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...
(The entire section contains 3165 words.)
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- Critical Essays