaise's life, as well the heart of this story.


  1. Have you seen the 1956 French film based on the book? It is called Gervaise and stars Maria Schell. Depressing but fine depiction of poverty in 19th C. France. Those paintings you posted really do set the scene.

  2. @Fay: thanks for stopping by. I haven't seen the movie, but after reading the book, I'm quite interested in it...


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