Monday, September 17, 2012
The Earth (La Terre) by Emile Zola
The second best novel of all time?
This book is a masterpiece. Had Zola not written the awe-inspiring Germinal, this would clearly be his greatest work. Zola does his best writing when he focuses not on Parisian society but rather on the lower classes: the laborers, the peasants, the working stiffs. In this case, his subject matter is the farmers of the Beauce, an agricultural region between Chartres and Orleans. Here, families have cultivated the same plots of land for generations. In fact, land itself is everything to these people, and they will do whatever they can to protect the earth they have, and to acquire as much more as they can before they die. When Old Fouan decides to divide up his holdings among his three children, no one is happy with the portion they receive. Their avarice of earth leads to mutual animosity and eventually to treachery. Jean Macquart, an affable, hard-working farmhand, is, like us, an outsider in this hermetic world, until he falls in love with a farmer’s daughter and becomes a participant in their private war.
The scope of the book is wide, and looks beyond the Fouan family to examine political and social issues of the time, including the effect of the impending Franco-Prussian War, the triumphs and failures of modern scientific farming methods, and how the market’s regulation of prices damns the farmers to eternal poverty. Zola’s description of the agricultural life, its rewards and its hardships, is vivid and moving. He neither romanticizes nor denigrates the farmer’s relationship to the land, but rather paints a realistic picture of dirty, exhausting toil that nonetheless has its physical and spiritual rewards.
The book achieves a tremendous range of mood. It’s like an emotional roller coaster. There are passages in the book which are downright terrifying. Elsewhere there are moments which are laugh-out-loud funny. Zola obviously had a lot of fun writing the more light-hearted scenes in the book. He includes everything from a farting contest to a vomiting donkey. Overall, however, this novel is a dark portrayal of human greed and selfishness, and the brutal lengths to which people will go to satisfy their hunger for property. This book should be read by all.
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