Normandy, Zola and the Rougon-Macquart novels.

If one French region received full attention during the nineteenth century, it surely was Normandy. Located in the North-Western part of France, this region is known for its highly cultural background, its strong and rich history, its geographical characteristics, and its strong-minded people.

Normandy in 1719 – Source:

Normandy in the nineteenth century was a region in development. Due to its closeness to Paris and its coast, it became popular thanks to its sea resorts and the new fashion that led Parisians to seek sea air and sea bathing for health and leisure. What helped Normandy to develop were the industrial advancements such as the textile industry and even more so the railway. The region became a focal point, and maintained and polished its image through literature and art.

Indeed, a few of the most famous authors of the nineteenth century were Normans: Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly. Painters, such as Claude Monet and other impressionists were greatly influenced by the Norman landscapes. Monet actually died in Giverny, a Norman town. These artists gave a stereotypical image of Normandy, with its highly rural trait, its beaches and cliffs, and its depiction of bucolic landscapes. It participated to the popularisation of the region, and still today, these images persist.

It is less frequent to read about the link between Zola and Normandy. Zola was originally raised the South of France before moving to Paris after his father’s death. His father was Italian, and his mother was from the Centre region of France. Not much Normandy going on here! It is interesting to note the ambiguous feeling that Zola had on the Normans’ region. In a letter to Marius Roux dating from the 5 August 1875, Zola explains: “It is something altogether different from the Mediterranean Sea, at the same time very ugly and very spacious”. Nevertheless, the sea exerts quite a powerful fascination for Zola who happened to reside in Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, Calvados for two months for his wife’s health. In a letter to Edmond de Goncourt dating from the 9 August 1875, Zola admits feeling fits of “awful melancholies in front of the sea”, while on the 13 August he writes to Paul Alexis that they “have a magnificent changing weather with great sunny days, nights such as in Naples, and phosphorescent seas, all in one go, abruptly. Never have I seen such varied changes of scenery. When the weather is grey, the sea is vastly impressive”. It seems the Norman country does not have the same power over Zola. On Caen, he writes that it is “une ville bête” or a vacuous city. On the 14 August, Zola even writes about the “abominable ugliness” of the “flat, “empty” and “grey” landscapes, even comparing these terrible landscapes to the people he hates the most: the Bourgeois!


These mixed feelings that Zola experiences towards Normandy fed the body of text of the Rougon-Macquart. Fifteen out of the twenty novels that composed this literary saga contain more or less marked presences of the Norman region. From the allusion of a Norman person to the actually Norman setting of La Joie de Vivre, Zola punctuated his largest work with Norman touches.

In these fifteen novels, Normandy is being alluded to for various reasons. Here is the list :

La Curée: Le Havre and Caen are briefly talked about at the end of the novel, and their presence is linked to the expansion of the railway tracks in France.

Le Ventre de Paris: it is one of the novels where Normandy is the most present strangely enough. The novel, which is meant to focus on the Halles market of Paris, alludes to Normandy several times. First, Florent, who escaped froù prison in Guyana, arrives in Le Havre, a Norman port. Normandy is the first region of France he sees after an absence of seven years. Then, his half-brother, Quenu, is Norman by his father, which allows Zola to comment that Quenu was getting fatter « like a proper Norman’s son ». Furthermore, one of the main characters, Louise the fishmonger, is nicknamed « La Belle Normande », or the beautiful Norman woman. Finally, Normandy is present through the food displayed in the market (« the butters of Normandy » and cheese such as the camemberts). Towards the end of the novel, police inspectors from Normandy even appear.

La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret: the story of the former priest, Monsieur Caffin, who came from Canteleu, Normandy, is one that runs in the novel. La Teuse, the Norman servant, narrates the adventures of her former master who lived through a mysterious affair back in Normandy, and who had to leave and settle in the South of France. La Teuse also describes a Norman wedding which lasted for days, and got people of the area very drunk. Normandy is thus seen as both mysterious and completely prosaic.

A mother-in-law who brings her daughter’s dowry. Source:

Son Excellence Eugène Rougon: the Norman allusions are here built in the tension between Paris and provincial France. Normandy is presented through the perspective of Parisians’ thinking. While talking about the trains and the railway, one of the characters notes that the French provinces are in Paris, noting the presence of Normans in the background that he recognises straightway, or that he smells rather («je les flaire tout de suite »). It is interesting to notice that the novel opens on a parlementary session where a tax demanded by the « département de la Manche » (the county of La Manche, the western part of Norman), and which interests absolutely no one.

L’Assommoir: Normandy is simply present through food. Twice in the novel, the characters eat tripes made in the Caen fashion.

