Émile Zola

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Émile Zola World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3165

Zola viewed his century as predominantly scientific and saw literature as the best means of observing and studying human forces at work, although he never completely rejected his early Romantic writings. He had been influenced not only by Claude Bernard’s Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (1865; Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, 1927), which dealt with biological determinism and the pathological functioning of the organism, but also by the questionable principles propounded by Prosper Lucas and Jules Michelet regarding hereditary laws. By placing his theory of human conduct in a scientific context, he showed himself to be much more interested in physiology than in character analysis. Indeed, at a congress held in 1866, Zola declared, “The novel is a treatise of moral anatomy, a compilation of human facts, an experimental philosophy of the passions. Its object is . . . to portray mankind and nature as they really are.”

In the plan submitted to his publisher in 1869 concerning the writing of The Rougon-Macquarts, Zola expressed his desire to demonstrate the reciprocal effect of the environment on various family members, with their special temperaments and genetic baggage, during a particular and well-delineated historical period. The lives of the descendants of these two families united by marriage are crammed into the almost twenty years that constitute Emperor Napoleon III’s reign. All suffer to a greater or lesser extent from the original “lesion” passed to future generations by Adélaïde Rougon, the matriarch. (A complete genealogy was later included.)

Fortunately, by manipulating outside influences, Zola makes it possible to escape one’s environment as well as, through innateness, one’s heredity. Despair would prevail otherwise, since no redemption could be envisioned. Despite the conclusion reached by the 105-year-old Adélaïde that she has raised a pack of wolves, the last volume (Doctor Pascal) reveals a glimpse of hope in an infant’s arm lifted “very straight, like a flag summoning life.”

In addition, Zola wished to present protagonists in different personal or professional situations, such as the unchecked greed of La Curée (1872; The Rush for the Spoil, 1886); the ravages of alcoholism in L’Assommoir; the world of politics in Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876; Clorinda: Or, The Rise and Reign of His Excellency Eugène Rougon, 1880); the world of art in L’uvre (1886; His Masterpiece, 1886); or the field of high finance in L’Argent (1891; Money, 1891). To achieve his goal, Zola read books and archives on the subjects at hand, consulted experts and practitioners, and even made on-site inspections, as in the case of his tour of the coal district in northern France and his descent into an actual mine pit in preparation for Germinal. In his notes, along with general and chapter outlines, he mentioned the cast of characters with their outstanding features and, if belonging to the central family, their hereditary traits.

Such detailed research does not lead, however, to an uninspired, quasi-mechanical presentation of facts and actions that reads like the objective, scientific texts he admired and used; on the contrary, many of the series’ novels were defined by Zola himself as “poems,” such as “the poem of modern activity” (Au bonheur des dames, 1883; The Ladies’ Paradise, 1883) or “the living poem of the land” (La Terre, 1887; The Soil, 1888). This means that the accumulated documentation often served to fulfill and corroborate an idea already conceived in his mind or to elaborate it. Besides, he remained fundamentally a poet and an artist. That he proved again and again when he described lush or barren landscapes, gigantic crowds in motion, and singular objects endowed with awesome anthropomorphic, even mythic, qualities, be it a locomotive, a greenhouse, or a still.

Sex, too, is an important, omnipresent theme in Zola. Indeed, his contemporaries constantly criticized him not only for his apparent pandering to humanity’s prurient instincts but also for removing all sentimental connotations from the sex act. His response was always that nothing natural or human can be excluded from a naturalistic work, that the dichotomy between nature and morality is an unscientific—hence, unacceptable—premise, and that desire is as much a part of a human being as other physiological drives.

