Émile Zola’s novels, from first to last, may be justly characterized as representing his lifelong quest for truth and its exposition—the truth of human situations and circumstances, of social conditions and of the conventions of his society, of the innermost fears, desires, aspirations, horrors, depravities, and exultations of humanity. As the founder of the naturalist school, Zola attempted to apply the methods of natural science as they emerged in the mid-nineteenth century to the writing of fiction, regarding himself as an “experimental novelist” and “practical sociologist” who took into account both heredity and environment in presenting his characters. Among the notions he espoused and eclectically applied to his own writing were the determinist theories of the critic Hippolyte Taine, Charles Darwin’s thoughts on natural selection and evolution, the hypotheses of Dr. Prosper Lucas on heredity, and many other contemporary ideas about physiology, psychology, and positivist philosophy gleaned from varied sources. His literary models, Honoré de Balzac, Flaubert, and Stendhal, predisposed him to write realistic fiction; his scientific studies disposed him to take realism one step further to its logical extension. From all of these studies, he formed a plan to write not the history of an individual but the history of an entire family under the Second Empire of Napoleon III—the scientific study of a family and the effects of his own age on it, “its breakdown through the ravaging passions of the epoch, and the social and physical action of the environment.” This plan is the basis for Zola’s outstanding series The Rougon-Macquarts.
Zola had published several novels before he began this multivolume series, and these novels contain elements and concerns that would reappear in his later work; indeed, they form a prelude, however tentative, to The Rougon-Macquarts. His first novel, Claude’s Confession, is an autobiographical inner quest for the true meaning of experience, experience that is presented in the grim and somber tones of Zola’s own life and that includes abject material poverty and an emotional poverty resulting from an improbable and impossible love affair that the critic Angus Wilson and others have suggested was an attempt on Zola’s part to reclaim a young prostitute. The next of these three novels, Thérèse Raquin, explores human motivation from the perspective of lust, murder, remorse, and suicide. Not unlike Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), Thérèse Raquin is a scientific study of the temperaments of persons dominated by “nerves and blood” (Zola’s phrase), persons who wantonly satisfy their lust for each other, commit murder to that end, are haunted by the horror of their actions, and finally, with all fleshly desire dead between them, commit double suicide. Madeleine Férat is as bleak and as obsessed with sex as the first two novels, but it is much more artificially contrived than its predecessors and transgresses the bounds of probability as Zola attempts to illustrate a suspect physiological theory by hinging the novel’s action on a series of unlikely coincidences.
The Fortune of the Rougons
Zola’s major novelistic enterprise, the fictive history of the Second Empire and of the Rougon-Macquart tribe, begins with Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état late in 1851 and with the ancestry and relations of the clan whose story Zola would unfold over the course of more than two decades. The Fortune of the Rougons is set in Plassans (Aix-en-Provence, Zola’s boyhood home) and recounts both the defeat of Republican resistance to the coming Empire and the idyllic but tragically doomed love of Silvère and Miette against a background of the grasping, manipulative, and acquisitive actions of the Rougons and of the Bonapartists, who create...
(The entire section contains 3563 words.)
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- Critical Essays