THE DOWNFALL is a part of Émile Zola’s compendious social ledger chronicling the fortunes of the Rougon-Macquart family in France during the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870). This work, like others by Zola, is an excellent historical-social document; it documents the social and intellectual proclivities of one articulate Frenchman in a way that only literature can.
In THE DOWNFALL, Zola angrily indicted the pompous and decadent posturings of French society, particularly the imperial court and the upper officer corps. He described an army top-heavy with sallow, aging, and porcine officers who suffered the collective delusion that the French military was as powerfully energetic and capable as it had been throughout the nineteenth century. The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) quickly shattered that myth. Zola made an incisive comparison between the two armies when he described the wizened appearance of the French emperor and that of the young Prussian faces marching toward Paris.
Zola was militantly nonmilitant. When he wrote this book, he saw a revival of the same kind of militarism which led to the Franco-Prussian war. By 1890, military circles in France, particularly the dashing General Georges-Ernest-Jean-Marie Boulanger, had gained a zealous following devoted to his program of revenge against Germany and the reclamation of Alsace-Lorraine, provinces taken from the French by the Germans in 1870. In Zola’s mind, such sentiments were folly. The key problems begging the attention of the French nation lay within French boundaries, not outside them.
As Honore de Balzac hoped to show in his novels, France had to marshal its forces to remedy the many social ills of the Third French Republic. France needed effective social legislation aimed at easing the plight of the urban working classes. THE DOWNFALL, like Zola’s other novels, expressed his sincere concern for the plight of France’s social outcasts.