Critical Evaluation

Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series (1871-1893), including Nana, ran to an aggregate of twenty novels, exploring the naturalistic philosophy of literature. This philosophy was strongly influenced by the scientific method outlined in Claude Bernard’s Introduction a l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (1865; An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, 1927). Zola himself explained the relationship between science and literature in his theoretical works: Le Roman expérimental (1880; The Experimental Novel, 1893; a direct application of Bernard’s principle to literature), Les Romanciers naturalistes (1881; The Naturalist Novel, 1964), and Le Naturalisme au théâtre (1881; Naturalism on the Stage, 1893). According to Zola, naturalism combines scientific determinism, pessimistic and mechanistic views of human behavior, pathological assumptions about human motivation, and a predilection for examining the life of the lower socioeconomic classes. Thus, Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, designed after the model of Honoré de Balzac’s seventeen-volume La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1895-1896, 1911), seeks to portray the society of the Second Empire by “scientifically” describing conditions of life.

Zola, however, did not recognize that hereditary (biological) determinants cannot rationalize behavior. His attempt to trace through twenty novels a family epic of neuroses and alcoholism was therefore less than successful. Nevertheless, it did produce some memorable character studies—among them, Nana—in the multifaceted collection of one-thousand-odd characters who appear in the series, depicting various social classes, circumstances, and places that Zola knew well.

Indeed, so attentive is Zola to naturalism’s scientific principles that he paints in words as vivid a portrait of Nana as could be painted by the most adept realists. Of course, attention to detail as well as to psychological motivation is paramount in the naturalistic canon. Just as scientific experiments require exacting attention to statistical data, so also do naturalistic novels demand factual accounting. Thus, Nana satisfies its philosophical imperatives by providing such meticulous details as would be necessary for a laboratory report. These details evolve not only from the physical...

(The entire section is 996 words.)