Sometimes Zola’s outrage nourishes a kind of savage farce, as in the scene in The Kill in which a woman has sex with her stepson on a bearskin rug, in a greenhouse, surrounded by loathsome artificially-grown plants. And sometimes the author’s anger overwhelms the comedy, as in the scene toward the end of Pot Luck when a young kitchen maid, impregnated by an older man, gives birth alone in her attic bedroom and puts the living baby in the garbage. (Astoundingly frank description of the process, too). Fortunately, Zola manages to tame his rage for much of the book, making it disturbing, but not unreadable.
This is Zola’s attack on the morals of the bourgeoisie. By the time he wrote Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille) he had already investigated corruption in high society (The Kill, or La Curée) and among the working class (L’Assommoir). Cleverly, he structures the novel around a bourgeois apartment building in Paris. The tenants, the owner, and even the concierge all pride themselves on the honesty and respectability of the building, and Zola returns often to the calm and quiet of the principal staircase, with its tall mahogany doors and its panels of false marble. (Yes, that’s a symbol: nobody would call Zola subtle.) Meanwhile at the back of the building is the air shaft that serves the kitchens, which the author most often compares to a sewer.
We see much of this through the eyes of Octave Mouret, the classic (in French novels) provincial come to the city to make his fortune. Octave is a womanizer, and he manages to sleep his way through the building, one wife at a time, without ever having much fun. Well, nobody’s having much fun, really. It’s all about keeping up appearances, trying to marry off daughters without enough money for dowries, ignoring the fact that your husband’s mistress is bleeding him dry, refusing to sleep with your husband or trying to sleep with your wife’s chambermaid.
The most memorable characters are the monsters. Narcisse Bachelard, the ancient, drunken roué is tolerated, even courted, because he is thought to be rich. His sister, Madame Josserand, is one of the great viragos of literature, the kind of unanswerable bully whose sheer aggression carries the day. The scheming and penny-pinching that go into marrying off her daughters would be amusing if it weren’t so depressing. And to drive home his point about the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie Zola supplies a priest and a doctor who know all the secrets of the house. The former, a worldly man of the church, spends much of the novel attempting to maintain the good reputation of these characters, for the sake of the good example they present to the lower classes. By the end of the book, even he is having his doubts.