As was already evident in Zola’s early fiction, his vision of the world was basically dark, and the more he observed and dissected human behavior the more pessimistic he became. Yet at the same time he was fascinated by his characters’ pleasure-seeking selfishness and corruption, perhaps because he considered vice more interesting than virtue (to paraphrase Honoré de Balzac). This fascination explains why so many of his heroes and heroines are, first, embodiments of depravity who may ultimately be punished with death or madness but who remain unrepentant nonetheless. Second, they symbolize the complete rottenness at the core of France in the 1850’s and 1860’s in general and the very evil of the emperor’s regime in particular, on which they are sometimes able to take a sweet revenge (such as in Nana). Smartly avoiding the pitfalls of moralistic preaching, Zola conveyed to his readers the warning that capitalism was being undermined by greed and poverty and that the people would, in the end, rise up in just revolt; he was thereby echoing the socialistic doctrines of Charles Fourier, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Karl Marx.

Thérèse Raquin

First published: 1867 (English translation, 1881)

Type of work: Novel

After murdering her husband, Thérèse and her lover are tormented by their consciences and driven to suicide.

Thérèse Raquin is a gruesome fictional implementation of the scientific theories that influenced Zola. Allying himself with “the group of naturalist writers” (his first mention of the term), he declared in the preface to the second edition (1868) that, much as a surgeon would dissect a corpse, he would attempt the objective study of two different temperaments brought together by circumstances. This novel is also a very good horror story in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Mme Raquin is aunt to the orphaned Thérèse and has reared her along with her own son, Camille. Even though they are not particularly suited for each other, for the young girl is sensual and vibrant and her cousin frail and weak, they nevertheless marry. The three characters then move to a seedy Parisian neighborhood, where mother and daughter-in-law open a dry goods shop and Camille becomes a railroad clerk. Life is so monotonous and marriage so boring that, when one night Camille brings home a colleague from the office, Thérèse finds herself “thrilled” by the newcomer’s robust physical animality.

The lusty Laurent and the unsatisfied Thérèse are soon involved in a highly charged affair. Wanting to be free of Camille (divorce is impossible) and unable to control their sexual needs, they drown him in an apparent boating accident, but not before he bites Laurent’s neck and leaves an indelible scar not unlike the mark of Cain. That at times Thérèse fantasizes about tearing it off with her teeth, so as to diminish her disgust and reach a new level of erotic pleasure, is indicative of a certain sadistic cruelty. In their increasingly unstable and guilty minds, the family cat seems to glare at the two murderers with a suspicious eye, while the victim’s ghost now lies between them in bed and prohibits their usually passionate sex and their sleep.

Close to a nervous breakdown, horrified by their remorse, and feverish from abstinence, Thérèse and Laurent can consider but one recourse: They take poison and at last find some consolation in their double death, although in Thérèse’s fall her mouth hits Laurent’s stigmatic scar. Paradoxically, this conclusion shows that far from being mere physiological temperaments, the two lovers made concrete moral—if wrong—choices by deciding how they would live in reaction to their nature; moreover, it shows that there is a moral law after all, in spite of Zola’s professed adherence to the axiom of Hippolyte Taine (“Vice and virtue are products like vitriol and sugar”), which he uses as an epigraph to the novel.


First published: 1885 (English translation, 1885)

Type of work: Novel

Coal miners strike unsuccessfully for better pay and better working conditions but will someday overcome their harsh situations.

Germinal takes its title, first, from the Revolutionary calendar’s spring event of 12 Germinal 1795, when the starving populace invaded the National Assembly and demanded bread. Similarly, the miners and their womenfolk act accordingly in one of the novel’s most famous and most stirring passages (part 5, chapter 5). Second, by continuing nature’s cycle, spring is also symbolic of rebirth and fecundity after months of sterility and death.

Dismissed from his position as a mechanic because of his socialistic ideas, Étienne Lantier (of the Macquart line) arrives in the bleak March landscape of the coal-mining district to start work in the pits, despite his lack of underground experience. Zola masterfully uses Étienne’s naïveté regarding his new milieu to educate him and the reader about this forsaken world and people. Since their wages are so low, the miners, regardless of age or gender, have traditionally eked out a miserable existence. Now, however, because of overproduction and the subsequent drop in coal prices, the company wants to impose an even lower tonnage fee. Lantier convinces his coworkers to strike rather than capitulate as they have often done in the past. For its part, the company expects to crush the strike through hunger.

