Zola, Émile (āmēlˈ zôläˈ), 1840–1902, French novelist, b. Paris. He was a professional writer, earning his living through journalism and his novels. About 1870 he became the apologist for and most significant exponent of French naturalism, a literary school that maintained that the novel should be scientific in a strict sense. Inspired by his readings in social history and medicine, Zola decided to apply scientific techniques and observations to the depiction of French society under the Second Empire. He composed a vast series of novels in which the characters and their social milieus are impartially observed and presented in minute and often sordid detail.
Of his many novels, those considered most important are among the 20 that constitute the series Les Rougon-Macquart (1871–93), an account of the decay of a family as the result of heredity and environment, with special emphasis on alcoholism, disease, and degeneracy. Perhaps the best known of these are L'Assommoir (1877, tr. The Dram-Shop), on lower-class life in Paris; Nana (1880); and Germinal (1885, tr. 1901), a “proletarian” novel involving coal mining in N France. He also began the socialistic Quatre Évangiles [four gospels], of which he finished Fécondité (1899, tr. Fruitfulness, 1900), Travail (1901, tr. Labor, 1901), and Vérité (1903, tr. Truth, 1903).
Zola had an ardent zeal for social reform. He was anti-Catholic and wrote many diatribes against the clergy and the Church. His part in the Dreyfus Affair (notably his article, “J'accuse,” 1898) was his most conspicuous public action, and he became the special object of the hatred of the anti-Dreyfus party. Prosecuted for libel (1898), he escaped to England, where he remained a few months until an amnesty enabled his return to France. He was accidentally asphyxiated in his bedroom after inhaling fumes from a blocked chimney.
See biographies by A. Schom (1988) and F. Brown (1995); studies by F. W. J. Hemmings (2d ed. 1966), A. Wilson (1952, repr. 1973), and D. Baguley (1986).