Zola, Éimile

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Zola, Éimile


Born Apr. 2, 1840, in Paris; died there Sept. 29, 1902. French writer.

Zola was the son of an engineer. In his youth he was influenced by A. de Musset and Hugo, and his early work shows the impact of the romantic theory of poetry (the short stories in the cycle Tales for Ninon, 1864, and the novel Claude’s Confession, 1865). Zola’s literary and art criticism (What I Hate, 1866;My Salon, 1866; and Edouard Manet, 1867) attacked official salon academic art and supported the early works of the impressionists. He considered the chief contribution of Manet and the impressionists to be their boldness and spontaneity in depicting real life, and he condemned the loss of these qualities in their later works.

In the preface to the second edition of the novel Therese Raquin (1867), Zola announced that he belonged to a “group of naturalist writers.” Introducing into literature data from natural science discoveries, medicine, and physiology, as well as the aesthetic theory of positivism as expounded by H. Taine, he made a partial substitution of biological determinism for social and historical factors in the formation of the personality.

From 1868 to 1870, Zola contributed to two organs of the republican opposition—the newspapers La Tribune and Le Rappel. On the eve of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, he openly advocated the overthrow of Napoleon III and opposed the war that was being provoked by him in the essay “War,” which was published in the newspaper La Cloche in 1870.Political alienation from the Bonapartist regime was one of the ideological reasons for Zola’s departure from the aesthetics of naturalism.

At the end of 1868, Zola began work on a series of novels about the Second Empire. Balzac’s legacy was among the sources for his conception of this epopee. The cycle The Rougon-Macquarts: The Natural and Social History of a Family Under the Second Empire (1871-93) consisted of 20 novels united by the idea of revealing the dynamics of the development of the personality, the family, and social groups in society and of the development of society in history. Comparing the republican present to the imperial past, Zola exposed the internal relationship between the two regimes and debunked bourgeois-republican demagoguery and the hypo-critical lie about class harmony. The worker had been and remained a prisoner of want (The Dramshop, 1877). In society the power of gold rules (Money, 1891). The passion for profit has seized the entire society—both the countryside (Earth, 1887) and the city (Ladies’ Delight, 1883)—and it has unleashed the most brutish instincts in man (Scum, 1882). According to Zola, bourgeois youths in France were demoralized by the historical experience of their fathers. They were either passively disintegrating (T/ze Rush for the Spoils) or prudently climbing the bureaucratic ladder (The Rougons’ Fortune, 1871, and His Excellency, 1876).

It often seemed to the author that man’s wildness is rooted in his very nature (The Human Beast, 1890). However, in his artistic analysis of the social and psychological factors that determine the formation of the self, Zola refuted biological determinism (The Belly of Paris, 1873). The concept of heredity gradually lost its universal role in his work, and it was replaced by a historical and social point of view on man the proletarian, who is capable of rebelling and of resisting circumstances (Germinal, 1885). In mass murder scenes and, indeed, in the entire theme of The Debacle (1892), Zola condemned the bourgeois system, which had entered the imperialist stage of its development. His views on art were reflected in the novel The Masterpiece (1886), whose theme is the life of the artist in France between the 1860’s and the mid-1880’s.

Zola’s “theory of naturalism” was substantiated in the works The Experimental Novel (1880), Naturalist Novelists (1881), and Literary Documents (1881). Zola continued to use the term “naturalism,” which he had initially proposed, but in his later years he essentially identified it with realism.) The physiological aspect of Zola’s characters made them less forceful intellectually than Balzac’s heroes. Nonetheless, the frontiers of French realism were expanded in the series The Rougon-Macquarts, which analyzed the influence on human character and gave striking descriptions of the mine, the rail-road, and the stock exchange—”giant economic organisms,” in P. Lafargue’s words. The most important plays in Zola’s legacy are the drama Therese Raquin (staged in 1873) and the comedy The Heirs of Rabourdin (1874).

The development of socialist tendencies in the workers’ movement in the 1890’s enabled Zola to perceive “in the rising socialism the embryo of the social law of the future, the law of labor for all” (“A Speech to Youth,” 1893; quoted in L. N. Tolstoy, Poln. sobr. soch.,vo\. 29, 1954, p. 181). Pierre Froment, the hero of the trilogy Three Cities (Lourdes, 1894; Rome, 1896;and Paris, 1898), subjects the Christian faith to scientific examination and discovers in its sources exploitation of the ignorant multitude and gross trade in “miracles.” Zola embodied his dream of the coming triumph of reason and labor in his unfinished social Utopian tetralogy The Four Gospels (Fecundity, 1899;Labor, 1901;Truth, 1903, published posthumously; and Justice, unfinished). In 1898, during the Dreyfus affair, he spoke out against clerical and military reaction (the collection of articles Truth Marches On, 1901). The letter “J’accuse,” addressed to the president of the republic, was published in the newspaper L’Aurore on Jan. 13, 1898. According to J. Guesde, it was the most revolutionary act of the century. On Feb. 23, 1898, bourgeois France sentenced the citizen-writer to imprisonment. Zola went into exile, from which he returned in 1899.

Zola dreamed of creating a popular theater. In the cycle of dramas France Marches On he intended to continue his battle against the Third Republic, in which a monarchical spirit ruled under a revolutionary mask. His dream was never realized. Zola died suddenly, poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes in his apartment.

Writers in various countries were directly influenced by Zola. His works were first published in Russia in 1872. (Some of them were issued in Russia before they came out in France.) Thanks to I. S. Turgenev, who acted as an intermediary, Zola was able to contribute to the journal Vestnik Evropy between 1875 and 1880. The letter “J’accuse” evoked a deep response in Russia. After the Great October Socialist Revolution, Zola’s works were greatly esteemed by A. V. Lunacharskii and by Gorky, who declared: “Through the novels of Emile Zola, one can study a whole epoch”(Sobr. soch., vol. 25, 1953, p. 94).


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Bruk, E. F., and A. V. Paevskaia.E. Zolia (K 50-letiiu so dnia smerti). Moscow, 1953.
Mittérand, H., and H. Suwala. Emile Zola journaliste: Bibliographic chronologique et analytique, vol. 1—. Paris, 1968.


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