Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3563
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 an empire predicated on the slaughter of the innocents. In Zola’s second installment, naturalistic excess triumphs as Zola presents Aristide Rougon (who consented to the killing of Silvère in the first novel) as a money-mad speculator whose rush for the spoils in The Kill typifies the graft and corruption possible in the vast urban-renewal projects directed by Baron Haussmann in the late nineteenth century. Social corruption is at the novel’s core, a corruption that permeates every level of society but that is fully developed in the lives of the great middle class, the bourgeoisie.
Another sort of corruption is the target of Zola’s dual focus, the moral corruption that complements the speculative morass; in this case, it is the deliberate, premeditated, and shocking act of incest between Aristide Rougon’s wife, Renée, and his son, Maxime. (In some of his descriptions, Zola appears to have been carried away by the voluptuousness of his own creation and truly exceeds the bounds of any possible convention or propriety as he debases the Phaedra theme and makes it utterly sordid.) Aristide, in need of Renée’s signature and agreement, remains complaisant in the face of her incest, thus subordinating any possible moral consideration to a merely financial one.
Savage Paris is, like its predecessors, a polemical sociopolitical inquiry into the war between the haves and the have-nots. Set in one of the new wonders of reconstructed Paris, Les Nouvelles Halles (today, Les Halles Centrales), the novel places the poor, the lower classes, and the politically alienated on a symbolic food chain that puts them at the mercy of their natural predators, the rapacious middle class. While Savage Paris is a novel of considerable originality, it ranks well below The Kill and, although ample in its descriptive passages, is decidedly thin in respect to plot.
Three more novels followed the first three before Zola was to achieve recognition and success with L’Assommoir: The Conquest of Plassans, The Sins of Father Mouret, and His Excellency. In these novels, Zola applied his formulaic notions of heredity and environment to diverse situations. The Conquest of Plassans continues the examination of provincial France that the first novel had begun by presenting the political intrigues that turn Plassans from a Legitimist to a Bonapartist town and ecclesiastical intrigues that complement the political and show the priest, Faujas, undertaking other conquests. The Sins of Father Mouret explores the religious questions of the era; here, the conflict between nature and religion assumes mythic rather than naturalistic dimensions. His Excellency is Zola’s contribution to the political novel in France, a genre Anthony Trollope perfected in England, and contains a biting satire on the empire, the government, and its minions; it is also, on one level, a roman à clef in which the figures of Napoleon III’s regime could find themselves unflatteringly portrayed. Taken together, then, the first six volumes of The Rougon-Macquarts represent a prodigious effort on Zola’s part and form a fascinating group that brings before us many aspects of the empire and many character types common to it.
As artistically successful as these works are, the popular success of which he dreamed and for which he labored continued to elude Zola until the publication in 1877 of L’Assommoir. In that novel, Zola presented the Parisian proletariat exactly as he saw it; indeed, L’Assommoir is virtually the first French novel to do so. The reactions of the mainstream critical community and of the general public were similar: outrage at the naturalistic, despair-ridden depiction of the working class with an honesty and frankness unparalleled by any previous work. Responses to the novel remain divided: Some deem the work a bitter and bleak indictment of the proletariat; others agree that Zola presents a bleak but sympathetic view of the workers. One may approach the novel on many levels: as an exposé of the pervasive, devastating, and debilitating power of drink; as a sociological study of the wearying Parisian working life; as a character study of the psychology of human frailty and weakness and of the small comforts that both relieve an otherwise barren existence and hasten its end. Death in all its brutal, naked force, resulting from exhaustion through work and poverty, is never far from the novel’s characters; death is, in fact, a logical and predictable end to, almost a relief from, the already dehumanized existence that Gervaise Macquart and her husband, Coupeau, endure as their lot. The deaths of Gervaise and her husband reinforce in strikingly poignant ways the futility of their lives, their impossible aspirations and broken dreams, and the inexorable fate stemming from the irremediable condition of the poor.
One useful way of considering Zola’s artistry in L’Assommoir is to reflect on the work’s structure; another is to examine its symbolism; a third is to focus on the highly wrought characters it contains. While exploring these three elements represents only a partial foray into this highly complex novel, it does provide some insight into Zola’s intentions and achievement. Unlike several of his earlier works, L’Assommoir is not full of varied themes, multiple subplots, and a wide range of characters; rather, it has a single emphasis (on Gervaise), relatively few important characters, and a line of dramatic action that is classical in its simplicity. Gervaise’s rising fortunes reach an apex when, through an initially fortunate marriage with Coupeau and the kindness of a shy admirer, she finds her hard work rewarded and becomes the proprietress of a small laundry business with employees of her own. Coupeau’s literal fall from a high building (and his consequent inability to work) results in Gervaise’s metaphoric fall, a downward journey that is entirely unrelieved and ends only as she achieves the oblivion of a death she surely sought. The turning point, Zola clearly and heavy-handedly points out, occurs one afternoon in the laundry, when Coupeau, having been encouraged in his self-indulgence by Gervaise, turns up drunk, falls over the mounds of clothes, and insists on kissing her. That kiss marks the beginning of the couple’s decline. Gradually, Gervaise yields to the temptation of drink in Colombe’s Bar, where the still appears to be a living, monstrous thing that dispenses poison.
