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L'Assommoir
(Drink / The Drinking Den)

by Emile Zola
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes


Emile Zola
(1877)



Emile Edouard Charles Antoine Zola was born in Paris on 2 April 1840, brought up in Aix-en-Provence, and spent his earlier years in modest jobs which often left him rather poor. 'L'Assommoir' was his first great success as a novel and established a distinctive 'naturalistic' form of writing. Zola was a major figure in the political liberalization of France and in the campaign to exonerate the falsely convicted army officer Alfred Dreyfus, encapsulated in the renowned newspaper headline 'J'accuse'. Zola was nominated for the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 and 1902.

('L'Assommoir' is a French term for a cheap alcohol shop and has variously been translated as, The Dram Shop, The Gin Palace, The Drunkard, The Drinking Den)

Abridged: JH



L'Assommoir


I. - The Lodgers of the Hôtel Boncoeur

Gervaise had waited up for Lantier until two in the morning, exposed in a thin loose jacket to the night air at the window. Then, chilled and drowsy, she had thrown herself across the bed, bathed in tears. For a week he had not appeared till late, alleging that he had been in search of work. This evening she thought she had seen him enter a dancing-hall opposite, and, five or six paces behind, little Adèle, a burnisher.

Towards five o'clock Gervaise awoke, stiff and sore. Seated on the edge of the bed, her eyes veiled in tears, she glanced round the wretched room, furnished with a chest of drawers, three chairs and a little greasy table on which stood a broken water-jug. On the mantelpiece was a bundle of pawn tickets. It was the best room of the lodging house, the Hôtel Boncoeur, in the Boulevard de la Chapelle.

The two children were sleeping side by side. Claude was eight years of age, while étienne was only four. The bedewed gaze of their mother rested upon them and she burst into a fresh fit of sobbing. Then she returned to the window and searched the distant pavements with her eyes.

About eight Lantier returned. He was a young fellow of twenty-six, a short, dark, and handsome Provençal. He pushed her aside, and when she upbraided him, shook her violently, and then sent her out to pawn a few ragged, soiled garments. When she returned with a five-franc-piece he slipped it into his pocket and lay down on the bed and appeared to fall asleep. Reassured by his regular breathing, she gathered together a bundle of dirty clothes and went out to a wash-house near by.

Madame Boche, the doorkeeper of the Hôtel Boncoeur, had kept a place for her, and immediately started talking, without leaving off her work.

"No, we're not married" said Gervaise presently. "Lantier isn't so nice that one should care to be his wife. We have lived together eight years. In the country he was very good to me, but his mother died last year and left him seventeen hundred francs. He would come to Paris, and since then I don't know what to make of him. He's ambitious and a spendthrift, and at the end of two months we came to the Hôtel Boncoeur."

The gossip continued and Gervaise had nearly finished when she recognised, a few tubs away, the tall Virginie, her supposed rival in the affections of Lantier, and the sister of Adèle. Suddenly some laughter arose at the door of the wash-house and Claude and Etienne ran to Gervaise through the puddles. Claude had the key of the room on his finger, and he exclaimed in his clear voice, "Papa's gone. He jumped off the bed, put all the things in the box and carried it down to a cab. He's gone."

Gervaise rose to her feet, ghastly pale, unable to cry.

"Come, my dear," murmured Madame Boche.

"If you but knew," she said at length. "He sent me this morning to pawn the last of my things so that he could pay the cab." And she burst out crying. Then, seeing the tall Virginie, with other women, staring at her, a mad rage seized her, and noticing a bucket of water, she threw its contents with all her might. A fierce quarrel ensued, ending in a hand-to-hand conflict with flowing blood and torn garments. When her rival was driven to flight Gervaise returned to her deserted lodgings. Her tears again took possession of her. Lantier had forgotten nothing. Even a little hand-glass and the packet of pawn tickets were gone.

