This site uses cookies to deliver our services, improve performance, for analytics, and (if not signed in) for advertising. By using LibraryThing you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your use of the site and services is subject to these policies and terms.
Hide this

Results from Google Books

Click on a thumbnail to go to Google Books.

The Debacle by Émile Zola

The Debacle (1892)

by Émile Zola

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Les Rougon-Macquart (19)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
632824,438 (4)35
Zola wrote that 'my title speaks not merely of a war, but also of the crumbling of a regime and the end of a world'.The penultimate novel of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, La Debacle (1892) takes as its subject the dramatic events of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune of 1870-71. During Zola's lifetime it was the bestselling of all his novels, praised by contemporaries for its epic sweep as well as itsattention to historical detail. The novel seeks to explain why the Second Empire ended in a crushing military defeat and revolutionary violence. It focuses on ordinary soldiers, showing their bravery and suffering in the midst of circumstances they cannot control. Zola's descriptions are some ofthe most powerful he ever wrote. He skilfully integrates his narrative of events and the fictional lives of his characters to provide the finest account of this tragic chapter in the history of France. Often compared to War and Peace, La Debacle has been described as a 'seminal' work for allmodern depictions of war.… (more)
Recently added byBolstenDorder, chrischantrill, Marcosss, birinders, tay-why, harmen, private library, VioletCrown
Legacy LibrariesJames Joyce
  1. 00
    Récits d'un soldat by Amédée Achard (Artymedon)
    Artymedon: same period with Achard also treating about the siege of Paris as well as Sedan.
  2. 00
    The Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 by Stephen Badsey (Artymedon)
    Artymedon: This Osprey book has a great map of the battlefield of Sedan, France where La Debacle's main action takes place. The reader understands then how accurate Zola's descriptions are and how his book's values are as much historical as those of a social novelist.… (more)

Sign up for LibraryThing to find out whether you'll like this book.

No current Talk conversations about this book.

» See also 35 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
War is hell, and in this novel Zola vividly depicts that hell, from the battles themselves to the soldiers' struggles to find food and a dry place to sleep, from the horrifying conditions in a prison camp and the deadly march to it to the suffering of civilians caught in areas overrun by war, from the gruesome details of field hospital operations to the pain of wounds and the finality of death. The war is the rout of the French army by the Prussians in 1870, especially the shattering battle of Sedan (and the aftermath of the defeat in the 1871 Paris Commune). The seeds of the debacle were widespread. To cite just one example, referred to in passing by Zola, the French army had maps of Germany, but no maps of the areas of eastern France in which all the battles took place!

Sometimes my eyes glazed over with Zola's details of troop movements (although my Oxford World Classics edition had maps. which helped), but as with all Zola novels this is a novel about people as well as about history or social conditions. At the end of The Earth, Jean Macquart, devastated by the the disasters he has experienced, re-enlists in the army; in this book, he is a corporal and on the march to the war and the novel focuses on him, his unit, and the other people he encounters. This allows Zola to not only portray the army and its challenges, including both good and incompetent commanding officers, all the way up to Napoleon III himself, but also farmers and factory owners in the area of the battles and, eventually, how they adapt to the Prussian soldiers living in their midst. One of the soldiers in Jean's unit is Maurice, an educated but previously dissolute man; Maurice at first looks down on Jean because he is an uneducated peasant, but eventually they become fast friends, almost brothers. One of the farmers is Maurice's grandfather, who raised his twin sister, Henriette, and him near Sedan. Henriette is married to a man named Weiss, who knows the area well, and presciently warns some of the unit's leaders about the dangers of the army heading to Sedan (hills surround it). Various other characters associated with them, and with a local factory owner named Delaherche and his complicated family, also play important roles.

The novel is structured in three parts. The first corresponds to the week Jean's unit spent approaching the battlefields, then retreating, and then approaching them again, part of the debacle because the generals received competing orders from the Emperor, Napoleon III, who was traveling with the army, and the Empress back in Paris. The second is devoted to the horrifying details of the day-long battle of Sedan, and the third to the aftermath, first in the area of the battle, after Jean is wounded and holes up with Maurice's family (all soldiers are supposed to be prisoners of the Prussians), and later to the Commune and its bloody conclusion in Paris. There, Zola brilliantly depicts the suffering of the Parisians after being under siege by the Prussians for months, the violence on both sides, and the flames of the Tuileries and other buildings, set on fire by the Communards. Of course, being a Zola novel, there is melodrama at the end, before Jean sets off once more, looking towards the future.

The introduction to my edition helpfully explains all the research Zola did for this book, and notes how it completes the saga of the Second Empire that is the subject of the Rougon-Macquart cycle (there is a final novel that succeeds this one). The Third Republic was born from the ashes of this defeat, in which the French lost Alsace and Lorraine (as well as the military legacy of the first Napoleon). The defeat and the loss also set the stage for increased hostility between the French and the Germans that was a cause of the wars to come in the 20th century.

