Last reviewed: June 2018
French novelist, playwright, and journalist.
April 2, 1840
September 29, 1902
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
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.