The still is one among many symbols heralding Gervaise’s end; like it, other objects seem to assume lives of their own within the novel’s pages. Zola uses the physical environment, for example, to signify the impact of the exterior landscape on the interior landscape of his characters. From her first small apartment in Paris, to the laundry room where she works, to the bewildering surroundings of the Louvre, to the succession of buildings in which she lives while she is on her downward spiral, each worse than the last, the physical environment triumphs over Gervaise and modifies her perceptions of life and its meaning. Apart from the most obvious and powerful symbol in the work, the still, another symbol contends for notice: clothes. The heaps and mounds of clothes in the laundry rooms Gervaise inhabits, her unending task of cleaning them, and the disreputable state of her own attire after her fall combine to reinforce the fetid atmosphere of the novel and to form the impression that this atmosphere is inescapable.
Above all, at the core of the novel are Zola’s characters. Gervaise’s first lover, Lantier, abandons her and their two children as the novel opens, only to reappear and be invited by the sodden Coupeau to lodge with them. Lantier becomes a true copain for Coupeau, a drinking buddy whom Gervaise must also support by her hard work and who, predictably, becomes master of the house and, eventually, of Gervaise. Coupeau himself is a case study in frailty who succumbs to his first adversity, the fall, continues through a deterioration of will, and finally abandons himself to drinking away all of Gervaise’s earnings and the scant resources their goods bring in from pawnbrokers. He ultimately suggests that Gervaise gain money to satisfy his addiction to alcohol and her own newly acquired drinking habit through prostitution. She has grown so slovenly and has so aged prematurely that no man will have her. Finally, one of the men she attempts to interest, the blacksmith Gouget, who had loaned her the money to set up her own laundry, takes pity on what she has become. She will eat his food but only out of animal instinct; she will neither stay with him nor seek to infect his life with hers.
The central character is Gervaise, whose fortunes form the locus of narration, whose history is the subject of the work, and through whose eyes we see most in the novel. As one example of the intractability of some of Zola’s thinking about heredity and environment, she is doomed to the unhappiness he provides for her; as a character whose good intentions are subverted by fate and foiled by chance, she is the object of pity; as a representative of the working class whose best of many dwelling places is in a slum and whose social position can be altered only for the worse, she exists as an indictment of the ruling forces of the Second Empire, the great bourgeoisie, whose members simply ignored the plight of workers and the problems of those below their social level. It is not without significance that a character who receives minor but nevertheless important attention in L’Assommoir, Nana, would be the focal point of yet another novel in Zola’s series and would provide him with another vehicle for raising similar issues concerning the gulf between the social classes.
If Zola astounded Paris with L’Assommoir, he outdid himself with a second masterpiece, Nana. A novel that Zola had planned to write for several years, Nana was greeted, like L’Assommoir, as a work of great obscenity, in this case for its candid treatment of what Zola termed la vraie fille (the true prostitute), who makes her life in the theater. Like the Goddess of Reason in earlier Republican days, Nana assumes a symbolic value in the novel, to become, as we first see her and as she develops, a Venus who not only offers the joy and excitement of sexual abandon but also exercises formidable destructive power, a femme fatale who brings ruin in her wake, ruin that involves the empire’s aristocrats and financiers. In some sense, this seductive and destructive offspring of Gervaise Macquart may represent the revenge of workers on their oppressors. Nana’s dual nature does, in many senses, mirror Zola’s own ambivalent attitudes toward sexuality present in most of his works (certainly in the novels he wrote before his transforming affair with Jeanne Rozerot brought him joy without apparent remorse or destruction). Commenting on the mythic dimension of the novel, Flaubert was quick to point out the work’s thorough grounding in the actual world of the Second Empire and characterized the work as Babylonian, something not unlike his own attempt to “fix a mirage” in Salammbô (1862; English translation, 1886), in this case a mirage that springs from and undercuts the hothouse world of the grisette.
The novel’s mythic aspect is only one facet of this highly controversial study of the Second Empire’s decadence. Nana herself assumes mythic proportions in the book’s first chapter, as she emulates Venus rising from the sea with her tresses as her only veil. As she becomes Venus onstage, so she becomes Venus offstage, capturing the attention and wealth of Steiner the banker, Count Muffat, a chamberlain of the Second Empire, and several others. There are two sides to this Venus, however: She can please but she can also conquer. The destroying Venus is announced early in the novel, when, having captured the attention of all in Bordenave’s theater with her considerable beauty, Nana smiles “the smile of a man-eater.” This clearly signals that the major theme of the work, sex as personified in Nana, is not pleasurable but is, instead, compulsive, sordid, furtive, unsatisfying, and arid. To the extent that this is so, sex itself is mythologized and removed from truly human experience to an extrahuman, subhuman plane.
