Zola, Émile

views updated May 11 2018

Émile Zola

Excerpts from Germinal

Published in 1885; translation from French into English by Havelock Ellis published in 1894

Coal was the first fuel that ran the Industrial Revolution, the period when machines and factories came into widespread use in manufacturing. The steam engine, which uses the expansive quality of steam to move machinery, requires fuel to heat water to the boiling point, and coal was the most common fuel used for this purpose in the nineteenth century; it continues to be widely used in the twenty-first century. After the first practicable steam engine was introduced in England, in 1772, by James Watt (1736–1819), the demand for coal soared, especially as steam engines were adapted to power trains and ships. For many decades it was also used to heat homes and buildings. Coal provided the basic energy that replaced human muscle power, making it essential to the Industrial Revolution.

Émile Zola (1840–1908) was a French novelist who wrote a series of twenty novels about everyday life in France. Germinal, first published in France in 1885, remains one of his best-known works for its representation of the life of the working class, specifically coal miners in northern France. Zola was also known as a social reformer. Working conditions for coal miners (and other workers) in France were not significantly different from those in any other industrialized country, including the United States. Miners were paid poorly and worked in dangerous conditions. Germinal conveys the hardships endured by these workers in a way that cold statistics about the working class cannot.

Coal is buried deep inside the Earth (in Zola's novel it is described as being more than two miles below the surface), often embedded in rock, the way the filling of a sandwich is wedged between slices of bread. Once these so-called seams of coal are found, miners dig narrow tunnels to follow them. Miners then use picks or drills to chip away at the coal, and send the coal via carts through the tunnels to vertical mineshafts, where it is hauled to the surface. The tunnels are often just big enough for a man to make his way on his hands and knees, and for the carts to travel back to the mineshaft. Thick boards, called timbers, are placed vertically to support the tunnels, which often are in danger of collapsing, crushing the miners or cutting them off from access to the mineshafts. Other dangers also lurk: a deadly odorless natural gas, called methane, can seep into mines and kill without warning, and underground streams of water can suddenly flood a mine. Miners sometimes took canaries in cages with them into the mines because canaries proved to be sensitive detectors of poisonous gas; if the canaries stopped singing and died, it was an early warning of the presence of methane gas.

Étienne Lantier is a character in Germinal who has lost his job working on a railroad and gotten another job working in a coal mine. In this passage, Étienne is descending into the coal mine for the first time. With him are an experienced miner, Maheu, and Maheu's teenage daughter Catherine. Other miners also appear in the story from time to time.

Things to remember while reading the excerpts from Germinal:

  • Although the story written by Zola is fiction, the conditions he describes were typical of coal mines. Often, entire families, including wives and daughters, worked in the mines. Children often pushed the cars loaded with coal, saving the adults from having to walk doubled over in the low tunnels.
  • In Zola's time, coal mine disasters were commonplace. Mining was a very dangerous profession. The disasters hinted at in this passage often did take place, with deadly results. Although safety measures were introduced in the twentieth century, coal mining remains a highly dangerous profession.
  • Zola vividly describes the work that took place in a deep coal mine. Some of the terms used in these excerpts, which are translations from the French, may not be clear. The miners enter the mine in "cages," a conveyance something like an elevator but with the sides enclosed by a kind of steel mesh. Cables haul them up and down; at the start of a work shift, the miners wait for empty cages to come up to the surface after delivering the previous load of passengers. Zola describes the mine as a kind of living monster, swallowing the workers and vomiting them later. Inside the mine, miners illuminate the pitch dark with lamps hung on their leather hats (a substitute for a helmet in the nineteenth century), or on buttonholes. At the bottom of the mine, horizontal tunnels go off from the main shaft, leading to other tunnels that are progressively smaller. Small horses, which live inside the mine all the time, are used to haul carts filled with coal to the vertical shaft, where it can be carried to the surface. The temperature inside the mine varies from cold to very hot. Underground water drips constantly, and sometimes seems like rain. For this reason, French miners usually worked barefoot in order to avoid having their shoes become waterlogged.

Excerpt from Germinal, Chapter 3

"Golly! It's not warm here," murmured Catherine, shivering.

Étienne contented himself with nodding his head. He was in front of the shaft, in the midst of a vast hall swept by currents of air. He certainly considered himself brave, but he felt a disagreeable emotion at his chest amid this thunder of trains, the hollow blows of the signals, the stifled howling of the trumpet, the continual flight of those cables, unrolled and rolled at full speed by the drums of the engine. The cages rose and sank with the gliding movement of anocturnal beast, always engulfing men, whom the throat of the hole seemed to drink. It was his turn now. He felt very cold, and preserved a nervous silence which made Zacharie and Levaque [two experienced miners] grin; for both of them disapproved of the hiring of this unknown man [Étienne Lantier], especially Levaque, who was offended that he had not been consulted. So Catherine was glad to hear her father explain things to the young man.


"Look! above the cage there is a parachute with irongrapnels to catch into the guides in case of breakage. Does it work? Oh, not always. Yes, the shaft is divided into three compartments, closed byplanking from top to bottom; in the middle the cages, on the left the passage for the ladders—"

Heavy, thick boards.

But he interrupted himself to grumble, though taking care not to raise his voice much.

"What are we stuck here for, blast it? What right have they to freeze us in this way?"

The captain, Richomme, who was going down himself, with hisnaked lamp fixed by a nail into the leather of his cap, heard him.


"Careful! Look out for ears," he murmuredpaternally , as an old miner with an affectionate feeling forcomrades . "Workmen must do what they can. Hold on! here we are; get in with your fellows."

Fellow workers.

The cage, provided with iron bands and a small-meshedlattice work , was in fact awaiting them on the bars. Maheu, Zacharie, and Catherine slid into atram below, and as all five had to enter, Étienne in his turn went in, but the good places were taken; he had to squeeze himself near the young girl, whose elbow pressed into hisbelly. His lamp embarrassed him; they advised him to fasten it to the button-hole of his jacket. Not hearing, he awkwardly kept it in his hand. Theembarkation continued, above and below, a confused packing of cattle. They did not, however, set out. What, then, was happening? It seemed to him that his impatience lasted for many minutes. At last he felt a shock, and the light grew dim, everything around him seemed to fly, while he experienced the dizzy anxiety of a fall contracting hisbowels. This lasted as long as he could see light, through the two reception stories, in the midst of the whirling by of thescaffolding . Then, having fallen into the blackness of the pit, he became stunned, no longer having any clear perception of his sensations.

