Thursday, August 16, 2007

Morgues in Parisian Popular Culture (1867)


I came across the following passage in Zola's Therese Raquin (1867), which nicely illustrates the social scene of the Parisian morgue in the 19th C. The image comes from Corbis Images, and its caption reads: "THE MORGUE AT PARIS-THE LAST SCENE OF A TRAGEDY. A group of people peer through the windows of a morgue in Paris at corpses of a man and woman."
...Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. He had made up his mind to attend to the business himself. Notwithstanding that his heart rose with repugnance, notwithstanding the shudders that sometimes ran through his frame, for over a week he went and examined the countenance of all the drowned persons extended on the slabs.

When he entered the place an unsavoury odour, an odour of freshly washed flesh, disgusted him and a chill ran over his skin: the dampness of the walls seemed to add weight to his clothing, which hung more heavily on his shoulders. He went straight to the glass separating the spectators from the corpses, and with his pale face against it, looked. Facing him appeared rows of grey slabs, and upon them, here and there, the naked bodies formed green and yellow, white and red patches. While some retained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemed like lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against the bare plaster. Laurent at first only caught sight of the wan ensemble of stones and walls, spotted with dabs of russet and black formed by the clothes and corpses. A melodious sound of running water broke the silence.

Little by little he distinguished the bodies, and went from one to the other. It was only the drowned that interested him. When several human forms were there, swollen and blued by the water, he looked at them eagerly, seeking to recognise Camille. Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellow skins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. Laurent hesitated; he looked at the corpses, endeavouring to discover the lean body of his victim. But all the drowned were stout. He saw enormous stomachs, puffy thighs, and strong round arms. He did not know what to do. He stood there shuddering before those greenish-looking rags, which seemed like mocking him, with their horrible wrinkles.

One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing...

When there were no drowned persons on the back row of slabs, he breathed at ease; his repugnance was not so great. He then became a simple spectator, who took strange pleasure in looking death by violence in the face, in its lugubriously fantastic and grotesque attitudes. This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and in places bored with holes, attracted and detained him.

Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broad and strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white form displayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a black band, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness.

Each morning, while Laurent was there, he heard behind him the coming and going of the public who entered and left.

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.

Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked in on their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companions of the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making witty remarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had been burnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, the bodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity, and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.

There came persons of small independent means, old men who were thin and shrivelled-up, idlers who entered because they had nothing to do, and who looked at the bodies in a silly manner with the pouts of peaceful, delicate-minded men. Women were there in great numbers: young work-girls, all rosy, with white linen, and clean petticoats, who tripped along briskly from one end of the glazed partition to the other, opening great attentive eyes, as if they were before the dressed shop window of a linendraper. There were also women of the lower orders looking stupefied, and giving themselves lamentable airs; and well-dressed ladies, carelessly dragging their silk gowns along the floor.

On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the latter standing at a few paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lace mantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet.

She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broad chest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew...

2 comments:

A. H. said...

This book has a great chapter about the Paris morgue, though I'm guessing you might have read it already.

This is a fantastic blog, and I'm glad to have stumbled on it!

JE said...

Thanks A. H.! I actually just purchased that book because it came up in all my google searches for Parisian Morgue. Really looking forward to reading it!