When violence and sabotage occur, the army arrives to restore order, resulting in numerous deaths and acts of revenge. The food provider Maigrat is savagely mutilated, a soldier is murdered by a young boy, and the mine installation is flooded by a Russian anarchist, thus causing additional fatalities. In the end, vanquished by the repressive government forces and by starvation, the miners return to work, while Lantier leaves to militate on behalf of social justice.

Though obviously on the miners’ side, Zola does not portray either the miners or their bosses in black-and-white terms. The workers, limited by their environment and devoid of free will, are reduced to the level of animals in their constant search for food. The Grégoires are a local stockholding family who show charitable impulses toward the miners but are ultimately too insensitive to wish to improve their plight; their young daughter, who becomes a symbol of capitalism, will later be cruelly stripped and strangled. Hennebeau, the resident manager, is as much a tool and prisoner ofthe company as the workers. Zola mythicizes the mine pit into a voracious monster, aptly named “le Voreux,” feeding on human flesh; even when flooded, the mine soon returns to its normal state in expectant ambush for the next cargo of miners.

Failure and death aside, the novel closes optimistically, under the glorious April sun. Étienne now hears the hammering sounds of his comrades underground and imagines, in a suffusing prophecy of resurrection, that an “avenging army was slowly germinating in the furrows, sprouting for the harvests of the coming century. And soon this germination would sunder the earth.” The promise of the title has been fully realized.


First published: 1877 (English translation, 1879; also as The Dram-Shop, 1897)

Type of work: Novel

Gervaise Macquart struggles to find happiness in working-class Paris, and for a fleeting moment she finds it, only to have it torn away from her by the greed of her husband and by the unforgiving circumstances of her environment.

In L’Assommoir, Auguste Lantier brings his wife, Gervaise, and two young sons, Claude and Étienne, from the country to a working-class neighborhood in Paris. Almost as soon as they arrive in the city, the couple quarrels, and the indolent Lantier leaves Gervaise for another woman, abandoning them in a squalid hotel with wretched and greasy furniture. With few friends, Gervaise must make her way on the streets of Paris, where she finally takes a low-paying job as a laundress in a neighborhood laundry.

Gervaise’s future looks hopeless until she meets and marries Coupeau, a zinc worker with whom she has a daughter, Nana. The lazy and greedy Coupeau turns out to be little better than Lantier, for he gambles constantly, often stealing money from Gervaise to pay his debts.

In spite of these obstacles, Gervaise is able to save enough money to open her own laundry and achieve some measure of prosperity. Neighborhood women begin to look up to her, and suddenly it appears that she and her family will be able to survive with some measure of dignity and wealth in Paris.

Gervaise’s momentary happiness comes crashing down around her when Coupeau falls off a roof, injuring himself so badly that he cannot work again. Thus begins his life of idleness and alcoholism. He begins to frequent the bar—L’Assommoir—that lends this novel its title. At the center of the bar stands a gigantic still, a powerful and inhuman machine that sucks life from those around it. Coupeau cannot control the attraction the machine has over him, and he succumbs to a life of alcoholism, spending Gervaise’s every penny she earns at her laundry.

The family’s fall into abject poverty begins when Lantier returns to lodge with them. His and Coupeau’s indolence and their inability to control their desire for alcohol destroy the family. Nana becomes a prostitute (and the leading character of her own novel, Nana, published in 1880), getting caught up in a web of debauchery on the streets of Paris. Alcohol kills Coupeau, and Gervaise dies of hunger in more desperate and squalid circumstances than when she first arrived in Paris.

Trapped in a bourgeois city that demands that commercial transactions become the center of life, Gervaise and her family are soon caught up in the feverish desire to make money and lead a life of wealth. Their inability to meet such demands leads to their downfall.

