While Antoine burns with jealousy for the bourgeois high life of his half-brother Pierre and sister-in-law, the Rougons themselves, once they retire from the olive oil business, find themselves hard pressed to keep up the middle-class lifestyle.
As a result, they rent an apartment at the edge of the artisan quarter, one that looks out at the houses of the rich. One especially, that of the local receveur particulier (a financial sinecure) is the obsession of Félicité Rougon, who looks longingly out her window as at that wealthy man’s house, the target of her ambitions. And in the end, that fellow is shot by friendly fire during the rebellion, and Pierre succeeds to his office and place in society.
The Rougons become the hosts of the salon of the town’s reactionaries. It’s quite a menagerie of old cranks: Legitimists, Orleanists, Bonapartists, anything but Republicans. But it is the rather threadbare yellow living room, “le salon jaune” that troubles them above all.
The “salon jaune” is a dismal haunt of petty bourgeois aspiration. Félicité has done what she could with the apartment, but with limited money there was little to do. In terms of improving it.
Le salon avait ainsi pris une étrange couleur jaune qui l’emplissait d’un jour faux et aveuglant ; le meuble, le papier, les rideaux de fenêtre étaient jaunes ; le tapis et jusqu’aux marbres du guéridon et des consoles tiraient eux-mêmes sur le jaune.”(The living room had thus taken on a strange yellow color which filled with a false and blinding daylight; the furniture, the wallpaper, the felt curtains were yellow; the carpet, even the marble of the table and credenza tool on the yellow tint.”
This shabby room, with worn upholstery and fly-specks on the lampshade, is nevertheless the place where the fortune of the Rougons is born. And the co-conspirators and self-absorbed fools are as shabby as the surroundings. At one point, Félicité invites her physician son, Pascal, hoping to help him make connections to expand his practice.
For Pascal, the doctor and scientist, the whole human menagerie in the salon has scientific interest, in that it reveals the bestiality of human behavior.
La première fois, il fut stupéfait du degré d’imbécillité auquel un homme bien portant peut descendre. Les anciens marchands d’huile et d’amandes, le marquis et le commandant eux-mêmes lui parurent des animaux curieux qu’il n’avait pas eu jusque-là l’occasion d’étudier.(The first time [he visited the salon], he was stupefied by the degree of imbecility to which a healthy man could descend to. The old oil merchants and almond merchants. The marquis and the commander struck him as strange animals he hadn’t until then had the chance to study.)
As the only objective observer in the novel, he brings the same curiosity to his own family.
Pascal fixait un regard pénétrant sur la folle, sur son père, sur son oncle ; l’égoïsme du savant l’emportait ; il étudiait cette mère et ces fils, avec l’attention d’un naturaliste surprenant les métamorphoses d’un insecte.(Pascal fixed a penetrating look at the mad woman, on his father, on his uncle; the egoism of the scientist carried him away; he studied that mother and those sons, with the attention of a naturalist coming upon the metamorphoses of an insect.”
Pascal like Zola contemplates the various branches of the Rougon-Macquart, sees the same patterns, the same characteristics, the appetites pop up different variations as the same plant stock varies in different soil, sun, and water conditions.
There’s no doubt that Zola identifies with Pascal, the country doctor, who will get his own novel in the series. It is the role of the naturalist, the scientific observer that Zola aspires to, and like Pascal, he is fascinated with the behaviors of his characters. The “science” of literary naturalism is pretty bogus; Zola is great because of his art as a describer and a storyteller. Like Pascal, who risks his life treating the rebels without actually signing up with them, and who is more eager to treat the poor than make the bourgeois career his mother pushes him to, at heart a humanitarian as much as a scientist.