Authors: Émile Zola

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

French novelist, playwright, and journalist.

April 2, 1840

Paris, France

September 29, 1902

Paris, France


Émile Zola was probably the most important and controversial French novelist of the late nineteenth century. The son of an engineer of mixed Greek and Italian ancestry who died when his son was only seven, Zola was educated at Aix and returned to Paris in 1858 to start his career as a writer. He worked as a critic, then in 1867 also began to write novels. In 1871 he published La fortune des Rougon (The Rougon-Macquart Family, 1879), the first volume of twenty in the Rougon-Macquart series, which deals with the history of the Rougon and Macquart families under the Second Empire. The first of these novels attracted little attention, but with the publication of L’assommoir (1877; English translation, 1879), a merciless study of the effects of alcohol, Zola was recognized as among the foremost French writers of a brilliant literary period.

Émile Zola

(Library of Congress)

Zola’s intention with the Rougon-Macquart series was to study, with scientific precision and detachment, the fortunes of the various branches of a typical French family of the time. He wished to show, in the vast and complicated web of relationships he created, how the members of the family were affected by their combined heredity and environment. This approach was a reaction against the romanticism of the generation of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas (père), and represented an advance beyond anything that realism had yet accomplished in fiction. The explanation of his method is set forth in his essay Le roman expérimental (1880; The Experimental Novel, 1893). The literary school he established has been given the name of naturalism.

The naturalists claimed to descend from Stendhal, through Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert, all of whom minutely dissected the personality of individuals and the society in which they found themselves, thus presenting a picture of the contemporary world as it actually is. The naturalists, however, went considerably further. Literature, according to them, must be scientific in its approach, not imaginative; and in this attitude they were echoing the mechanistic statements of mid-nineteenth century science. Human beings, according to this point of view, are merely animals among other animals, the products of heredity and environment that can be studied almost as in a laboratory. When transferred to literature, this theory, as the naturalists contended, meant that novelists should invent nothing but should observe facts and collect data as scientists do. If the observations are complete, if the facts are all gathered, then the behavior and even the final end of the individual can be predicted with scientific accuracy. The plot of the novel will be as inevitable as the solution to a problem in mathematics.

The scientific spirit in which Zola approached his gigantic task is shown by his submitting to his publisher a detailed outline of ten of the projected novels. The subtitle of the Rougon-Macquart series, “The natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire,” gives the impression that he was studying his characters as an entomologist might study a colony of ants. He was painstaking in preparing his material; if he wished to introduce minor characters engaged in a particular trade, he was capable of spending weeks at the task of mastering the technical jargon peculiar to that trade. He took voluminous notes so that his details might be correct. It is not surprising that it took him twenty-five years to complete the series.

Although Zola tried to include all strata of society, the volumes for which he is best known deal with the lower—at times the lowest—classes. It is in this picture of the brutalized, almost animalistic existence of the poor that his uncompromising realism was strongest. The details aroused protest even in France; in England there was a cry of outrage from the few readers who became familiar with his work.

In the course of studying the fortunes of a particular family, Zola also gave an analysis of the Second Empire, a glittering, ornate facade with very little back of it. The hollowness of this society is best shown in Nana (1880; English translation, 1880), a picture of the corruption of Paris even among the rich. Nana, risen from the position of a simple prostitute to that of a grande cocotte, destroys those men who are convinced that no amount of money spent on her could be too great. She is the epitome of the vast luxury and vice of Paris, and the novel ends with the terrible irony of the dead Nana, abandoned by everyone, while outside in the streets the crowds are shouting “To Berlin!”; the scene is a prelude to the downfall that is to follow.

Near the end of his life Zola became involved in a cause that brought him an international recognition far beyond his fame as an author: the Dreyfus case that split France at that time. In 1898, having become convinced that the French army officer Alfred Dreyfus was the innocent victim of a government plot, Zola published his famous letter that began “J’accuse” (I accuse), in which he attacked the general staff and French officialdom for persecuting Dreyfus. He was tried twice for libel and had to flee to England, returning to Paris only after a general amnesty had been proclaimed. He died under mysterious circumstances in his home in Paris.

Zola’s influence on the twentieth-century novel cannot be overemphasized. It was his work, along with that of his French imitators, that helped shatter Victorian reticence in English literature, rendering subsequent novelists free to deal truthfully with their subjects.

