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Emile Zola is one of the most important nineteenth-century French novelists, along with Stendhal, Victor Hugo, Honore 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
Emile-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 (Emile 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 (Emile 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 Cezanne (the future painter), and another schoolmate, Baptistin Baille, made frequent excursions into the countryside— reflected in Cezanne’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 Emile at the Lycee 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 Cafe Guerbois. Cezanne, 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
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, Andre 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, 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 from timidity.” James also asserts about Zola’s personal vision, ”Of this genius L’AAsommoir is the most extraordinary record.”
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.
- Alexis, Paul. Emile Zola: Notes d’un ami. Paris:Charpentier, 1882.
- Baguley, David. Naturalist Fiction: The Entropic Vision.Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press,1990.
- “Emile 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. Emile Zola. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.
- Hilton, Guieu, and Alison Hilton, eds. Emile Zola and the Arts. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1988.
- Knapp, Bettina. Emile Zola. New York: Ungar, 1980. Nelson, Brian. Emile Zola: A Selective Analytical References:. London: Grant & Cutler, 1982.
- Niess, Robert J. Zola, Cezanne, and Manet: A Study of “E’Ouvre”. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968.
- Richardson, Joanna. Zola. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978.
- Wilson, Angus. ‘Emile Zola: An Introductory Study of His Novels. London: Secker & Warburg, 1964.
- Xau, Fernand. Emile Zola. Paris: Marpon et Flammarion, 1880.
- Yale French Studies, no. 42 (1969).
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