Lattice work:
Criss-crossed boards.
A box-like wagon running on rails.
Loading of passengers.
A system of supporting frameworks.

"Now we are off," said Maheu quietly.

They were all at their ease. He asked himself at times if he was going up or down. Now and then, when the cage went straight without touching the guides, there seemed to be no motion, but rough shocks were afterwards produced, a sort of dancing amid thejoists , which made him fear a catastrophe. For the rest he could not distinguish the walls of the shaft behind the lattice work, to which he pressed his face. The lamps feebly lighted the mass of bodies at his feet. Only the captain's naked light, in the neighboring tram, shone like a lighthouse.

Vertical timbers.

"This is four meters [thirteen feet] in diameter," continued Maheu, to instruct him. "Thetubbing wants doing over again, for the water comes in everywhere. Stop! we are reaching the bottom: do you hear?"

System to catch water.

Étienne was, in fact, now asking himself the meaning of this noise of falling rain. A few large drops had at first sounded on the roof of the cage, like the beginning of a shower, and now the rain increased, streaming down, becoming at last adeluge . The roof must be full of holes, for a thread of water was flowing on to his shoulder and wetting him to the skin. The cold became icy, and they were buried in blackhumidity , when they passed through a sudden flash of light, the vision of a cavern in which men were moving. But already they had fallen back into darkness.

Wetness of the atmosphere.

Maheu said:

"That is the first main level. We are at three hundred and twenty meters [one thousand forty feet]. See the speed."

Raising his lamp he lighted up a joist of the guides which fled by like a rail beneath a train going at full speed; and beyond, as before,nothing could be seen. They passed three other levels in flashes of light. The deafening rain continued to strike through the darkness.

"How deep it is!" murmured Étienne.

This fall seemed to last for hours. He was suffering for the cramped position he had taken, not daring to move, and especially tortured by Catherine's elbow. She did not speak a word; he only felt her against him and it warmed him. When the cage at last stopped at the bottom, at five hundred and fifty-four meters [eighteen hundred feet], he was astonished to learn that the descent had lasted exactly one minute. But the noise of the bolts fixing themselves, the sensation of solidity beneath, suddenly cheered him; and he was joking when he said to Catherine:

"What have you got under your skin to be so warm? I've got your elbow in my belly, sure enough."

Then she also burst out laughing. Stupid of him, still to take her for a boy! Were his eyes out?

"It's in your eye that you've got my elbow!" she replied, in the midst of a storm of laughter which the astonished young man could not account for.

The cagevoided its burden of workers, who crossed the pit-eye hall, a chamber cut in the rock, vaulted with masonry, and lighted up by three large lamps. Over the iron flooring theporters were violently rollingladen trams. Acavernous odor exhaled from the walls, a freshness ofsaltpetre in which mingled hot breaths from the neighboring stable. The openings of fourgalleries yawned here.

Workers responsible for loading coal.
A chemical found in mines.
Passageways in a mining system.

"This way," said Maheu to Étienne. "You're not there yet. It is still two kilometers [one and a quarter miles]."

The workmen separated, and were lost in groups in the depths of these black holes. Some fifteen went off into that on the left, and Étienne walked last, behind Maheu, who was preceded by Catherine, Zacharie, and Levaque. It was a large gallery for wagons, through a bed of solid rock, which had only needed walling here and there. In single file they still went on without a word, by the tiny flame of the lamps. The young man stumbled at every step, and entangled his feet in the rails. For a moment a hollow sound disturbed him, the sound of a distant storm, the violence of which seemed to increase and to come from the bowels of the earth. Was it the thunder of alandslip bringing on to their heads the enormous mass which separated them from the light? A gleam pierced the night, he felt the rock tremble, and when he had placed himself close to the wall, like his comrades, he saw a large white horse close to his face, harnessed to a train of wagons. On the first, and holding the reins, was seated Bébert, while Jeanlin, with his hands leaning on the edge of the last, was running barefooted behind.

Shifting earth.

They again began their walk. Farther on they reachedcross-ways , where two new galleries opened, and the band divided again, the workers gradually entering all the stalls of the mine.

An intersection of tunnels.

Now the wagon-gallery was constructed of wood; props of timber supported the roof, and made for the crumbly rock a screen of scaffolding, behind which one could see the plates ofschist glimmering withmica, and the coarse masses of dull, rough sandstone. Trains of tubs, full or empty, continually passed, crossing each other with their thunder, borne into the shadow by vague beasts trotting by like phantoms. On the double way of ashunting line a long, black serpent slept, a train at standstill, with a snorting horse, whosecrupper looked like a block fallen from the roof. Doors forventilation were slowly opening and shutting. And as they advanced the gallery became more narrow and lower, and the roof irregular, forcing them to bend their backs constantly.

A form of rock.
A mineral that sometimes gleams.
A side rail where trains were parked temporarily.
Part of a harness.

Étienne struck his head hard; without his leather cap he would have broken his skull. However, he attentively followed the slightest gestures of Maheu, whosesomber profile was seen against the glimmer of the lamps. None of the workmenknocked themselves ; they evidently knew eachboss , each knot of wood or swelling in the rock. The young man also suffered from the slippery soil, which became damper and damper. At times he went through actual puddles, only revealed by the muddy splash of his feet. But what especially astonished him were the sudden changes of temperature. At the bottom of the shaft it was very chilly, and in the wagon-gallery, through which all the air of the mine passed, an icy breeze was blowing, with the violence of atempest , between the narrow walls. Afterwards, as they penetrated more deeply along other passages which only received a meager share of air, the wind fell and the heat increased, a suffocating heat as heavy as lead.

Knocked themselves:
Hit their heads.

Maheu had not again opened his mouth. He turned down another gallery to the right, simply saying to Étienne, without looking round:

"The Guillaumeseam ."

