Jean Giono: To the Slaughterhouse – Le grand troupeau (1931) Literature and War Readalong March 2012

There are so many different ways to write about war. Some novels focus on the experience of the soldier, some will focus on what the civilians go through, some move back and forth between the front lines and the home front. While Jean Giono’s Le grand troupeau – To the Slaughterhouse does move back and forth, the book is still completely different from anything else that I have read so far.

Giono’s technique does need some getting used to. What he describes is equally beautiful and horrifying. The result may very well be one of the most radical anti-war books that I have read.

If you are looking for an action-driven novel, this isn’t one to turn to, Giono’s novel is far more like the description of paintings. I was reminded of Otto Dix’ WWI paintings more than once. Some of the very visual descriptions in this novel are as graphic and gruesome as Dix’ work.

The war has come to a little village in the French Provence region. All the men are drafted and go to war, leaving the women, old men, children and animals behind. Some of the men are shepherds. They have to abandon their herds. Left on their own,  the animals are endangered, they have accidents, get wounded. One day a massive herd enters the village. It’s an awful sight. So much suffering, so much pain.

Julia’s husband Joseph has gone to war, as has her sister-in-law’s young lover, Olivier. The story moves back and froth between life in the village and the men. It’s more a series of pictures than a real story. Very powerful and graphic pictures.

Giono chose to show us how war affects the body. It’s not the fighting he is interested in but what happens when someone is wounded. How the wounds fester, how the juices flow out the dead bodies. The rats which are always mentioned in WWI novels are present here as well but we see how they eat the faces of the dead men.

I had a faint feeling in my stomach for most of the time while reading but I saw what he wanted to achieve and I thought the idea was amazing. He didn’t stop at describing the horrors of the war and what it did to the bodies of the men, he described the beauty as well. The scents in the air, the taste of food, the beauty of the landscape.

There are hunting scenes and scenes of slaughter and the bodies of the dead animals resemble those of the dead and wounded men.

Human beings and animals both suffer pain, their bodies are vulnerable and frail, they can be killed and harmed and wounded and the result will be the same. At one point he goes one step farther, describing how the earth suffers too, when her body is ripped open by explosives. Giono includes the entirety of creation in his novel and shows that every being existing in this world, wants beauty, love and tenderness, shelter and food and when this is not provided, when aggression is let loose, the body is harmed, wounded and the being ultimately dies.

It’s a highly symbolical novel, with a profound message of peace. It was hard to read but I am glad I did. It really would be hard to find a more eloquent anti-war statement and a book which manages like this one, to show, that since we all, animals and human beings alike, suffer pain, we are equal. This profound message makes To the Slaughterhouse not only a plea for human rights but for animal rights as well.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

To the Slaughterhouse is my fourth contribution to the War Through the Generations Challenge hosted by Anna and Serena.


To the Slaughterhouse was the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Helen Humphreys’ Coventry. Discussion starts on Monday April 30, 2012.

30 thoughts on “Jean Giono: To the Slaughterhouse – Le grand troupeau (1931) Literature and War Readalong March 2012

  1. If you add La Débâcle in your next Literature & War readalong, I’m in.

    This is far from the usual Giono and his country description. (He and Pagnol are always together in the same corner of my literary mind)

    Have you ever been to Verdun? It’s upsetting, even now.

    I have another Giono on the shelf, Les âmes fortes. I can’t remember where I picked the idea to read this.

    PS: I like Otto Dix too.

    • I have a lot of other Giono’s. I think I prefer Pagnol but I suppose, Giono is thought to be superior.
      I wouldn’t esay this isn’t typical, the writing and the descriptions of the landscape and the people is quite typical but, yes, indeed, the theme isn’t.
      La débâcle will probably not make it on the list, I’m afraid, It’s far too long. But who knows…

  2. Caroline – Thanks for the articulate and insightful review!

    This sounds like a great but troubling book. I find it harder and harder to get through such works. Though I am very sensitive to human suffering, I find that reading through depictions of animal suffering unbearable.

    I do find it interesting that one of the book’s themes seem to relate animal and human pain. It is something that I have been thinking about lately. Perhaps like slavery and other human evils, the human propensity to hurt animals is something that we as a species will begin to re-examine and hopefully change.

