Émile Zola

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 69

Émile Zola is principally remembered as a novelist and also as the flamboyant journalist who took up the defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus during the celebrated trial of the young Jewish officer which transfixed French society at the end of the nineteenth century. In addition to novels and journalistic essays, he is the author of numerous plays, essays, literary and artistic criticism, and an early youthful attempt at poetry.


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Émile Zola will always be associated with the school of naturalism in France. He became the most widely read author at the beginning of the twentieth century, in part because of the sensationalism of his subjects, in part because of his early training as a public relations clerk. Because of his immense success, his aesthetic ideas were widely circulated, and a group of disciples was formed at Zola’s country home outside Paris at Médan. Inspired by the medical advances made possible by scrupulous observation combined with precise analytical techniques, Zola proposed literature as a means of experimenting on humans. He specifically was interested in determining what happens when their environment is changed or their heredity tampered with; what would be the result of humans’ gradual addiction to certain chemical compounds? When the literary subject matter was the lower class, envisioned is the unhealthy and the immoral side by side. One of his best known novels, L’Assommoir (1877; English translation, 1879), attempts to examine the effects of alcohol on the working class. Other works examine prostitution, political power, industrial power (the locomotive), and capitalism.

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Émile Zola is known principally as a novelist and as the formulator of the literary movement known as naturalism, which proposed to examine the human species by observing scientifically, through the medium of a literary work, the effects of heredity and environment. Zola’s first major novel was Thérèse Raquin (1867; English translation, 1881), followed by the twenty-novel cycle of Les Rougon-Macquart (1871-1893; The Rougon-Macquart Novels, 1885-1907), including such well-known novels as Germinal (1885; English translation, 1885), L’Assommoir (1876; English translation, 1879); and Nana (1880; English translation, 1880). Near the end of his life, he wrote two shorter series of novels, Les Trois Villes (1894-1898; The Three Cities, 1894-1898); and Les Quatre Evangiles (1899-1903; English translation, 1900-1903), which are both more visionary and idealistic than the realistic, earthy Rougon-Macquart novels. Less well known are his short stories, several of which were dramatized during Zola’s lifetime. As a journalist and art critic, Zola was an early supporter of the Impressionist painters, but he dealt harshly with the popular playwrights of his day. In addition to his literary and critical works, Zola is remembered for his defense of Alfred Dreyfus in the famous newspaper article, “J’accuse” (“I Accuse”). Had Zola not so forcefully put his suspicions before the public, the case of the wrongfully convicted Dreyfus might never have been reopened nor the innocent man acquitted.


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Émile Zola was never as skillful a dramatist as he was a novelist. In fact, none of his plays can be said to have achieved lasting success, although many of his novels and short stories have been successfully adapted for stage and film. His achievement in drama lies in the changes he was able to bring to the theater at a time when the stage was dominated by the pièces à thèse ( problem plays) of Alexandre Dumas, fils, Victorien Sardou, andÉmile Augier. The well-made play of the time was most often a neatly constructed illustration of a moral homily. Although these plays had once seemed modern and true to life, by comparison with the romantic plays of the early nineteenth century (such as those by Alexandre Dumas, père), they now seemed to Zola to be overly artificial and tritely idealized. By applying to the theater the force of his prestige as a novelist, Zola was able to insist on more lifelike scenes in costume, decor, and methods of acting. Instead of demonstrating a given “thesis,” he developed his plays from the realities of everyday life. Through his own stage productions and dramatic criticism, he prepared the way for the innovative theater of André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre, made possible the acceptance of Henry Becque, and encouraged Antoine to produce the plays of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Thus Zola’s major contribution to the theater is found less in his own plays than in the new atmosphere of freedom and experimentation which he promoted and supported.

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Émile Zola (ZOH-luh) is remembered today chiefly as a prolific novelist and as the outspoken defender of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who had been falsely sentenced for disclosing French military secrets to German authorities. This defense reached its apex in an open letter to the president of the French Republic. (Georges Clemenceau, editor of L’Aurore, the journal in which the letter appeared, titled it “J’accuse.”) Although the letter precipitated Zola’s trial for libel and his exile to England, it helped bring about Dreyfus’s pardon in 1899 and his ultimate exoneration in 1906. While Zola was praised as a man of courage and honesty for his role in the Dreyfus affair, he had already gained national and international renown for his work as a novelist. His literary reputation rests solidly on his fiction, especially on the multivolume work known as The Rougon-Macquarts.