A bed of coal.

It was the seam which contained theircutting. At the first step, Étienne hurt his head and elbows. The sloping roof descended so low that, for twenty or thirty meters [sixty-five to ninety-seven feet] at a time, he had to walk bent double. The water came up to his ankles. After two hundred meters [two hundred sixteen yards] of this, he saw Levaque, Zacharie, and Catherine disappear, as though they had flown through a narrowfissure which was open in front of him.

A straight passage.

"We must climb," said Maheu. "Fasten your lamp to a buttonhole and hang on to the wood." He himself disappeared, and Étienne had to follow him. This chimney-passage left in the seam was reserved for miners, and led to all the secondary passages. It was about the thickness of the coal-bed, hardly sixty centimeters [two feet]. Fortunately the young man was thin, for, as he was still awkward, he hoisted himself up with a useless expense of muscle, flattening his shoulders and hips, advancing by the strength of his wrists, clinging to the planks. Fifteen meters [fifty feet] higher they came on the first secondary passage, but they had to continue, as the cutting of Maheu and his mates was in the sixth passage, inhell, as they said; every fifteen meters [fifty feet] the passages were placed over each other in never-ending succession through thiscleft , which scraped back and chest. Étienne groaned as if the weight of the rocks had pounded his limbs; with torn hands and bruised legs, he also suffered from lack of air, so that he seemed to feel the blood bursting through his skin. He vaguely saw in one passage two squatting beasts, a big one and a little one, pushing trains: they were Lydie and Mouquette already at work. And he had still to climb the height of two cuttings! He was blinded by sweat, and he despaired of catching up the others, whoseagile limbs he heard brushing against the rock with a long gliding movement.


"Cheer up! here we are!" said Catherine's voice.

He had, in fact, arrived, and another voice cried from the bottom of the cutting:

"Well, is this the way to treat people? I have two kilometers [one and a quarter miles] to walk from Montsou and I am here first." It was Chaval, a tall, lean, bony fellow of twenty-five, with strongly marked features, who was in a bad humor at having to wait. When he saw Étienne he asked, withcontemptuous surprise:


"What's that?"

And when Maheu had told him the story he added between his teeth:

"These men are eating the bread of girls."

The two men exchanged, a look, lighted up by one of those instinctive hatreds which suddenly flame up. Étienne had felt the insult without yet understanding it. There was silence, and they got to work. At last all the seams were gradually filled, and the cuttings were in movement at every level and at the end of every passage. The devouring shaft had swallowed its daily ration of men: nearly seven hundred hands, who were now at work in this giant ant-hill, everywhere making holes in the earth, drilling it like an old worm-eaten piece of wood. And in the middle of the heavy silence and crushing weight of thestrata one could hear, by placing one's ear to the rock, the movement of these human insects at work, from the flight of the cable which moved the cage up and down, to the biting of the tools cutting out the coal at the end of the stalls. Étienne, on turning round, found himself again pressed close to Catherine. But this time he caught a glimpse of the developing curves of her breast: he suddenly understood the warmth which had penetrated him.


"You are a girl, then!" he exclaimed,stupefied .


She replied in her cheerful way, without blushing:

"Of course. You've taken your time to find out!"

Excerpt from Germinal, Chapter 4

The fourpikemen had spread themselves one above the other over the whole face of the cutting. Separated by planks, hooked on to retain the fallen coal, they each occupied about four meters [thirteen feet] of the seam, and this seam was so thin, scarcely more than fifty centimeters [one and a half feet] thick at this spot, that they seemed to be flattened between the roof and the wall, dragging themselves along by their knees and elbows, and unable to turn without crushing their shoulders. In order to attack the coal, they had to lie on their sides with their necks twisted and arms raised,brandishing , in a sloping direction, their short-handled picks.

Miners with picks.

Below there was, first, Zacharie; Levaque and Chaval were on the stages above, and at the very top was Maheu. Each worked at theslaty bed, which he dug out with blows of the pick; then he made two vertical cuttings in the bed and detached the block by burying an iron wedge in its upper part. The coal was rich; the block broke and rolled in fragments along their bellies and thighs. When these fragments, retained by the plank, had collected round them, the pikemen disappeared, buried in the narrow cleft.

Covered with slate, a form of rock.

Maheu suffered most. At the top the temperature rose to thirty-five degrees [ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit], and the air was stagnant, so that in the long run it became lethal. In order to see, he had been obliged to fix his lamp to a nail near his head, and this lamp, close to his skull, still further heated his blood. But his torment was especially aggravated by the moisture. The rock above him, a few centimeters from his face, streamed with water, which fell in large continuous rapid drops with a sort ofobstinate rhythm, always at the same spot. It was vain for him to twist his head or bend back his neck. They fell on his face, dropping unceasingly. In a quarter of an hour he was soaked, and at the same time covered with sweat, smoking as with the hot steam of a laundry. This morning a drop beating upon his eye made him swear. He would not leave his picking, he dealt great strokes which shook him violently between the two rocks, like a fly caught between two leaves of a book and in danger of being completely flattened.


Not a word was exchanged. They all hammered; one only heard these irregular blows, which seemedveiled and remote. The sounds had asonorous hoarseness, without any echo in the dead air. And it seemed that the darkness was an unknown blackness, thickened by the floating coal dust, made heavy by the gas which weighed on the eyes. The wicks of the lamps beneath their caps ofmetallic tissue only showed as reddish points. One could distinguish nothing. The cutting opened out above like a large chimney, flat andoblique , in which the soot of ten years hadamassed a profound night.Spectral figures were moving in it, the gleams of light enabled one to catch a glimpse of a rounded hip, a knotty arm, a vigorous head,besmeared as if for a crime. Sometimes, blocks of coal shone suddenly as they became detached, illuminated by acrystalline reflection. Then everything fell back into darkness, pickaxes struck great hollow blows; one only heard panting chests, the grunting of discomfort and weariness beneath the weight of the air and the rain of the springs.

Made of metal.

What happened next …

Étienne's first trip into the coal mine suggested all sorts of possible disasters—a mine collapse, a flood, poisonous gas—and in Zola's novel, most of them came to pass. Germinal is a harrowing story of the difficulties faced by coal miners in the nineteenth century.