Like L’Assommoir, Nana has a simple architectural principle: The action consistently rises throughout the novel until immediately before its, and its heroine’s, end. Although Gervaise’s fall is a long, gradual, and painful one, Nana’s is sudden; though fortuitous, it is quite credible. The principle at work, with some minor variation, is to show Nana’s rise in relation to the characters present in the first chapter as they seduce or are seduced by her. One chief element the characters share is their dehumanization and reduction to a merely animal state by a Venus-turned-Circe. The most notable example of this transformation is Count Muffat, whose persistence in the face of Nana’s rebuffs finally wins him the prize he so intently desires. The progress of Muffat’s degradation is a simulacrum of the degradation of the Second Empire’s officialdom, of which he is both member and symbol. At one point, Nana forces him into a naked romp in which he must pretend to be a bear, a horse, and a dog; she takes great delight in demeaning him and then of making fun of his unattractive nakedness. A final degradation occurs when Muffat discovers Nana in bed with his father-in-law, a marquis. Throughout the novel, Nana allows herself to be used by a variety of men and also uses them as an antidote to boredom, poverty, and a life in the streets. Zola characterizes her by using a variety of animal images ranging from the tigress man-eater of the first chapter to the horse named for her that wins the Grand Prix de Paris. All of these images reinforce the subhuman depiction of the denizens of Second-Empire Paris.
In the larger context of the empire’s history that Zola chronicles in The Rougon-Macquarts, Nana becomes a symbol of the empire’s decline, her life ending as the government is about to crumble. She breathes her last as an ugly, scabrous smallpox victim in a squalid Parisian hospital while the first salvos of the Franco-Prussian War penetrate Paris. Zola is intent, in his skillful but sometimes too obvious use of myth and symbol, on probing the frailty of his characters and on relating that pervasive frailty to the decay and debilitating weakness of the much-hated Second Empire.
L’Assommoir and Nana are universally acknowledged masterpieces on which Zola’s reputation as a novelist of the first order rests. A third work, Germinal, is still, as it was in his own time, acknowledged to be Zola’s supreme novelistic achievement (some would add Earth, his novel of peasant life, as his fourth major achievement in this series). Germinal is a brilliant, if depressing, depiction of a facet of proletarian life quite different from that which he portrayed in L’Assommoir. Zola set Germinal in the mining town of Montsou, and in it he scrutinizes the issues of the exploitation of workers, attempts at collective action on their part in a bitter strike not uncharacteristic of the era, and the inevitable destruction that awaits them in what becomes an epic class struggle between labor and capital. Zola’s is one of the earliest and relatively few nineteenth century novels that examines Marxist thought (embodied in Étienne Lantier, a son of Gervaise Macquart) in more than a superficial and partisan way. While he takes great pains to present the arguments of the mine owners (who are absentee landlords) and of the mine’s manager, Zola is emotionally and intellectually on the side of the workers. As in Savage Paris, Zola pits the haves against the have-nots and presents their personal dramas with heavy satire of the former and great sympathy and sensitivity toward the latter, a sympathy that informs all of his treatments of working-class life.
Other important works in The Rougon-Macquarts are Earth, a naturalistic paean to the love of the land and the love of a woman; The Human Beast, Zola’s most pessimistic work, which treats the railroads and the judicial system while presenting raw human passion; and The Downfall, the great war novel he had planned for many years, in which he succeeds in illustrating the utter confusion and horror of war by fictionalizing the fall of Napoleon III at Sedan and the ensuing civil war of the Commune. When he finished The Rougon-Macquarts with Doctor Pascal in 1893, Zola had chronicled, in an unsystematic way, the history of the Second Empire, from its inglorious inception to its ignominious demise, and had developed an entire world populated by representatives of every class and segment of French society. This panoramic epic of his own times remains as an enduring literary monument to Zola’s genius and to his passionate quest for truth. He was never to match, in his later fiction, the intensity and literary worth of The Rougon-Macquarts.
Zola’s later works, Les Trois Villes and Les Quatre Evangiles, while containing some brilliant writing and some hard-hitting social criticism, on the whole fail as novels because their propaganda for a socialist utopia overshadows the artistry Zola had brought to bear on the ethical, social, political, and philosophical concerns in The Rougon-Macquarts. As Angus Wilson has observed, Zola’s happiness with Jeanne Rozerot meant for him a gradual slipping away of his fears and horrors and the consequent decline in the need to sublimate their expression, and his physical paternity “was undoubtedly the precursor of literary sterility.”