II. - Gervaise and Coupeau

About three weeks later, at half-past eleven one beautiful day of sunshine, Gervaise and Coupeau, the zinc-worker, were partaking together of plums preserved in brandy at the "Assommoir" kept by old Colombe. Coupeau, who had been smoking a cigarette on the pavement, had prevailed on her to go inside as she crossed the road returning from taking home a customer's washing; and her large square laundress's basket was on the floor beside her, behind the little zinc-covered table.

Coupeau was making a fresh cigarette. He was very clean in a cap and a short blue linen blouse, laughing and showing his white teeth. With a projecting under jaw, and slightly snub nose, he had yet handsome chestnut eyes, and the face of a jolly dog, and a good fellow. His coarse, curly hair stood erect. His skin still preserved the softness of his twenty-six years. Opposite to him, Gervaise, in a frock of black Orleans stuff, and bareheaded, was finishing her plum, which she held by the stalk between the tips of her fingers.

The zinc-worker, having lit his cigarette, placed his elbows on the table, and said, "Then it's to be 'No,' is it?"

"Oh, most decidedly 'No,' Monsieur Coupeau," she replied. "You'll find someone else prettier than I am who won't have two monkeys to drag about with her."

But she did not repulse him entirely, and as, in his urgency, Coupeau made a point of offering marriage, little by little Gervaise gave way. At last, after a month, she yielded.

"How you do tease me," she murmured. "Well, then, yes. Ah, we're perhaps doing a very foolish thing."

During the following days Coupeau sought to get Gervaise to call on his sister in the Rue de la Goutte d'Or, but the young woman showed a great dread of this visit to the Lorilleux. Coupeau was in no wise dependent on his sister, only the Lorilleux had the reputation of earning as much as ten francs a day as gold chain makers, and on that ground they exercised special authority. They lived on the sixth floor in a tenement house crammed with tenants of every degree of squalor. They were so busy that they could not cease their work, and welcomed their new relative with but a few cold words. Her reception was very trying to Gervaise, but the disappointment of herself and Coupeau was dispelled when the Lorilleux agreed to attend the wedding and pay their share of the wedding dinner.

Gervaise did not want to have guests at her wedding. What was the use of spending money? Besides, it seemed quite unnecessary to show off her marriage before the whole neighbourhood. But Coupeau exclaimed at this. One could not be married without having a spread, and at length he got her to consent.

They formed a party of twelve, including the Lorilleux and some of Coupeau's comrades who frequented the "Assommoir." The day was excessively hot. At the mayor's they had to wait their turn and thus were late at the church. On the way the men had some beer and after the religious ceremony they adjourned to a wine-shop. Then a heavy storm preventing a proposed excursion into the country before dinner, they went to the Louvre. The general opinion was that the pictures were quite wonderful. Shut out of the galleries with still two hours to spare, the party decided to take a short walk and filled up the interval in climbing to the top of the Vendome monument.

Then the wedding party, feeling very lively, sat down to the long-desired feast. The repast was pronounced fairly good. It was accompanied by quantities of cheap wine and enlivened with much coarse joking, becoming violent as the discussion turned on politics. Quiet being obtained, there followed the settling-up squabble with the landlord. Each paid his share and Coupeau found himself starting married life on seven sous, the day's entertainment having cost him over forty francs.

There were four years of hard work after this. Gervaise worked twelve hours a day at Madame Fauconnier's, the laundress, and still found means to keep their lodging clean and bright as a son. Coupeau never got drunk and brought his wages home regularly from the zinc-works. During the earlier days especially, they had to work slavishly to make ends meet. The marriage had burdened them with a two-hundred-franc debt. Then, too, they hated the Hôtel Boncoeur. It was a disgusting place and they dreamed of a home of their own. Then there came a piece of good luck. Claude was taken off their hands by an old gentleman who had been struck by some of his sketches. Eight months later they were able to furnish a room and a kitchen in a house nearly facing Madame Fauconnier's. There, soon after, Nana was born. They had two good friends in Jean Goujet, a blacksmith, and his mother. They went out nearly every Sunday with the Goujes.

