Émile Zola

Émile Zola was a French writer (1840-1902), significant for leading naturalism in 19th century French literary circles. He wrote “Germinal,” “L’Assommoir,” and “Nana,” . He was also an art critic and a supporter of the newly born Impressionists. He also had a strong interest in politics and was involved in the Dreyfus Affair, forging a close relationship between politics and literature. As we see below, Zola’s literature was strongly influenced by the science of the time.

Zola’s Life

 Zola was born in Paris, France, into a family of engineers. Because his father died soon after he was born, he moved to the south of France, where he was forced to live a hard life as a child. It was during this period that he became friends with Paul Cézanne. During high school, Zola moved to Paris. However, he failed his baccalaureate exams and gave up on further study. In 1862, he worked at a publisher.

 While working at the publisher, Zola also began his writing career. At first, he wrote book reviews and art criticism. During this period, Monet, Renoir, and others were attempting to create a new Impressionist art movement. In the late 1860s, Zola began to develop critiques in defense of Impressionism. From 1874, the Impressionists began holding their own solo exhibitions on a regular basis. However, they received various criticisms from the existing art critics. In the midst of this, Zola maintained contact with the Impressionists and continued to defend them.

 As a novelist, he gained recognition in society with his novel “Nouveaux Contes à Ninon” and “Thérèse Raquin”. Beginning in 1871, Zola began to publish a series of works that were grouped together as the “Les Rougon-Macquart” series. These books tell the stories of the descendants of the fictional peasants Rougon and Macquart in various occupations and in different parts of French society.

 Among these series, Zola’s best-known works are “The Tavern,” about the life of a washerwoman, “Nana,” about a high-class prostitute, and “Germinal,” about a coal miner.

The Influence of Experimental Science and Physiology

 In his series, Zola’s two axes were psychologism and experimentalism. Regarding psychologism, he took the stance that the nature of the human psyche is determined by the social environment, and he depicted the psychology of the characters in his novels. In order to do so, it is necessary to accurately grasp the environment in which the characters are placed. Therefore, Zola actually conducted careful preliminary research before writing the novel.

 Experimentalism was inspired by Claude Bernard, a physician of the time. Bernard published “Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine” and was trying to introduce experimentation into the field of medicine at the time. In today’s science, it is considered essential to formulate hypotheses before experiments. However, this was not the case in medicine at that time. Rather, the importance of hypothesis-setting, for example, was recongnized by Bernard. Zola attempted to apply these reforms in medicine to literature. He crystallized his literary theories in works such as “The Experimental Novel”.

 Furthermore, Zola was greatly influenced by Bernard’s physiology. Today, Bernard is famous as the man who laid the foundation for physiology. For he created concepts such as homeostasis. Zola reflected his physiological theories in his own novels. Therefore, the mind and behavior of the characters were determined by the physiological conditions as well as the social environment.

 The Dreyfus Affair

 In 1894, a French Jewish captain, Dreyfus, was arrested on suspicion of spying for Germany. As punishment, he was exiled to the South American island of Guiana. This was a false accusation due to anti-Semitic sentiments in France at the time. At the time, however, the possibility of Dreyfus’ innocence was not readily accepted by public opinion.

 Zola took issue with the trial of the case and asked for a new trial. In 1898, Zola published an open letter to the president, “I Impeach…!,” in the daily newspaper L’Aurore. This letter divided public opinion on the Dreyfus Affair. The Dreyfus Affair was connected to other issues in France at the time, and developed into an issue that greatly shook the political situation.

 Zola, who had set the stage for these events, was sued by the military and put on trial. Zola was forced into exile in England until 1899. Nevertheless, the sentence against Dreyfus was finally overturned. Upon his return to France, Zola published his book, “The Truth Moves Forward”, in 1901. In 1902, Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Some argue that he was murdered in a plot by opponents of Zola in the Dreyfus Affair. Dreyfus attended Zola’s funeral procession.

 Zola was posthumously recognized for his achievements. For this reason, his body was buried in the Pantheon in 1908.

 Synopsis of “The Tavern”

 Gervaise, the 22-year-old female, comes to Pariswith her lover Lantier. They also brought their two children, Claude and Etienne, with them (Etienne would become the protagonist of Zola’s masterpiece “Germinal”). They lived in a cheap district of the place. But Lantier soon left her with her money.

 Gervaise was temporarily upset when Lantier left him. But she recovered and began working diligently as a laundress. Her next-door neighbor, a laborer named Coupeau, began courting Gervaise, and the two married. Initially, the marriage went well. They had a lovely daughter, Anna (née Nana). They were blessed by their neighbors. They were even able to afford some finances.

 However, the situation deteriorated. Coupeau fell from the roof and broke his leg. While she nursed him at home, their savings ran out. Coupeau became afraid to go up to high places and stopped going to work properly. Instead, he began to frequent taverns (the title of this book). Still, Gervaise worked hard as a laundry woman. She even managed to get a loan from a neighbor to open her own laundry. However, Coupeau became more and more addicted to alcohol, spent all the money earned by her laundry, and became violent.

 It was under these circumstances that Lantier suddenly returned home. Because Lantier became friends with Coupeau soon, Lantier began to stay at their house. Gervaise had to feed the two men who drank and did not work. Gradually, however, Gervaise became mentally exhausted. Finally, she herself began to indulge in drinking. She was also unable to repay her debts to open a laundry business.

 Mr. and Mrs. Gervaise fell into decline. They gave up the laundry, which had been her dream. They were forced to move to a slum. Coupeau suffered from mental problems and was committed to a mental hospital. Nana ran away from this corrupt family. Gervaise turned to prostitution for cost of living. Coupeau finally died of a violent seizure. Gervaise lived on the streets begging and prostituting. When she was forgotten by her neighbors, she was found dead under the stairs.

 Persons connected with Zola

☆ Claude Bernard: A physiologist who greatly influenced Zola’s novels. He is generally known in the world of natural science as a person who laid the foundation for physiology.

Edouard Manet: A painter who was a close friend of Zola. Zola published a book about Manet’s art. Although Manet did not belong to the Impressionist school, he was a collaborator.

Paul Cézanne: Paul Cézanne was an old friend of Zola’s. He was not highly regarded by the public during his lifetime. While Zola was well known and had a wide circle of friends even before his death, Cézanne’s circle of friends gradually narrowed, and he relied on Zola. After death, however, Cézanne gained such a high reputation that he was called the father of modern painting.

Emile Zola

Recommended or Selected References

エミール・ゾラ『エドゥアール・マネを見つめて』神田由布子訳, 東京書籍, 2020
田上孝一編『「人間」の系譜学 : 近代的人間像の現在と未来』東海大学出版会, 2008
Brian Nelson, Émile Zola : a very short introduction, Oxford University Press, 2020