Zola spent much of his early life in Aix-en-Provence, a coastal region of southwest France with a rich literary and historical tradition. When he was very young, his father died and his mother had to struggle to raise her family on limited resources. As a child, Zola first attended a private school where he was handicapped by the poor education that he received. When he transferred to a public institution, he had to complete an inordinate amount of work to keep pace with his classmates. While attending this second school, he became friends with Baptistin Baille, a future professor at the Ecole Polytechnique, and Paul Cezanne, who later became a prolific Impressionist painter. With his friends Zola often roamed the countryside, discussing literature and visiting places similar to ones that would later appear in his novels.
In addition to becoming familiar with the works of French writers Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset, Italian poet Dante, and English playwright William Shakespeare, Zola became intrigued by contemporary scientific theories. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which argued that the members of species who best adjusted to their environment would be more likely to survive and pass on their traits, was among the scientific ideas that had a profound effect on Zola's writing. Conditions of life in Paris, where political and economic oppression resulted in much human suffering, seemed to validate Darwin's theory of life as a fight for survival.
As one of a number of people who believed that the tenets and methods of science were applicable to other disciplines, Zola proposed a new theory about literature which came to be known as naturalism. Zola and his followers believed they should not invent as much as leave a record of their times. He laid the groundwork for the naturalist movement in essays included in The Experimental Novel and in the preface to La Fortune des Rougon, the first in a series of novels that followed a single family line over several decades in the tradition of Honore de Balzac's La Comedie humaine. According to Philo M. Buck, Jr., in The World's Great Age: The Story of the Century's Search for a Philosophy of Life, Zola "armed himself with a notebook and went to the life of France to study it first hand, getting the facts that, when he had put them together, made his novels." The former journalist hoped to provide a study of man as he is more than a declaration of human imagination and ideals.
At the time that Zola began writing the Rougon-Macquart series, he was not doing well financially. For a time he served as a critic for the newspaper Evenement but was dismissed after writing several articles that were not well received by the public. During the time of hardship that followed, Zola supported himself by writing Les Mysteres de Marseille, an inconsequential work that appeared in a Marseillaise newspaper, and Therese Raquin, which was regarded by many critics as the author's first substantial piece of fiction. In the latter work Zola showed the effects of his exposure to contemporary science by allowing hereditary factors to play a great role in governing the behavior of his characters. In a preface to the novel the author writes that the people involved in the story are "dominated by their nerves, deprived of free will." As the story progresses, his title character becomes an adulteress, involves herself in a plot to murder her husband, and later commits suicide.
Zola intended for the Rougon-Macquart series to provide a forum in which he could further show how hereditary factors were the primary determinants of his characters' behavior. In an essay entitled "Differences between Balzac and Myself," printed in Maurice Le Blond's second edition of Oeuvres completes and later in Elliott M. Grant's biography, Zola writes: "My work will be less social than scientific.... Instead of having principles (royalty, Catholicism), I shall have laws (heredity, innateness). I do not want, like Balzac, to influence the affairs of men, to be political, philosophical, moralistic.... A simple exposition of the facts concerning a family, showing the inner mechanism which makes it function."
Zola's focus on heredity spurred complaints from critics who thought that the author placed too much emphasis on uncontrollable forces in dictating the actions of his characters. A number also questioned the author's belief that fiction could serve as a scientific tool. Zola's exploration of human personality seemed to many to be brutally cold, fatalistic, and too clinically detached to be easily accepted. Benedetto Croce summarized in European Literature in the Nineteenth Century, "There hardly exists a history of modern French literature which does not take exception to Zola's attempt at `experimental fiction,' directed towards the establishment or verification of `scientific laws,' especially that of `heredity.'"
But Zola did not solely intend to use the series to explore the hypothetical effects of heredity; he also wanted the Rougon-Macquart novels to serve a prescriptive purpose. The novelist and the individual, he believed, should use art and other means to construct "the best society." If he could show that scientific laws of succession and environment determined human fortunes, then social workers, psychologists, and lawmakers would have a guide for understanding and, possibly, eradicating social ills. Zola therefore used the Rougon-Macquart series to tackle facets of society that desperately needed improvement. Producing approximately one book a year for the duration of the series, Zola attacked problems such as poverty, crime, and church corruption. In The World's Great Age Buck noted Zola's success as a reformer, stating that the author "painted with objective fidelity the ills of contemporary French society, roused the popular conscience, and... remedial legislation followed."