III. - Starting on the Down Road

No great change took place in their affairs until one day Coupeau fell from the roof of a house and was laid up for three months. Lying idle so long he lost the habit of work, and as he grew stronger again, he wasted his time and Gervaise's earnings in drinking shops. But he slapped his chest as he boasted that he never drank anything but wine, always wine, never brandy. Money grew scarcer and Gervaise's one ambition - a laundry of her own - seemed to fade away. But the Goujets came to her aid, and lent her five hundred francs to begin business with. Engaging three assistants, Gervaise was able, with her industry and beautiful work and her cheerful face and manner, to obtain plenty of custom and to lay up money again.

Never before had Gervaise shown so much complaisance. She was as quiet as a lamb and as good as bread. In her slight gluttonous forgetfulness, when she had lunched well and taken her coffee, she yielded to the necessity for a general indulgence all round. Her common saying was "One must forgive one another if one does not wish to live like savages." When people talked of her kindness she laughed. It would never have suited her to have been cruel. She protested, she said, no merit was due to her for being kind. Had not all her dreams been realised? Had she any other ambition in life?

It was to Coupeau especially that Gervaise behaved so well. Never an angry word, never a complaint behind her husband's back. The zinc-worker had at last resumed work, and as his employment was at the other side of Paris, she gave him every morning forty sous for his luncheon, his drink and his tobacco. Only two days out of every six Coupeau would stop on the way, drink the forty sous with a friend, and return home to lunch with some grand story or other. Once even he did not take the trouble to go far, he treated himself and four others to a regular feast at the "Capuchin," on the Barriere de la Chapelle. Then, as his forty sous were not sufficient, he had sent the waiter to his wife with the bill, and to say that he was under lock for the balance. She laughed and shrugged her shoulders. Where was the harm if her good man amused himself a little while? You must give men a long rein if you want to live peaceably at home. Gracious powers! It was easy to understand. Coupeau still suffered from his leg; besides, he was drawn in sometimes. He was obliged to do as the others did, or else he would pass for a muff. It was really a matter of no consequence. If he came home a little bit elevated, he went to bed, and two hours afterwards he was all right again.

But Coupeau was becoming a continual drag on his wife. Most of his time and few earnings were wasted in Colombe's "Assommoir." And Nana, between her mother's toil and her father's shiftlessness, ran wild about the streets.

Then one day Coupeau came in drunk. He almost smashed a pane of glass with his shoulder as he missed the door. He was in a state of absolute drunkenness, with his teeth clinched and his nose inflamed. And Gervaise at once recognised the "vitriol" of the "Assommoir" in the poisoned blood which made his skin quite pale. She tried to make fun and get him to bed, as she had done on the days when the wine had made him merry, but he pushed her aside, without opening his lips, and raised his fist to her in passing as he went to bed of his own accord. Then she grew cold. She thought of the men she knew - of her husband, of Goujet, of Lantier - her heart breaking, despairing of ever being happy.

IV. - Lantier's Return

At this stage of Coupeau's affairs Virginie reappeared. She expressed great joy in meeting her former foe, declaring that she retained no bad feeling. She mentioned that Gervaise might be interested to know that she had recently seen Lantier in the neighbourhood. Gervaise received the news with apparent indifference. Then, on the evening of her fête Lantier appeared and, strangely enough, it was the zinc-worker who, heated with the festival drinking, welcomed him most warmly.

Gervaise, feeling meek and stupid, gazed at them one after the other. At first when her husband pushed her old lover into the shop, she could not believe it possible; the walls would fall in and crush the whole of them. Then, seeing the two men seated together, and without so much as the muslin curtains moving, she suddenly thought it the most natural thing in the world.

On the following Saturday Coupeau brought Lantier home with him in the evening. He remained standing and avoided looking at Gervaise.

Coupeau looked at them, and then spoke his mind very plainly. They were not going to behave like a couple of geese, he hoped. The past was the past, was it not? If people nursed grudges after nine and ten years, one would end by no longer seeing anybody. No, no, he carried his heart in his hand, he did. He knew who he had to deal with, a worthy woman and a worthy man - in short, two friends.

