Émile Zola

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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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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,...

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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 his forthright and nonjudgmental presentation of a prostitute created legal problems for him in a France that very strongly controlled language and the arts. If his early work was considered notorious, by the time he was writing the Rougon-Macquart cycle, the bourgeoisie viewed him as completely outrageous, a threat to public decency.

Not until L’Assommoir, the seventh book of the Rougon-Macquart series, was published in 1877 did Zola’s writing bring him much money. He had eked out a living before that time writing essays and doing a variety of journalistic jobs. Income from L’Assommoir, however, enabled him to buy a summer home at Médan. He had already attracted an enthusiastic following, especially among notable writers and artists who took very seriously Zola’s writing in defense of the Impressionistic artists of his day.

A significant turning point in Zola’s life came in 1880, the year in which his mother died and in which Nana and The Experimental Novel were published. In this year, also, Zola’s theory of literary naturalism was exemplified with the publication of the anthology Les Soirées de Médan (1880). This work grew out of regular weekly soirées Zola held in both Médan and Paris. In these soirées, the participants, under Zola’s staunch guidance, defined literary naturalism categorically, and the regular attendees, including Guy de Maupassant, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Henri Céard, each contributed a story to the anthology.

If The Experimental Novel was the handbook for literary naturalists, Les Soirées de Médan became their manifesto. The naturalism Zola espoused moved beyond realism in that realism attempts to present life as it really is, whereas naturalism applies a scientific method to presenting reality, with the intention of identifying social ills and, through experimentation, reaching an understanding of those ills in ways that will enable society to remedy them.

Bernard wrote of the “vital circulus,” the symbiosis between the muscular and nervous activities that preserve the blood-producing organs and the blood that nourishes the organs manufacturing it. Zola transformed this concept into his “social circulus.” When an organ of society becomes infected, novelists, according to Zola, must proceed scientifically as physicians do. They must discover the simple initial cause that explains the indisposition. By exposing the cause, they then make it amenable to remedy.

Naturalistic writers, then, observe, record faithfully and in detail as a laboratory scientist would, and present their findings in literary form. Naturalistic authors remain detached from their material, presenting consistently exact records of their observations rather than observations colored by personal predilections. They show how heredity and environment act upon the human organism in the social setting to create human behavior. Few literary naturalist, including Zola, remained wholly faithful to the tenets of naturalism. Nevertheless, these tenets profoundly affected the writings of future generations of authors. The positive aspects of society were treated only as they contributed to causes of social ills. Just as medicine deals with physical pathologies, so did Zola’s naturalism explore social pathologies.

From his earliest days, Zola had a great zeal for reform. He sought to change a society he considered imperfect. He was fearless and, when necessary, autocratic in working to bring about social changes he deemed imperative. He was incredibly hardworking, ever planning literary projects huge in scope, not unlike the grandiose engineering projects his father had planned a generation earlier. By 1893, Zola had, quite remarkably, completed the twenty novels of the Rougon-Macquart cycle and in the same year began work on the trilogy Les Trois Villes (1894-1898; The Three Cities, 1894-1898), consisting of Lourdes (1894; English translation, 1894), Rome (1896; English translation, 1896), and Paris (1898; English translation, 1898).

As his work on the trilogy neared its end, Zola, incensed at what he considered the wrongful conviction for treason and sentencing to Devil’s Island of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894, took a public stand in support of Dreyfus and published his stirring letter “J’accuse” (1898; “The Dreyfus Case,” 1898), which led to a reopening of the case and to the eventual acquittal of the defendant. Zola, however, as a result of his stand, was found guilty on two charges of libel, fined three thousand francs, and sentenced to a year in prison.

Before the execution of his sentence, Zola fled to England, where he remained until France’s president, Émile-François Loubet, pardoned him in 1899, whereupon Zola returned to France. There, he continued work on another massive project, Les Quatre Évangiles (1899-1903; English translation, 1900-1903), to consist of four novels, three of which, Fécondité (1899; Fruitfulness, 1900), Travail (1901; Work, 1901), and Vérité (1903; Truth, 1903), he completed before his death by coal gas asphyxiation in his Paris apartment on September 28, 1902. The death, first thought to be accidental, was likely a murder committed by elements who opposed his participation in the Dreyfus case.


Émile Zola was a man with exuberant plans, a man of enormous energy and courage. He lived a life guided by principles he arrived at consciously and intelligently. In addition to his prolific literary career, Zola’s involvement in public affairs, always guided by his intellect and his immutable conscience, distinguished him throughout his life.

Zola’s support of Impressionist artists in the 1860’s forced him into an unpopular public stand well before his own future was assured. He supported what he believed without regard to personal consequences. He was equally stalwart in the 1870’s and 1880’s, as he was developing his own literary credo, which, in its final formulation as literary naturalism, became a publicly unpopular movement. Zola spent the last years of his life preoccupied with the Dreyfus affair, and on his death it was this stand that seemed best to exemplify to his countrymen his spirit of social reform, as Anatole France noted in his oration at Zola’s funeral.

Zola’s literary theories directly affected scores of authors, among whom some direct inheritors were Gerhart Hauptmann, Hermann Sudermann, Arthur Schnitzler, August Strindberg , Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Eugene O’Neill, Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, and Thomas Mann. Indirectly, his literary theories affected even those authors who rebelled against naturalism and went on to found such important countermovements as literary expressionism.


Baguley, David. Critical Essays on Émile Zola. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. The twenty essays in this book, some written especially for this volume, others drawn from previously published sources, present a balanced view of Zola criticism, ranging from such early critics as Algernon Swinburne, Henry Havelock Ellis, and Heinrich Mann to such later ones as Roland Barthes, Irving Howe, and Naomi Schor.

Knapp, Bettina L. Émile Zola. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. A brief, direct presentation, accurate and highly appropriate for those just beginning to explore Zola. The chronological table is especially useful.

Richardson, Joanna. Zola. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. Richardson succeeds in showing how what she considers Zola’s contentiousness relates to the impact of his work, which overall is excellent more as a reflection of a well-defined literary credo than as an artistic contribution. Especially valuable for its clear exposition of the Dreyfus affair.

Schom, Alan. Émile Zola: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1987. The excellence of its prose style and the carefully chosen illustrations make this book a reading delight. The research is exhaustive, and the revelations that point to Zola’s death’s being a well-planned assassination made to look like an accident raise fascinating questions for the modern reader.

Schor, Naomi. Zola’s Crowds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978. Schor is concerned with Zola’s remarkable ability to control the huge numbers of people who populate a work as massive as the Rougon-Macquart series, in which each novel is at once independent from but interconnected with the others. An interesting thesis in the light of Gustave Le Bon’s theory of the crowd.

Walker, Philip. Zola. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. This thoughtful book is meticulous in its research although somewhat pedestrian in its organization. The most valuable chapter in it is “Full Summer,” which explores fruitfully Zola’s necrophobia, a matter that had significant bearing on his writing.