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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Émile Zola (1840–1902)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Robert Vallier
WHOEVER wishes to study Émile Zola and his work impartially is immediately impressed with one fact, that of their immense notoriety. It defies all comparison. Unquestionably the most resounding name of French literature at the end of the nineteenth century was that of the author of ‘L’Assommoir.’ His books found admission and readers everywhere. Considering their diffusion alone, it might be supposed that the spirit of the country of Chateaubriand and Lamartine, of Mérimée and Octave Feuillet, was especially represented in the eyes of the world by the talent least corresponding to the established conception of its essential traditions and its genius.  1
  The creed of naturalism which is associated for all time with Zola’s name is an offshoot of the mechanistic and deterministic science which during his lifetime seemed to be carrying all before it in the intellectual and literary circles of Europe. It was the application—or misapplication—to literary production of the principles of observation and experiment which had done so much for scientific progress and were expected to do so much more than they have actually achieved. As a literary creed it fell in with the prevailing intellectual fashions of the day, and its influence, not only in France but in Germany, in Scandinavia, in Italy, and in England, was widespread. Even the writers who condemned Zola and ridiculed his methods fell to some extent under the sway of his theories.  2
  This result proclaims a power. One would willingly find this in an undeniable talent which rests on an astonishing obstinacy of labor and conviction. But the author does not leave us free to separate his work from the doctrine on which he flatters himself he has established it. He constrains us to consider the artist only after we measure the theorist,—a position fraught with trouble and perplexity. A work of art cannot be conceived as beautiful and fruitful except as it proceeds from an emotion. Emotion alone creates its life. What becomes of it if it must be adapted, subordinated to a system?  3
  Now it is evident that all the production, all the literary development of Émile Zola, are characterized by methodical systematization. Even his vocation of authorship seems not to have revealed itself spontaneously. At least the hardships of life were the determining cause which engaged him in the profession of letters.  4
  His origins were complex. His father was an engineer,—an inventor, of Venetian stock, who had become somewhat cosmopolitan. His mother was French, the descendant of a Chartrain family. He may be considered as having inherited from his father his exuberance of hyperbolical imagination; and from his mother his intellect and taste for the realities.  5
  For a long time he allowed himself to be supposed a southerner. In reality he was born at Paris, April 2d, 1840. But about the same time, circumstances obliged his family to move to Aix in Provence. It was there that he passed his infancy and adolescence. He returned to Paris at seventeen. His youth was shaped in the midst of the privations and rancors of poverty. Twice refused at the examination for the baccalaureate, it was only after hard experiences and painful seekings for the way that he finally found suitable employment in the large publishing-house of Hachette. His beginnings there were modest. Soon, however, a place was made for him which brought him before the public. Little by little, ambition had awakened within him. Secretly, in his days of enforced idleness and destitution, he had accumulated a stock of mediocre verses which betrayed an ingenuous taste for Musset. Among these manifold attempts, in which the drama had its place, he began the ‘Contes à Ninon’ which soon appeared. In this initial volume, with its rather affected fancy and sentimentality, none of the distinctive characteristics of his future talent are revealed. However, several journals were now opened to his nimble wits; while, thanks to his duties, he had facilities for reading by which he profited. Above all, he found himself in contact with several distinguished men, and more especially with Hippolyte Taine.  6