"Oh! that's certain, quite certain," repeated Gervaise.

"She's a sister now - nothing but a sister," murmured Lantier.

From that evening Lantier frequently called at the Rue de la Goutte d'Or. He came when the zinc-worker was there, inquiring after his health the moment he passed the door, and affecting to have solely called for him. Then, shaved, his hair nicely divided, and always wearing his overcoat, he would take a seat by the window, and converse politely with the manners of a man who had received a good education. Thus the Coupeaus learnt little by little some particulars of his life.

During the last eight years he had for a while managed a hat factory; and when they asked him why he had retired from it, he merely alluded to the rascality of a partner. He was forever saying that he was on the point of making a first-class arrangement; some wholesale manufacturers were about to establish him in business and trust him with an enormous stock. Meanwhile, he did nothing whatever but walk about like a gentleman. In his effusiveness Coupeau suggested that Lantier become a lodger, and overruled all objections. Nevertheless, Lantier showed no intention for a long while of trespassing on the bibulous good nature of Coupeau.

V. - The Beginning of the End

Coupeau was now becoming a confirmed drunkard and presently Lantier ceased paying for his lodging, talking of clearing up everything as soon as he had completed an agreement. Thus Gervaise had two men to support, while her increasing indolence and gluttony continuously reduced her earnings. Custom began to fall away faster and faster and soon they were living almost entirely on credit. Then Madame Coupeau, who had come to live with her son and Gervaise soon after the shop was opened, died. The funeral was celebrated with pomp and feast greatly in excess of the resources of the Coupeaus and helped considerably towards the final ruin.

As they were sitting down to the funeral meal the landlord presented himself, looking very grave, and wearing a broad decoration on his frock coat. He bowed in silence, and went straight to the little room, where he knelt down. He was very pious; he prayed in the accustomed manner of a priest, then made the sign of the cross in the air, whilst he sprinkled the body with the sprig of box. All the family leaving the table, stood up, greatly moved. Mr. Marescot, having ended his devotions, passed into the shop and said to the Coupeaus, "I have called for the two quarters' rent which remain unpaid. Can you give it me?"

"No, sir, not quite," stammered Gervaise. "You will understand, with the misfortune which has - "

"No doubt, but everyone has his troubles," resumed the landlord, spreading out his immense fingers. "I am very sorry, but I cannot wait any longer. If I am not paid by the morning after to-morrow, I shall be forced to have recourse to expulsion."

Gervaise, struck dumb, imploringly clasped her hands, her eyes full of tears. With an energetic shake of his big bony head, he gave her to understand that all supplications were useless. Besides, the respect due to the dead forbade all discussion. He discreetly retired, walking backwards.

Gervaise was persuaded by the jealous Lorilleux to resign the lease of her shop to Virginie and her husband. That evening when Gervaise found herself at home again after the funeral she continued in a stupefied state on a chair. It seemed to her that the rooms were very large and deserted. Really, it would be a good riddance. But it was certainly not only mother Coupeau that she missed. She missed, too, many other things, very likely a part of her life, and her shop, and her pride of being an employer, and other sentiments besides, which she had buried on that day. Yes, the walls were bare, and her heart also; it was an absolute deplenishment, a tumble into the pit.

It was the beginning of the end. She got employment with her old employer, Madame Fauconnier, but presently she began to be looked upon with disfavour. She was not nearly so expert; she did her work so clumsily that the mistress had reduced her wages to forty sous a day, the price paid to the stupidest. With all that she was very proud and very susceptible, throwing at everybody's head her former position of a person in business. Some days she never appeared at all, whilst on others she would leave in the midst of her work through nothing but a fit of temper. After these outbursts, she would be taken back out of charity, which embittered her still more.