Author Works Long Fiction: La confession de Claude, 1865 (Claude’s Confession, 1882) Le vœu d’une morte, 1866 (A Dead Woman’s Wish, 1902) Les mystères de Marseille, 1867 (The Mysteries of Marseilles, 1882; also known as The Flower Girls of Marseilles, 1888) Thérèse Raquin, 1867 (English translation, 1881) Madeleine Férat, 1868 (Magdalen Férat, 1880; also known as Shame, 1954) La fortune des Rougon, 1870 (serial), 1871 (book; The Rougon-Macquart Family, 1879; also known as The Girl in Scarlet; or, The Loves of Silvère and Miette, 1882; The Fortune of the Rougons, 1886) La curée, 1872 (In the Whirlpool, 1882; also known as The Rush for the Spoil, 1886; The Kill, 1895) Le ventre de Paris, 1873 (The Markets of Paris, 1879; also known as La Belle Lisa; or, The Paris Market Girls, 1882; The Fat and the Thin, 1888; Savage Paris, 1955) La conquête de Plassans, 1874 (A Mad Love; or, The Abbé and His Court, 1882; also known as The Conquest of Plassans, 1887; A Priest in the House, 1957) La faute de l’abbé Mouret, 1875 (Albine; or, The Abbé’s Temptation, 1882; also known as Abbé Mouret’s Transgression, 1886; The Sin of the Abbé Mouret, 1904) Son excellence Eugène Rougon, 1876 (Clorinda; or, The Rise and Reign of His Excellency Eugène Rougon, 1880; also known as The Mysteries of the Court of Louis Napoleon, 1882; His Excellency Eugène Rougon, 1886; His Excellency, 1897) L’assommoir, 1877 (English translation, 1879; also known as Gervaise, 1879; The Drunkard, 1894; The Dram-Shop, 1897; Drink, 1903; The Gin Palace, 1952) Une page d’amour, 1878 (Hélène: A Love Episode, 1878; also known as A Page of Love, 1897; A Love Affair, 1957) L’inondation, 1880 (novella) Nana, 1880 (English translation, 1880) Pot-bouille, 1882 (Piping Hot!, 1885; also known as Restless House, 1953) Au bonheur des dames, 1883 (Bonheur des Dames; or, The Shop Girls of Paris, 1883; also known as The Ladies’ Paradise, 1883; Ladies’ Delight, 1957) La joie de vivre, 1884 (Life’s Joys, 1884; also known as How Jolly Life Is, 1886; The Joy of Life, 1901; Zest for Life, 1955) Germinal, 1885 (English translation, 1885) L’œuvre, 1886 (His Masterpiece, 1886; also known as The Masterpiece, 1946) La terre, 1887 (The Soil, 1888; also known as Earth, 1954) Le rêve, 1888 (The Dream, 1888) La bête humaine, 1890 (Human Brutes, 1890; also known as The Human Beast, 1891; The Monomaniac, 1901; The Beast in Man, 1956) L’argent, 1891 (Money, 1891) La débâcle, 1892 (The Downfall, 1892; also known as The Debacle, 1968) Le docteur Pascal, 1893 (Doctor Pascal, 1893; previous 20 novels and 1 novella [La fortune des Rougon through Le docteur Pascal] collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart) Lourdes, 1894 (English translation, 1894) Rome, 1896 (English translation, 1896) Paris, 1898 (English translation, 1897, 1898; previous 3 novels collectively known as Les trois villes) Fécondité, 1899 (Fruitfulness, 1900) Travail, 1901 (Work, 1901) Vérité, 1903 (Truth, 1903; previous 3 novels collectively known as Les quatre évangiles) Short Fiction: Contes à Ninon, 1864 (Stories for Ninon, 1895) Esquisses parisiennes, 1866 Nouveaux contes à Ninon, 1874 Le capitaine Burle, 1882 Naïs Micoulin, 1884 A Soldier’s Honour, and Other Stories, 1888 Les soirées de Médan, 1890 (with Guy de Maupassant et al.) The Attack on the Mill, and Other Sketches of War, 1892 Madame Sourdis, 1929 Drama: La laide, wr. 1865 Madeleine, wr. 1865, pb. 1878 (in Théâtre), pr. 1889 Les mystères de Marseille, pr. 1867 (with Marius Roux) Thérèse Raquin, pr., pb. 1873 (adaptation of his novel; English translation, 1947) Les héritiers Rabourdin, pr. 1874, pb. 1878 (in Théâtre; The Heirs of Rabourdin, 1893) Le bouton de rose, pr., pb. 1878 (in Théâtre) Théâtre, pb. 1878 Renée, pr., pb. 1887 (adaptation of La curée) Le ventre de Paris, pr. 1887 (with William Busnach) Le rêve, pr., pb. 1891 (libretto; with Louis Gallet; music by Alfred Bruneau) L’attaque du moulin, pr., pb. 1893 (libretto; with Gallet; music by Bruneau) Lazare, wr. 1893, pb. 1921 (libretto; music by Bruneau) Messidor, pr., pb. 1897 (libretto; music by Bruneau) Violaine la chevelue, wr. 1897, pb. 1921 L’ouragan, pr., pb. 1901 (libretto; music by Bruneau) Sylvanire: Ou, Paris en amour, wr. 1902, pb. 1921 (libretto; music by Robert Le Grand) L’enfant roi, pr., pb. 1905 (libretto; music by Bruneau) Poèmes lyriques, pb. 1921 Poetry: L’amoureuse comédie, wr. 1860, pb. 1928 (in Les œuvres complètes) Nonfiction: Mes haines, 1866 (My Hatreds, 1991) La république française et la littérature, 1879 Le roman expérimental, 