Zola had first intended, however, to be a poet. Having come under the influence of Alfred de Musset while a schoolboy, Zola wrote several poems, the most notable of which are the three parts of L’Amoureuse Comédie (written 1860; the loving comedy). When he showed his poetry to his employer, the publisher Louis Hachette, in 1862, Hachette advised Zola to turn to prose. As a result, Zola wrote his first book of short stories, Contes à Ninon (1864; Stories for Ninon, 1895), a mixture of highly Romantic tales in the style of Victor Hugo, a story of disillusionment that shares in the dark side of the Romantic tradition, and the satiric “Aventures du grand Sidoine et du petit Médéric,” which takes a Voltairean look at the politics of the Second Empire at home and abroad. Some of the attitudes and themes of Stories for Ninon anticipate Zola’s concerns in The Rougon-Macquarts. This is even more the case with his Nouveaux Contes à Ninon (1874; new stories for Ninon), a collection containing several autobiographical pieces, souvenirs, and sketches of characters who would appear in one or more of his novels. In addition to these two collections for Ninon, Zola’s contribution to the anthology of short fiction Les Soirées de Médan (1880), “L’Attaque du moulin” (“The Attack on the Mill”), ranks him as one of the nineteenth century’s great storytellers. Les Soirées de Médan was inspired by an evening of reminiscing about the Franco-Prussian War and was named for Zola’s country house; its publication is an important event in the history of French naturalism, and Zola’s particular contribution marks a high point in the development of naturalistic fiction, a point he would surpass with his installment of The Rougon-Macquarts for 1880, Nana.

Zola’s defense of naturalism as a literary and dramatic theory and practice in several of his mature critical works, principally in Le Roman expérimental (1880; The Experimental Novel, 1893), Les Romanciers naturalistes (1881; The Naturalist Novel, 1964), and Le Naturalisme au théâtre (1881; Naturalism on the Stage, 1893), reveal him as a deft controversialist who advanced significantly beyond the prorealist posture of his first collection of essays, Mes haines (1866; My Hates, 1893). This earlier work, a collection of his journalistic efforts and addresses, provides an interesting view of the young Zola forming opinions and points of view that would surface later in his novels and in his criticism as he progressed from an advocate of realism to the leader of the naturalist movement.

Like his poetry, and unlike his criticism and fiction, Zola’s dramatic efforts met with little or no success. Thérèse Raquin (pr., pb. 1873; English translation, 1947), a dramatic presentation of his 1867 novel, was a short-lived failure. A much worse critical reception greeted his Les Héritiers Rabourdin (pr., pb. 1874; The Rabourdin Heirs, 1893), a reception that united him with the fraternity of Gustave Flaubert, Edmond de Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet, and Ivan Turgenev, who met with Zola once a month in 1874 for a “Dinner of the Hissed Authors.” After another of his plays, Le Bouton de rose (pr., pb. 1878; the rosebud), was judged a complete failure, Zola wisely withdrew from the theater, although the theater greatly attracted him, figured prominently in his critical work, and formed the background against which he set Nana.


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Hailed as “the French Charles Dickens” and, in the funeral eulogy delivered by Anatole France at the Montmartre cemetery, as “a moment of human conscience,” Émile Zola claims many achievements, the foremost of which are his place as a great master of French fiction and his campaign to defend Dreyfus. Zola spoke to the people of Paris about their lives, conditions, aspirations, dreams, and failures; he also spoke out, in their hearing, about the injustice perpetrated on Dreyfus and the whitewash of injustice by officialdom—and he suffered self-imposed exile for his outspokenness. He achieved a kind of heroic status, then, by a prodigious literary output and by his courage and will to be heard as a citizen.

His passion for truth in the fictional representation of life is fundamental to his theory of realistic treatment that came to be called naturalism. Likewise, his passion for truth in the Dreyfus affair led him to proclaim in Le Figaro, on November 25, 1897, “Truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it.” His prediction proved correct; Dreyfus was pardoned in 1899.

Zola’s principal achievement is in his advocacy and practice of naturalism. Zola argued for naturalism in the theater as well as in fiction, but while he superbly illustrated that theory in his novels, he did not succeed in doing so in his plays. Zola’s dramatic achievement, in fact, lies more in the influence he exerted on dramatists of his time than in his own work as a playwright. His short fiction is, like the novels, remarkable for its realism and naturalism, although some of the early stories clearly hark back to a fresher, possibly more innocent brand of Romanticism than that for which he is famous. Indeed, realism and naturalism may be seen as hybrids, late flowerings of a decayed Romanticism.

Zola’s essays, critiques, and reviews from the 1860’s onward, in a wide variety of French journals and in the Russian Vestnik Evropy, form another dimension of his achievement as an accomplished chronicler of his own times, a keen observer and acute critic of society, a controversial literary theorist, and a political commentator of acuity and courage.