The opening volume, La Fortune des Rougon ( The Rougon-Macquart Family), takes place during a social revolution after Napoleon Bonaparte's seizure of the French kingship in 1804. Zola uses this backdrop to comment on provincial politics as well as the alcohol addiction of Adelaide Fouque, one of his characters. Subsequent novels, such as La Curee ( The Kill) and La Ventre de Paris ( The Markets of Paris), deal with avarice and betrayal. The latter book was regarded by Oscar Cargill in Intellectual America: Ideas on the March as Zola's one "purely physiological" novel for classifying men as either thin or fat and describing how they survive. In this "astonishing novel," said Cargill, "... the Fat lived off the Thin.... Zola exploited for the first time successfully the reportorial method of assembling all the minutiae of his background for a studied effect, a method which to many minds is Naturalism itself."
L'Assommoir ( Gervaise: The Natural and Social Life of a Peasant under the Second Empire; A Novel) depicted the effects of alcoholism on a working-class family. Gervaise, the heroine, is lame as a result of being the daughter of a drunkard. With a limited income and no education, she spends most of her time at the corner bar. She marries, hoping to improve her life, and saves to buy a laundry shop. Her savings are depleted, however, when her husband sustains injuries after an accidental fall and has to recover in a hospital. Also an indulgent drinker, he eventually goes insane and dies in an asylum. Although Zola provided readers with a daunting portrait of the tragic consequences of alcoholism in the novel, he moved critics to have compassion on those who had become its victims. Concerning L'Assommoir, F. W. J. Hemmings remarked in his study Emile Zola, "By moving us as deeply with his recital of Gervaise's disillusions as any tragic poet with the history of kings... brought to beggary, Zola proved that, contrary to the classical doctrine, ...the fall of a sparrow is, in the artist's eyes, as pregnant with pity and terror as the fall of a conqueror."
Upon its release, L'Assommoir was maligned by some critics, including Albert Millaud who felt that it misrepresented the lower classes and contained unnecessarily coarse language. In the newspaper Bien Public, Millaud wrote a series of articles that attacked the novel. Zola then publicly defended L'Assommoir as an accurate work that relied upon the vernacular of the lower classes in order to make it convincing. The critic responded with a scathing assault not only on Zola's work but on the author himself. After the attack on his character, Zola wrote a second letter, part of which was transcribed in Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson: "Ah! if you only knew how my friends are amused by the amazing legends with which the public is regaled every time that my name is mentioned! If you knew how much the drinker of blood, the ferocious novelist, is an honest bourgeois, a man of study and art devoted to his principles and living quietly in his corner! I deny no story about me. I go on working, and leave it to time and the good faith of the public to discover me amid the mass of stupidities which have been piled up." Such controversy served to increase the public's curiosity about the novel, and L'Assommoir became a huge success.
Published in 1885, Germinal spotlights Etienne Lantier, who arrives penniless in northern France and is hired as a miner. He lives in squalid conditions with a group of fellow employees, and--after coming to understand the miners' troubles--he rises to lead them in a revolt. According to Josephson in Zola and His Time, the novel "is perfect ...in representing the philosophy which Zola avowed: man as the pawn of mechanical forces (here, economic), the thing, primarily of his age and his social environment. Individual actions, individual destinies, hold their place only in a larger, more universal scheme of actions and reactions; they are part, in short, of a larger and general fate." Biographer Elliott M. Grant regarded the novel as Zola's finest work, stating: "With Germinal, Zola reached the top of the ladder of success and achieved his greatest literary triumph. Powerful, extremely poetic in its way, compassionate, indignant, dominated, in spite of the conflict between workers and management, by a strong sentiment of human solidarity, it consecrated Zola's reputation not only in France but in Europe."