1880 (The Experimental Novel, 1893, in The Experimental Novel, and Other Essays) Documents littéraires: Études et portraits, 1881 Le naturalisme au théâtre, 1881 (Naturalism on the Stage, 1893, in The Experimental Novel, and Other Essays) Nos auteurs dramatiques, 1881 Les romanciers naturalistes, 1881 (The Naturalist Novel, 1964) Une campagne, 1880–1881, 1882 L’affaire Dreyfus: Lettre à la jeunesse, 1897 (The Dreyfus Affair: “J’accuse” and Other Writings, 1996) Nouvelle campagne, 1896, 1897 La vérité en marche, 1901 La republique en marche: Chroniques parlementaires, 13 fevrier 1871–16 septembre 1871, 1956 (2 volumes; Jacques Kayser, editor) Miscellaneous: Les œuvres complètes, 1927–29 (50 volumes; Maurice Le Blond and Eugène Fasquelle, editors) Œuvres complètes, 1966–68 (15 volumes; Henri Mitterand, editor) Bibliography Baguley, David, editor. Critical Essays on Émile Zola. G. K. Hall, 1986. A collection of essays by noted scholars on Zola, including Philip D. Walker. Covers a wide variety of topics, including biographical and critical essays and articles. “The Experimental Novel” and “Zola’s Ideology: The Road to Utopia” are two valuable entries from this collection. Contains a select bibliography of works on Zola for readers of English. Berg, William J., and Laurey K. Martin. Émile Zola Revisited. Twayne Publishers, 1992. Employs textual analysis rather than biography to analyze each of the twenty volumes in the Rougon-Macquart series, using Zola’s literary-scientific principles to organize the study. Brown, Frederick. Zola: A Life. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. A detailed and extensive biography of Zola that discusses his fiction and the intellectual life of France, of which he was an important part. Shows how Zola’s naturalism was developed out of the intellectual and political ferment of his time. Argues that Zola’s naturalism was a highly studied and artificial approach to reality. Gallois, William. Zola: The History of Capitalism. Peter Lang, 2000. An examination of how Zola depicted capitalism in his works. Bibliography and index. Johnson, Roger, Jr. “Looking and Screening in Zola’s Vierge au cirage.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 29, no. 1, 1992, pp. 19-25. Academic Search Complete, Accessed 9 Aug. 2017. Discusses the device of the beholder in Zola’s short story “Vierge au cirage”; explains that the tale incorporates and illustrates Zola’s definition of the fictional world of the art work as “seen.” Asserts that in the story “looking” is both a central narrative event and a recurring motif. Lethbridge, Robert, and Terry Keefe, editors. Zola and the Craft of Fiction. Leicester UP, 1990. A collection of essays published in honor of F. W. J. Hemmings. Six of the ten essays are written in English by notable Zola scholars such as David Baguley, Philip D. Walker, and Joy Newton. Nelson, Brian. Zola and the Bourgeoisie: A Study of Themes and Techniques in Les Rougon-Macquart. Macmillan, 1983. Illuminates the specific aspects of Zola’s writing that demonstrate the nineteenth century’s class structure and the results of the burgeoning bourgeoisie that had replaced the aristocracy and had come to hold the bulk of the country’s wealth. Explores how the bourgeoisie vilified the artist who uncovered the base side of that class’s nature through his social vision. Newton, Ruth, and Naomi Lebowitz. Dickens, Manzoni, Zola, and James: The Impossible Romance. U of Missouri P, 1990. Discusses the impact of religious sensibility on literary form and ideology in Zola’s fiction. Pollard, Patrick, editor. Émile Zola Centenary Colloquium, 1893–1993: London, 23–25 September 1993. Émile Zola Society, 1995. This collection of essays from a colloquium held by the Institute Français du Royaume-Uni and Birkbeck College, in London in September 1993, examines various aspects of Zola’s life and works. Schom, Alan. Émile Zola: A Bourgeois Rebel. Queen Anne Press, 1987. This eleven-year research effort considers Zola the journalist, the novelist, and the man himself and his values. Places Zola in the context of the artist as crusader against nineteenth century France and its societal ills. This modern look at the whole man includes photographs, illustrations, and a select bibliography. Walker, Philip D. Zola. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. A biography drawn from this professor of French literature’s own studies, as well as those of many other critics, historians, and biographers. With a select bibliography.

Categories: Authors