  This is the first name to remember in explaining his development. Deprived of serious instruction and of philosophical education, naturally inclined toward materialistic rationalism, Émile Zola found himself already prepared to submit to the influence of this robust spirit; an influence indeed scarcely recognizable except through the medium of the master’s works. They doubtless inspired in large measure the partiality, vehement but vigorous, of his artistic and literary polemics; which, like the daring and pessimistic narrations, ‘Thérèse Raquin’ or ‘Madeleine Férat,’ attached a certain notoriety to his name. They contributed to determine his taste, among modern authors, for Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert, in whom successively he thought to have discovered himself. Balzac amazed him as a Michaelangelo, who, as it were, recreates in his brain a world more striking and in a sense truer than the actual world. Stendhal showed him, he thought, how “to see clearly what is.” Flaubert stood to him for minute observation, contemptuous individuality in a cold impersonality. The Goncourts initiated him into those refinements of style that correspond with the nervous exaltation in which the perturbation of our epoch expresses itself. At the same time, he ventured, mistakenly self-taught, into the half-explored regions of sociology and physiology with the Auguste Comtes, the Darwins, the Claude Bernards, the Spencers, and the Ribots. Thus he improvised a determinism of his own, according to which he came to consider the science of life, individual or social, as he would have considered chemistry or physics, which depend upon a single kind of study and investigation, the experimental method, the one touchstone of all truth. The experimental method! In his fervor as a neophyte, Émile Zola saw in this, not only the revivification of certain kinds of knowledge, but he anticipated a revolution of human intellect. It was to have its equivalent and prolongation in literature. Idealism, romanticism, realism even, had had their day. To naturalism fell the glorious mission of rejuvenating the old form of the novel, and of adapting it to the definitive conception of the universe, in order to make it the supreme form of the art of the future! Moreover, the question was no longer that of giving, with more or less talent, a transcript of reality more or less æsthetic but simply picturesque. The innovator proclaimed an ambition certainly unforeseen. He assumed to continue “the business of the physiologist.” Henceforth the novel would not be merely “an observation, showing the combinations of life”; it would become “an experience which seeks to bring forth facts and to disengage a law.” How could this unheard-of prodigy be possible? Émile Zola did his best to show this by example as well as by theory. Thus was first conceived the project of a “natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire”; thus from year to year, according to the needs of his cause, appeared the warlike manifestoes which proclaimed the title of the ‘Roman Experimental’ (experimental novel) to final supremacy.  7
  It was in 1869 that Émile Zola determined the plan of a cycle of studies in which he would have the life of the Second Empire “recounted by its personages with the aid of their individual dramas.” For this purpose he imagined a family, the family of the Rougon-Macquarts. He began by making it spring from diseased physical conditions; and basing his work upon studies that pushed to their extreme consequences the doctrines of heredity, he proposed to develop “the slow succession of nervous and sanguineous accidents which declare themselves in a race after a first organic lesion.” In one single family, then, he would show all the physiological states; he would show there at the same time all the social conditions. In this way too he would retrace the ‘Origines de la France Contemporaine’ [of Taine].  8
  To this end, while retaining the means of inquiry proposed by Taine, he would seek from Claude Bernard the processes for extracting the laws of life and codifying them into formulas which are constantly being added, one by one, to the ever-growing catalogue of the inalienable acquisitions of science. The race, the environment, the moment, completed by the action of the dominant inherited instinct, should furnish him with the elements of a true experimentation as admissible, as well proved, as that of the physiologist in his laboratory. At least so he imagined. And here is his manner of effecting it:—Let it be well understood in the first place that all the functions of life are due to simple organic phenomena, to a simple continuity of reflex action. Easily then, all free-will being suppressed, may you “undo and put together, piece by piece, the mechanism of the human machine; make it work under the influence of environment”; seek, in short, “from the point of view of the individual and of society, what such a passion, in such an environment and in such given circumstances, will produce.” Will not these results be really experiences in the rigorous sense of the word?  9