As for Coupeau, he did perhaps work, but in that case he certainly made a present of his labour to the government; for Gervaise never saw his money. She no longer looked in his hands when he returned home on paydays. He arrived swinging his arms, his pockets empty, and often without his handkerchief. Good gracious! Yes, he had lost his fogle, or else some rascally comrade had sneaked it. At first he made excuses; he invented all sorts of lies - ten francs for a subscription, twenty francs fallen through a hole which he showed in his pocket, fifty francs disbursed in paying off imaginary debts. After a little, he no longer troubled himself to give any explanations. The money evaporated, that was all!

Yes, it was their fault if they descended lower and lower every season. But that is the sort of thing one never tells one self, especially when one is down in the gutter. They accused their bad fortune; they pretended that fate was against them. Their home had become a little hell by this time. They bickered away the whole day. However, they had not yet come to blows, with the exception of a few smacks which somehow were given at the height of their disputes. The saddest thing was that they had opened the cage of affection; the better feelings had all taken flight like so many canaries. The loving warmth of father, mother, and child, when united and wrapped up in each other, deserted them, and left them shivering, each in his or her own corner. The whole three - Coupeau, Gervaise, and Nana - were ever ready to seize one another by the hair, biting each other for nothing at all, their eyes full of hatred. What use was he, that drunkard? thought Gervaise. To make her weep, to eat up all she possessed, to drive her to sin. Well, men so useless as he should be thrown as quickly as possible into the hole, and the polka of deliverance be danced over them.

VI. - The Final Ruin

Presently, Gervaise took to fuddling with her husband at the "Assommoir." She sank lower than ever; she missed going to her work oftener, gossipped for whole days, and became as soft as a rag whenever she had any work to do. If a thing fell from her hands, it might remain on the floor; it was certainly not she who would have bent down to pick it up. She intended to save her bacon. She took her ease, and never handled a broom except when the accumulation of filth almost upset her.

She could keep no work, and at last came to scrub out the shop and rooms for Virginie. She came on Saturday morning with a pail and a scrubbing brush, without appearing to suffer in the least at having to perform a dirty, humble duty, a charwoman's work, in the home where she had reigned as the beautiful, fair-haired mistress - for thirty sous. It was a last humiliation, the end of her pride. Virginie must have enjoyed herself, for a yellowish flame darted from her cat's eyes. At last she was revenged for that thrashing she had received at the wash-house, and which she had never forgotten.

Coupeau went from worse to worse. He was not sober once in six months. Then he fell ill and had to go to the asylum, but when he came out repaired he would begin to pull himself to bits again and need another mending. In three years he went seven times to the asylum in this fashion, until he died in the extremities of delirium.

Gervaise was next compelled to descend to begging of Lorilleux and his wife. But they refused her a son or a crumb and laughed at her. It was terrible. She remembered her ideal of former days; to work quietly, always having bread to eat and a tidy home to sleep in, to bring up her children not to be thrashed, and to die in her bed. No, really, it was droll how all that was be? coming realised! She no longer worked, she no longer ate, she slept on filth; all that was left for her to do was to die on the pavement, and it would not take long if, on getting into her room, she could only screw up enough courage to fling herself out of the window. What increased her ugly laugh was the remembrance of her grand hope of retiring into the country after twenty years spent in ironing. Well! she was on her way to the country. She was about to have her green corner in the Père-Lachaise cemetery.

Gervaise lasted in this state several months. She fell lower and lower still, dying of starvation a little every day. As soon as she had four sous, she drank and fought the walls. Her landlord had decided to turn her out of her room on the sixth floor, but allowed her to turn into a hole under the staircase. It was inside there, on some old straw, that her teeth chattered, whilst her stomach was empty and her bones were frozen. The earth would not have her evidently. She was becoming idiotic; she did not even think of making an end of herself by jumping out of the sixthfloor window on to the pavement of the court-yard beneath. Death was to take her little by little, bit by bit, dragging her thus to the end through the accursed existence she had made for herself. It was never even exactly known what she did die of. There was some talk of a cold, but the truth was she died of privation, and of the filth and hardship of her spoilt life. Over-gorging and dissoluteness killed her, said the Lorilleux.



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