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Émile Zola
1840 - 1902

Émile Zola was the foremost proponent of the doctrine of naturalism in literature. He illustrated this doctrine chiefly in a series of 20 novels published between 1871 and 1893 under the general title "Les Rougon-Macquart."


Shortly after his birth in Paris on April 2, 1840, Émile Zola was taken to the south of France by his father, a gifted engineer of Venetian extraction, who had formed a company to supply Aix-en-Provence with a source of fresh water. He died before the project had been completed, leaving his widow to struggle with an increasingly difficult financial situation. Despite this, Émile's boyhood and schooling at Aix were, on the whole, a happy period of his life. He retained a lasting affection for the sunbaked countryside of this part of France. One of his closest friends at school and his companion on many a summer's ramble was Paul Cézanne, the future painter.

Early Years in Paris

In 1858 Zola and his mother moved to Paris, where he completed his rather sketchy education. He never succeeded in passing his baccalauréat examinations. For a few years after leaving school, he led a life of poverty verging on destitution. Finally, in 1862, he was given a job in the publishing firm of Hachette, which he kept for 4 years. Here he learned much about the business and promotional sides of publishing and met several distinguished writers, among them the philosopher and literary historian Hippolyte Taine, whose ideas strongly influenced the development of Zola's thought. It was one of Taine's sayings ("Vice and virtue are chemical products like vitriol and sugar") that Zola took as the epigraph of his early novel Thére‧se Raquin (1867). The formula was well suited to the uncompromising materialism that imbues this macabre story of adultery, murder, and suicide.

"Les Rougon-Macquart"

About 1868-1869, when Zola was working as a free-lance journalist, he conceived the idea of writing a series of interlinked novels tracing the lives of various members of a single family whose fortunes were to counterpoint the rise and fall of the Second Empire (1852-1870). He proposed in particular to demonstrate how the forces of heredity might influence the character and development of each individual descendant of a common ancestress. The scheme enabled him to apportion to each novel the analysis of a particular section of society, ranging from the upper stratum of high finance and ministerial authority down to the suffering masses starving in the slums or toiling in the mines. Les Rougon-Macquart was originally planned in ten volumes; but the design was so obviously promising that Zola eventually extended it to twice that number. The volumes were designed as social documents rather than as pure works of fiction, but his powerfully emotive imagination and primitive symbolism conferred on the best of them, nonetheless, many of the qualities of expressionistic prose poetry.

The first six volumes were largely ignored by the critics, although they included some powerful pieces of social satire. For example, La Curée (1872) dealt with real estate speculation; Le Ventre de Paris (1873) attacked the pusillanimous conservatism of the small-shopkeeper class; and Son Excellence Euge‧ne Rougon (1876) was an exposure of political jobbery. Only with the seventh, L'Assommoir (1877), did Zola finally produce a best seller that made him one of the most talked of writers in France and one of the most bitterly assailed. The plot of this novel is almost nonexistent. He contented himself with tracing the life story of a simpleminded, good-hearted laundress who lived in a working-class district in the north of Paris. By dint of hard work she achieves at first a modest prosperity, until her husband's increasing fecklessness and addiction to drink drag her down to utter destitution. For the title of his novel Zola used a contemporary slang word for a liquor store. The problem of alcoholism among the poor looms large in the book, as do the related problems of overcrowded housing conditions, prostitution, and the risk of starvation during the periods of prolonged unemployment. Though in no sense a work of propaganda, L'Assommoir succeeded in drawing attention to the wretched conditions in which the urban proletariat had been living throughout the 19th century.

