In the novel after a disastrous speculation, Aristide Saccard (from La Fortune des Rougon and La Curee) was forced to sell his mansion in the Parc Monceau and to cast about for means of creating a fresh fortune. Chance made him acquainted with Hamelin, an engineer whose residence in the East had suggested to him financial schemes which at once attracted the attention of Saccard. With a view to financing these schemes the Universal Bank was formed, and by force of advertising became immediately successful. Emboldened by success, Saccard launched into wild speculation, involving the bank, which ultimately became insolvent, and so caused the ruin of thousands of depositors. The scandal was so serious that Saccard was forced to disappear from France and to take refuge in Belgium.
The book was intended to show the terrible effects of speculation and fraudulent company promotion, the culpable negligence of directors, and the impotency of the existing laws. It deals with the shady underwoods of the financial world.
Mr. E. A. Vizetelly, in his preface to the English translation (Money. London: Chatto & Windus), suggests that Zola in sketching financier Saccard.