The reality of coal mining was not much different than the novel. In all countries, coal mining was—and still is—a highly dangerous profession. Gradually, though, improved technology and worker demands have resulted in safer conditions for workers.

Moreover, coal-mining techniques have changed significantly. Today, coal operators often scrape the surface of the earth off the top of whole mountains, exposing the coal below. Although this method is safer for miners, it is a technique that greatly concerns environmentalists, since hilltops are stripped of all soil and vegetation and left bare after the coal has been scraped away by gigantic earth-moving machinery.

Did you know …

In the United States, during the years from 1900 to 2000, there were 104,468 deaths resulting from coal mining accidents. The deadliest year was 1907, when 3,242 miners died. Over that period, the number of coal miners has declined from a high of 862,253 in 1923 to 108,898 in 2000.

For more information


Berg, William J., and Laurey K. Martin. Emile Zola Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

Brown, Frederick. Zola: A Life. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1995.

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

Nelson, Brian. Zola and the Bourgeoisie: A Study of Themes and Techniques in Les Rougon-Macquart. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1983.

Web Sites

Zola, Émile. Germinal. 1885. Translation from French into English by Havelock Ellis published as Germinal. New York: Everyman's Library, 1894. Eldritch Press. (accessed on April 11, 2003).

Zola, Émile

views updated Jun 11 2018

Émile Zola

BORN: 1840, Paris, France

DIED: 1902, Paris, France


GENRE: Fiction, drama, nonfiction

The Markets of Paris (1873)
Germinal (1885)
The Masterpiece (1886)
The Earth (1887)


Émile Zola is one of the most important nineteenth-century French novelists, along with Stendhal, Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert. The Rougon-Macquarts, the series of twenty novels that Zola published between 1870 and 1893, is a major monument of French fiction. Zola also wrote short stories, plays, and opera librettos and had already established himself by the age of thirty as one of France's leading literary figures.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Years and Paris Émile-Edouard-Charles-Antoine Zola was born in Paris on April 2, 1840. His father, Francesco Zola (originally Zolla, meaning in Italian

“a clod of earth”), developed pleurisy and died when Émile was just six years old, leaving his wife and son with debts of more than ninety thousand francs. The family moved a total of five times in ten years, always to cheaper quarters, ending up in two sordid rooms on a street inhabited by poor working-class people. Although his mother and her aged parents did everything possible to shield Émile from the effects of these misfortunes, the boy was affected by them as he grew older. They help explain his lifelong compassion for the poor, his longing for social justice, his rejection of what usually passes for charity, and his hatred of middle-class hypocrisy, cupidity, and pride. His fictionalized portrayals of Aix (represented in his novels by the town of “Plassans”) teem with scheming, avaricious middle-class characters reminiscent of those who had stolen his mother's and his inheritance.

In many respects, however, Zola's childhood years in Aix were among the best of his life. He, Paul Cézanne (the future painter), and another schoolmate, Baptistin Baille, made frequent excursions into the countryside—reflected in Cézanne's idyllic Provençal landscapes and portrayals of bathers as well as in some of the most delightful pages of Zola's novels. During these jaunts Zola acquired the love of nature and respect for the forces of life that pervade his writings.

Zola's grandmother Aubert died in the fall of 1857. Once again, the boy, temperamentally somber, nervous, high-strung, terrified even by thunder, had to face the awful reality of death—which would turn, as the years passed, into one of his most obsessive literary themes. Then misfortune struck another blow. The family's increasingly desperate financial situation forced them to move to Paris, where Zola's mother would be in a better position to try to enlist the support of her husband's powerful friends. She managed, with help from one of them, to obtain a scholarship for Émile at the Lycée Saint-Louis.

French Idealism Zola wrote during the intellectual and spiritual crisis brought on by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the rise of modern science. Zola's Paris, like the Roman Empire in the first century, was a boiling cauldron of philosophical and religious ideas. Like thousands of other thoughtful mid-nineteenth-century Frenchmen, the young writer spent hours wrestling with great eternal questions about the nature of reality, the problem of evil, and the meaning of life.

By January 1866 Zola could often be observed meeting with a group of young revolutionary artists, including several of the future impressionists, at the Café Guerbois. Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, and Claude Monet showed up occasionally. The author, then in his late twenties, rightly sensed that the time was ripe at last to write his masterpiece, Les Rougon-Macquart. Throughout 1868 he spent every moment that he could working on his plans for his magnum opus, which, as it turned out, would largely take up the next twenty-five years of his career. Consisting of twenty novels (instead of the ten he had originally foreseen), the series studies human nature through the Rougons, a wealthy family, and their illegitimate, less affluent counterparts, the Macquarts. The epic cycle spans from the reign of Napoleon III (in the 1850s) through the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871.

Death and Political Conflicts 1880 was the year of one of Zola's greatest literary triumphs, but also a year of bereavements. His friend Louis Duranty, an older writer who had been one of the leaders of the realist school in the 1850s, died that April. A month later a telegram arrived from Guy de Maupassant announcing Gustave Flaubert's death. In October, Zola's mother died. Zola tried to suppress his sorrows by working, but he was continuously haunted by the specter of death. In October 1882 he had a nervous breakdown. He longed vainly for the comfort of the old religion and mumbled prayers despite his skepticism.

During the final period of Zola's life, he became caught up in “The Dreyfus Affair,” which divided French society into two violently opposed camps. In December 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was convicted by a court-martial of having sold military secrets to Germany and was imprisoned on Devil's Island. At first Zola paid scant attention to the affair, but finally, convinced by his conversations with Dreyfus's defenders that the man was innocent, he decided to intervene. Persuaded that a direct challenge to the government and military authorities was necessary to keep Dreyfus's case alive, he published in a Parisian newspaper an instantly world-famous open letter to the president of the republic. A tremendous uproar ensued, and Zola became a spokesperson for legal justice. After creating what historian Barbara Tuchman referred to as “one of the great commotions of history,” Zola was arrested for libel.