Largely in consequence of the controversial nature of his fiction, the charges of obscenity that attached to it, and the naturalistic portrayal of humanity, Zola never achieved the one honor to which he aspired, election to the Académie Française, for which he presented his name each year from 1890 on. He was elected president of the Société des Gens de Lettres in April, 1891, and was received into the Légion d’Honneur in 1888. The accounts of Zola’s state funeral provide some of the most moving tributes to his achievement as a writer and as an individual. His cortege was greeted by the people of Paris with cries of “Germinal!” and “Glory to Zola!” Anatole France’s eulogy provoked great applause. Six years later, in June, 1908, Zola’s ashes were removed from Montmartre in a formal public ceremony and placed in the Panthéon in Paris, alongside the remains of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Hugo; this ceremony raised again the controversies surrounding the Dreyfus case and inflamed public opinion on both sides of the issue. As in life, so well beyond his death, Zola remained and still remains a figure of controversy, not only for his role in the Dreyfus affair but also for the trenchancy of his writing. Zola had also seized the consciousness and imagination of the French in other ways: During his lifetime, such articles as clay pipes, dinner plates, jewelry, pens, and statuettes bore the likenesses of his characters and of Zola himself, all of which added to the folklore of a living legend.

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Émile Zola is often called the “father of naturalism.” What is naturalism, and what principles can you discern from reading novels such as Germinal, L’Assommoir, and Nana?

Zola was a good friend of the Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and was himself an artist. In what ways can Zola’s novels be described as “painterly”? That is, are there scenes in the novels that he creates so that you can almost see it on a canvas?

Discuss the ways in which Karl Marx’s theories of economics—such as the conflict between the working classes (proletariat) and the middle classes (bourgeois)—can be seen in Zola’s novels. Can any of the principles of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory or Herbert Spencer’s “social Darwinism” be found in Zola’s novels? Provide some examples of these ideas from Germinal, Nana, or The Bonheur des Dames.

Some critics have said that Zola’s novels prepared the way for French cinema. In what ways are Zola’s novels cinematic in nature? How are they like films? What characteristics of his novels lend themselves to the cinematic?

What can we learn about French history from Zola’s novels?

Can we ever feel sorry for any of Zola’s characters? Do we have empathy for them or do we not sympathize with them at all? Is there anything they can do to change their situations?

Do the societies that Zola depicts make us long for a utopia (a perfect world)?


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Baguley, David, ed. Critical Essays on Émile Zola. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. A collection of essays by noted scholars on Zola, including Philip D. Walker. Covers a wide variety of topics, including biographical and critical essays and articles. “The Experimental Novel” and “Zola’s Ideology: The Road to Utopia” are two valuable entries from this collection. Contains a select bibliography of works on Zola for readers of English.

Berg, William J., and Laurey K. Martin. Émile Zola Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. Focusing on The Rougon-Macquart Family, this book employs textual analysis rather than biography to analyze each of the twenty volumes in Zola’s most widely known series. Berg and Martin use Zola’s literary-scientific principles to organize their study.

Brown, Frederick. Zola: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) A detailed and extensive biography of Zola that discusses his fiction and the intellectual life of France, of which he was an important part. Shows how Zola’s naturalism was developed out of the intellectual and political ferment of his time. Argues that Zola’s naturalism was a highly studied and artificial approach to reality.

Gallois, William. Zola: The History of Capitalism. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. An examination of how Zola depicted capitalism in his works. Bibliography and index.

Johnson, Roger, Jr. “Looking and Screening in Zola’s Vierge au cirage.” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Winter, 1992): 19-25. Discusses the device of the beholder in Zola’s tale; explains that the tale incorporates and illustrates Zola’s definition of the fictional world of the art work as “seen.” Asserts that in the story “looking” is both a central narrative event and a recurring motif.

Lethbridge, Robert, F. W. J. Hemmings, and Terry Keefe, eds. Zola and the Craft of Fiction. Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1990. A collection of essays published in honor of F. W. J. Hemmings. Six of the ten essays are written in English by notable Zola scholars such as David Baguley, Philip D. Walker, and Joy Newton.

Nelson, Brian. Zola and the Bourgeoisie. New York: Macmillan, 1983. Illuminates the specific aspects of Zola’s writing that demonstrate the nineteenth century’s class structure and the results of the burgeoning bourgeoisie that had replaced the aristocracy and had come to hold the bulk of the country’s wealth. Explores how the bourgeoisie vilified the artist who uncovered the base side of that class’s nature through his social vision.

Newton, Ruth, and Naomi Lebowitz. The Impossible Romance: Dickens, Manzoni, Zola, and James. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990. Discusses the impact of religious sensibility on literary form and ideology in Zola’s fiction.

Pollard, Patrick. Émile Zola Centenary Colloquium. London: Émile Zola Society, 1995. This collection of essays from a colloquium held by the Institute Français du Royaume-Uni and Birkbeck College, in London in September, 1993, examines various aspects of Zola’s life and works.

Schom, Alan. Émile Zola. London: Queen Anne Press, 1987. This eleven-year research effort considers Zola the journalist, the novelist, and the man himself and his values. Places Zola in the context of the artist as crusader against nineteenth century France and its societal ills. This modern look at the whole man includes photographs, illustrations, and a select bibliography.

Walker, Philip D. Zola. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985. A biography drawn from this professor of French literature’s own studies, as well as those of many other critics, historians, and biographers. With a select bibliography.

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