Émile Zola Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 869 words.)