In a celebrated trial conducted by a biased judge, Zola was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison and a fine of three thousand francs. He promptly appealed. A second trial took place but he fled to England without waiting for the result. The verdict this time would have been without appeal. He remained in England, writing Fecondite, until 1899, when, having heard that there was to be a review of the first Dreyfus trial, he returned to Paris.

On September 28, 1902, Zola and his wife Alexandrine took up their autumn and winter quarters on the Rue de Bruxelles. It was chilly, so a fire was lit in their bedroom. It burned badly, and the room filled with carbon monoxide while they slept. The next morning one of the servants, after knocking repeatedly on their bedroom door, became frightened, broke it down, and found Alexandrine lying unconscious and Zola dead. The public mourned the death of Zola at an enormous public funeral held on October 5, 1902. On June 4, 1908, Zola's coffin was removed from its tomb in the Montmartre Cemetery and transported to the Paris Pantheon, the resting place of some of France's greatest heroes. After a second funeral, his remains were placed close to the sarcophagi of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They are still there today, sharing a small vault with the remains of Victor Hugo.

Works in Literary Context

Impressionism Zola spent much of his childhood in the countryside and was friends with many impressionist painters. His third novel of the Les Rougon-Macquart series, The Markets of Paris, is set in the picturesque central food market of Paris, and is the object of powerful descriptions that recall impressionist paintings. Zola intended the market to stand for the belly—the belly of Paris, the belly of humanity, and, by extension, the belly of the empire. Though the novel was often distasteful to middle-class readers—for the middle class is reviled for their imperial allegiance throughout the novel—critics of the time praised the work highly. This fusion of impressionist aesthetics with liberal politics would become Zola's stylistic trademark.

Pieces into Wholes The overall structure of Zola's fiction largely resulted from the interplay of opposing forces. In terms of aesthetic ideas, Zola championed unity, clarity, and simplicity. However, he also wanted to burst through the bounds of the novel, and transform traditional literary genres: the realistic novel, tragedy, comedy, farce, melodrama, epic, idyll, biography, history, scientific dissertation, and other forms. He aspired to be both realistic and visionary at the same time. He wanted his novels to reflect his centerless, chaotic vision of reality—hence his tendency to group his novels together into series rather than independent works. He built frames within frames, complex structures in which everything—a character, a setting, an action—represents the larger whole of which it is a part: the working class, the priesthood, capital, humanity, or life itself.

Works in Critical Context

During much of the early twentieth century, Zola was relegated to a kind of critical limbo. The public at large continued to read his works, but literary critics who had positive things to say about his writings were few and far between. On July 17, 1932, André Gide noted in his journal that he considered the discredit of Zola at that time as a monstrous injustice that said little for the literary critics of the day. Since the 1950s, however, Zola has been the object of a new critical reevaluation. Between 1952 and 1980 alone, more than twenty-six hundred new books and articles about him were published. His works lend themselves extraordinarily well to most of the new critical approaches that have flourished since the middle of the twentieth century. The old myths and prejudices that blinded many earlier critics have been largely dispelled.

L'Assommoir L'Assommoir, Zola's first great international success, has lost none of its influence more than a century after it was written. In its own day it was also one of the most controversial of Zola's works. Its impact is due in part to its sociological subject: working-class reality. The French bourgeoisie eyed the novel with a mixture of curiosity, contempt, guilt, and fear. Hugo and other Romantics had written novels about the suffering of the poor of their day, but their depictions had been sentimental and, by realistic standards, quite false. Zola, who knew the Parisian working class as well as any other author of his time, made no attempt to idealize it. On the contrary, he was the first major French author to portray it comprehensively. Henry James, in his Notes on Novelists, with Some Other Notes, writes, “L'Assommoir is the nature of man—but not his finer, nobler, cleaner or more cultivated nature; it is the image of his free instincts, the better and the worse…. The whole handling makes for emphasis and scale, and it is not to be measured how, as a picture of conditions, the thing would have suffered fromtimidity.” James also asserts about Zola's personal vision, “Of this genius L'Assommoir is the most extraordinary record.”

The Earth By the time Zola's novel The Earth appeared in 1887, a negative reaction to naturalism, which had begun several years earlier, was rapidly gaining strength in the younger generation. Even some writers, including Maupassant and Huysmans, who had fought alongside Zola in his campaign to promote Naturalism, were now heading in new directions. Zola's own fame, however, continued to grow, and it was clear that he had lost none of his creative power. The Earth sold thousands of copies when it first appeared, and it has remained one of Zola's most popular and highly regarded novels. While some critics immediately sensed the work's greatness, many others were rudely shocked. All aspects of life, no matter how revolting or horrible, are recounted in Homeric detail. The widely respected novelist Anatole France accused Zola of trying to exploit a perverted popular taste for obscenity in fiction. A group of five younger writers, Paul Bonnetain, J.-H. Rosny, Lucien Descaves, Paul Margueritte, and Gustave Guiches, took advantage of the occasion to fire off a long, indignant, and highly scurrilous attack directed not only at the novel but also at Zola. Accusing him of moral depravity, they violently and publicly rejected him as their literary master.


Zola's famous contemporaries include:

Victor Hugo (1802–1885): A French writer known for his compassion for characters of all social classes. Like Zola, he is also remembered for the epic scope of novels such as Les Misérables.

Gustave Flaubert (1820–1880): French novelist famous for Madame Bovary and for his obsessive struggles with wording.

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906): French post-impressionist painter and childhood friend of Zola.

Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935): The French Jewish military officer at the center of the famous court case that divided French society in the 1890s. After the exposure of widespread political scandal, Dreyfus was acquitted from charges of treason and went on to serve as a lieutenant colonel in World War I.

Responses to Literature

  1. Zola is perhaps best known for his treatment of the working class within his novels. What do you think Zola achieved by using naturalism to describe the conditions of the poor? Can you compare his methods to those of other authors that write about similar subjects, such as Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens?
  2. Why do you think Zola made his famous series twenty novels long? How does the concept of time function in this series?
  3. Research Zola's interest in the Dreyfus affair, and read the open letter that was published under the headline “J'accuse!” Why do you think Zola championed Dreyfus with as much zeal as he did?
  4. Explain this quote from Henrik Ibsen, the playwright, with a specific reference from one of Zola's works: “Zola descends into the sewer to bathe in it, I to cleanse it.”
  5. How is naturalism different from realism? Explain this using examples from both Zola's work and the works of other authors of the time period.


