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Disordered Topographies in Zola's La Curée

From: Romance Notes
Volume 53, Number 1, 2013
pp. 27-37 | 10.1353/rmc.2013.0001

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Emile Zola's La Curée (1872) is a spatial novel. On the most basic level of the plot, it tells the story of the early years of Haussmann's radical remaking of Paris during the Second Empire, and paints a portrait of a profoundly corrupt and degenerate society that is forged in the process. La Curée is organized around a number of emblematic urban spaces that generate the novel's meaning. The story moves seamlessly from Aristide Saccard's extravagant mansion, whose brand new ornate façade conceals the ephemeral nature of the protagonist's paper fortune, to the somber Hotel Béraud (Renée's parental home) which embodies traditional bourgeois values and morality, from the salons and ballrooms of the novel's courtesans to the city's recently created public spaces such as boulevards, cafés, restaurants, and parks. Famous sequences of carriage traffic jams in the Bois de Boulogne provide the novel's bookends. La Curée brings into a sharp relief numerous ways in which social and moral meanings are mapped onto the literal spatial organization of the newly reconstructed Paris. Space is never neutral in La Curée. Rather, it contains a deep symbolic moral and social meaning. Although Zola meticulously reproduces the topographical reality of the recently Haussmannized Paris, famously compiling detailed dossier on every aspect of the city that makes its way into his novel, what emerges most powerfully is not merely a recognizable realist setting but a system of moral geographies - a term I borrow from Priscilla Ferguson's Paris as Revolution - which are central to the novel's overall social critique of the corrupted and degenerate Second Empire (Ferguson 134).

In this essay, I focus on three urban spaces that appear at key moments in the novel: the park, the restaurant, and the omnibus. Although these spaces were neither invented nor created during the Second Empire, they underwent important transformation and were undoubtedly invested with a new significance during this time. In Haussmann's Paris, the park, the restaurant, and the omnibus represent an attempt to impose order - both topographical and social - on the city and its inhabitants. While the park is supposed to embody the state's desire to regulate public leisure by designating precisely where one may or may not walk and by imposing order upon nature, the restaurant is meant to order public consumption, regulate taste, and offer the bourgeois consumer a stage for performing respectability as well as a privileged viewpoint from which to judge and classify the passing urban spectacle. The omnibus organizes urban movement as it travels along assigned routes with its rigidly classed seating structure and pay schedule. All three spaces participate in Napoleon III's overarching project of urban reconstruction whose main ideological goal is to maintain hierarchies, to clearly demarcate classed and gendered spaces, to impose social order, and to enforce strict norms of proper bourgeois behavior and respectability. In La Curée, however, Zola radically rewrites these social spaces, investing them with a meaning opposite to what Haussmann intended to them to signify. Parc Monceau, café Riche and the Batignolles omnibus are not sites of bourgeois social order, but rather spaces of chaos, corruption, and moral degeneration. All three spaces are key to the construction of the novel's main (anti) romantic plot - the illicit and quasi-incestuous love affair between Renée and her stepson Maxime, a relationship that, in Zola's novelistic universe, encapsulates all the moral failures of the Second Empire. What makes the park, the café and the omnibus crucial to an understanding of the spatial economy of the novel is their liminality - each located on the cusp of the private and the public, the interior and the exterior, they thus capture the ambiguities and the complexities of nineteenth-century urban culture. In what follows, I will briefly sketch the historical context for each of the three spaces under consideration here, and will then show how Zola recasts and disorders the spaces of the park, the café and the omnibus in La Curée, charting instead his own alternative moral geographies of Paris.

Parc Monceau was one of numerous green spaces remodeled under Haussmann in...

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