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Émile Zola

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Title: Émile Zola  
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Subject: Dreyfus affair, List of years in literature, Nana (1985 film), Nana (1944 film), Thirst (2009 film)
Collection: 1840 Births, 1902 Deaths, 19Th-Century Dramatists and Playwrights, 19Th-Century French Novelists, 20Th-Century French Novelists, Accidental Deaths in France, Burials at Montmartre Cemetery, Burials at the Panthéon, Paris, Deaths from Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, French Dramatists and Playwrights, French Journalists, French Male Dramatists and Playwrights, French Male Novelists, French People of Italian Descent, French Writers, Lycée Saint-Louis Alumni, People Associated with the Dreyfus Affair, People from Provence-Alpes-Côte D'Azur, People of Venetian Descent, Writers from Paris
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Émile Zola

Émile Zola
Born Émile Édouard Charles Antoine Zola
(1840-04-02)2 April 1840
Paris, France
Died 29 September 1902(1902-09-29) (aged 62)
Paris, France
Occupation Novelist, playwright, journalist
Nationality French
Genre Naturalism
Notable works Les Rougon-Macquart, Thérèse Raquin, Germinal


Émile Édouard Charles Antoine Zola[1] (French: ; 2 April 1840 – 29 September 1902)[2] was a French writer, the most well-known practitioner of the literary school of naturalism and an important contributor to the development of theatrical naturalism. He was a major figure in the political liberalization of France and in the exoneration of the falsely accused and convicted army officer Alfred Dreyfus, which is encapsulated in the renowned newspaper headline J'accuse. Zola was nominated for the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 and 1902.[3][4]


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
    • Literary output 2.1
  • Dreyfus affair 3
  • Death 4
  • Scope of the Rougon-Macquart series 5
  • Quasi-scientific purpose 6
  • Characterization 7
  • Zola's optimism 8
  • Bibliography 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • Further reading 12
  • External links 13

Early life

Zola was born in Paris in 1840. His father, François Zola (originally Francesco Zolla), was an Italian engineer. With his French wife, Émilie Aubert, the family moved to Aix-en-Provence in the southeast, when Émile was three years old. Four years later in 1847, his father died leaving his mother on a meagre pension. In 1858 the Zolas moved to Paris, where Émile's childhood friend Paul Cézanne soon joined him. Zola started to write in the romantic style. His widowed mother had planned a law career for Émile but he failed his Baccalauréat examination.

Before his breakthrough as a writer, Zola worked as a clerk in a shipping firm and then in the sales department for a publisher (Hachette). He also wrote literary and art reviews for newspapers. As a political journalist, Zola did not hide his dislike of Napoleon III, who had successfully run for the office of President under the constitution of the French Second Republic, only to misuse this position as a springboard for the coup d'état that made him emperor.


Zola early in his career.

During his early years, Émile Zola wrote several short stories and essays, four plays and three novels. Among his early books was Contes à Ninon, published in 1864. With the publication of his sordid autobiographical novel La Confession de Claude (1865) attracting police attention, Hachette fired him. His novel Les Mystères de Marseille appeared as a serial in 1867.

After his first major novel, Thérèse Raquin (1867), Zola started the series called Les Rougon Macquart, about a family under the Second Empire.

In Paris Zola maintained his friendship with Cézanne who painted a portrait of him with another friend from Aix-en-Provence, writer Paul Alexis, entitled Paul Alexis reading to Zola.

Literary output

Paul Cézanne, Paul Alexis reading to Émile Zola, 1869–1870, São Paulo Museum of Art

More than half of Zola's novels were part of this set of 20 collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart. Unlike Balzac who in the midst of his literary career resynthesized his work into La Comédie Humaine, Zola from the start at the age of 28 had thought of the complete layout of the series. Set in France's Second Empire, the series traces the "environmental" influences of violence, alcohol and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. The series examines two branches of a family: the respectable (that is, legitimate) Rougons and the disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts for five generations.

As he described his plans for the series, "I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world."

Although Zola and Cézanne were friends from childhood, they broke in later life over Zola's fictionalized depiction of Cézanne and the Bohemian life of painters in his novel L'Œuvre (The Masterpiece, 1886).

From 1877 with the publication of Guy de Maupassant, Joris-Karl Huysmans and other writers at his luxurious villa (worth 300,000 francs[5]) in Medan near Paris after 1880. Germinal in 1885, then the three 'cities', Lourdes in 1894, Rome in 1896 and Paris in 1897, established Zola as a successful author.