As a result of growing up in the French countryside and surrounding himself with impressionist painters, Zola's work is rich both in descriptions of rural life and landscapes. Here are some other works that depict seemingly idyllic European countrysides and the people who populate them:

Madame Bovary (1857), a novel by Gustave Flaubert. In this novel Charles Bovary, a simple man from a small town, is threatened by the sensuality and greed of his wife, Emma.

My Life as a Dog (1985), a film by Lasse Halström. In this film, a young boy is sent to live with relatives in rural Sweden, where he develops canine behaviors.

Manon of the Springs (1986), a film by Claude Berri. The Provençal countryside is the backdrop for this seemingly simple story about a village that suffers from a life-threatening water shortage.



Alexis, Paul. Émile Zola: Notes d'un ami. Paris: Charpentier, 1882.

Baguley, David. Naturalist Fiction: The Entropic Vision. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

“Émile Zola (1840–1902).” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Edited by Dedria Bryfonski and Phyllis Carmel Mendolson. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1978, pp. 585–98.

Hemmings, F. W. J. Émile Zola. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.

Hilton, Guieu, and Alison Hilton, eds. Émile Zola and the Arts. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1988.

Knapp, Bettina. Émile Zola. New York: Ungar, 1980.

Nelson, Brian. Émile Zola: A Selective Analytical Bibliography. London: Grant & Cutler, 1982.

Niess, Robert J. Zola, Cézanne, and Manet: A Study of “L'Ouvre”. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968.

Richardson, Joanna. Zola. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978.

Wilson, Angus. Émile Zola: An Introductory Study of His Novels. London: Secker & Warburg, 1964.

Xau, Fernand. Émile Zola. Paris: Marpon et Flammarion, 1880.


Yale French Studies, no. 42 (1969).

Zola, Émile

views updated May 29 2018


ZOLA, ÉMILE (1840–1902), French novelist who founded the naturalism movement in literature.

The second half of the nineteenth century in France was less prolific of great creative artists who made their presence felt in the realm of politics. A notable exception was Émile Zola.

Born in Paris on 2 April 1840, Zola grew up in Aix-en-Provence where his father, an expatriate Italian engineer, had been engaged to build the dam and canal that now bear his name. Zola's father died in 1847, shortly before construction began, leaving his family in straitened circumstances. Swindled of shares in the canal company, his widow, Emilie, initiated a lawsuit that lasted for years and haunted her son's childhood and adolescence. Zola attended the Collège Bourbon on a scholarship. His classmates there included Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), with whom he formed a close friendship.

After Emilie Zola's case was done inching through provincial courts, she followed it to a higher tribunal in Paris. The year was 1857. Zola completed secondary school up north, at the lycée Saint-Louis, in a troubled state of mind. Wanting a literary career but burdened with expectations that he would imitate his father, he failed the baccalaureate examination. This calamity, which coincided with the final, disappointing adjudication of Emilie's suit, proved to be a blessing in disguise, for in 1862 Zola found employment at the publishing house of Hachette and by 1866 had become its publicity director.

Zola's four years at Hachette shaped his future. He came under the influence of a house author, the philosopher Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine (1828–1893), whose seminal work, Histoire de la littérature française (1862–1863), propagated the idea that cultural traits, works of art, and even metaphysical pieties, far from being independent of nature, belong to the material world and warrant material analysis. Epitomized in a celebrated formula—race, milieu, moment (race, environment, historical moment)—this view of human affairs would imbue Zola's fiction when, during the 1860s, he began to write novels. His animus against literary conventions extended to the realm of fine art, where the École des Beaux-Arts held sway, exercising its academic custodianship through the annual state exhibition, the Salon. In 1865, Zola, guided by Cézanne, took up the cudgels for avant-garde painting in a long article on Edouard Manet (1832–1883), later published under separate cover.

Distinctly unconventional was Zola's first important work of fiction, Thérèse Raquin (1867), which reflected his preoccupation with the theories of heredity that abounded in midcentury France. Ten years after the imperial regime had prosecuted Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) for his "assault on public morals" in Madame Bovary (and lost), it thought better of bringing similar charges against Zola, but Thérèse Raquin nonetheless enjoyed a succès de scandale, with one critic citing it as a prime example of crude realism, or what he dubbed la littérature putride.

One year later, Zola drafted the outline of a saga that was eventually to fill twenty volumes and bear the comprehensive title Les Rougon-Macquart: Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le second Empire. Work on it began in great earnest after the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871).

Zola's purposes in Les Rougon-Macquart were to trace the ramification of a single family through the whole of French society between 1851 and 1870, to describe the various milieux its members inhabit, and to show heredity manifesting itself in the ghosts that pursue them. While earning his livelihood in journalism, he found time to compile for each novel a file or dossier préparatoire often bulkier than the novel itself. His motto, nulla dies sine linea, served him well. "No day without a line" resulted in few years without a novel. Journalism supported him until 1876, when the seventh installment of his saga, L'Assommoir—a story that unfolds in a Paris slum—achieved commercial success. Zola's powerful portrayal of the dissoluteness to which poverty lends itself went hand in hand with his exploitation of working-class argot. Thenceforth, every work he produced was a bestseller.

Fame attracted followers. Since 1872 Zola had been a reverent confrere of Flaubert, at whose flat he joined Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883), Alphonse Daudet (1840–1897), and Edmond de Goncourt (1822–1896) every Sunday afternoon during the winter season. Now he became a maître à penser in his own right, marshalling his entourage, which included Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893) and Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907), under the banner of naturalism. Well-schooled in publicity, he favored slogans that linked his aesthetics to scientific thought of the day. Claude Bernard's An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865) is evoked throughout his critical work, where "naturalism," "physiology," and "experimental" recur with the obsessiveness of a mantra. This jargon did not please all his protégés—least of all Maupassant, who chafed at wearing labels. More importantly, it slighted the imaginative brilliance of his own work. During the last few decades of the twentieth century literary scholars, hostage no longer to Zola's polemical gloss, elucidated the art of his fiction and the mythic structures that demonstrate his affinity to the Romantic generation of French writers.

