In 1848, Paris entered a transformational period under its president, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte III. Motivated to overthrow the government, Napoleon scheduled a coup d’etat where he seized power and was put in charge. Under this newfound power, Napoleon envisioned a Paris that is different from the Middle Ages, a time of great revolution and upheaval, and planned to make Paris the most extravagant city in the world. He made new efforts to provide more food and improve the lives of the citizens of Paris.
This brought positive change for the bourgeois, but not for the working class.
Marketplaces like the Les Halles central market were created as part of the new efforts to modernize Paris. The marketplace is Emile Zola’s main focus throughout his novel, the Belly of Paris. Zola criticizes the political change that occurs during this time period. In this essay, I will focus on how the characters in the Belly of Paris play a pivotal role in explaining the political and societal changes that occur in Paris during the second empire (1852-1870).
At the beginning of the Belly of Paris, the readers are informed that Florent, the main protagonist, has been wrongly accused of a crime and is sent to be exiled at Cayenne or “Devil’s Island.” Eight years after being deported, Florent returns to Paris to a completely changed environment. He becomes sickened by the fattened bourgeois class surrounding him, since at Devil’s Island, he had little food and became very thin.
His brother, Quenu, on the other hand, has been living in the new generation since Florent has left, and is completely engulfed by this new “city life.”
Quenu is the owner of a highly successful deli shop in the middle of Paris, located near the fish section of Les Halles. He lives rather comfortably with his wife, Lisa. Quenu and Lisa are considered to be “fat” since they are engrained into the bourgeois culture, a culture full of people with an abundance of food and wealth. Lisa, like many other bourgeois people, tries to mold Florent into her society and encourages him to seek a job that has a high salary. Florent ends up working as an inspector at the fish market. Although he has finally joined the booming economy, he feels as if he does not fit in. Florent is a socialist, and this becomes a problem since he is now in charge of the people who cannot stand him. He gives up his job towards the end of the novel and decides to revolt against the second empire to support the working class rather than the snobby bourgeois.
When Florent returns to Paris after being in exile for eight years, he can hardly recognize his own hometown. The novel presents Paris in the midst of Baron Haussmann’s transformations. Baron Haussmann was appointed by Napoleon III to transform the city into a more modern one. Under Napoleon III’s reign, France is flourishing and is in the best state that it has ever been.
The economy is prospering, which is due to a high demand for French goods, a brand new banking system, and reliable public works. As a result, more buildings were built with iron and other sturdy resources, and this led to the building of the Les Halles. Zola explains Les Halles as: “…a huge metal belly, bolted and riveted, constructed of wood, glass, and iron,” (Zola 25). The booming economy also leads the bourgeois to push the workers into the suburbs, while the rich drove the center. In the Belly of Paris, Les Halles becomes the center of the bourgeois class, which creates conflict for Florent, a working-class citizen.
Zola portrays the societal changes that occurred as a result of his eight years of exile, through the separation of social classes. The gap between those who were in the working class and those who were apart of the bourgeois had grown from previous years. In the novel, a battle between the “fat” and the “thin” begins to expand. The reason is in view of the fact that the “fat” are considered good since it represents the wealthy, and they can purchase an abundance of food. The “thin” represent the poor and are considered to be bad. At the time, the economic state of Paris did not allow the working class to buy food because the price of food was so high. This is shown through the character, Mademoiselle Sagat, a working-class citizen who has to pick up leftovers to live: “… she crept over a stand that claimed its leftovers came exclusively from the Tuileries,” (Zola 245). “Thins” like Florent and Mademoiselle Sagat, view the bourgeois as self-centered people who could care less about the working class and their sufferings. The difference between the “fat” and the “thin” is shown when Claude, another working-class citizen, says to Florent: “…Fat people, you see, hate thin people so much that they have to drive them out of their sight,” (Zola 191). This makes Florent feel inferior to those who are “fat”, since he is not used to the culture that had so significantly changed while he was in exile.
Zola portrays the political upheaval that occurred in the 1870’s through Florent and his worker colleagues. During this time, many French citizens of the working class had enough of the separation of classes and wanted to establish a third republic, which eventually did occur. In the Belly of Paris, Florent and his colleagues try to plan a revolt against the second empire and want to support the working class rather than the bourgeois, or “fats.” Florent states: “You must not deny the demands of the people. They’re tired of waiting, they want their share” (Zola 139).
This describes the political attitudes of the working-class French citizens during this time. Many French citizens wanted to create a method where democracy was the main focus. After the failure that occurred in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, a third republic was eventually created. In the novel, Florent failed in his own attempt and was deported back to Cayenne. It is true that Napoleon III had found success in transforming Paris and giving more jobs to people, but this only seemed to help the bourgeois class, and individuals like Quenu and his wife, Lisa. The positive aspect of this transformation was that it led people like Florent to revolt and stand up for what they believed in.
Among the many societal changes came the change for bourgeoisie women and their political views. Zola depicts bourgeoise women in the new ages in a different light than prior years. A lot of women in the second empire who have grown up in a rich family have developed the look and attitude of a “Victorian woman,” slowly turning away from the medieval ages, when women were expected to stay home and cater to the needs of their family. Along with their plumpness, these women became more involved in business, and opened up their own shops.
Lisa, for example, works in a deli shop with her husband. This is something that might have not been as common in the medieval ages but became something very regular throughout the book. Lisa shows her desire to become “respectable”, when wanting to move their deli shop to the Les Halles neighborhood. Women were also becoming more protective of their environment and developing a more conservative political view as well. This is because during this time, the bourgeoise are politically old-fashioned as they are having a lot of success economically.
They do not want any kind of revolution because they have already dealt with many in the decades before. Lisa explains the political view of the bourgeois culture, when she says: “I support the government when my business is going well, when I can earn my living peacefully, and when I can sleep undisturbed by gunshots,” (Zola 163). Zola depicts bourgeoise woman as having the ability to become more involved through the character of Lisa, who displays the attitude of French women at the time.
The characters in the Belly of Paris display the conditions and the attitudes that many French workers had during the second empire. Napoleon III’s second empire brought a lot of positive changes, but many of the positive changes seemed to only benefit a certain class. This shows how the attempts, during Napoleon III’s reign to benefit all of society, failed since they did not benefit the working class. Even though Napoleon III wanted to direct his people towards a more peaceful state, this only created more division between the classes, as shown through Florent, his brother Quenu, and his wife Lisa. Even with the many political disadvantages, there is no denying that the transformation that occurred during the second empire served as a blueprint to the evolution of Paris as a world-class city.