With this novel, I have completed my reading of all the novels in the Rougon-Macquart cycle that have been recently translated into English, begun with my reading of Germinal in 2012.
7 vote rebeccanyc | Jun 6, 2015 |
1870 Franco Prussian War - Paris Commune ( )
  dlsheaffer | Feb 8, 2015 |
The tragedy of the Sedan chamber pot - the encirclement of Mac-Mahon's French Army of 100,000.00 and 500 canons by Wihelm I 260,000 and 700 canons is rendered in La Debacle. With Zola, the social aspects of history are present through intimist portraits of the participants, several farmers, some enlisted, some becoming Franc-Tireurs, the director of a factory, a gentleman, heroic women caught in the defense of Bazeilles or in the living hell of an improvised military hospital. The internal coup d'Etat by the Empress and Bazaine that makes the fatally ill Emperor Napoleon III an empty figure head; his wandering in search of death over the battlefield; add tragic counterppoints to this oratorio; the famous cavalry charge of the Margueritte Division; the last cartridges; the accurate but powerless in face of numbers, Chassepot rifle and the shells bursting in the air while the gunners are eliminated by the Prussians; a regiment in a cabbage field under a bombardment. Zola is a great writer, but with La Debacle, he also describes very accurately the battlefield of Sedan. One understands how accurate Zola is if the reader makes the effort to search for the Sedan Battlefield map in Stephen Badsey's Osprey Book about the Franco-Prussian war .

Was La Debacle paving the way for revenge or "La revanche" literature anticipating that other calamity in Northern France 1914?
Zola's treatment of the enemy is done first by mentioning Germany as the mysterious Orient which was probably true for all the conscripted farmers that constituted the bulk of the French Army, unless like Weiss they had a house in Bazeilles and relatives who were German. Then Zola assimilates the German army to insects and describes them from a distance as ants. When they appear on the battlefield it is at first as remote and evasive Uhlans or light cavalry. In Bazeilles finally they come closer during the last cartridges fight. They are identified as Bavarians and a red bearded giant plays a role in restraining the wife of a soon to be executed through firing squad Franc-tireur - in fact a Civilian who took part to the fight without a uniform. This episode reminds of the tone of Maupassant's novels about the same war. The now famous letter of Napoleon III to his "Dear Brother" Wilhelm and Whilhelm's "Ah, les Braves gens" at seeing Margueritte's cavalry charge again humanize the ennemy more than the battle scenes. It is at times disappointing and does not always explain the reasons for this conflict, nor the internal coup d'Etat, other than by the occasional allusion to "Badinguet" by a conscript worker from Paris suburbs. ( )
  Artymedon | Jan 8, 2013 |
This is the first (and so far only) Zola I've read, and then only because I found it cheap in a bookstore. I didn't know anything about the Franco-Prussian War, and as far as Zola I knew that he wrote a cycle of naturalistic novels, which I had been waiting to read until someone did a new translation of the whole thing. But I'm glad I went ahead and tried The Debacle. As others mentioned, it's very reminiscent of War and Peace (well, mostly just the war part). Zola skillfully evokes the dreary and dreadful experience of fighting a losing battle. The main characters, poor French soldiers doomed by mismanagement and incompetence at the top, march about the countryside unable to even find the enemy, until they are finally cornered and massacred. After the fighting is over, Zola moves on to describe the sickness and poverty that decimate even those who do survive. There is no glamor to be found in this war, and as the ending shifts to the political fallout of the German victory, in which the French who have surrendered must fight against the French who continue to resist, there's no honor either. It's a sad story, but a very well written one and fully illuminates the horrors of war on all fronts. ( )
1 vote Calantir | Dec 27, 2012 |
1960 The Debacle, by Emile Zola (read 29 Nov 1985) This is the 19th of 20 novels by Zola. It tells of the events of 1870 and 1871--Sedan, events thereafter, and in frenzied, hurried chapters at the end, the sieges of Paris. Maurice and Jean fight at Sedan together, then end up at Paris on opposite sides. This book exudes Gallic extravagance, reminding me of Dumas. I was rather caught up in the final chapters of this book, illustrating again the amazingly dramatic nature of so much of French history. ( )
  Schmerguls | Aug 19, 2008 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
no reviews | add a review

» Add other authors (25 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Émile Zolaprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dorday, ElinorTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lethbridge, RobertIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tancock, L. W.Translation and Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
You must log in to edit Common Knowledge data.
For more help see the Common Knowledge help page.
Series (with order)
Canonical title
Original title
Alternative titles
Original publication date
Important places
Important events
Related movies
Awards and honors
First words
Camp had been set up two kilometres from Mulhouse, nearer the Rhine, in the middle of the fertile plain.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
La Débâcle (The Debacle) is also published as The Downfall. Please do not separate.
Publisher's editors
Publisher series
Information from the French Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Original language
Canonical DDC/MDS

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English (1)

No library descriptions found.

Book description
Haiku summary

Quick Links

Popular covers


Average: (4)
2 5
2.5 1
3 11
3.5 2
4 28
4.5 3
5 22

Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

» Publisher information page

Is this you?

Become a LibraryThing Author.


About | Contact | Privacy/Terms | Help/FAQs | Blog | Store | APIs | TinyCat | Legacy Libraries | Early Reviewers | Common Knowledge | 142,309,557 books! | Top bar: Always visible