    • Thanks, for the kind comment, Brian.
      It was hard to read and like you, I have a greater difficulty to read about the cruelty towards animals.
      I believe the way people treat animals says a lot about them.
      I never really understood why people make such a differnec between animals and humans. They may not be as articulate as we ae but the way they experinece pain is the same as we do. That should be enough to not harm them. As far as I know it’s one of the main arguments of the animal rights movement. I was astonished to find these elements in this novel.
      Giono served in WWI and I presume what he see on the batteflieds and the trenches must have led him to the realization that we are all equal in our pain.

      • I can read about human suffering, but I find it very hard to read about animals suffering. If this book can make people realise that animals do suffer the same pain as humans, then I hope many people read it. I may point some of my doubting friends in this direction. 🙂

        • I would hope so but of course, I’m very sensitive to animal suffering, whether someone else would come to the very same conclusion, I don’t know. It seems obvious to me as he focusses on the body and the harm inflicted on the body. There are no shellshocked soldiers in this account (which is rare for a WWI novel) and that is what makes the comparison between the suffering of animals and human so apparent.
          It was a difficult book.

  3. A thoughtful and insightful review – thanks. I doubt I will ever pick this one up to read, but I can learn so mcuh from even just knowing it’s out there. The author sounds fascinating too – I might do a little search just to learn more about the era of the book. We often discuss wars and their impact in my French Class, so thanks again – I’m inspired to know a little more about the history here.

    • Thanks for your comment, Tamara.
      I can see that my review isn’t going to make people rush and read this. It is a graphic book and hard to read but one of the best on WWI – or any war – right up there with All Quiet on the Western Front.
      Giono is a writer who is known for describing the South of France, he is avery descriptive writer who captures landscapes and secents very well. He is worth discovering.

  4. I couldn’t read this one, but I really do want to try Giono. Although at the moment, the French novel that’s really calling me is Simone de Beauvoir’s Les Mandarins. I have no idea why. Couldn’t be further from Giono’s powerful and painful descriptions of sensual suffering!

    • I can’t deny it, I had a hard time reading this in some places. It is very well written and not depressing which is an achievement, he ends on a positive note.
      I can imagine how wonderful his other books must be.
      What a coincidence, I was looking at Les mandarins this morning. I would like to read her memoirs as well. If it hadn’t been for Deidre Bair’s biography, I think I would have read many of her books by now.

      • I began Les Mandarins this morning and am really enjoying it. I’m beginning to wonder if Deirdre Bair is a piece of work – I read her biography of Anais Nin and she completely slaughtered her, not by being out and out critical, but by recounting everything she did in a tone of polite disgust and amazement. Now, Nin was no saint, that’s for sure, and probably had a borderline personality disorder. But I feel more comfortable when the biographer has some sympathy for the subject!

        Oh and did I read somewhere (I can’t seem to find it again) Emma suggesting a Zola readalong? I’d be up for that, too.

        • I’m glad to hear you like it.
          It’s a comment you made on a Duras’ post that made me rethink Bair. I have her Nin biography as well but didn’t start it.
          The de Beauvoir one felt so erudite that I didn’t for a second believe she was manipulating the truth but I start to think, she does. I wondered how she went through the research about someone she so clearly despised. To hear that she did the same with Anaïs Nin seems to say something.
          I don’t want her to stand between me and my possible enjoyment of de Bauvoir’s books.
          Emma sayed she would sign up if La débâcle was in next year’s Literature and War readalong. I’m afraid, it is too long but I would very much enjoy another Zola raedalong. I haven’t read a lot by him. The only one I remember well i Thérèse Raquin, so not that one, but any of the other… L’assommoir is high on my pile.

  5. great review Caroline. It’s amazing how some writers could find unusual idea like this. I think focusing the story on human decomposing body is very creative. There are so many war books out there and one has to be stand out to get notice.

    The book I am reading now is also different. It’s about the fascination of children toward a war prisoner. The children never saw a black man before and in their eyes the captive black soldier is like a tamed animal.

  6. I don’t think I would have come across Giono or would have read him otherwise had it not been for your choice of this book as part of the readalong. I’m glad did, but I’m not sure I’ll be picking up another of his books again. It was slightly challenging both for the descriptions and the style. I hate to think how plot-oriented I tend to be, and I had to slow down with this and should probably have reread bits. Still, it was well done. I didn’t feel so close to any of the characters so that I would be crushed by the bad things that happened, but I still must say that last chapter did bring tears to my eyes!

