I’m not going to lie: I was on the verge of giving up when I reached Chapter Three. The revolting description of the putrid smells of the Central Markets (present-day Les Halles), while evincing Zola’s extraordinary keen observation of details and his skills with words, was a major turn-off. I think I will avoid eating cheese for a long time to come.
Notwithstanding, I did slog along to reach Chapter Five, whence the action started to pick up steam, and by the time I finished the novel, tears filled my eyes. In the final analysis, I have to admit that I still liked Zola’s use of symbolism that is heavily laced with satire, especially in his tongue-in-cheek depiction of the hypocrisy of the haves (“the fat”) towards the have-nots (“the thin”) (like Beautiful Lisa’s initial superficial warmth towards Scraggy Florent, which then turns to bitter alienation when her self interest is threatened), of the envious tendencies of the wannabe haves (like the jealous malice of the gossipy and greedy Mademoiselle Saget, Madame Lecoeur, La Sarriet and Madame Mehudin), and of the invincible driving force of materialism in a bourgeois society in general (like the markets being symbolized as the “glutted, digesting beast of Paris, wallowing in its fat and silently upholding the Empire”) .
It seems to me that somewhere beneath all the stomach-turning descriptive lexicon, Zola wants to express just one thought in this novel, which is what the painter Claude says in exclamation at the very end: “What blackguards respectable people are!”
In a less serious note, the novel does offer some interesting tidbits about Paris in the early days of the Second Empire. One of these was a practice where bijoutiers peddled leftover food scraps from the large restaurants, the royal households and state ministries to the underprivileged class for a few sous per portion. Another was that the fattening of pigeons was done by specially trained laborers called gaveurs, whose job was to force-feed the pigeons.