  As a fact, science proceeds only upon tangible realities; upon given phenomena, which, always identical, she reproduces at will. She questions nature; she does not dictate the responses. The novelist, on the contrary, has before him only imaginary creatures whom he manœuvres by entirely arbitrary conceptions. But Émile Zola has never been willing to admit that his pretended experiences limit themselves to pure hypotheses, having neither existence nor consistency outside of his brain. He says that he verifies these hypotheses outside of himself. While directing the phenomena, he piques himself upon maintaining in them a character of absolute necessity, upon preserving their proportions and their relations. He will not allow himself to see the impossibilities, the contradictions. Up to the end of his ‘Histoire Naturelle et Sociale des Rougon-Macquart,’ he persists in an attitude in which he believes his highest glory involved. In ‘Le Docteur Pascal,’ the last narrative of the famous series, by the mouth of the hero of the book, his own proxy, he solemnly bears witness to himself: “Is this not fine,” he exclaims,—“such a whole, a document so definite, so complete, in which there is not one gap?” And he says elsewhere: “I do not know work nobler or of larger application. To be master of good and ill, to rule society, to resolve in time all the problems of socialism; above all, to furnish solid foundations for justice by furnishing answers through experience, to the questions of criminality—is not this to be among the most useful and most moral workers in the human workshop?”  10
  Here and there, however, one surprises in him, as it were, a prudent reserve, almost a confession. Apropos of “those new sciences—in which hypothesis stammers,” he is not far from confessing that the rôle of the “poet” is a rôle of divination. But is it not in the foregleams of emotion only that this divination can be sought and found? And emotion makes things more true to human nature only as it makes them less exacting. In reproducing them, it re-shapes them according to the genius of the artist. Zola himself, interpreting the old definition of Bacon, has written this express phrase: “Art is a corner of nature seen through a temperament.” There is then, according to his own statement, an artistic truth which is not the scientific truth. The two do not contradict each other: it is even indispensable that the first should ask direction from the second. But in no respect are they one.  11
  Thus in the application of his system, Émile Zola can only show himself continually inconsequential with himself. Not only, indeed, does he fail—and with reason—to obey the rules of scientific experimentation, but he does not always trouble himself to conform to the precepts of literary observation. He has been reproached, and justly, with having undertaken many a subject after insufficient preparation. That he might describe and narrate, he has often contented himself with superficial impressions. He has frequently employed mere second-hand documents; thus demonstrating that the truth he thought to discover and reveal, he sought chiefly in himself. Moreover, the vast programme which the inventor of the Rougon-Macquart scheme undertook to fill, involved inevitably the obligation of working in great measure upon borrowed material. The first novels exhausted his stock of recollections of his childhood and youth, which for example so vivify several Provençal descriptions in ‘La Fortune des Rougons,’ or certain pictures of suburban customs in ‘L’Assommoir.’ Consequently the scruples of Zola the observer grew more and more feeble. On the other hand, a kind of enormous lyricism developed and blossomed in him. Already in copying the real from nature, he had exhibited a tendency toward amplification and excess. He had exaggerated the proportions, over-emphasized contours, accentuated colors. Now he abandoned himself more and more to this kind of transposition. It is what he would define as “adding the personal expression to the sense of the real.”  12
  Unhappily, in him the personal expression does not assert itself alone in the necessity of enlarging things according to the traditions of the romantic school, to which in part he belongs in spite of himself. It is still further manifested in a surprising and abnormal predilection for the ugly, the trivial, the hideous; for the odious and horrible. He seems usually to estimate the truth in proportion to the turpitude. It is not in the least a choice for conscience’s sake, but a choice by vocation. He frankly glorifies himself for having established ignominy in literature, as for having made us receive a billingsgate vocabulary. He has opened his work wide to “the human brute let loose.” For man—according to his doctrine, at the mercy of heredity, of collectivity, of environment, of interests, and of passions—man appears to him habitually an ape of a particularly malevolent species. So that he has presented to us as average products of French society under the Second Empire, a most astonishing collection of brute beasts, of criminals, of madmen, and of sick people. With such a predetermination, what becomes of noble virtues, of delicate qualities? What becomes of all that makes the honor and value of life? Everywhere and in everything Zola sees only states of matter. Therefore he has not thus far succeeded in drama, which must exhibit action controlled by will. A bad habit, a mania, a physical defect, are not enough to constitute a type on the stage. Now, exactly these are the only attributes by which Zola ordinarily portrays and characterizes his personages. The sign once chosen, the novelist applies himself to giving it the effect of an obsession, of a fixed idea; he recalls it ceaselessly; he shows it on all occasions, under all lights: and this simplification of description usually produces a kind of puppets who are much more symbolic than real. As to that highest form of nature which is mind, as to that intelligence by which all action, even instinctive action, is, as it were, kneaded, the author of the ‘Ventre de Paris’ perceives no appreciable traces in the combination of blind forces which to him represents the world.  13