The self-proclaimed leader of French naturalism, Zola's works inspired operas such as those of Gustave Charpentier, notably Louise in the 1890s. His works, inspired by the concepts of heredity (Claude Bernard), social Manicheanism and idealistic socialism, resonate with those of Nadar, Manet and subsequently Flaubert.

Dreyfus affair

Front page cover of the newspaper L'Aurore for Thursday 13 January 1898, with the letter J'Accuse...!, written by Émile Zola about the Dreyfus affair. The headline reads "I accuse...! Letter to the President of the Republic".

Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a French-Jewish artillery officer in the French army. When French intelligence found information about someone giving the German Embassy military secrets, anti-semitism seems to have caused senior officers to suspect Dreyfus, though there was no direct evidence of any wrongdoing. Dreyfus was court-martialled, convicted of treason and sent to Devil's Island in French Guiana.

Lt. Col. J'accuse"[6] was published on the front page of the Paris daily open letter to the President, Félix Faure. Émile Zola's "J'Accuse" accused the highest levels of the French Army of obstruction of justice and antisemitism by having wrongfully convicted Alfred Dreyfus to life imprisonment on Devil's Island. Zola's intention was that he be prosecuted for libel so that the new evidence in support of Dreyfus would be made public.[7] The case, known as the Dreyfus affair, divided France deeply between the reactionary army and Catholic church and the more liberal commercial society. The ramifications continued for many years; on the 100th anniversary of Zola's article, France's Roman Catholic daily paper, La Croix, apologized for its antisemitic editorials during the Dreyfus Affair. As Zola was a leading French thinker and public figure, his letter formed a major turning-point in the affair.

Zola was brought to trial for criminal libel on 7 February 1898 and was convicted on 23 February and removed from the Legion of Honor. Rather than go to jail, Zola fled to England. Without even having had the time to pack a few clothes, he arrived at Victoria Station on 19 July. After his brief and unhappy residence in London, from October 1898 to June 1899, he was allowed to return in time to see the government fall.

The government offered Dreyfus a pardon (rather than exoneration), which he could accept and go free and so admit that he was guilty or face a re-trial in which he was sure to be convicted again. Although he was clearly not guilty, he chose to accept the pardon. Zola said, "The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it."[8] In 1906, Dreyfus was completely exonerated by the Supreme Court.

The 1898 article by Émile Zola is widely marked in France as the most prominent manifestation of the new power of the intellectuals (writers, artists, academicians) in shaping public opinion, the media and the state.


Gravestone of Émile Zola at cimetière Montmartre; his remains are now interred in the Panthéon.

Zola died on 29 September 1902 of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by an improperly ventilated chimney. His funeral on 5 October was attended by thousands, according to The New York Times. Dreyfus initially had promised not to attend the funeral but was given permission by Mme Zola and attended.[9][10]

His enemies were blamed for his death because of previous attempts on his life, but nothing could be proved. (Decades later, a Parisian roofer claimed on his deathbed to have closed the chimney for political reasons).[11] Expressions of sympathy arrived from everywhere in France; for a week the vestibule of his house was crowded with notable writers, scientists, artists, and politicians who came to inscribe their names in the registers. On the other hand, Zola's enemies used the opportunity to celebrate in malicious glee.[12] Writing in L'Intransigeant, Henri Rochefort claimed Zola had committed suicide, having discovered Dreyfus to be guilty.

Zola was initially buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris, but on 4 June 1908, just five years and nine months after his death, his remains were relocated to the Panthéon, where he shares a crypt with Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.[13]

In 1953, an investigation ("Zola a-t-il été assassiné ?") published by the journalist Jean Borel in the newspaper Libération raises the idea that the death of Émile Zola might be a murder rather than an accident.[14] It is based on the revelation of the Norman pharmacist Pierre Hacquin who was told by the chimney sweeper Henri Buronfosse that the latter intentionally blocked the chimney of the apartment of Émile Zola in Paris ("Hacquin, je vais vous dire comment Zola est mort. [...] Zola a été asphyxié volontairement. C'est nous qui avons bouché la cheminée de son appartement.").[14]

Scope of the Rougon-Macquart series

Zola's 20 Rougon-Macquart novels are a panoramic account of the Second French Empire. They are the story of a family principally between the years 1851 and 1871. These 20 novels contain over 300 major characters, who descend from the two family lines of the Rougons and Macquarts and who are related. In Zola's words, which are the subtitle of the Rougon-Macquart series, they are "L'Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire"("The natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire").

