Friday, February 1, 2019

Fruitfulness by Emile Zola

Secular pro-life argument
Originally published in 1899 under the French title Fécondité, Fruitfulness is the first book in Emile Zola’s final series of novels, Les Quatre Évangiles (The Four Gospels). It would be followed by Travail (Labor or Work), Vérité (Truth), and Justice (never published because Zola had barely begun writing it when he died). The Four Gospels were intended to sum up Zola’s personal philosophy by exploring the four qualities he felt were necessary to a healthy society or, more specifically, to a flourishing France. In Fruitfulness, Zola proposes that the prosperity of France depends upon a robust birth rate and an ardent devotion to agricultural development.

The protagonists of The Four Gospels are all sons of Pierre Froment, who starred in Zola’s previous trilogy, The Three Cities. Mathieu Froment lives in the suburbs of Paris with his wife and children. He ventures into the city every day to work as a designer for a company that manufactures farming implements. Pierre and his wife Marianne have a loving relationship and a devil-may-care attitude toward producing children. As they gradually crank out more and more babies over the course of the book, a cast of supporting characters views them with disgust, contempt, and envy. Among the couples in the Froments’ social circle, representing a variety of social classes, each has an excuse for choosing to have few or no children. To them, the happiness that the Froments enjoy among their burgeoning brood is a slap in the face highlighting their own discontent. Mathieu inspires further ridicule and disbelief when he decides to leave his job at the factory and become a farmer. 

In examining the lives of the supporting characters, Zola highlights a number of societal ills related to reproduction and child-rearing, including neglectful nannies, corrupt child care professionals, exploited wetnurses, ghoulish orphanages, back-alley abortions, and unwarranted hysterectomies. The novel primarily consists of Zola contrasting the idyllic happiness of the baby-making Froments with the shameful and depressing lifestyles of their acquaintances who have chosen to limit their reproductive output. After a while, even Zola seems to realize how simplistic and unrealistic this dichotomy is, so about halfway through he attempts to balance the scales a little by inflicting some melodramatic tragedy upon his heroes. Despite some of the eyeroll-inspiring plot turns, however, the last several chapters are really quite entertaining, and the reader truly does care about the characters, even though the ensemble cast is so vast it is often difficult to tell them all apart. If ever a novel needed an explanatory list of characters or a genealogical tree, it’s this one.

Fruitfulness is not Zola’s best work. While he often crafts the lives of his characters to illustrate social ills, here he has the Froments and friends unrealistically debating the French birth rate in almost every chapter. It is also odd to see the liberal Zola taking such a conservative stance on these particular issues. At one point he suggests that any mother who doesn’t breastfeed her own children should be convicted of a crime. Alas, times were different back then. Though Zola wrote the novel to controvert Malthusian theory, we now can see how so many of the world’s problems are caused or heightened by overpopulation, making the book’s arguments seem antiquated and naive. Nevertheless, it’s still a good piece of writing for diehard fans of Zola. Those unfamiliar with his work, however, would be better off sticking to one of the better-known novels in his Rougon-Macquart series.
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