Émile Zola (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.
Émile Zola is principally remembered as a novelist and also as the flamboyant journalist who took up the defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus during the celebrated trial of the young Jewish officer which transfixed French society at the end of the nineteenth century. In addition to novels and journalistic essays, he is the author of numerous plays, essays, literary and artistic criticism, and an early youthful attempt at poetry.
Émile Zola will always be associated with the school of naturalism in France. He became the most widely read author at the beginning of the twentieth century, in part because of the sensationalism of his subjects, in part because of his early training as a public relations clerk. Because of his immense success, his aesthetic ideas were widely circulated, and a group of disciples was formed at Zola’s country home outside Paris at Médan. Inspired by the medical advances made possible by scrupulous observation combined with precise analytical techniques, Zola proposed literature as a means of experimenting on humans. He specifically was interested in determining what happens when their environment is changed or their heredity tampered with; what would be the result of humans’ gradual addiction to certain chemical compounds? When the literary subject matter was the lower class, envisioned is the unhealthy and the immoral side by side. One of his best known novels, L’Assommoir (1877; English translation, 1879), attempts to examine the effects of alcohol on the working class. Other works examine prostitution, political power, industrial power (the locomotive), and capitalism.
Émile Zola is known principally as a novelist and as the formulator of the literary movement known as naturalism, which proposed to examine the human species by observing scientifically, through the medium of a literary work, the effects of heredity and environment. Zola’s first major novel was Thérèse Raquin (1867; English translation, 1881), followed by the twenty-novel cycle of Les Rougon-Macquart (1871-1893; The Rougon-Macquart Novels, 1885-1907), including such well-known novels as Germinal (1885; English translation, 1885), L’Assommoir (1876; English translation, 1879); and Nana (1880; English translation, 1880). Near the end of his life, he wrote two shorter series of novels, Les Trois Villes (1894-1898; The Three Cities, 1894-1898); and Les Quatre Evangiles (1899-1903; English translation, 1900-1903), which are both more visionary and idealistic than the realistic, earthy Rougon-Macquart novels. Less well known are his short stories, several of which were dramatized during Zola’s lifetime. As a journalist and art critic, Zola was an early supporter of the Impressionist painters, but he dealt harshly with the popular playwrights of his day. In addition to his literary and critical works, Zola is remembered for his defense of Alfred Dreyfus in the famous newspaper article, “J’accuse” (“I Accuse”). Had Zola not so forcefully put his suspicions before the public, the case of the wrongfully convicted Dreyfus might never have been reopened nor the innocent man acquitted.
Émile Zola was never as skillful a dramatist as he was a novelist. In fact, none of his plays can be said to have achieved lasting success, although many of his novels and short stories have been successfully adapted for stage and film. His achievement in drama lies in the changes he was able to bring to the theater at a time when the stage was dominated by the pièces à thèse ( problem plays) of Alexandre Dumas, fils, Victorien Sardou, andÉmile Augier. The well-made play of the time was most often a neatly constructed illustration of a moral homily. Although these plays had once seemed modern and true to life, by comparison with the romantic plays of the early nineteenth century (such as those by Alexandre Dumas, père), they now seemed to Zola to be overly artificial and tritely idealized. By applying to the theater the force of his prestige as a novelist, Zola was able to insist on more lifelike scenes in costume, decor, and methods of acting. Instead of demonstrating a given “thesis,” he developed his plays from the realities of everyday life. Through his own stage productions and dramatic criticism, he prepared the way for the innovative theater of André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre, made possible the acceptance of Henry Becque, and encouraged Antoine to produce the plays of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Thus Zola’s major contribution to the theater is found less in his own plays than in the new atmosphere of freedom and experimentation which he promoted and supported.
Émile Zola (ZOH-luh) is remembered today chiefly as a prolific novelist and as the outspoken defender of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who had been falsely sentenced for disclosing French military secrets to German authorities. This defense reached its apex in an open letter to the president of the French Republic. (Georges Clemenceau, editor of L’Aurore, the journal in which the letter appeared, titled it “J’accuse.”) Although the letter precipitated Zola’s trial for libel and his exile to England, it helped bring about Dreyfus’s pardon in 1899 and his ultimate exoneration in 1906. While Zola was praised as a man of courage and honesty for his role in the Dreyfus affair, he had already gained national and international renown for his work as a novelist. His literary reputation rests solidly on his fiction, especially on the multivolume work known as The Rougon-Macquarts.
Zola had first intended, however, to be a poet. Having come under the influence of Alfred de Musset while a schoolboy, Zola wrote several poems, the most notable of which are the three parts of L’Amoureuse Comédie (written 1860; the loving comedy). When he showed his poetry to his employer, the publisher Louis Hachette, in 1862, Hachette advised Zola to turn to prose. As a result, Zola wrote his first book of short stories, Contes à Ninon (1864; Stories for Ninon, 1895), a mixture of highly Romantic tales in the style of Victor Hugo, a story of disillusionment that shares in the dark side of the Romantic tradition, and the satiric “Aventures du grand Sidoine et du petit Médéric,” which takes a Voltairean look at the politics of the Second...
Hailed as “the French Charles Dickens” and, in the funeral eulogy delivered by Anatole France at the Montmartre cemetery, as “a moment of human conscience,” Émile Zola claims many achievements, the foremost of which are his place as a great master of French fiction and his campaign to defend Dreyfus. Zola spoke to the people of Paris about their lives, conditions, aspirations, dreams, and failures; he also spoke out, in their hearing, about the injustice perpetrated on Dreyfus and the whitewash of injustice by officialdom—and he suffered self-imposed exile for his outspokenness. He achieved a kind of heroic status, then, by a prodigious literary output and by his courage and will to be heard as a citizen.
Émile Zola is often called the “father of naturalism.” What is naturalism, and what principles can you discern from reading novels such as Germinal, L’Assommoir, and Nana?
Zola was a good friend of the Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and was himself an artist. In what ways can Zola’s novels be described as “painterly”? That is, are there scenes in the novels that he creates so that you can almost see it on a canvas?
Discuss the ways in which Karl Marx’s theories of economics—such as the conflict between the working classes (proletariat) and the middle classes (bourgeois)—can be seen in Zola’s novels. Can any of the principles of Charles Darwin’s...
Baguley, David, ed. Critical Essays on Émile Zola. Boston: 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. New York: Twayne, 1992. Focusing on The Rougon-Macquart Family, this book employs textual analysis rather than biography to analyze each of the twenty volumes in Zola’s most widely known series....