Emile Zola Biography
ZOLA, Emile (1840–1902). A French naturalistic novelist, born in Paris, April 2, 1840. His father was a Venetian with Greek blood in his veins. Zola studied at the Lycée Saint-Louis, but after twice failing to get his bachelor’s degree, he entered in 1862 the publishing house of Hachette in Paris, and began to write for the newspapers. He had written a number of novels and tales, his first book being the Comtes à Ninon (1864), when in 1869 he undertook to relate in a series of connected volumes what he called the "Physiological History of a Family under the Second Empire." To this family he gave the name of Rougon-Macquart. The first novel of the series, La fortune des Rougon, was not published until 1871, after the fall of the Empire. Other novels of the series, La curée (1870), Le ventre de Paris (1873), La conquête de Plassans (1874), La faute de l'Abbé Mouret (1875), and Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876), succeeded each other until 1876 without arousing much attention. But the seventh novel of the series, L'Assommoir (1878), achieved instantaneous success. It was a powerful picture of life among the working class of Paris and of the evil effects of alcoholism.
Zola’s pictures were realistic beyond anything hitherto known in French literature. The ugly side of life was presented with fullness and a boldness of vocabulary from which French masters of realism had always shrunk. Zola was attacked as well as praised. In defending himself he claimed to have ushered in a new literary school, which he called naturalistic. His novels were described by him and the followers whom he soon gathered about him as documents intended to give to the public a complete picture of French contemporary society. The success of L'Assommoir was repeated in 1880 by Nana, and later by several other novels of the series, notably by Germinal (1885). The whole series consisted of 20 volumes, the last two of which, La débâcle, dealing with the unreadiness of France for the Franco-German War, and Le Docteur Pascal, were published in 1892 and 1893.
This series contains Zola's most remarkable productions. It is very uneven; it must be admitted that some of the volumes, Pot-Bouille (1882), e.g., which claims to be a picture of the life of the middle class, present hardly anything that is not nauseating and at the same time tedious. Others, Germinal, La terre (1887), La bête humaine (1890), L'Argent (1891), La débâcle (1892), are works of power. Not one of these is free from features known as objectionable. Passages which seem to be quite unnecessary to the development of the story would indicate that Zola took pleasure in introducing descriptions no other writer would have dared attempt. While presenting to the public the productions of his creative imagination, Zola considered it his duty to develop his literary theories and to attack those of his opponents; this was done in a number of volumes of literary criticism, the most important of which were Le roman expérimental (1880) and Les romanciers naturalistes (1881), so that it is not very difficult, through a comparison of his theoretical utterances with his practical performances, to see whether Zola achieved exactly what he claimed to do. The enemy against which he directed his sharpest attack is romanticism; the intellectual faculty he seems most to descant against is imagination; and yet any one who analyzes the literary elements of his style, and carefully examines the successive events in the development of his plots, is led to the conclusion that Zola never entirely shook off the influence of the romantic school, and especially of its master, Victor Hugo. He was himself carried away by his creative imagination more often than he kept it under control.
After concluding the series of the Rougon-Macquart, Zola undertook successively two new series: the Three Cities, Lourdes, Rome, Paris, published between 1894 and 1898, and finally the Four Gospels, Fécondité (1899), Travail (1900), Vérité (1902), and Justice. Justice remained unfinished at his death. Zola was ambitious also of winning success on the stage, but this ambition was not fully gratified.
Had Zola died before the year 1898, he would be remembered solely as a literary character. The date which marks the beginning of his career as a public man is that of the letter to President Faure by which he threw himself into the thickest of the fight connected with Alfred Dreyfus (q.v.). Zola was convinced not only that Dreyfus had been unjustly sentenced, but also that the methods employed to secure his conviction and to shield others, whom Zola considered the real criminals, constituted in themselves crimes deserving of the highest punishment. His letter of January 13, known by the title "J'Accuse . . ." (I accuse), words which were repeated a number of times in the body of the letter, denounced these acts and called for their speedy and exemplary punishment. He at the same time dared the French government to prosecute him. Prosecution was begun, however, and his trial by jury in Paris lasted from February 7 to Feb. 23, 1898. Zola was convicted of libeling the military authorities, and sentence was passed upon him imposing a fine of 5000 francs and six months' imprisonment. Zola appealed to the Court of Cassation, which on April 2 quashed the proceedings and ordered a new trial. This new trial took place at Versailles in July, and Zola was again condemned, but meanwhile he fled to England, where he remained hidden till June 4, 1899, writing Fécondité. A few months later, a bill granting amnesty to all offenders connected with the Dreyfus case having been brought forward by the Waldeck-Rousseau cabinet and passed by the two houses, Zola, who had kept up his fight, returned to France, where he was received by his friends and admirers as one of the greatest and most eloquent defenders of human rights. On Sept. 29, 1902, Zola was suffocated by gas from a defective flue. He received a public funeral. His remains were transferred, with great pomp, to the Pantheon in 1908. Most of Zola's works can be had in an excellent English translation by Vizetelly.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XXIII (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 866-867.