Tales of the New Babylon

Zola?s La Débâcle, first planned in 1868, was the penultimate chapter in Les Rougon-Macquart. Warfare was something Zola had always meant to give full play in Les Rougon-Macquart, and his 1868 scheme had provided for "a novel that will have the military world as its framework?; an episode in [Napoleon III?s] Italian campaign." But after the calamitous Franco-Prussian War, this installment acquired special significance. What had originally been envisaged as one tale among others came to be seen as the denouncement of the entire saga. Zola decided almost immediately to recount in La Débâcle not only the virtual annihilation of half the Army of the Rhine but the bungled opportunities, political maneuvers, and missed cues that brought about this disaster.

The two-month Paris Commune ensued when the Republicans of Paris staged a bloodless revolution and proclaimed the establishment of the Third Republic shortly after this fall of the Loius Napoleon. As far as Marx was concerned, he felt that at the Commune was merely "the rising of a city under exceptional conditions and its majority was in no wise socialist nor could it be." However Marx emphasised that its "great social measure?was its own existence."

In this essay I will discuss La Débâcle, and Zola?s apparent lecturing tone. For while Zola exposed many social sores he had never previously attempted to put forward ideas for healing them. I will discuss how Zola felt that it was not the Prussians who brought down the Second Empire, but the corrupt society of France, and its epicentre, Paris. This will bring me onto the Paris Commune, where I will introduce Marx?s theories into the fold.

The research and documentation carried out in preparation for La Débâcle was immensely in depth, and although overburdened with the sheer weight of the documentary material, Zola took great care not to lose sight of the individual in the vast panorama. Conscious of the danger of having the two armies emerge as his heroes, he constructed the novel in such a way as to protect the individuality of several dozen characters through whose eyes the action would be seen : "each character represents one état d?âme psychologique of the France of the day" . He did this by ascribing to each of these characters a national trait: the pleasure-seeking France, the despairing France, France the volatile enthusiast, France doomed to disaster.

"These characters would thus symbolize types who, by their thoughts and actions, would reveal the roles played by the various national characteristics in the debacle. This, Zola thought, was also a genuinely scientific way in which to study the causes of the French collapse and the destruction of the Second Empire."

The narrative if logically divided into three sections, but by subdividing each section into eight chapters Zola aimed for a symmetry quite out of harmony with the haphazard events he describes. More in keeping with the subject matter is his deployment of the ever-roving eye, the constantly changing view and the diversity of opinion and reaction ? devices aimed at imparting a totality of understanding of an incredibly confused engagement.

The two heroes of La Débâcle, Jean Macquart and Maurice Levassuer, symbolize the contradictory qualities of France itself. Jean is conservative and sensible, courageous and industrious, while Maurice is intelligent, egoistic, volatile and frivolous. When the two men establish a profound and unbreakable friendship, the symbolism is complete.

"Here, surely, was the spirit of brotherhood which had existed in the early days of the world?Maurice could here his own humanity in the sounds of Jean?s heartbeats."

The symbolism personified in Jean and Maurice continues through to the end of the novel. While the disparate qualities of the French character are welded together for the common good, all goes well. But when the intellectual, reckless Maurice escapes from Jean?s steadying influence, the parting is disastrous. Maurice joins the rebellious Communards, thus threatening the nation with overthrow and ultimate destruction, and it is Jean?s fate to be his executioner. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the Commune, Zola saw conservatism, not revolution, as the answer to France?s problems at the time. The killing of Maurice by Jean was the final, symbolic act in the drama of national survival.

The absence of major female characters is not surprising in a war novel. Passion, in this seven-week conflict, is reserved for killing