The Soil (aka The Earth; French original title: La Terre), around which the greatest controversy has raged, is a novel
which treats of the conditions of agricultural life in France before the
war with Prussia (1870-1871), and the subsequent downfall of the Second
Empire. It is, in some respects, the most powerful of all Zola's novels.
In parts the book is Shakespearian in its strength.
Jean Macquart, son of Antoine Macquart and brother
of Gervaise (see The Fortune of the Rougons), having served his time in
the Army, comes to the plain of La Beauce, and becomes an agricultural
labourer on the farm of La Borderie, which belonged to Alexandre Hourdequin.
He falls in love with a neighbour, Lise Mouche, and later her sister Françoise...
The interest of the book is largely connected
with the history of the Fouans, another family of peasants, the senior
member of which, having grown old, divided his land among his three children.
The intense and brutish rapacity of these peasants, their utter lack of
any feeling of morality or duty, their perfect selfishness, not stopping
short of parricide, form a picture of horror unequalled in fiction.
This English translation of La Terre (in
1888) aroused such an outcry that a prosecution followed, and the translator
and publisher, Henry Vizetelly, was sentenced to three months' imprisonment.
(J. G. Patterson)
More info about the Rougon-Macquart series at Wikipedia.