In The World's Great Age Buck wrote that Germinal was Zola's best novel and the one most relevant to his times. Buck observed that Zola had written "more than an indictment of the capitalistic system, when one party must be wrong and the other right. What remains longest after reading is the humanity of the picture, and Zola's essential faith in the soundness at heart of the worker. He is not setting class against class... but examining the humanity of each of the warring classes, to see which fundamentally is the better fitted to survive. He asks for justice... because [the workers] are better fitted to reorganize society. In this way ... Germinal is the first great proletarian novel, but with its faith based on no economic or sociological theory." Irving Howe wrote in The Critical Point on Literature and Culture that the influence of Germinal is still being felt, having released "one of the central myths of the modern era: the story of how the dumb acquire speech. All those at the bottom of history, for centuries objects of manipulation and control, begin to transform themselves into active subjects, determined to create their own history."
Nana introduces readers to Anna Coupeau, a young French woman who is performing in a musical play at the beginning of the novel. Although Nana has little talent as an actress, she captivates the mostly male audience with her voluptuous attributes. Anna makes money as a prostitute before becoming involved with a rich banker who provides her with a home in the country. Unconcerned with social conventions, she later has affairs with several people, including a count, a comedian who treats her badly, and a fellow prostitute.
"Zola's theme is ... the refined, perverse, destructive sexuality which is incarnate in the expensive courtesan," Martin Turnell related in The Art of French Fiction: Prevost, Stendhal, Zola, Maupassant, Gide, Mauriac, Proust. Gervaise's daughter, the nymphet who personified "the frenzied eroticism of the age," inherited her sexual disorder from a series of alcoholics. Here, Turnell said, Zola proved an "adept at playing the dual role of moralist and voyeur.... Zola had very conveniently provided himself with an excuse for writing a whole novel about sexual relations in their most lurid form, and for describing the intimate dessous [underclothes] in the greatest detail on the pretext that he was `correcting' human nature." However, he said, the moralist had "the last word": "What is impressive is the novelist's perception of the essentially destructive nature of eroticism, of the profound connection between the frenzied promiscuity of the age and the death-wish."
Later books in the series continued to address what Zola considered problems in contemporary society. La Joie de vivre ( Life's Joys), which chronicles a man's fruitless attempts at personal achievement, attacks anti-scientific attitudes. Published in 1886, L'Oeuvre ( The Masterpiece) looks at how commercial concerns compromise aesthetics in the field of art. Cezanne interpreted the book as an attack on his work, and its publication damaged their longtime friendship irreparably. La Bete humaine (The Human Brutes) depicts the dehumanization of workers during an industrial revolution. Biographer Grant regarded the work as Zola's "most pessimistic, his blackest, his most nightmarish book." The author followed the effort with L'Argent ( Money), a novel that details the seedier side of the stock market.
The tragedy of international strife and corruption during wartime was the target of La Debacle (The Downfall), the penultimate book of the series. The novel caused a great deal of controversy, and Zola was labeled "unpatriotic" for presenting a negative picture of the French army in its pages. Especially graphic were numerous scenes set in the makeshift military hospitals that were erected behind French battle lines. Characteristic of the initial response to the novel, according to Josephson in Zola and His Time, was a memo from a Bavarian captain which read: "It is the act of a bad Frenchman.... A German has come forward to reprimand him and teach him a lesson by rendering to the valiant soldiers who died for France the homage which Monsieur Zola should have accorded." Regardless of the cold reception that it received from some critics, La Debacle quickly outsold one of Zola's most popular books--Nana--partly because of the controversy surrounding it.
Zola was supported by some critics who defended the accuracy of the portrait presented in La Debacle, and the novel had a contingency of admirers who ranked it with other great literary depictions of war. In his book, Emile Zola, Jean-Albert Bede compared La Debacle to Leo Tolstoy's epic War and Peace: "Sweepingly majestic in its depiction of the battlefields, crystal-clear in its reconstruction of strategic or tactical maneuvers, masterly in its handling of enormous masses of men, it shows Zola at his narrative and epic best." Underscoring Zola's hope for reform, La Debacle showed the defeat of a hated regime and presaged the construction of a more just and humane society.
