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The Joy of Life by Émile Zola

The Joy of Life

by Émile Zola

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Les Rougon-Macquart (12)

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The Joy of Life by Emile Zola

This is one of the less well-known of the Rougon-Macquart novels. While not among the top tier of the series, it is one that deserves to be more widely read.

The Rougon-Macquart connection is Pauline Quenu, the protagonist. She is the daughter of the owners of the butcher shop featured in The Belly of Paris. As the novel opens she is 9 years old and has been orphaned. She, along with her ample inheritance, is sent to live with distant relatives, an older couple, the Chanteaus, and their 19 year old son, Lazare. The Chanteaus are retired "gentry", and live in reduced circumstances in a fishing village on the North Coast of France.

Pauline forms an immediate bond with Lazare, and idolizes him. He is a dilettante, and is unable to decide what to do with his life. When Pauline first meets him, he is composing a "masterpiece" symphony. When he gets bored with this, he goes to Paris to study medicine. When he fails his exams, he studies science. He does not complete these studies, but returns home confident that he can start a successful business involving seaweed extractions. Lazare's various enterprises are expensive, and one after the other they fail. The Chanteaus begin using Pauline's inheritance to finance Lazare's continuing unsuccessful enterprises. Soon, they are also relying on Pauline's money to fund their everyday living expenses (above and beyond the expenses of her keep they have been legitimately paid). When Pauline comes of age, and they face an audit, they arrive at a convenient way to settle matters: Pauline and Lazare will become engaged. Pauline is amenable, since she has always adored Lazare, and he in his own way also loves her. As her fiancé, neither he nor his parents will have to repay Pauline, and it will furthermore be all to Pauline's advantage, since Lazare is so brilliant. It will be no surprise that none of Lazare's enterprises are successful, and that the Pauline and Lazare's relationship is not smooth. Pauline is at times a "too good to be true" character, but within the context of a 19th century novel she is believable and steadfast. She remains loyal to Madame Chanteau, even when Madame Chanteau has turned on her, perhaps out of shame from having depleted Pauline's fortune. She serves as an uncomplaining nurse to Monsieur Chanteau, who suffers from crippling gout. And despite all the trials and tribulations, she loves and remains true to Lazare.

All the characters in this book are well-drawn. One thing that I have not before noticed in Zola is the prominent role played by the family pets, Matthew the dog and Minouche the cat, whose characters are also well-developed. In fact, the death of Matthew is portrayed in a manner worthy of Dickens, and goes on for pages--certainly it is featured more prominently than the death of Madame Chanteau.

The other factor I particularly enjoyed in this novel is the setting on the northern coast. The fishing village itself is being slowing eaten by the encroaching sea. In winter, there are violent storms, yet Pauline and Lazare spend idyllic summer days on the beach. All of this is very atmospheric, and the feel of an ocean shore permeates the novel. ( )
1 vote arubabookwoman | May 20, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (25 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Émile Zolaprimary authorall editionscalculated
Rothwell, AndrewTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Comme six heures sonnaient au coucou de la salle à manger, Chanteau perdit tout espoir.
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"Dans l'ironie amere de La Joie de Vivre, Emile Zola a fait entrer une prodigieuse somme d'humanite. Parmi ses plus remarquables romans, il en a peu ecrit qui aient autant de grandeur que l'histoire de cette simple famille bourgeoise dont les drames ont pour decor superbe la mer, la mer feroce comme la vie, comme elle impitoyable, et qui ronge lentement un pauvre village de pecheurs bati dans un repli de falaise. Et sur le livre entier plane, oiseau noir aux ailes etendues: la mort." (GUY DE MAUPASSANT)
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