Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Conquest of Plassans by Émile Zola (second read)

Since this is my second read, I won't write much on what the story is about - this you can read in my first review of The Conquest of Plassans from 2017. To be honest, I forgot how powerful this books is; I only vaguely remember the petty little town politics. So now I will discuss more about the political background and how it awakened the hereditary madness of the characters, which would otherwise have been tamed in its slumbers.

Abbe Faujas came from Bésançon with mysterious background. The mystery is never clearly revealed throughout the book, and that just emphasizes the faux of the priest (see how Zola named him Faujas on purpose?) He was sent specifically to Plassans by "Paris" to conquer the little town. Why Plassans? Who is this "Paris" actually meant? And why did he stay particularly ar the Mourets?

We know from The Fortune of the Rougons that Pierre and Felicité Rougons have conquered Plassans with the aid of their son Eugène, who was an important person in the Louis Phillipe's government of the Second Empire of France. Though the resurrection has been successfully uprooted from the town, the Emperor wants to have a clean sheet, especially from the Legitimists. It's nearly the election time, and it's crucial that whoever elected would be a Bonapartist supporter. By appointing Abbè Faujas as the conqueror, Zola wanted also to criticize clerical hypocrisy and involvement in the French politics at that time.

Who is Faujas' "master" from Paris? It's not clear at first; Faujas' arrival seems very innocent as a priest in a religious little town like Plassans. But it's soon clear that Felicité Rougon has been appointed by "Paris" to aid the abbé to perform his task. So, we can safely conclude that "a friend from Paris" which Felicitè alluded is most probably his son Eugène!

Plassans here served as a miniature of the Second Empire's political life in France. The petit bourgeois, the retired businessmen like François Mouret, have the most vague loyalty in their political views. They use politics rather to serve their own personal interest than to support any leader or ideology. They can easily switch from one party to another if it's more profitable for them.

But why an Abbé, in the first place? Here, Eugène (or Felicité? Or both?) has clearly done their homework. They know how difficult it would be to sway the bourgeois political views, so why not send a charismatic priest to impress the religious wives first? They would, in turn, influence their husbands to trust the abbé much more easily. First woman to be conquered? Marthe Mouret! - a not very religious woman, and wife of a retired oil businessman with neutral political view: François Mouret - whose house is situated in the middle of two important figure of Plassans with opposite views. Excellent!

Speaking about hereditary illness, Marthe is Pierre Rougons' daughter who was married by François Mouret - the son of Ursule Macquart and Mouret the hatter. François was Pierre's clerk - a quiet, sensible, diligent chap - who helped him in the oil and wine business, but then married the boss's daughter and built his own business. Born from the Rougon side, and having an intelligent and strong woman like Felicité as a mother, you would think Marthe will hardly catch the hereditary illness. François is more likely to catch it as he's half Macquart - though he's more of a Mouret with his love of works. But, here, Zola showed that you can't really avoid it. It's there inside you, even if you don't really realize it. Marthe would have been alright had she continues living harmoniously, peacefully, surrounded by her family, like in the opening chapter:

"There was an absorbed silence, warm with an unspoken tenderness in the pleasant golden glow of the sun that, little by little, was fading from the terrace. Marthe cast a loving look over all her three children n the calm of the evening, and plied her needle with long, regular strokes."

There's the air of satisfying existence - enjoying the deserved retirement after long hardworking. Had the Mourets maintain this stability in the house, they would very likely have retired happily. However, one bad decision of renting their second floor to a priest, had plunged them to "the fall of the house of Mouret"!

I was disgusted when I realized that it's Felicité who has brought ruin to her own daughter by placing Abbé Faujas at her house. It might be unintentional at first, but when she saw Marthe's passionate, feverish religious devotion, how could she not see something wrong? Or maybe she thought it's actually directed to Faujas, and it's better than her son-in-law? Whichever it may be, it only proves that Marthe did inherit the family illness - the insatiable desire, and it gets from bad to worse once it is provoked. While in François' case... well, that's an unimaginable crime to put... oh I can't even say it - it's too horrible. I'm half glad that Macquart did what he did in the end.

Should we even talk about the ending?? What was Zola implying by it? Devil clothed in cassock? What an ending, indeed!

Rating: 5/5

1 comment:

  1. Hello, as a huge fan of Zola, I've been sent here by an Indonesian friend from bookstagram (bookish), and I'm so glad you wrote an article on The Conquest of Plassans, as I've read it this past January and absolutely loved it! I'm reading this series in chronological order (and in French, since it's my native language), and I was waiting for the next instalment that would blow my mind as much as The Fortune of The Rougon and The Kill.
    I agree with you, Félicité is a very selfish mother indeed, just like her husband, Pierre Rougon. I can tell you that, most often than not, if you meet a couple and of them is off, it's almost certain the other one is off as well. The main family we're following suffers from their parent's choices and their parent's parents, and that's why they're plagued by so much toxicity. As someone who's experienced it quite drastically in my life, I admire Zola's take on such a sensitive topic and I can confirm that what he exposes is unfortunately very true, and that's called generational trauma or cycles.
    I loved the characters and social commentary in this novel (it was done in such a clever and disturbing way! I'm so impressed), and the ending was indeed shocking. Antoine Macquart got his revenge (if you've read the first book, you know what I'm talking about) and the priest and his whole selfish family paid for their sins in the end. Sounds like karma to me.


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