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Christopher Krier
HIST 1730
November 4, 2014
Gluttonous and Revolutionary Paris in Emile Zolas The Belly of Paris
The Paris that Emile Zola portrays in The Belly of Paris is changing socially,
economically and politically. Amidst the reign of the Second Empire of Napoleon III, urban
renewal efforts lead to the construction of the Les Halles central market and the availability of
mountains of food. Florent, an escaped convict from the penal colony in Cayenne, returns to
Paris and finds himself sickened by a fattened bourgeoisie alongside a thinned working class.
Zolas novel contains the underlying social criticism that the bourgeoisie simply ate too much
and had an unhealthy obsession with food while the economic gap between the working class
and the bourgeoisie widened. The food-dominated culture of Zolas Paris dictated the social
class structure such that those who are fat are considered respectable while those who are
skinny are considered lowlifes and not to be trusted. Zola depicts the political atmosphere of the
time as Florent and his colleagues devise an armed insurrection against the Second French
Empire in hopes of establishing the Third French Republic benefiting the working class. Zola
portrays women differently than other authors of the nineteenth century in that many of the
women of Zolas Paris are actively involved. Zola depicts a thriving Paris economy during the
Industrial Revolution.
Claudes account of The Battle of the Fat and the Thin, the Fat, bursting from their
enormity, prepare the evening glut, while the Thin, doubled over from hunger, look in from the
street, stick figures filled with envy; then the Fat, seated at the table, cheeks over-flowing, drive
away a Thin who had the audacity to approach humbly, looking like a bowling pin among

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bowling balls. (Zola 213) underscores Zolas social criticism of the drastic inequality of the
economic conditions of the bourgeoisie compared to those of the working class. Florent, a Thin,
returns to Paris but is driven away by fearful Fats. Regarding their relationship to the working
class (the Thins), the bourgeoisie (the Fats) are depicted as selfish, complacent, and apathetic to
the suffering of the working class. Whereas the fattened bourgeoisie had an unhealthy obsession
with food, the working class worked day by day for meals of sustenance. Mademoiselle Saget, a
gossipy Thin, must scrounge over leftovers for subsistence, Mademoiselle Saget crept over to a
stand that claimed its leftovers came exclusively from the TuileriesShe acted as though she
were a big spender, but in fact she never bought anything, hoping to cajole vendors into little
gifts; if that failed completely, she would actually spend money, but only on table scraps. (Zola
245). The Les Halles food market possessed more than enough food to fill the bellies of the
working class as well as the bourgeoisie but the present economic system of Paris barely allowed
the working class to buy sustenance because prices were inflated. The Fats are condescending
towards the Thins illustrated by the constant reference of Beautiful Lisas rebukes aimed at those
of the working class. The Fats indifference to the suffering of Thins is illustrated by the
celebration and ease with which the Fats cause Florent to be deported to Cayenne where he will
once more suffer from starvation; a punishment that the bourgeoisie would admit to be worse
than death.
Zola portrays the Parisian bourgeoisie as having an intense love affair with food which
characterizes the social class structure of the Les Halles neighborhood. To the Parisian
bourgeoisie, plumpness is associated with health while thinness is associated with suspicion.
Respectable people were supposed to be well-fed and plump and those who are skinny were
suspected of sinful activities and destructive motives. Beautiful Lisa and the Beautiful Norman

