Article abstract: Zola’s major contributions were in three areas: literature, as a writer of poetry, drama, novels, and essays; literary theory, as one of the major forces in defining naturalism as a literary school; and human rights, as a defender of Alfred Dreyfus, who was falsely accused of treason and sentenced to Devil’s Island.
Born in Paris on April 2, 1840, Émile Zola spent his first eighteen years in Aix-en-Provence. Zola’s father, Francesco Zola, was a high-spirited Venetian, bursting with grandiose ideas for engineering projects. With a doctorate in engineering from the University of Padua, Francesco helped plan the first public railway in Europe, served in the French foreign legion, and, in 1839, married Émilie-Aurélie Aubert. Twenty thousand francs in debt, he nevertheless installed Émilie in an expensive Paris apartment, where Émile, their only child, was born.
Francesco’s fortunes improved when Aix accepted his plan to build a canal to bring water to the municipality. The family moved to Provence, where work on the canal proceeded. During construction, Francesco caught cold and succumbed to pneumonia, leaving his family not only destitute but also ninety thousand francs in debt. Émilie moved with her son to smaller quarters, bringing her parents to live with them. Émilie’s parents looked after the grieving Émile while Émilie did housework for other people, supplementing that modest income by gradually selling most of her furniture.
The family tried to protect the delicate Émile. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, he had his father’s broad face and protruding brow, on which worry lines, lines of conscience, developed early. A speech defect caused Émile’s classmates to taunt him. His mother used her dead husband’s connections to obtain for the boy a scholarship to Collège Bourbon, where he emphasized scientific studies but developed his passion for literature. Here began his friendship with his classmate Paul Cézanne.
When he was eighteen, Zola moved to Paris, where his mother had relocated to increase her earnings. Isolated and lonely, he lived in squalid surroundings, first with his mother, then alone. Poverty was ever-present. Émile enrolled in the Lycée Saint-Louis, but twice he failed the baccalaureate examinations, partly because his use of French was judged limited and defective. He took menial jobs and at twenty-four published his first collection of stories, Contes à Ninon (1864; Stories for Ninon, 1895), which was encouragingly reviewed but brought him little money.
Stories for Ninon, although a promising beginning for a young author, shows little of the combination of careful observation, practiced objectivity, and scientific method that characterized Zola’s most celebrated works. The stories are modeled on medieval fables, quite a different focus from that of the naturalistic themes for which Zola is best known. Zola’s first novel, La Confession de Claude (1865; Claude’s Confession, 1882), failed to employ the close, objective techniques of observation Zola demanded in his naturalistic credo, Le Roman expérimental (1880; The Experimental Novel, 1893), a theoretical work that significantly changed the course of writing in Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. His second and third novels, Thérèse Raquin (1867; English translation, 1881) and Madeleine Férat (1868; English translation, 1880), moved toward the realism practiced by Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and the brothers Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt, whose writings attracted Zola, a voracious reader.
When Zola was writing these novels, however, he had not yet been exposed to Claude Bernard’s Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (1865; Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, 1927), a book from a nonliterary field on which Zola was to model his formal approach to literature, which catapulted him to the forefront of an emerging school of literature that took writing well beyond the realism then prevalent in French literature.
Almost a decade before Zola read Bernard’s influential book in 1878, the year of its author’s death, he had begun the daunting literary task of writing Les Rougon-Macquart (1871-1893; The Rougon-Macquart Novels, 1885-1907), designed to examine in minute detail two generations of a family, considering especially the roles that both heredity and environment played in the lives of its members. This work is an interconnected series of twenty novels. Three books of the ambitious cycle, L’Assommoir (1877; English translation, 1879), Nana (1880; English translation, 1880), and Germinal (1885; English translation, 1885), are considered Zola’s finest.
Before Zola began work on this cycle, however, he had stirred controversy in literary circles with Claude’s Confession, in which...
(The entire section is 2078 words.)