Zola's politics were no less complex than his artistic personality. He gave an excellent account of himself as a parliamentary reporter after the Franco-Prussian War, but came to hate political debate for distracting the public from literary conversation. He wrote stories that exposed the misery of the working class but excoriated the Communards of 1871. Zola the literary baron who fancied himself a captain of industry in his own domain (and a worthy heir of François Zola, who would have acquired great wealth had he lived long enough) idealized Fourierist utopianism in a late novel, Le Travail. Attacked by the Right as a saboteur of venerable institutions and by the Left for describing rather too vividly the moral degradation of slum dwellers, he contributed to liberal papers and conservative alike.

Of his devotion to the Republic there was never any doubt, however. When, in 1896, two years after the trial of Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935) and his transportation to Devil's Island, a journalist named Bernard Lazare (1865–1903) asked Zola to join the small party of Dreyfusards in their campaign to exculpate the captain, he agreed with the alacrity of a man eager as much to avenge the unjust verdict of his mother's trial as to unmask the military establishment. The Dreyfus affair truly became an Affair when L'Aurore

published Zola's celebrated indictment, "J'accuse," on the front page of its 13 January 1898 issue. Only then did the cause gain adherents all over France, indeed, throughout Europe. Vilified by the anti-Republican, anti-Semitic opposition, Zola fled to England rather than risk imprisonment for slander and lived in hiding outside London until June 1899, when evidence supporting his allegations came to light. The Dreyfus affair inspired La Vérité, the fourth novel of his unfinished tetralogy, Les Quatres Évangiles.

Zola died in 1902 of asphyxiation from a defective flue. Suspicions linger to the present day that he was the victim of an anti-Dreyfusard conspiracy. Six years after his death, his remains were reinterred in the Pantheon, alongside those of Victor Hugo (1802–1885).

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Cézanne, Paul; Dreyfus Affair; Flaubert, Gustave; Goncourt, Edmond and Jules de; Huysmans, Joris-Karl; Paris; Paris Commune; Realism and Naturalism; Republicanism.


Primary Sources

Zola, Émile. Oeuvres complètes. 15 vol. Paris, 1966–1969. The two principal editions of the Rougon-Macquart are in the Bibliothèque Pléiade (5 vols., edited by Henri Mitterand; Paris, 1960) and in the Bouquins series (3 vols., edited by Colette Becker; Paris, 1991).

——. Correspondance de Émile Zola. 12 vols. Edited by B. H. Bakker. Montreal, 1978–1995. Compiled by a team of French and Canadian scholars.

Secondary Sources

Becker, Colette. Les Apprentissages de Zola. Paris, 1993.

Becker, Colette, Gina Gourdin-Servenière, and Véronique Lavielle. Dictionnaire d'Émile Zola. Paris, 1993. A useful reference work.

Borie, Jean. Zola et les mythes; ou, De la nausée au salut. Paris, 1971.

Bredin, Jean-Denis. The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus. New York, 1986. Offers a wide perspective on the Dreyfus affair.

Brown, Frederick. Zola: A Life. New York, 1995.

Hemmings, F. W. J. Emile Zola. Oxford, U.K., 1953.

Levin, Harry. The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists. Oxford, U.K., 1966.

Mitterand, Henri. Zola. L'Histoire et la fiction. Paris, 1990.

——. Zola. Paris, 1999–2002.

Pagès, Alain. Emile Zola, un intellectuel dans l'Affaire Dreyfus. Paris, 1991. The most thorough account of Zola's role in the Dreyfus affair.

Serres, Michel. Feux et signaux de brume, Zola. Paris, 1975.

Frederick Brown

Émile Zola

views updated May 21 2018

Émile Zola

Émile Zola (1840-1902) was the foremost proponent of the doctrine of naturalism in literature. He illustrated this doctrine chiefly in a series of 20 novels published between 1871 and 1893 under the general title "Les Rougon-Macquart."

Shortly after his birth in Paris on April 2, 1840, Émile Zola was taken to the south of France by his father, a gifted engineer of Venetian extraction, who had formed a company to supply Aix-en-Provence with a source of fresh water. He died before the project had been completed, leaving his widow to struggle with an increasinglyThe French novelist E difficult financial situation. Despite this, Émile's boyhood and schooling at Aix were, on the whole, a happy period of his life. He retained a lasting affection for the sunbaked countryside of this part of France. One of his closest friends at school and his companion on many a summer's ramble was Paul Cézanne, the future painter.

Early Years in Paris

In 1858 Zola and his mother moved to Paris, where he completed his rather sketchy education. He never succeeded in passing his baccalauréat examinations. For a few years after leaving school, he led a life of poverty verging on destitution. Finally, in 1862, he was given a job in the publishing firm of Hachette, which he kept for 4 years. Here he learned much about the business and promotional sides of publishing and met several distinguished writers, among them the philosopher and literary historian Hippolyte Taine, whose ideas strongly influenced the development of Zola's thought. It was one of Taine's sayings ("Vice and virtue are chemical products like vitriol and sugar") that Zola took as the epigraph of his early novel Thére‧se Raquin (1867). The formula was well suited to the uncompromising materialism that imbues this macabre story of adultery, murder, and suicide.

"Les Rougon-Macquart"

About 1868-1869, when Zola was working as a free-lance journalist, he conceived the idea of writing a series of interlinked novels tracing the lives of various members of a single family whose fortunes were to counterpoint the rise and fall of the Second Empire (1852-1870). He proposed in particular to demonstrate how the forces of heredity might influence the character and development of each individual descendant of a common ancestress. The scheme enabled him to apportion to each novel the analysis of a particular section of society, ranging from the upper stratum of high finance and ministerial authority down to the suffering masses starving in the slums or toiling in the mines. Les Rougon-Macquart was originally planned in ten volumes; but the design was so obviously promising that Zola eventually extended it to twice that number. The volumes were designed as social documents rather than as pure works of fiction, but his powerfully emotive imagination and primitive symbolism conferred on the best of them, nonetheless, many of the qualities of expressionistic prose poetry.