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are each described as the epitome of attractiveness in the Les Halles market because of their
well-fed and round complexions. La Sarriette, a fruit vendor, declared, Skinny men are
backward men (Zola 82). Florent, characterized by profound thinness and disinclination to
indulge in food, is libeled by rumors started by those of the bourgeoisie. As a fish market
inspector, he is treated with the utmost disrespect by the fish vendors. Many of the bourgeois
with which Florent interacted denounced him to the police with the slightest suspicion of
revolutionary activities. When Florent is finally deported back to Cayenne for his revolutionary
activities, Zola describes the affect it had on Les Halles, It was like the pleasure of recovered
health, the brightening sound of people at last relived of a heavy burden weighing on their
stomachs. (Zola 309). Zola depicts a bourgeoisie and a working class who are largely at odds
and unable to unite against the French Empire.
The Belly of Paris displays the revolutionary climate of France during the Second
Empire. Florent and his colleagues aim to overthrow Napoleon IIIs empire and to establish a
socialist republic in which the principles of democracy take precedent. Florent argues for the
consideration of the working class, Today we have to think of the laborer, the worker. Our
movement must be a social movement. I challenge you to embrace the demands of the people.
The people are weary. They want their share. (Zola 154). Florent and his colleagues are
advocates of a revolution in government that would benefit the working class, not solely the
bourgeoisie whom previous Revolutions had seemingly benefited. Similar to Florent and his
colleagues, groups of Frenchman desired the establishment of a Third Republic and would
succeed following Frances failure in the Franco-Prussian War. The seriousness with which
those around Florent responded to his revolutionary activities points to the genuine fear of
violent uprisings originating from the Reign of Terror during the first French Revolution in the

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late 1700s and decades of government turnovers thereafter. That is, the French bourgeoisie had
become more politically conservative during the Second French Empire for it was they who
prospered while the working classing struggled.
Throughout the novel Zola shows an interest to portray women with strength and the
competence to be involved. Several women in The Belly of Paris show profound competence in
managing economic affairs and cognizance of the political atmosphere at the time. Such a
depiction runs contrary to the ideal Victorian Lady. Beautiful Lisa, the wife of Monsieur
Quenu, demonstrates economic savvy by using Gradelles inheritance to move their charcuterie
to the rebuilt Les Halles market and to construct a modern establishment which would eventually
lead them to a successful business and the status of being respectable in the Les Halles
neighborhood. When Florent returns from the penal colony in French Gunieau, Lisa is aware of
the exact amount of Uncle Gradelles inheritance entitled to Florent and continues to keep
accurate records of his entitlement when Florent asks for pieces of the inheritance at varying
times. Lisa rebukes Quenu for his political activities by referring to conservative logic and she
questions him for not speaking to her about politics. Lisa questions Quenu with the statement,
If only you had asked my advice, if we had talked about it together. Its wrong to think that
women dont understand politicsDo you want to know what I think, what my politics are? (
Zola 163). She answers her herself with conservative political ideology, Its the politics of the
respectable people. I support the government when my business is going well, when I can earn
my living peacefully, and when I can sleep undisturbed by gunshotsNow that we have the
empire, everything is going well, business is prospering (Zola 163). Lisa shows proper
awareness of what political ideology is most beneficial to her family. Cadine, an abandoned
street-girl, shows economic initiative in starting her own bouquet shop at a young age.

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Clmence, who is described as being the equal to her husband, recovers from losing her job as a
fish market clerk by giving French instruction to a young maid secretly aspiring to become
educated. Clmence is described as being qualified to participate in the political debates
undertaken at Monsieur Lebigres. Zola depicts women as wanting to be involved and having
the capacity to do so.
The mountains of food spoken of throughout the novel demonstrate the general economic
flourishing of Paris and the connectedness of France to the rest of Western Europe. The city of
Paris depends on the rural farms for its vast supply of fruits, vegetables, domesticated animals,
and hunted game while the rural farms depend on the multitude of consumers in Paris for a
market. The Les Halles market also depended on sources other than France for its diverse
selection as in the fish market where much of its supply stems from foreign markets, That
morning, a huge quantity of crayfish had arrived in crates and baskets from Germany, The
market was also flooded with whitefish from England and Holland. Some workers were
unpacking shiny carp from the Rhine... (Zola 104). The ample availability of food provided for
a boom of population characteristic of the second Industrial Revolution as immigration to urban
and industrial centers increased.
Emile Zolas The Belly of Paris raises social, economic, and political questions to Zolas
contemporaries. Why should the working class struggle for sustenance when the Les Halles
market possess an ample supply of food and the bourgeoisie are fattened through gluttonous
practices at the dinner table? Is violent revolution necessary to right the social and political
wrongdoings of the bourgeoisie and the Second French Empire? Zola heavily criticizes the vast
gap between the economic conditions experienced by the bourgeoisie and those of the working
class in nineteenth century Paris through his writing.

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Works Cited
Zola, Emile. The Belly of Paris. New York: Modern Library, 2009. Print.