Emile Zola was born in Paris, April 2, 1840. His father was Francois Zola, an Italian engineer, who constructed the Canal Zola in Provence. Zola passed his early youth in the south of France, continuing his studies at the Lycee St. Louis, in Paris, and at Marseilles. His sole patrimony was a lawsuit against the town of Aix. He became a clerk in the publishing house of Hachette, receiving at first the modest honorarium of twenty-five francs a week. His journalistic career, though marked by immense toil, was neither striking nor remunerative. His essays in criticism, of which he collected and published several volumes, were not particularly successful. This was evidently not his field. His first stories, Les Mysteres de Marseilles and Le Voeu d’Une Morte fell flat, disclosing no indication of remarkable talent. But in 1864 appeared Les Contes a Ninon, which attracted wide attention, the public finding them charming. Les Confessions de Claude was published in 1865. In this work Zola had evidently struck his gait, and when Therese Raquin followed, in 1867, Zola was fully launched on his great career as a writer of the school which he called “Naturalist.” Therese Raquin was a powerful study of the effects of remorse preying upon the mind. In this work the naturalism was generally characterized as “brutal,” yet many critics admitted that it was absolutely true to nature. It had, in fact, all the gruesome accuracy of a clinical lecture. In 1868 came Madeleine Ferat, an exemplification of the doctrine of heredity, as inexorable as the “Destiny” of the Greek tragedies of old.
And now dawned in Zola’s teeming brain the vast conception of a “Naturalistic Comedy of Life.” It was to be Balzac “naturalized,” so to speak. The great cycle should run through the whole gamut of human passions, foibles, motives and interests. It should consist of human documents, of painstaking minuteness of detail and incontrovertible truth.
The idea of destiny or heredity permeates all the works of this portentously ambitious series. Details may be repellant. One should not “smell” a picture, as the artists say. If one does, he gets an impression merely of a small blotch of paint. The vast canvas should be studied as a whole. Frailties are certainly not the whole of human nature. But they cannot be excluded from a comprehensive view of it. The ”Rougon-Macquart series” did not carry Zola into the Academy. But the reputation of Moliere has managed to survive a similar exclusion, and so will the fame of Zola, who will be bracketed with Balzac in future classifications of artistic excellence. For twenty-two years, from La Fortune des Rougon, in 1871, to Docteur Pascal in 1893, the series continued to focus the attention of the world, and Zola was the most talked about man in the literature of the epoch. La Fortune des Rougon was introductory. La Curee discussed society under the second Empire. Le Ventre de Paris described the great market of Paris. La Conquete de Plassans spoke of life in the south of France. La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret treated of the results of celibacy. Son Excellence Eugene Rougon dealt with official life. L’Assommoir was a tract against the vice of drunkenness. Some think this the strongest of the naturalist series. Its success was prodigious. In this the marvellous talent of Zola for minute description is evinced. Une Page d’Amour (A Love Episode) appeared in 1878. Of Nana, 1880, three hundred thousand copies were quickly sold. Pot-Bouille portrayed the lower bourgeoisie and their servants. Au Bonheur des Dames treated of the great retail shops. La Joie de Vivre came in 1884. Germinal told of mining and the misery of the proletariat. L’Oeuvre pictured the life of artists and authors. La Terre portrayed, with startling realism, the lowest peasant life. Le Reve, which followed, was a reaction. It was a graceful idyl. Le Reve was termed “a symphony in white,” and was considered as a concession to the views of the majority of the French Academy. La Bete Humaine exhausted the details of railway life. L’Argent treats of financial scandals and panics. La Debacle, 1892, is a realistic picture of the desperate struggles of the Franco-Prussian war. Le Docteur Pascal, 1893, a story of the emotions, wound up the series. Through it all runs the thread of heredity and environment in their influence on human character.
But Zola’s work was not finished. A series of three romances on cities showed a continuance of power. They are Lourdes, Rome, and Paris. After the books on the three cities Zola planned a sort of tetralogy, intended to sum up his social philosophy, which he called the “Four Gospels.” Feconditie is a tract against race suicide. The others of this series are entitled Travail, Verite and Justice, the latter projected but not begun.
The attitude which Zola took in reference to the wretched Dreyfus scandal will add greatly to his fame as a man of courage and a lover of truth. From this filthy mess of perjury and forgery Zola’s intrepidity and devotion to justice arise clear and white as a lily from a cesspool.
Several of Zola’s books have been dramatized.
Zola died suddenly at his home in Paris, in September, 1902. He received a public funeral, Anatole France delivering an oration at the grave. There is every indication that Zola’s great reputation as an artist and philosopher will increase with the passing of the years.
C. C. STARKWEATHER.
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