Zola finished the series with Le Docteur Pascal, in which the title character examines the genealogy of his family, the Rougon-Macquarts. According to the novel, as quoted in Grant's biography, the doctor's studies reflect "the best and the worst, the vulgar and the sublime, flowers, filth, tears, laughter, the very torrent of life forever sweeping humanity along in its flow." Pascal falls in love with his niece Clotilde and intends to father a child with her in order to rejuvenate the family line. She gives birth to a son, but only after Pascal has died. Madame Felicite Rougon, who fears that the doctor's findings on her family's heredity will cause a scandal, destroys the studies after Doctor Pascal's death. Some critics felt that Le Docteur Pascal was a lackluster effort. Zola, however, defended his work in a preface to the novel that was quoted by J. G. Patterson in A Zola Dictionary: "It is a scientific work, the logical deduction and conclusion of all my preceding novels, and at the same time it is my speech in defence of all that I have done before the court of public opinion."
Zola was very meticulous in planning and producing the Rougon-Macquart series. To add authenticity to his stories, he learned about the lives of the lower class and put together a glossary of slang terms which his characters used in conversation. In 1972, John Porter Houston's Fictional Technique in France, 1802-1927: An Introduction praised the effective use of language in both the dialogue and narration of L'Assommoir. Zola investigated horse racing and the theater, which figured prominently in Nana, and researched the mechanics of a mining community to lend credence to the working-class lifestyle depicted in Germinal. In Zola and His Time Josephson outlined Zola's method for writing the books of the Rougon-Macquart series: "He would always start from some general idea, in imagining a novel; a social situation or class, a struggle, a group of individuals. Having chosen the temperament, the Rougon or Macquart he desired `to experiment upon' next, he would involve himself in a mass of documents, books, newspaper-clippings and even field expeditions... in connection with the social level or group he was picturing. For such work Zola had extraordinary power of assimilation." At the time he was writing La Debacle, Zola had gained such attention for his hands-on approach to creating novels that members of the Parisian media, as well as his admirers, often hindered him when he was trying to do research.
In regard to Zola's writing, Henry James was among the critics who generally agreed with the author's role as a social critic who risked being called "tasteless" in order to make readers aware of the forces that impinged on their daily lives. He wrote in Notes on Novelists, with Some Other Notes, "To make his characters swarm, and to make the great central thing they swarm about `as large as life,'... that was the secret he triumphantly mastered. Add that the big central thing was always some highly representative institution or industry of the France of his time, some seated Moloch of custom, of commerce, of faith, lending itself to portrayal through its abuses and excesses, its idol-face and great devouring mouth, and we embrace the main lines of his attack."
James partly agreed with those who objected to Zola's depiction of human nature as inescapably indecent, however. The critic maintained in The House of Fiction, "Nothing tends more to compromise [realism] than to represent it as necessarily allied to the impure." He also questioned the authority on which Zola based his view of nature "as a combination of the cesspool and the house of prostitution" and "foulness rather than fairness as the sign we should know her by." James declared that "this is his great trouble and the weak point of his incontestably remarkable talent." Referring to Nana as an example in The House of Fiction, he noted, "Never was such foulness so spontaneous and so complete, and never was it united with qualities so superior to itself and intrinsically so respectable."
Some critics acknowledged that Zola's unyielding depictions of the lower class served a purpose. In 1953, V. S. Pritchett wrote in Books in General that Zola gave dignity even to those characters who could not rise by the strength of inner nobility out of their "hells" by not belittling them for their condition. Said Pritchett, "Human beings have the right...to be incurable. Zola's sense of corruption was, no doubt, based on specious scientific theories; but it was a larger, more humane sense than the Puritan moralist's trite preaching of domestic virtue and the merits of the savings bank."
Some critics, in fact, pointed out that the author's hard-line approach to naturalism changed throughout his career. In The World's Great Age Buck commented: "Zola never ceased to call himself a naturalist. But he... discovered, through it, perhaps, a philosophy of life that has less connection with Zola the man of science.... And above all, because of his minute social studies, he acquired a faith in human nature, a belief in its essential soundness, that [would] make him a defender of the oppressed." Critics have long recognized the irony of the fact that when Zola's novels succeed as masterpieces it is because they do not strictly follow his theories of literary naturalism. Edmund Gosse explained in The Collected Essays of Edmund Gosse: French Profiles that although Zola "tried to write books as scientific as anything by [Louis] Pasteur or Claude Bernard, ...his innate romanticism would break through." Support for this view, reasoned Gosse, exists in the unchecked romanticism of Zola's short stories, published before he began the series.