    • I’m sure you would like his other novels. They are very different.
      There isn’t much in terms of identification and not much of a story but I thought what he did was quite amazing. I can’t say I “enjoyed it”, it was too graphic but I did think it’s a great book and I’m glad I picked , I didn’t know all that much about this book.
      On the other hand I dodn’t mind that we will be reading a few novels that should be more accessible in the coming months.

  7. After reading your review, I’m sorry that I had to pass on this month’s book because my library didn’t have a copy. I’ll have to get my hands on it at some point. I’m glad that he doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of war; I think it’s important that the horrific things be told. I’ll get your review on War Through the Generations soon.

    • Anna, I’ve never read anything like it. I felt quite sick at times but I’m sure he isn’t exaggerating. He was there, he saw it all. Danielle has written a very good review of it as well. The only thing you could criticize sis the fact there aren’t a lot of characters to identify with, it’s rather a seris of vignettes but so powerful. Everything is in it, the horror to lose limbs, the sadness to come back maimed, the horror of facial wounds…War is not pretty. He makes it extremely clear. I’d be interested to read your thoughts.

  8. Wonderful review, Caroline! The herd of animals getting into the village is a powerful scene. I remember you saying in your introductory post on Jean Giono, that he is a writer with a unique style and perspective. I want to keep an eye for his books. Thanks for this wonderful review and for introducing this wonderful new-to-me author.

    • Thanks, Vishy. He has written a lot of books and many have been tranlsated. This wasn’t an easy read, very descriptive and I saw it unfolding like a painting which made it difficult to read but the idea to focus on the body conveyd a much stroonger anti-war message than any battle descriptions could. I hope you will read him some day.

  9. Finally got it and read it rapidly.

    Comments before reading the review and comments:
    1. Hated it. (No surprise to Caroline, I’m sure)
    2. Did not like any of the characters, especially Julia.
    3. Terribly inaccurate description of WWI combat. Where are the trenches? Please, nobody should read this book to find out what the war was like. Shame, Giono.
    4. There are a lot of animals moving in this book. What does that mean? I don’t care.
    5. There is absolutely no time frame in the book. It also has a lack of justification for why things happen.
    6. Frustrating writing. Crypticness substituting for clarity.
    7. Is it just me or was a character introduced named Malan and then abandoned?
    8. Rockets being fired at the French soldiers – give me a break, Giono.
    9. Read pp. 38-9 if you want the least erotic breast scene in literature.
    10. Most ridiculous passage begins with the line “She was the bread.” (pp. 141-2) Check it out for a good laugh.
    11. Best line: “There was a smell of sheep in the night.”
    12. My copy had a quote on the front – “Few books about the First World War have achieved a sharper intensity”. Disagree!

    Comments after reading the review and comments;
    1. I like the review and I don’t disagree with the analysis. It just comes down to the fact that I do not like having to go back and reread to figure out what is happening. I am egotistical enough to think that is bad writing, not lack of intelligence on my part.
    2. “War is hell – not just for humans” Giono apparently uncovered the full version of William Sherman’s quote and was inspired to write this book.
    3. What good is heavy handed symbolism if the characters suck and the plot is boring?
    4. The animals suffer more than the main characters (although the main animal character – the ram – comes out of the war very well. The war war not bad for him!). You could argue Julia’s family was lucky. Both the men returned (although it seemed everyone they came in contact with died) relatively unscathed. Each will have to explore their wive’s bodies with one hand (I guess there’s a metaphor there), but all things considered that’s better than many of their comrades. They are certainly in better shape than the dead leg baby.

    • Well, no, I’m not surprised really.
      Giono served during WWI unlike most of the other writers we have read so far. They all based their books on research. He based it on experience that’s why to me it felt by far more authentic although you could call it inaccurate. But it isn’t, he just used another way. I agree we should maybe not vcall it a WWI novel. It is exemplary for any war.
      As I wrote in my review, he isn’t interested in combat and that’s a good thing because no matter how you describe it there always is an element of heroism in it. He stripped everything bare. What is left is pain and suffering. This is as much anti-war as you can get.
      The comparison humans/animals goes both ways. I liked this approach a lot but only because I don’t think humans are in any way superior or worth more.
      I do however agree on the “bread quote….” That was cringe-inducing.

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