Famous for chronicling life in 19th-century France, and infamous for his political activism and frank depictions of sexuality, Émile Zola was one of the most ambitious and influential writers of his generation. Today, he is widely known for the Rougon-Macquart Cycle, a series of novels that attempts to apply scientific and analytic principles to everyday life. Such ideas – particularly the empirical, cause-and-effect observation of society – are at the heart of the style of literature that Zola pioneered, known during both his time and ours as “Naturalism”.
Zola’s early years were marked by misfortune. Zola’s father, an Italian engineer named Francesco Zola, died of pneumonia in 1847, and Zola’s mother Emilie would spend the next several years locked in litigation. The young Émile spent his childhood in the countryside of Aix-en-Provence. Here, he enrolled in the Collège Bourbon, a school he found unpleasant, but which introduced him to one valuable companion – his schoolmate and future colleague in the arts, painter Paul Cézanne.
The Zola family left Aix for Paris in 1858. After settling into the metropolis, Zola continued his schooling at the Lycée Saint-Louis. But he proved to be a poor student, twice failing his baccalauréat exams, and decided to try his hand at poetry instead of academics. In the meantime, he also worked as a clerk in the Canal Saint-Martin Customs House.
Zola’s early career was a time of self-discovery and precocious career moves. By 1865, he had arrived at some of the anti-dogmatic liberal principles that would sustain him through his artistic maturity: “I love the Renaissance and our own age, these skirmishes among artists, these men all of whom pronounce words hitherto unheard.” The young Zola wasn’t by any means lacking in commercial sense; he began working as a journalist (continuing in this profession, in some form, until the end of his days) and eventually became head of marketing at the publishing firm Hachette.
Yet literary fame was just on the horizon for Zola. After publishing the story collection Contes à Ninon (1864) and the novel The Confession of Claude (1865), he achieved a breakthrough with Therese Raquin (1867), a novel of adultery, intrigue, and murder. The novel was attacked as “putrid literature,” a gruesome tale little better than pornography. But for Zola, Therese Raquin was a determined and necessary investigation of psychology and personality. It also set the template, in a few respects, for the great novelistic project that soon consumed Zola’s abundant energies.
By 1868-1869, Zola had crafted a plan for a series of novels which would follow two families – the upper-class Rougons and the less exalted Macquarts – through the prosperity and tumult of Second Empire period in French history. Questions of how heredity and environment shape the fates of individuals were to be Zola’s focus. The first Rougon-Macquart novel, The Fortune of the Rougons, appeared in book form in 1871. It was followed by novels such as The Kill (1872) and His Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) which revolved around Paris’s upper classes.
Arguably, Zola’s novels of the lower classes brought him more resounding fame. A Few of the most remarkable of these were The Drinking Den (1876), which discusses the ravages of alcohol among Paris’s lower-class tradespeople; Nana (1879), which charts the adventures of a notorious prostitute; and Germinal (1884), which describes a harrowing miners’ rebellion in the French provinces. Zola performed extensive research for these projects, and worked carefully to reproduce the dialects and idioms used by his uneducated subjects.
Despite Zola’s own politics, the Rougon-Macquart novels did not follow anything like a rigid ideology; rather, Zola revealed the vices and virtues of all walks of life, and almost all ends of the political spectrum. But after wrapping up the series with the pessimistic war novel The Debacle(1892) and the hopeful social statement Doctor Pascal (1893), Zola began a new series with more critical overtones. His trilogy Lourdes (1894), Rome (1896), and Paris (1898) investigate and occasionally repudiates the principles of the Catholic Church. This interest in religious ideology carried over into Zola’s final novelistic project, a group of works called The Four Evangelists, which he began in 1899 and remained uncompleted at his death.
On September 29, 1902, Zola suffocated in his bedroom due to a blocked chimney. It is unknown whether his death was an accident, or whether it was the result of an assassination engineered by anti-Dreyfusards. In any case, Zola died a hero to many Parisians. A crowd of 50,000 gathered for his funeral, and they marched along chanting the name of the novel that, for many readers today, is considered Zola’s resounding masterpiece: “Germinal! Germinal! Germinal!”