Succeeding volumes of the Rougon-Macquartcycle included many others that were universally read, even though savagely condemned by conservative critics. Nana (1880) dealt with the lives of the demi-mondaines and their wealthy, dissipated clients. The heroine's career was modelled on the careers of a number of successful courtesans of the heyday of the Second Empire. Germinal (1885), doubtless Zola's masterpiece, narrated the preliminaries, outbreak, and aftermath of a coal miners' strike in northeast France; it was the first novel in which the possibility of a social revolution launched by the proletariat against the middle classes was seriously mooted. In his descriptions of the dangerous daily labour in the pits and of the rioting of the exasperated strikers, Zola achieved effects of agony and terror of a kind never before realized in literature. La Terre (1887) represents his attempt to do for the farm labourer what he had done for the miner in Germinal. The picture of rural life he offered was anything but idyllic, rape and murder being shown as the inevitable concomitants of the narrowness of the peasant's horizons and his atavistic land hunger. Finally, La Débâcle (1892) gave an epic dignity to the story of France's calamitous defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1870.

Naturalism in Theory and Practice

The immense sales of his works enabled Zola, by 1878, to purchase a property outside Paris, at Médan, a hamlet where he lived quietly for most of the year, occasionally entertaining the younger writers who made up the vanguard of the short-lived naturalist school. Five of them collaborated with him in the production of a volume of short stories issued in 1880 under the title Soirées de Médan. Of these five, the two most talented, Guy de Maupassant and Joris Karl Huysmans, forswore their allegiance shortly afterward. Zola did, however, have important disciples outside France: Giovanni Verga in Italy, Eça de Queiros in Portugal, George Moore in England, and Frank Norris and Stephen Crane in the United States.

Zola set out his fundamental theoretical beliefs in Le Roman expérimental (1880), but even he adhered very loosely to them in practice. Naturalism embraced many of the tenets of the older realist movement, such as an interest in average types rather than above-average individuals, the cultivation of a pessimistic and disillusioned outlook, a studious avoidance of surprising incident, and a strict obedience to consequential logic in plot development. The special innovation of naturalism lay in its attempt to fuse science with literature. This meant, in practice, that human behavior had to be interpreted along strictly materialistic or physiological lines ("the soul being absent," as Zola put it) and that the individual was to be shown as totally at the mercy of twin external forces, heredity and environment. The emphasis placed on environment accounts for the immense pains that Zola took to document the setting he proposed to use in any particular novel.

Last Years

Zola's private life was not free of strains. He married in 1870, but this union was childless. Then, in 1888, he set up a second home with a young seamstress, who bore him two children. This unexpected blossoming of domestic happiness probably accounts for the sunnier tone of the books he wrote after the completion of Les Rougon-Macquart. They included a trilogy - Lourdes, Rome, and Paris (1894-1898) - dealing with the conflict between science and religion, and a tetralogy of utopian novels, Les Quatre Évangiles, of which only the first three were completed.

Zola's dramatic intervention on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus carried his name even further than had his literary work. Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, had been wrongfully condemned for espionage in 1894, and with much courage and recklessness of consequences Zola challenged the findings of the court-martial in an open letter to the President of the Republic (J'accuse, Jan. 13, 1898). Since his statement charged certain high-ranking army officers with falsification of evidence, Zola was put on trial. He lost his case, spent a year in hiding in England, and returned to France on June 5, 1899. His sudden death in Paris on Sept. 29, 1902, from carbon monoxide poisoning may not have been accidental as the inquest found. There is reason to believe that he was the victim of an assassination plot engineered by a few of the more fanatical of his political enemies.


Zola, Émile (1840-1902). A writer of enormous influence in France and abroad, once much scorned by the literary establishment, who has come to be recognized as a major literary figure of 19th-c. France. Primarily a novelist, he was the author of 31 novels, five collections of short stories, a number of plays and libretti, a large body of art, drama, and literary criticism, as well as numerous articles on political and social issues published in the French press at various stages of his career as a journalist. His most famous article was his open letter, in L'Aurore of 13 January 1898, to Félix Faure, president of the Republic, entitled (by the editor of the newspaper) ‘J'accuse’, his dramatic protest against the acquittal of Esterhazy in the Dreyfus Affair.