The first six volumes were largely ignored by the critics, although they included some powerful pieces of social satire. For example, La Curée (1872) dealt with real estate speculation; Le Ventre de Paris (1873) attacked the pusillanimous conservatism of the small-shopkeeper class; and Son Excellence Euge‧ne Rougon (1876) was an exposure of political jobbery. Only with the seventh, L'Assommoir (1877), did Zola finally produce a best seller that made him one of the most talked of writers in France and one of the most bitterly assailed. The plot of this novel is almost nonexistent. He contented himself with tracing the life story of a simpleminded, good-hearted laundress who lived in a working-class district in the north of Paris. By dint of hard work she achieves at first a modest prosperity, until her husband's increasing fecklessness and addiction to drink drag her down to utter destitution. For the title of his novel Zola used a contemporary slang word for a liquor store. The problem of alcoholism among the poor looms large in the book, as do the related problems of overcrowded housing conditions, prostitution, and the risk of starvation during the periods of prolonged unemployment. Though in no sense a work of propaganda, L'Assommoir succeeded in drawing attention to the wretched conditions in which the urban proletariat had been living throughout the 19th century.

Succeeding volumes of the Rougon-Macquartcycle included many others that were universally read, even though savagely condemned by conservative critics. Nana (1880) dealt with the lives of the demi-mondaines and their wealthy, dissipated clients. The heroine's career was modeled on the careers of a number of successful courtesans of the heyday of the Second Empire. Germinal (1885), doubtless Zola's masterpiece, narrated the preliminaries, outbreak, and aftermath of a coal miners' strike in northeast France; it was the first novel in which the possibility of a social revolution launched by the proletariat against the middle classes was seriously mooted. In his descriptions of the dangerous daily labor in the pits and of the rioting of the exasperated strikers, Zola achieved effects of agony and terror of a kind never before realized in literature. La Terre (1887) represents his attempt to do for the farm laborer what he had done for the miner in Germinal. The picture of rural life he offered was anything but idyllic, rape and murder being shown as the inevitable concomitants of the narrowness of the peasant's horizons and his atavistic land hunger. Finally, La Débâcle (1892) gave an epic dignity to the story of France's calamitous defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1870.

Naturalism in Theory and Practice

The immense sales of his works enabled Zola, by 1878, to purchase a property outside Paris, at Médan, a hamlet where he lived quietly for most of the year, occasionally entertaining the younger writers who made up the vanguard of the short-lived naturalist school. Five of them collaborated with him in the production of a volume of short stories issued in 1880 under the title Soirées de Médan. Of these five, the two most talented, Guy de Maupassant and Joris Karl Huysmans, forswore their allegiance shortly afterward. Zola did, however, have important disciples outside France: Giovanni Verga in Italy, Eça de Queiros in Portugal, George Moore in England, and Frank Norris and Stephen Crane in the United States.

Zola set out his fundamental theoretical beliefs in Le Roman expérimental (1880), but even he adhered very loosely to them in practice. Naturalism embraced many of the tenets of the older realist movement, such as an interest in average types rather than above-average individuals, the cultivation of a pessimistic and disillusioned outlook, a studious avoidance of surprising incident, and a strict obedience to consequential logic in plot development. The special innovation of naturalism lay in its attempt to fuse science with literature. This meant, in practice, that human behavior had to be interpreted along strictly materialistic or physiological lines ("the soul being absent," as Zola put it) and that the individual was to be shown as totally at the mercy of twin external forces, heredity and environment. The emphasis placed on environment accounts for the immense pains that Zola took to document the setting he proposed to use in any particular novel.

Last Years

Zola's private life was not free of strains. He married in 1870, but this union was childless. Then, in 1888, he set up a second home with a young seamstress, who bore him two children. This unexpected blossoming of domestic happiness probably accounts for the sunnier tone of the books he wrote after the completion of Les Rougon-Macquart. They included a trilogy—Lourdes, Rome, and Paris (1894-1898)—dealing with the conflict between science and religion, and a tetralogy of utopian novels, Les Quatre Évangiles, of which only the first three were completed.

Zola's dramatic intervention on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus carried his name even further than had his literary work. Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, had been wrongfully condemned for espionage in 1894, and with much courage and recklessness of consequences Zola challenged the findings of the court-martial in an open letter to the President of the Republic (J'accuse, Jan. 13, 1898). Since his statement charged certain highranking army officers with falsification of evidence, Zola was put on trial. He lost his case, spent a year in hiding in England, and returned to France on June 5, 1899. His sudden death in Paris on Sept. 29, 1902, from carbon monoxide poisoning may not have been accidental as the inquest found. There is reason to believe that he was the victim of an assassination plot engineered by a few of the more fanatical of his political enemies.

Further Reading

The most detailed and authoritative study of Zola's life and work is F. W. J. Hemmings, Émile Zola (1953; 2d rev. ed. 1966). Other good general studies are Angus Wilson, Émile Zola: An Introductory Study of His Novels (1952), and Elliott M. Grant, Émile Zola (1966). John C. Lapp, Zola before the "Rougon-Macquart" (1964), is a highly suggestive study of Zola's early writings. An excellent brief account of the different aspects of Zola's literary method, with illustrative extracts, is Philip D. Walker, Émile Zola (1968). □

Zola, Émile Edouard Charles Antoine

views updated May 23 2018

Zola, Émile Edouard Charles Antoine (1840–1902) French novelist. Zola became widely known following the publication of his third book, the novel Thérèse Raquin (1867). For the next quarter of a century, he worked on what became the Rougon-Macquart sequence (1871–93) – a 20-novel cycle telling the story of a family during the Second Empire; it established Zola's reputation as the foremost exponent of naturalism in fiction. The sequence includes his famous novels The Drunkard (1877), Nana (1880), Germinal (1885), and The Human Animal (1890). In 1898, he wrote a famous letter, beginning “J'Accuse”, which denounced the punishment of Alfred Dreyfus. This led to a brief exile in England and, after the vindication of Dreyfus, a hero's return. See also Dreyfus Affair