Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168

Émile Zola began as a literary Romantic and an idealist. In his youth, he wrote fairy tales and dreamed of perfect beauty and perfect love. The poverty he experienced early in life, and the general European literary climate, however, brought him to try to picture an imperfect but real “corner of nature.”

Earth, the fifteenth volume of the Rougon-Macquarts series, is Zola’s horrifying vision of the French peasantry before the Franco-Prussian War. In the relationships between Fouan and his family, Zola consciously adopted the theme of William Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608), although the realistic detail with which Fouan is drawn includes none of the nobility of Shakespeare’s king. Zola’s introduction of Rabelaisian humor in the character Jésus-Christ was an innovation in literary realism. The earth itself dominates the novel, and its beauty and its indifference contrast vividly with the peasants’ passionate absorption in possessing the land and with the crimes they commit in order to do so.

A magnificent example of Zola’s groping for the authentic details in life, Earth can be best understood when placed in the literary context of realism and naturalism. Literary realism developed in the nineteenth century partly as a response to the conditions of modern society. It stressed fidelity to the facts of everyday existence. Scenes, characters, motives, and conflicts were presumably drawn from experiences in life rather than from dreams of other worlds or of the supernatural. Within the realist tradition are distinct and coherent groupings—naturalism is one of them—but it is easier to place a work such as Earth in the naturalist tradition than it is to define literary naturalism. In general, however, for the purposes of examining Earth, two basic points can be established: Naturalism attempts to portray the actual and significant details of life and especially (though not exclusively) the life of poor and working people, and naturalism most often attempts to uncover those forces in the environment and in the genetic makeup of the individual that determine the course of life.

Earth tries to give an accurate picture of French rural life in the 1860’s. This picture is not merely a general account but a brilliantly detailed canvas that conveys the humanity and the density of rural life. The basis of the action of the novel is the division of an old man’s land. Much of the novel, therefore, describes the unending, vicious, implacable hatreds and the unyielding tensions that emerge within the farmer’s family. Domestic life is described through the conversations, the cooking and cleaning utensils, the jealous glances, and the dirt, cobwebs, and small, damp rooms of the peasant households. The smells of the fields, the manure, the sweat, and the musky odors of water and of age saturate every scene.

The life of the countryside is also explored in relation to the fields, skies, and weather. The division of these fields, the run-down cottages, and the seeding and fertilization of the fields are depicted in meticulous detail. Pages are devoted to storms of various kinds, including a hailstorm, but unlike the Romantics, for whom the excesses of the weather are often merely spectacular, these storms are viewed as destructive and, toward the end of Earth, as brutalizing and humbling.

Main events in the harvest are not omitted. Zola sketches a grape harvest, for example, in which the workers pick grapes, stuff themselves, and get sick. In fact, sickness, drunkenness, perversity, and violence are presented as being ever-present in the life of these times. Zola leaves out nothing, including all aspects of the sexual side of life. From the beginning of the novel, where Zola describes a young man and woman working together without embarrassment to help a bull and a cow to mate, the sexual theme is established as a central part of life.

Zola’s accumulation of detail from real experience becomes increasingly powerful as the novel advances. These details, linked through action, character, and theme, become the tightly woven, actual fabric of life. Reading Earth is, in fact, to be submerged in this life; and this feeling of submersion no doubt accounts for the powerful influence the novel continues to exert. At the same time, Zola’s selection of details led to his being accused of presenting only the sordid side of life and of unnecessarily emphasizing the nasty aspects of life. Earth was sharply attacked precisely for these reasons when it was first published. Some even thought the novel to be deliberately pornographic. A good argument can be made that these scenes are included not for their shock value but for more serious reasons that are connected to Zola’s understanding of science.

The second important feature of literary naturalism—its attempt to portray the underlying forces that shape human destiny—is especially evident in the work of Zola, who understood these forces in a scientific context. The forces were describable, measurable, and inevitable. In his view, in fact, by understanding the genetic and environmental forces working on his characters, and by altering these forces, he could explain his characters scientifically and, at the same time, actually experiment on them and test them in his fiction. Zola did not, however, carry out this experimental procedure vigorously in his novels.

In Earth, the forces most evident are those associated with the land. The greed for the land, which is manifest in the character Buteau, overcomes all obstacles. Buteau will have the land or destroy it, himself, and his competitors and family. The power of sex is likewise connected with the earth. The opening scene of the novel deals with the fertilization of the land, and it describes a sexual life “close to the earth.” Sexual activity takes place in the fields as well as in the home.

Finally, there is the genetic composition of the characters. Their strengths and weaknesses, determined by the strengths and weaknesses of their ancestors, provide a spectrum of responses to the conditions of rural France. The family thus helps place Earth in its proper position in the massive architecture of Zola’s Rougon-Macquarts series. Although Zola may have seen his characters as more or less determined by forces outside their control, Earth leaves the impression that men and women can, within limits, choose their course in life. It should be said that some other practitioners of naturalist fiction—such as Frank Norris in the United States—took a much more mechanical approach to the so-called scientific forces that shape human life. In Norris’s work, the reader is left with the impression that human freedom is simply low farce. In Earth, however, Zola does not communicate this sense of a claustrophobic fate. No matter how awful Fouan’s end may be, Zola never shifts the responsibility away from Fouan himself. Earth certainly demonstrates the limits and the narrowness of the life of the peasant in nineteenth century France, but within those limits, Zola shows that freedom survives and, with freedom, the refreshing possibilities of birth.

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