Most of the Rougon-Macquart novels were written during the French Third Republic. To an extent, attitudes and value judgments may have been superimposed on that picture with the wisdom of hindsight. The débâcle in which the reign of Napoleon III of France culminated may have imparted a note of decadence to certain of the novels about France in the years before that disastrous defeat. Nowhere is the doom laden image of the Second Empire so clearly seen as in Nana, which culminates in echoes of the Franco-Prussian War (and hence by implication of the French defeat). Even in novels dealing with earlier periods of Napoleon III's reign the picture of the Second Empire is sometimes overlaid with the imagery of catastrophe.

In the Rougon-Macquart novels, provincial life tends to be overshadowed by Zola's preoccupation with the capital. Only in his picture of rural working-class life in La Terre and in the corresponding picture of industrial working-class life in Germinal, does Zola escape from Paris into the provinces. The life of provincial towns is an even more noticeable omission from his achievement, for only in Le Rêve and in the twice repeated picture of Plassans (modeled upon his childhood home, Aix-en-Provence) does he achieve such a portrait (La Fortune des Rougon, La Conquête de Plassans). Le Docteur Pascal has the same setting but cannot properly be termed a novel of provincial life. La Débâcle, the military novel is set for the most part in country districts of eastern France; its dénouement takes place in the capital during the civil war leading to the suppression of the Paris Commune. Like Balzac, Zola's imagination was roused by Paris and all that the capital represented to him.

Quasi-scientific purpose

In Le Roman expérimental and Les Romanciers naturalistes Zola expounded the purposes of the 'Naturalist' novel. The experimental novel was to serve as a vehicle for scientific experiment, analogous to the experiments conducted by Claude Bernard and expounded by him in Introduction à la médecine expérimentale. Claude Bernard's experiments were in the field of clinical physiology, those of the Naturalist writers (Zola being their leader) would be in the realm of psychology. Balzac, Zola claimed had already investigated the psychology of lechery in an experimental manner, in the figure of Hector Hulot in La Cousine Bette. Essential to Zola's concept of the experimental novel was dispassionate observation of the world, with all that it involved by way of meticulous documentation. To him, each novel should be based upon a dossier. With this object in view he visited the colliery of Anzin in northern France, in February 1884 when a strike was on; he visited La Beauce (for La Terre), Sedan, Ardennes (for La Débâcle) and travelled on the railway line between Paris and Le Havre (when researching La Bête humaine). Zola sometimes professed his awareness that the work of any creative artist must by its very nature be subjective.


Édouard Manet, Portrait of Émile Zola, 1868, Musée d'Orsay

For a writer who so strongly asserted the claim of Naturalist literature to be an experimental analysis of human psychology, Zola has seemed to many critics like György Lukács,[15] to be strangely deficient in the power of creating lifelike and memorable characters. These critics admit his ability to evoke powerful and moving crowd scenes but argue that he lacked the ability to create memorable characters, in the manner of Honoré de Balzac or Charles Dickens and the ability to make his characters true to life. It was important to Zola that no character should appear larger than life;[16] but the criticism that Zola’s characters are cardboard, is a substantially more damaging one. Zola, by refusing to make any of his characters larger than life (if that is what he has indeed done), did not inhibit himself from also achieving verisimilitude.

Although Zola would not accept that it was either scientifically or artistically justifiable to create larger-than-life characters, his work does present a number of larger-than-life symbols which, like the mine Le Voreux in Germinal, take on the nature of a surrogate human life. The mine, the still in L'Assommoir and the locomotive La Lison in La Bête humaine impress the reader with the vivid reality of human beings. The great natural processes of seedtime and harvest, death and renewal in La Terre are instinct with a vitality which is not human but is the elemental energy of life.[17] Human life is raised to the level of the mythical as the hammerblows of Titans are seemingly heard underground at Le Voreux or in La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, the walled park of Le Paradou encloses a re-enactment – and restatement – of the Book of Genesis.

Zola's optimism

In Zola there is the theorist and the writer, the poet, the scientist and the optimist – features that are basically joined together in his own confession of positivism; he would later in his life, when he saw his own position turning into an anachronism still style himself with irony and sadness over the lost cause as ″an old and rugged Positivist".[18]

The poet is the artist in words whose writing, as in the racecourse scene in Nana or in the descriptions of the laundry in L'Assommoir or in many passages of La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, Le Ventre de Paris and La Curée, vies with the colourful impressionistic techniques of Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The scientist is the believer in some measure of scientific determinism – not that this, despite his own words "dépourvus de libre arbitre",[19] need always amount to a philosophical denial of free will. The creator of "la littérature putride", a term of abuse invented by an early critic of Thérèse Raquin (a novel which predates Les Rougon-Macquart series), emphasizes the squalid aspects of the human environment and upon the seamy side of human nature.[20]

The optimist is that other face of the scientific experimenter, the man with an unshakable belief in human progress. Zola bases his optimism on innéité and on the supposed capacity of the human race to make progress in a moral sense. Innéité is defined by Zola as that process in which "se confondent les caractères physiques et moraux des parents, sans que rien d'eux semble s'y retrouver";[21] it is the term used in biology to describe the process whereby the moral and temperamental dispositions of some individuals are unaffected by the hereditary transmission of genetic characteristics. Jean Macquart and Pascal Rougon are two instances of individuals liberated from the blemishes of their ancestors by the operation of the process of innéité.

