Émile Zola Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111201607-Zola.jpg Émile Zola (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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, 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...

(The entire section is 2078 words.)

Émile Zola Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Zola was a pioneer in the naturalist school of writing that emerged in the late nineteenth century. In twenty interrelated novels that he wrote between 1871 and 1893, he employed scientific precision and careful attention to descriptive detail to portray the fortunes of individual members of the fictional Rougon-Macquart family. His novels such as Germinal, Nana, La Terre, and L’Assommoir focused on characters from the lower strata of society, describing every aspect of their often sordid lives with vivid and colorful detail. His honest approach to fiction frequently embroiled him in battles with various forms of censorship.

Serialization of Zola’s novel L’Assommoir in the newspaper La Bien Public was suspended in 1876 in response to public outrage at his uncompromising examination of the ravages of alcoholism among the Parisian lower classes. Publication of an English translation of La Terre, a work describing greed, brutality, and jealousy in rural France during the Second Empire, provoked an excited public response and resulted in Zola’s unsuccessful prosecution on obscenity charges in Great Britain in 1888.

Two later series of novels, Les Trois villes (1894-1898) and Quatre evangiles (1899-1903), provoked the animosity of the Roman Catholic church and resulted in all his works being placed on its Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Censorship even plagued Zola’s work after his death: Yugoslavia banned his novels in 1929, Ireland banned them in 1953, and the American National Organization of Decent Literature condemned Nana in 1954.

The most notable episode of censorship in Zola’s career occurred for political reasons, however. Convinced that the French army’s Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus had been framed during his trial for espionage in 1894, Zola wrote “J’Accuse” for the newspaper L’Aurore in 1898. Zola demanded that Dreyfus be given a new trial and accused many of the army’s witnesses at Dreyfus’ original trial of having deliberately lied. Right- wing supporters of the army raised such an uproar over this article that Zola was ultimately tried and convicted for libel. The original guilty verdict was overturned on a legal technicality but, when the government announced it intended to retry him, Zola followed his lawyer’s advice and fled France for England. He was finally vindicated when some of the original anti-Dreyfus witnesses broke down and admitted they had lied. After Zola’s own libel conviction was annulled in 1899, he returned to France that same year.

Émile Zola Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The son of an Italian engineer, Émile Zola grew up in Aix-en-Provence with a friend who was to become equally famous in the world of art, Paul Cézanne. Both came from modest families, and Zola learned early to resent the ordered and comfortable life of the bourgeoisie around him. The early death of his father prompted the family move to Paris, where his mother could find work, and where Zola attended the lycée. Failing to pass his baccalauréat, Zola gave up his studies and took a position in the civil service, then another with the distinguished Hachette publishing house, where he rose through the ranks to become head of public relations. During this time he made various attempts to write poetry and to penetrate the world of journalism, and he succeeded in establishing himself as an author with his collection of short stories Contes à Ninon. The following year, his novel La Confession de Claude (1865; Claude’s Confession, 1882), attracted so much attention because of its sordid details that it aroused police interest. The unhappy management of Hachette ordered Zola to choose between publishing and writing, and the young author, already in the public eye, set out to earn his livelihood with his pen.

With his flair for publicity Zola was able to exploit both his public and his art with great success. Even his ideas of naturalism were tempered by what he realized the public wanted to hear. Inspired by Honoré de Balzac, he determined to develop a comédie humaine on his own terms; this time he determined not only to make the cycle of novels a coherent whole but also to ensure that the cycle would be complete and accurate in every detail, with no contradictions. His early exposure to his father’s scientific career prepared him for a lifelong fascination with science and its theoreticians, and his humble origins made him especially sympathetic to the lofty position accorded...

(The entire section is 794 words.)

Émile Zola Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Émile-Edouard-Charles-Antoine Zola was born in Paris on April 2, 1840. His father, Francesco Antonio Zolla, the son of a Venetian family, came to Paris in 1830 seeking work as a civil engineer. After submitting a series of projects to the French government, he was received by King Louis Philippe, who accepted his proposal for the port of Marseilles. During his stay in Paris, François Zola (as he had then become) met Émilie-Aurélie Aubert, the daughter of a housepainter, Louis-Auguste Aubert. She was born in northern France, in Dourdan, near the great plain of the Beauce, and she was twenty-four years younger than François when they married in 1839.

Although Zola was born in Paris, his family moved south before he...

(The entire section is 1520 words.)

Émile Zola Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born in Paris on April 2, 1840, Émile-Édouard-Charles-Antoine Zola was the only child of a French mother, Émilie-Aurélie Aubert, and an Italian father, Francesco Zola. The Zolas moved to Aix-en-Provence, where Francesco was engaged to work on the municipality’s water supply system. Upon his father’s premature death in 1847, Émile and his mother began a series of moves to ever less expensive housing, first in Aix and later in Paris. Zola’s childhood friends from the Pension Notre-Dame and the Collège Bourbon, Philippe Solari, Marius Roux, Baptistin Baille, and Paul Cézanne, proved to be lifelong friends, and the countryside of Provence, in all its variety, remained in Zola’s memory and consciousness long after he...

(The entire section is 1452 words.)

Émile Zola Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Émile Zola (ZOH-luh) was born in Paris, France, on April 2, 1840, the son of a French mother, Émilie, and an Italian-born father, Francesco Zola, a civil engineer. When the senior Zola’s canal project was approved by the government, heand his family moved in 1843 to Aix-en-Provence in southern France. Four years later, he died of pneumonia, leaving his widow and child in difficult circumstances. After grammar school, Zola entered secondary school in 1852, where, thanks to hard work, he became an excellent student, especially in French literature. It was then that he formed a lifelong friendship with Paul Cézanne, who was to become a great Impressionist painter. Taking long walks in the Provençal hills, the two companions...

(The entire section is 990 words.)

Émile Zola Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Émile Zola is the father of naturalism, a literary style that holds up a mirror to the gritty elements of life, presenting them in great detail. Zola carries the realism of Gustave Flaubert—who challenged Romanticism in his realistic depictions of the detailed depictions of characters’ lives—one step further by focusing on the sordid details of the sex lives, the political lives, and the working lives of men and women in late nineteenth century Paris. Zola’s novels follow the fortunes of the wretched of the earth, those who have been trodden down by economic and social forces of urban life. The lives of Zola’s characters are determined by forces beyond their control, such as heredity and environment, and his novels are...

(The entire section is 173 words.)

Émile Zola Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Émile Zola (ZOH-luh) was probably the most important and controversial French novelist of the late nineteenth century. The son of an engineer of mixed Greek and Italian ancestry who died when his son was only seven, Zola was educated at Aix and returned to Paris in 1858 to start his career as a writer. He worked as a critic, then in 1867 also began to write novels. In 1871 he published The Rougon-Macquart Family, the first volume of twenty in a series called the “Rougon-Macquart Novels,” which deals with the history of a family under the Second Empire. The first of these novels attracted little attention, but with the publication of L’Assommoir, a merciless study of the effects of alcohol, Zola was...

(The entire section is 906 words.)