Zola was born in Paris, but spent his childhood and youth (from 1843 to 1858) in Aix-en-Provence, where he formed a close friendship with Cézanne. His father, a civil engineer of Italian stock, died in 1847, leaving his family in difficult financial circumstances. Zola moved to Paris with his mother in 1858 to complete his education, but failed the baccalauréat and was forced to seek, with little success, some suitable form of employment. He wrote Romantic poetry and stories whilst frequenting artistic milieux in these years of financial straits, which were only eased when he obtained a modest position with the publisher Hachette. He published a collection of tales, Contes à Ninon, in 1864 and his first novel, the autobiographical La Confession de Claude, the following year, then two serial novels for public consumption: Le Vœu d'une morte (1866) and Les Mystères de Marseille (1867). But his early works received little critical attention. He began to make his mark, however, as a journalist in the late 1860s, particularly with his Salons, his defence of Manet, and his strong opposition to the Second Empire regime. Converted to realism in art and literature, much influenced by Balzac and Taine, Zola began promoting a scientific view of literature inspired by the aims and methods of physiology, which he termed ‘Naturalism’. His fourth novel, Thérèse Raquin (1867), applied these ideas and attracted some critical attention. Having published another more realistic novel, Madeleine Férat, in 1868, he embarked before the fall of the Empire upon his vast Rougon-Macquart series, which would be, as the subtitle defines it, the ‘histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire’ and would take him until 1893 to complete. In 1870 he married Alexandrine Meley, who remained his life-long companion.

During the years in which he wrote his 20-volume series [for titles see Rougon-Macquart], Zola virtually abandoned political journalism; after brushes with the authorities in the early years of the Third Republic, he mainly concentrated his efforts on his novels, but also—with limited success—made occasional incursions into the theatre, either by writing plays of his own, like Les Héritiers Rabourdin (1874) and Le Bouton de rose (1878), or by collaborating on adaptations from his novels. His first novel to achieve major success was L' Assommoir (1877), a work that brought him not only fame and fortune but considerable hostile criticism. Partly in defence of his own works and of works by a growing number of younger writers attracted to his rising star, Zola also issued several volumes of critical and theoretical studies, previously published in the press, notably Le Roman expérimental (1880), in which he put forward his theory of the ‘experimental novel’—to little effect, since his influence was (and would always be) due immeasurably more to his fiction than to his theories. For a brief period he became the leader of a school of writers, frequently named ‘le groupe de Médan’ after the country house that Zola bought on the proceeds of L'Assommoir. The group produced the one-and-only collective Naturalist work, Les Soirées de Médan. Though he was still under attack in France, particularly after the publication of La Terre (1887), Zola's influence spread abroad and he gradually received due recognition for his talent, though he would never gain admission to the Académie Française.

Zola's novels after the Rougon-Macquart series, inspired by his desire to respond to a different intellectual climate and to produce a better world for his two children by Jeanne Rozerot (his mistress since 1888), represent a considerable departure from his Naturalist principles and practices. His trilogy Les Trois Villes, consisting of Lourdes (1894), Rome (1896), and Paris (1898), deals with a priest, Pierre Froment, who abandons the Catholic faith to espouse a religion of humanity. Zola's final series, Les Quatre Evangiles, consists of largely Utopian works, Fécondité (1899), Travail (1901), and Vérité (published posthumously, 1903). Before he could begin the fourth, Justice, Zola died of carbon-monoxide poisoning from a blocked chimney in his Paris apartment. The verdict of accidental death has never entirely removed suspicion of foul play prompted by Zola's role in the Dreyfus case.

Despite the reductive formulas with which Zola's novels have usually been defined by critics and literary historians, and by the author himself in his own theoretical statements, his monumental work is, in fact, enormously varied; it is, furthermore, uncompromising in its representation of the harsh realities of life, abounding in vitality, rich in mythical and symbolic formulations, and inspired by Zola's attachment to humane values even in works in which he showed them threatened, undermined, or swept away from within by obscure, instinctive forces or from without by the impersonal forces of the modern world.










This web page was last updated on: 20 December, 2008