Une Page d’amour: Normandy is here introduced by la Mère Fétu, an old Norman woman who tells stories about her natal region and about the good milk which can be found there. Another allusion to Normandy is made when a few of the characters decide to go sea bathing in Trouville, a fashionable occupation in the nineteenth century. A last appearance of Normandy is to be found during a costume party  where someone is dressed up in a traditional Norman outfit.

Young woman from Flers, Orne. Source:

Nana: Trouville and the Norman coast is also dealt with in this novel. Normandy is also alluded to when Muffat goes there for financial reasons.

Trouville and its beach. Source:

Au Bonheur des Dames: the main character, Denise, is Norman (she comes from Valognes, a town in the département of La Manche). She is described as being a very stereotypical Norman girl (she is stubborn, strong-willed, pleasant, plump, happy-go-lucky, reasonable and wise). Being Norman does not always mean good qualities as one can also brag like a Norman (« hâblerie normande »). The plot happening in a department store, the Norman textile industry is also present with fabrics from Rouen (« les indiennes de Rouen ») and a very Norman phrase: « Je viens encore de faire un Rouen » (I have made a Rouen again) which means losing money.

La Joie de vivre: it is the only novel of the series which solely takes place in Normandy, in the fictional town of Bonneville whose inspiration was the coast in the North of Caen. Therefore, Rouen, Le Havre, Bayeux and more particularly Caen are very present in the body of the text. Some stereotypical images are to be found: the famous Norman wardrobe and the Calvados brandy. Nevertheless, nothing is said about the Norman character. It may be because none of the characters are actually Norman, or that being Norman in Normandy is not recognisable enough (unlike Denise in Paris in Le Bonheur des Dames)

The city centre of Caen. Source: Google Images

L’Oeuvre: again we find the stereotype of the Norman wardrobe, known for its largeness and its durability. There is also the presence of a figurative statue representing Rouen with giant udders, a symbol of thriving rural Normandy to represent an industrial city?

La Terre: while dealing with the famous countryside stories of La Beauce area, Zola includes the legend of this traveller from Rouen who was eaten by a monster. Legends are quite popular in rural France, and Zola was influenced by Rabelais, French author of the 16th century, who had created legends about La Beauce.

Le Rêve: this novel includes references to the history of Normandy, and most particularly the history of the Middle Ages and the Viking invasion.

La Bête humaine: the plot follows the characters between Paris and Normandy which are linked thanks to the railway. A lot of references are made to Rouen and to Le Havre, which are linked to Paris by the train line. We can also find remarks on the former palace of the Dukes of Normandy, as well as the coats of arms of the towns and cities of Normandy. Besides, we still have this image of the Norman wardrobe.

Typical Norman wardrobe that a woman would receive as part of her dowry. Source : Google Images

L’Argent: Huret, one secondary character, is a Norman from the Calvados area, who is described several times as a cunning and careful Norman farmer.

La Débâcle: last novel where traces of Normandy can be found, the region is presented in contrast to the Alsace-Lorraine region where war is raging. Rouen ends up taken by the German army.

Rouen – where Joan of Arc was burnt. Source: Goodle Images


From all these references, we see that Zola was quite fascinated with Normandy. It also means that at the time of his writing, Normandy was popular and needed to have its place in a literary work meant to represent or mirror society.

A number of these references are stereotypical: the food, the drinks, the existence of a so-called Norman character (supposedly cunning, reasonable, careful, boastful…), the wardrobes, the rural background… Modern references ( for the time) are made about the expansion of the railway station and the close link between Normandy and Paris. Moreover, allusions to the changing economy of Normandy with descriptions of rural activities, but also with the industry that developed a great deal over there in the nineteenth century. These could have easily been understood by Zola’s audience, whether they lived in Paris, in Bordeaux or Lille. It means that there is an understanding between the author and his readers. With the stereotypes especially, the writer assumes that a certain image of Normandy exists and that he must use it for realistic purposes (to get as close as possible to the truth, and what is really Norman).

The thing is, these images are seen through a very Parisian prism. Even though Zola wears the costume of an ominscient but absent narrator, his voice is still present, and it is this voice which is alluding to Normandy. One can almost feel the superiority. Nevertheless, at the same time, there is a rejection of that superiority when Parisian characters denigrate the Provinces, as if Zola criticised this Parisian vision.

To go back to the Norman identity, something is very striking. Normans are only seen or recognised as Normans outside of Normandy. In Paris, they are particularly recognisable and different. It is as if an identity could only be spotted outside of its own geographical borders.


More to read here (French and English): 

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