Opinions concerning the validity of Zola's scientific ideals often overshadowed discussion of his novels as well-crafted works of art. Late in the author's life, critics began to comment on the masterful blend of precise description and poetic language in his works. Like other critics, Edward Sackville-West noted in Inclinations that Zola was a master of poetic symbolism that could invest simple images with a mythic power. He wrote, "Zola is famously at his best when he allows his imagination to brood over some one thing--the staircase in Pot-Bouille, the mineshaft in Germinal...until it assumes the monstrous proportions of a nightmare or an hallucination." In the Rougon-Macquart series, Zola had produced "a solidly established formal scheme given moment by emotional force and life by shimmering atmosphere--an Impressionist painting of the highest order. It is not `Naturalism' but impressionistic technique which explains Zola's greatness," Wilson claimed.
Plays by Zola, many of them adapted from his fiction, were shaped by the same naturalist aesthetic. Irritated by the optimism of popular theatre, Zola championed "slice of life" drama presented with a minimum of artifice. The stage, like the novel, could be an examination table on which social and psychological forces in action could be scrutinized. Some critics considered his plays, like his novels, pornographic. Sackville-West explained: "The best contemporary critics...were so outraged by the vulgarity of his style and his plots that they failed to perceive the rare epic quality of his imagination; and they firmly implanted in the public mind the image of a gloomy pornographer who thought the very worst of people in general and of his countrymen in particular."
Late in his life, Zola used his skill and reputation as a writer to lash out against injustice in the military. On January 13, 1898, the newspaper L'Aurore published a twenty-page open letter to the president of France in which Zola maintained the innocence of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish soldier convicted of treason. The paper's circulation skyrocketed from about forty thousand to three hundred thousand on that day. Speaking directly to the president and the members of the military who had testified against Dreyfus, he accused them of perjury. There was an immediate response from the public and the government. Gorham Munson, writing in 12 Decisive Battles of the Mind: The Story of Propaganda during the Christian Era, attributed the letter's success to the factors of "surprise, audacity, [and] challenge." Munson continued, "Zola accused the War Ministry and the General Staff of the Army of a gross miscarriage of justice and of shocking efforts to conceal the miscarriage.... He dared the accused to bring him to trial for breaking the Libel Laws." Unable to ignore such a challenge, the government charged Zola with libel, and the Dreyfus issue was brought into civil court, ultimately leading to a new and fair trial for the captain. Dreyfus was exonerated of all charges and reinstated largely due to the efforts of Zola, who was hailed as a public hero and a spokesman for the human conscience.
Although Zola had works published after 1893, none of them matched the success of his Rougon-Macquart novels. Les Quatre Evangiles ("Four Gospels"), a tetralogy, was Zola's final work; it expressed his personal doctrines for eradicating social ills. In the fall of 1902, Zola was writing Justice, the last volume of the four-part series, but passed away before its completion. One night before going to bed he lit the fireplace in his Paris home. On the next day both he and his wife were found unconscious, suffocated by fumes from a defective chimney. Efforts to revive Zola did not succeed. Though much maligned during his life for his views, he was honored with a state funeral and eulogized as a national hero by Nobel prize-winning writer Anatole France. He was buried in Paris; in 1908 his ashes were reinterred in the Pantheon in Rome.
Zola's achievements assured him of a permanent place in the literary history of France and of the entire Western world. In Zola's works were the foundations for literary naturalism, the new journalism, and the use of cinematic techniques in fiction. His view of human nature and society derived from evolutionary theory, his emphasis on the non-heroic figure or the antihero, and his concern for modern social problems, particularly those experienced by the lower classes, affected a number of works that were written after his death. According to Josephson in Zola and His Time, literature written after the author's death did not live up to the precedent that Zola had set: "In the new directions assumed, one sees only in the rarest and briefest instances that `energy' which is an eternal quality of great art; that combative vigor, that sheer puissance, which was the most signal and unforgettable trait of Emile Zola."
From: "Emile Zola." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2009.