Evident in Le Docteur Pascal, and again in Fécondité (which is not part of the Rougon-Macquart series), is Zola's conviction that as scientific research makes progress step by step and from generation to generation, so by slow degrees but in a similarly steadfast manner the moral progress of the human race will be achieved as the environmental faults of particular societies are swept away, as (through innéité) the hereditary failings of particular families are overcome and as on a universal scale – in novels beyond the framework of the Rougon-Macquart series – humanity unites in brotherhood.


See also


  1. ^ Larousse, Émile Zola
  2. ^ "Emile Zola Biography (Writer)". infoplease. Retrieved 15 July 2011. 
  3. ^ "Nomination Database - Literature - 1901". Retrieved 2014-02-07. 
  4. ^ "Nomination Database - Literature - 1902". Retrieved 2014-02-07. 
  5. ^ "Literary gossip". The Week : a Canadian journal of politics, literature, science and arts 1 (4): 61. 27 December 1883. Retrieved 23 April 2013. 
  6. ^ J'accuse letter at French wikisource
  7. ^ "Correspondence Between Emile Zola and Imprisoned Alfred Dreyfus". Shapell Manuscript Foundation. 
  8. ^ Wikisource, I Accuse....! (English) URL:'accuse...!
  9. ^ "THOUSANDS MARCH AT FUNERAL OF ÉMILE ZOLA: Municipal Guards Line the Route to Preserve Order. DREYFUS ATTENDS AFTER ALL Is Unnoticed by the Crowd – Mme. Zola Gave Him Back His Promise to Stay Away – Very Little Disorder.. " New York Times (1857–1922), 6 Oct 1902, ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times (1851–2007)
  10. ^ , "From the archives The tragic death of M. Zola", 30 September 1902The Guardian
  11. ^ Brown, Frederick page (1995). Zola, A Life. p. 793. 
  12. ^ """Full text of "Emile Zola Novelist And Reformer An Account Of His Life And Work. Retrieved 2014-02-07. 
  13. ^ "Paris Monuments Panthéon-Close up picture of the interior of the crypt of Victor Hugo (left) Alexandre Dumas (middle) Emile Zola (right)". ParisPhotoGallery. Retrieved 30 January 2012. 
  14. ^ a b (French) Angélique Mounier-Kuhn, "L'asphyxie d'Émile Zola", Le Temps, Friday 8 August 2014, pages 8-9.
  15. ^ György Lukács, Studies in European Realism. A Sociological Survey of the Writings of Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Tolstoy, Gorki and Others, London: 1950, pp. 91–95.
  16. ^ Émile Zola, Les Romanciers naturalistes, Paris: 1903, pp. 126–129.
  17. ^ Letter from Émile Zola to Jules Lemaître, 14 March 1885.
  18. ^ See Émile Zola's speech at the annual banquet of the Students' Association at the Hotel Moderne in Paris, 20 May 1893, published in English by the New York Times on 11 June 1893 at
  19. ^ Émile Zola, Les Œuvres complètes, vol. 34, Paris: 1928, Thérèse Raquin, preface to 2nd edition, p. viii.
  20. ^ Émile Zola, Les Œuvres complètes, vol. 34, Paris: 1928, Thérèse Raquin, preface to 2nd edition, p. xiv.
  21. ^ Émile Zola, Les Œuvres complètes, vol. 22, Paris: 1928, Le Docteur Pascal, p. 38.

Further reading

  • Borie, Jean (1971). Zola et les mythes: ou, de la nausée au salut. Pierres vives (in French). Paris:  
  • Brown, Frederick (1995). Zola: A Life. New York City:  
  • Hemmings, F.W.J. (1966). Émile Zola.  
  • Mitterand, Henri (1986). Zola et le naturalisme [Zola and Naturalism]. Que sais-je? (in French). Paris:  
  • Mitterand, Henri (1999). Zola (in French). Paris:  
  • Newton, Joy (1967). "Émile Zola: impressionniste". Cahiers naturalistes (in French) 33. pp. 39–52. 
  • Newton, Joy (1967). Cahiers naturalistes (in French) 34. pp. 124–38. 

External links

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