Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869
Émile Zola’s talent as a short-story writer is evident from the first sentence of “La Mort d’Olivier Bécaille” (“The Death of Olivier Bécaille”), included in the volume Naïs Micoulin of 1884. In this work the reader’s curiosity is immediately piqued over the question of how a first-person narrator can deal with his own death. At first, the reader feels that Zola is perhaps presenting us with an example of a fleeting moment of consciousness after the physical body has died, as though he were presenting a distinction between body and soul, which, for a naturalist, would be an intriguing concept. As the narrative unfolds, however, the reader understands that Zola is instead exploring one of the most traditional of literary themes: the return from the dead. At age thirty-nine Zola is developing a theme that Guy de Maupassant would exploit in his story “En Famille” (“A Family Affair”). In contrast to Maupassant’s objective narrative used for comic effect, Zola’s first-person narrative not only captures interest but also develops it to a different effect: The reader understands, comes to sympathize with the narrator, and shares with him his experience of death.
“The Death of Olivier Bécaille”
At the moment of death which begins the story, the narrator thinks back over his life and over the lifelong obsession that death has held for him. The story gives a rapid flashback of his youth, marriage, and move to Paris, then returns to the present moment in a seedy hotel, where the narrator is taken ill and dies. The reader shares the narrator’s outburst of affection for his young wife and the aroused interest of the neighbors and especially their children. As he did so successfully in L’Assommoir, Zola excels in capturing the atmosphere of the crowd. His pictures of unhealthy children are particularly moving; as aware as adults, their observations are all the more startling because they are true. Thus, when the first child cries out, “Il est mort, oh! maman, il est mort,” her unsophisticated breach of social etiquette adds a moment of poignancy and accentuates the verisimilitude of the plot.
At first the reader wonders if the narrator is not simply dreaming, and Zola has the narrator ask himself the same question to heighten the tension. When a neighbor refers to the imminent arrival of the coroner, however, the question is answered. The cursory examination revolts the narrator, for he is conscious of being alive, in spite of the coroner’s judgment; yet, like the condemned poets in Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320), there is no outlet by which these frustrations can be expressed. Agonizing at his inability to summon help or attention, the narrator witnesses his own body being prepared for the funeral, observes the mourning of his wife, sees himself being enclosed in his own coffin, and hears the lid being nailed down. He experiences the funeral ceremony, the horror of being buried alive, and the climactic silence of an abandoned cemetery.
In spite of a perhaps unnecessary touch of scientific determinism, the story accelerates to its dramatic conclusion. Through superhuman effort the narrator manages to pry open his coffin, claw his way out of the ground, and stumble about on the street at night, before being overcome by exhaustion and emotion and injuring his head as he falls unconscious. When he regains his senses weeks later, he quickly realizes what has happened, that he has still not been able to make contact with his young wife in order to let her know that he is in fact alive. He escapes from his benefactors to rejoin his wife, only to find that she already has settled into a new life with a new man. Zola presents this absorbing tale with the control and economy required of an effective short story. The ordinary details of one’s mundane existence take on a new proportion when viewed from beyond the tomb, and Zola does not hesitate to use imagery and symbolism to enhance the primitive and religious qualities of his story.
“The Attack on the Mill”
Perhaps the best known of Zola’s short stories is “L’Attaque du Moulin” (“The Attack on the Mill”). It is the lead story in the collection Les Soirées de Médan, and along with Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif,” is largely responsible for the success of the collection, which satirizes the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Zola’s contribution is a powerful account of humans’ inhumanity to other humans, as war interrupts a pastoral romance and prompts its protagonists to actions of heroism and patriotism, only to leave them bloodied, nature devastated, and the windmill—a symbol rich in associations—laid waste. Humans’ hubris ravishes both nature and humanity in this pacifist tale in which Zola demonstrates his characteristic poetic quality, which he retained despite his obsession with science. Like the Parnassian poets, his inability to follow rigorously his own aesthetic saved Zola and made possible his greatest writing. A visionary Romantic in the tradition of Victor Hugo, Zola, with his ability to evoke vast tableaux, both of human beings and of nature, and his lyrical vision of people lends epic proportions to his work.