Emile Zola

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Emile Zola




Early Years. Born in Paris, Emile Zola was the only child of Francesco and Emilie Aubert Zola. His twentyone-year-old mother was from a working-class family, while his father (twenty-three years his wife’s senior) was a Venetian civil engineer who had immigrated to France. When Emile was not yet seven years old, his father died. For the next eleven years Emile lived with his mother in Aix-en-Provence, the town where his father had worked and died, and formed a lifelong friendship with the future Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne (1839–1906). Zola and his mother returned to Paris in 1858. The following year, after repeatedly failing the oral component of the baccalaureat examination, which students had to pass for admission to all university studies, Zolawas forced to seek employment. In early 1860 a friend of the family found him employmentas a copy clerk. This job lasted scarcely two months, after which Emile Zola decided to earn his living as a writer. He threw himself into his new vocation, telling a friend “My dream is to publish within two years from now two volumes, one of prose and oneof verse. As for the future, who knows? If I definitely embark on a literary career, I shall be true to my motto: All or nothing.” Zola struggled for several years to make ends meet, living in squalor in the slums of Paris, taking a room for a time in a building that also housed pimps and prostitutes. In 1862 he found work with the publishinghouse Hachette, eventually working in the publicity department. In 1866 he left Hachette and began a career as a journalist, working first for the periodical L’Evenement.

An Art Critic and Serial Novelist. Zola began his journalism career writing literary and art criticism, and this endeavor brought him into contact with the emerging Impressionist movement, which included his friend Cezanne. Zola knew many of the Impressionists well and socialized with them at their favorite Parisian haunts. He was one of the early champions of the paintings of Edouard Manet (1832–1883), a controversia artist whose paintings outraged much of the public and were excluded from juried exhibitions. Zola was impressed by the objectivity of Manet’s paintings, especially figures such as the prostitute in Olympia (1863), who were portrayed as pure objects divulging nothing of their inner selves. Zola captured this visual effect in his first novel, Therese Raquin, published in 1867. Manet and Zola became friends, and each man influenced the other. While continuing to work as a journalist, he wrote, for example, a stark and lurid account of the aftermath of the slaughter of the Communards in Paris for La Semaphore in 1870. Zola embarked in 1868 on a project of writing a connected series of novels, which—like the fiction of Honore de Balzac (1799–1850) and Charles Dickens (1812–1870) before him—were published in installments.La Fortune des Rougon (The Fortune of the Rougons) the first volume of the Rougon-Macquart novels, was serialized in Le Siecle in 1870–1871 and published in book form later in 1871. Seven more novels—including the explosive and shocking LAssommoir (serialized in 1876–1877)—followed over the next decade, and the final, twentieth volume in the series, Le Docteur Pascal (Doctor Pascal), was serialized in 1893. These novels track the generations of two branches of a fictional family and express what Zola called “the vast democratic upheaval of our time.” In his literary art Zola emerged as the greatest Realist of his generation and defined what it meant to be a literary Naturalist.

The Science of Literature. Zola held an unshakable belief in the powers of reason and objective observation—that is, science—as tools for the betterment of mankind, and he shaped his art to accomplish this task. He expressed his doctrine in Le Roman experimental (The Experimental Novel, 1880), where he explained that his fiction was “a simple piece of analysis of the world as it is. I merely state facts. It is a study of man placed in a milieu without sermonizing. If my novel has a result, it will be this: to tell the human truth, to exhibit our mechanism, showing the hidden springs of heredity and the influence of environment.” His novels are filled with cold, emotionless, detailed depictions of the external world and the almost soulless figures that move within it. The actions of human beings, good and evil, are portrayed as products of heredity and environment. In his novels squalor and poverty gave rise to promiscuity, delinquency, alcoholism, workers’ riots, and violence. As he wrote in the preface to an early novel, Therese Raquin (1867), “people [are] completely dominated by their nerves and blood, [and are] without free will, drawn into each action of their lives by the inexorable laws of their physical nature.” Perhaps Zola’s most controversial, and most popular, novel was Nana. This story of an actress/prostitute who ultimately dies in the gutter, “a heap of matter and blood,” met with great success. The periodical Le Voltaire serialized it in 1879–1880, publicizing it so aggressively that Zola told a friend the “insane advertising” was “humiliating.” When it appeared in book form in 1880, the first printing of 55,000 sold out so quickly that ninety more printings were required before the end of the year to meet public demand. Zola continued to write at a furious rate, failing to produce a novel in only six of the thirty-one years between 1871 and 1902.