In L’Assommoir, the packed working-class slums, the pulsing still, and even the greasy, steamy laundries determine the fates of their inhabitants. As hard as Gervaise works to pull herself out of poverty, the labyrinthine streets of her neighborhood trap her in their web, squeezing the life out of her and her family. This environment eventually defeats her will, even though for a short time her physical will seems strong enough to defeat the forces that drain the life from her. The increasing industrialization that creates the alcohol still, the urban slum, and the proletariat poison simple relationships, leading to death, debauchery, and degradation.

L’Assommoir was sensational when it was first published because Zola wanted to present a simple moral lesson about the nature of life. No matter how strong and good Gervaise was, she could never overcome the forces of the slums or the evils imposed on workers forced to live in the working-class neighborhoods by the middle classes that kept them in poverty, paying them low wages for simple tasks like doing laundry.

Zola’s novel, with its focus on the evils of money, the mechanistic power of the urban landscape, and the determinism of environment, provides the model for many other naturalist novels, most notably Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899) and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900).

The Human Beast

First published: La Bête humaine, 1890 (The Human Brutes, 1890, and The Human Beast, 1891)

Type of work: Novel

Greed, selfishness, lust, and jealousy motivate all of the characters in this novel that attacks both the rapid industrialization of France and the country’s corrupt legal system.

In contrast to many of Zola’s other novels, The Human Beast focuses on the darkness of the human soul and the evil deeds which proceed from it rather than the determinism of environment. Much like his other novels, though, The Human Beast does center on the energy of an inhuman machine—in this case, a locomotive—that exacerbates the dark desires of the human soul.

When Zola was planning to write this novel, he had two ideas. First, he wanted to write a carefully observed portrait of railroad life. Second, he wanted to write a novel depicting the corruption of the legal and judicial system in late nineteenth century France. These two ideas merged when he began to contemplate the heart of darkness in Jacques Lantier, a railroad employee whose sexual passion borders on lust for killing.

Lantier, whom Zola contrived to make the orphan son of Gervaise Macquart and Auguste Lantier, is an engineer on the Paris-Le Havre line. He is so consumed by his locomotive that he treats it like a lover, tenderly driving her on the difficult portions of his route and being sure she is well taken care of before he leaves his shift. Lantier fears women, however, because the wild beast that lurks within him manifests itself in a desire for murder in the place of a desire for sex. He attributes this murderous desire to hereditary madness, and he literally runs away from possible sexual liaisons before he commits a deadly act.

His fortunes change when he witnesses the murder one evening of Grandmorin, the president of the railroad. Although he does not see clearly the people involved, another railroad employee, Roubaud, and his wife, Séverine, become the prime suspects in the case. Roubaud is indeed the killer, having murdered Grandmorin in a fit of jealousy over the president’s love affair with Séverine. When Roubaud, Jacques, and Séverine are called into the courts, Jacques and Séverine fall in love, and he does what he can to protect her. They begin an illicit affair, and for the first time Jacques is consumed only with sexual passion and not murderous desire. He believes he is cured until she begins to describe lustfully Grandmorin’s murder in great detail. His murderous desire returns, so they plan to kill Roubaud. At the last moment, in a fit of murderous rage, Jacques kills Séverine instead. Although Jacques is called up by lawyers for questioning in the death, he avoids suspicion. However, he cannot escape punishment for long, for he dies a gruesome death as he falls from a speeding locomotive during a fight.

However, Lantier is not the only character with a corrupt soul in the novel. Almost every character in The Human Beast is driven by lust, greed, or jealousy to acts of robbery, murder, or betrayal. Another railway worker, Misard (whose name symbolizes “miserly”)—a switchman on Jacques’s route—is slowly poisoning Aunt Phasie, Jacques’s own foster mother, because Misard believes she has a fortune hidden somewhere in the house. Roubaud kills Grandmorin out of jealousy. All of the lawyers in the novel attempt to pin the murder of Grandmorin on a vagrant, even though all of their evidence convinces them of Roubaud’s guilt. Even Séverine lusts for the death of her husband, Roubaud.

In The Human Beast, Zola demonstrates that the human soul is overwhelmingly consumed with the desire for love and death.

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Émile Zola Long Fiction Analysis