Tuesday, July 17, 2012

[Non-English Victorian Author] Émile Zola

If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.” ~ Émile Zola

Still in the event of A Victorian Celebration, I have a plan to explore two non-English Victorian authors of my favourites. This particular post would be about one of them: Émile-Édouard-Charles-Antoine Zola, who is famously called Émile Zola. Born in Paris on April 2, 1840 from an Italian engineer, Zola is mostly recognized for his naturalism theory and his political move in the Dreyfus affair—a case of a falsely-accused man, besides his novels.


Naturalism is an extension of realism movement in literature. “In literature it extended the tradition of realism, aiming at an even more faithful, unselective representation of reality, a veritable “slice of life,” presented without moral judgment. Naturalism differed from realism in its assumption of scientific determinism, which led naturalistic authors to emphasize man’s accidental, physiological nature rather than his moral or rational qualities.” [Encyclopedia Britannica]. It is believed that Émile Zola was the first author to introduce the use of the term ‘naturalism’.

Life and early career

His father died when Zola was four years old, and left the family with a small pension. Actually his mother had wanted Zola to take a law career, but he failed in his examination. Since childhood Zola made friend with Paul Cézanne, a famous artist and a Post-Impressionist painter, who painted Zola together with his writer friend, Paul Alexis on 1869-1870. However, the friendship broke up after Zola fictionalized Cézanne and his Bohemian painter friends’ life in his novel: The Masterpiece (L'Œuvre).

Paul Cézanne, Paul Alexis reading to Emile Zola 

Before starting his writing career seriously, Zola worked as a clerk in shipping firm, then in a publishing company named Hachette. There he made many interesting contacts and learned the new rules of the literary market. He also became a politic journalist for the same publisher, where he never hid his dislike against Napoleon III. When his second novel—an autobiographical one—La Confession de Claude was being published on 1865 and got police attention, he was fired from the publishing company.

His writing

Therese Raquin could be assumed as Zola’s first major novel (his very first book was Contes à Ninon, published in 1864). And after that, in the age of 28, Zola began his plan for a series contained of 20 novels called Les Rougon Macquart, about two branches of a family under the Second Empire: the respectable (legitimate) one—Rougon and the illegitimate one—Macquart, which Zola described as:

"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."

Zola has thought from the start the big layout of the stories theme. Being a Naturalist, and in order to make them cover only Truth, Zola had developed a systematic method to create the whole plan. First he collected news articles, investigation notes, and studies by informers, notes on settings or on language, and completed his historical, sociological, or lexical information. The preliminary files also contained plan, list of characters and their individual files. From those preliminary files, Zola then wrote the rough draft of each novel.

If you have read Therese Raquin and L’Assommoir, you would have noticed how thoroughly Zola described the scenes in both novels. It appeared that Zola had seen the particular passage du Pont Neuf (from Therese Raquin) and rue de la Goutte-d’Or (from L’Assommoir) from the eyes of his painter friend, then recreated them in his writings.

Illustration of the passage du Pont Neuf, 
appeared in the opening of chapter 1 of Therese Raquin 

Illustration of rue de la Goutte-d’Or, 
appeared in chapter XII of l’Assommoir

J’Accuse and The Dreyfus Affair

One of his famous attempts in politics—which brought a high risk for his career and life—was his open letter to President Félix Faure which was published on the front page of Paris daily newspaper L’Aurore, on 13 January 1898. J’Accuse..! was the title, in which Zola accused the highest level of French army has been conducting injustice and anti-semitism against Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer in French army. French intelligent had found out that someone had given their military secrets to German embassy, and Dreyfus was put under suspicion and convicted to life-imprisonment although there had not been any direct evidence against him. Zola's intention was that he be prosecuted for libel so that the new evidence in support of Dreyfus would be made public. The Dreyfus Affair became a huge issue at that time, dividing the nation into two sides—reactionary army and church on one side and the more liberal commercial society on the other side.

On 7 February 1898 Zola was brought to trial for criminal libel, as the reaction of his J’Accuse. He was convicted, but rather than going to jail, Zola fled to England, and only returned to Paris eight months later after charge against him was dismissed.

His Death

On the 29th of September 1902 Zola was found dead at his home in Paris because of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a stopped chimney. It was assumed that his politics enemies were behind the poisoning, although there was no clear evidence against it. However, decades later, a Parisian roofer made a claim during his last minutes of life, to have closed the chimney of Zola’s house for political reasons. Is that true? Sadly—we will never know…

Zola was initially buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris but on 4 June 1908, almost six years after his death, his remains were moved to the Panthéon, where he shares a crypt with Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.

His Legacies

The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” ~Émile Zola

Every great man must have had people who criticized them. Unlike Charles Dickens, Zola has been criticized to be lack of the power of creating life-like and memorable characters, and to make his characters true to life. Zola himself insisted that he refused to make any of his characters ‘larger than life’, that it was either scientifically or artistically justifiable to create larger-than-life characters. This is what—I think—differ Zola from the most Victorian authors—especially Dickens.

I am little concerned with beauty or perfection. I don't care for the great centuries. All I care about is life, struggle, intensity.” ~Émile Zola


Les Rougon-Macquart Series
The Fortune of the Rougons - book 1
La Curée - book 2
The Belly of Paris - book 3
La Concuête de Plassans - book 4
La Foute de l'Abbé Mouret - book 5
Son Excellence Eugène Rougon - book 6
L'Assommoir - book 7
Une Page d'Amour - book 8
Nana - book 9
Pot-Bouille (Restless House) - book 10
The Ladies' Paradise - book 11
The Joy of Life - book 12
Germinal - book 13
The Masterpiece - book 14
The Earth - book 15
The Dream - book 16
La Bête Humaine - book 17
L'Argent - book 18
La Débâcle - book 19
Le Docteur Pascal - book 20

Three Cities Trilogy

Les Quatre Evangiles Tetralogy
Fécondité (Fruitfullness)
Travail (Work)
Vérité (Truth)
Justice (Justice -- not end)

Other Novels
Thérèse Raquin
The Dreyfus' Affair: "J'Accuse" and Other Writings
Madeleine Férat
The Mysteries of Marseilles
Contes à Ninon
La Confession de Claude

Short Stories
The Attack on the Mill and Other Stories
For A Night of Love
La Mort d'Olivier Becaille

The Flood



  1. This is such a great post. I appreciate all of the research that went into it. I was not familiar with Émile Zola. He sounds like an outspoken risk taker.

    1. Actually, he's more than that, he wrote honestly (being a Naturalist), and that what makes me like him.


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