Artistic Method. Zola’s writing methods closely followed those of science. For every novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, he first roughed out a story line and then began gathering “documentation.” As he wrote, he said, “I concern myself with documents; I seek them out with care. . . . my work is ‘settled’ only when I have all my documents and I have discovered the reflexive effect of subject on documents and of documents on subject.” This method included close scrutiny of Catholic ritual and liturgy. Intending to open the novel La Faute de PabbeMouret (Abbe Mouret’s Transgression, 1875) with a priest celebrating the Eucharist, Zola made sure every detail was accurately presented. He studied glossaries of workers’ slang to make the dialogue of his working-class characters in L’Assommoir completely true to life. For his novel Le Venire de Paris (The Bellyof Paris, 1874), set in the central markets of the French capital, Zola researched his subject scrupulously, repeatedly visiting the markets at different times of the day, andin all manner of weather, to gauge the various rhythms. He even spent the night there sohe could observe the arrival of provisioning carts before dawn and record the bustle in his notebooks. After such research excursions, he returned to his study with mounds of notes and composed his novels with vivid depictions of real, often sordid, worlds.

The Dreyfus Affair. In his novels Zola criticized the social and political conditions of the world in which he lived, but true to his “objectivist” stance, he refused to become politicized. His position changed in 1898, however, when he became involved in the deepest political scandal of the Third Republic, the Dreyfus Affair Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a French army officer who was accused in 1894 of transmitting military secrets to the Germans. The prosecutors in his military trial had only flimsy circumstantial evidence, but Dreyfus was Jewish and was thus assumed to be more likely than a Christian to commit an unpatriotic act against France. Dreyfus was convicted and sentenced to the penal colony on Devil’s Island. After compelling evidence pointing to the guilt of another soldier, Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, came to light, the army refused to give Dreyfus a new trial. Convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence, Zola had already written a few articles and pamphlets on his behalf, when—in January 1898;a military court found Esterhazy innocent. Fearing that Dreyfus would be completely forgotten, Zola wrote perhaps his best-known journalistic work, “Open Letter to the President of the Republic,” which was published in the 13 January 1898 issue of LAurore, as “J’Accuse!” (I Accuse!). In this public letter he championed the principle that evil means do not justify laudable ends. He gave the names of the generals who had been accused of allowing irregularities in Dreyfus’s trial and accused the entire war ministry of complicity. He then challenged the French government to put the generals on trial. Zola knew that, according to the press law of 1881, his article was libelous. In fact, he quoted passages from that law to demonstrate that point. He clearly was trying to provoke authorities to arrest him so he could use his trial as a venue from which to expose the corruption of the military. Zola was duly tried and convicted in 1898, sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, and fined 3,000 francs. He appealed his conviction and lost. As anti-Semitic French nationalists screamed in the right-wing press “Down with Zola! Down with the Jews!” Zola left for England to avoid personal harm and imprisonment and to await a shift in political circumstances in France. In 1899 Dreyfus was given a new trial and once again found guilty, even though Esterhazy had fled the country and confessed, and another conspirator had killed himself to avoid prosecution. The French president pardoned Dreyfus later that year, but he was not exonerated until 1906.

Death under Suspicious Circumstances. In 1902 Zola returned to France, and on 29 September was found dead on the bedroom floor of his home in Paris. Cause of death was soon determined to be carbon-monoxide poisoning from inhaling toxic fumes from the coal-burning fireplace. A coroner’s inquest found no blockage of the flue and so ruled the death accidental but inexplicable. Fifty years later a man reported that twenty-five years previously a friend of his had told him that he and his mates, all anti-Semites who hated Dreyfus and Zola, had deliberately sealed up the chimney one evening and then returned in the morning to clear away the evidence. This hearsay evidence has never been confirmed, but it does point to the controversial reputation Zola had acquired in his lifetime.


William J. Berg, The Visual Novel: Emile Zola and the Art of His Times (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992).

F. W. J. Hemmings, The Life and Times of Emile Zola (New York: Scribners, 1977).

Alan Schom, Emile Zola: A Biography (New York: Holt, 1987).