  The unity of his narrations, then, is wholly external. They have no soul, and they lack love. For he has no right to degrade the name of love to describe that fierce desire whose aberrations and eccentricities he especially delights in describing. It is mere brute instinct, an abettor of miseries and crimes, a fatal scourge; and not that “collaboration to the ends of the universe” of which Renan spoke. In Zola’s work, love does not lose its malice to become normal, except in a few healthy, well-poised beings. For to him, virtue is physical health, and moral imperfection is only a resultant of organic imperfection. There is no other ruling principle than a “tranquil belief in the energies of life.” Moreover, he evidently prefers brute nature to human nature. The beauty in which he delights is a “beauty of the beast.” He has not hesitated to degrade woman in her most august functions to animality. As to simple faults against taste, they are innumerable; and unpardonable ones might be cited. But he assures us that under his pen, licentious or repugnant pictures become austere clinical studies. He asserts that in discovering the evil he renders it wholesome. And he sees evil everywhere. There is in fact nothing less consolatory, nothing more discouraging, than this nightmarish work all stained with corruption, dripping blood from frightful, tragic deaths. In art there is nothing vivifying, as there is nothing living, nothing true, except the beautiful. Yet this sense of the beautiful is what he lacks.  14
  Does his work afford us in return that documentary value which the author claims for it? Rather, the whole is vitiated by the spirit of the system, and the detail is deformed by the temperament of the writer. Moreover, upon many points even his relative exactness is more than doubtful. The greater part of his work is devoted to a historical period, from which the march of events has suddenly and completely separated us in all respects. The fall of the Second Empire, coming just as Zola was beginning the series of the Rougon-Macquart, condemned him to a labor henceforth as arduous as it was fruitless. In order to paint society before 1870, it happened that he was forced to utilize more recent notes and events; so that he ends by giving a true account neither of the epoch in which he was interested, nor of the subsequent years.  15
  It were wearisome to enumerate the flagrant errors, which, among landscapes vigorously brushed in, and full of charm, and among scenes exhibited in intense relief, swarm across the pages of ‘La Curée,’ ‘La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret,’ ‘Son Excellence, Eugène Rougon,’ and ‘Nana.’ ‘Pot Bouille’ proclaims the ambition to present to the bourgeois world a faithful image of the bourgeoisie. The artifice of the composition, and the dissimilitude of many of its episodes, are constantly emphasized by a crudity of language as far as possible removed from the hypocritically decent habits of his models. Nor is he more veracious in ‘La Terre,’ when he attributes to the peasants of Beauce, speech of an exaggerated obscenity little in keeping with their customary crafty discretion. Moreover, he has scarcely been conscious of their simple dignity. He has regarded them with a gaze clouded by reading the judgments of criminal courts. He sets forth to discover in the atmosphere of their farms and stables a strange ferment of overflowing lubricity. This he imports into his book with a tranquil wantonness which provokes universal disgust, and which drove many of his chief disciples away from him. When, forcing his talent, a little later he attempted to show himself capable of a flight in the serene regions of purity,—in ‘Le Rêve,’—he succeeded only in involving himself in childish improbabilities. In ‘La Bête Humaine,’ Lombroso, one of the masters of whom he thinks himself emulous, pointed out the weakness of his portraits of criminals; ‘Le Docteur Pascal’ completely established the nothingness of his initial assertions. The ‘Histoire Naturelle et Sociale d’une Famille sous le Second Empire’ represented in fact a something dead which had never lived.  16
  For some time indeed the novelist had evinced premonitory symptoms of a certain evolution. In the new cycle of ‘Trois Villes’ (Three Cities), he does not show himself in absolute contradiction with himself. But it seems as if a kind of candid optimism had attenuated his former black pessimism, as if some vague belated sensibility had come to him. “Perhaps,” he murmurs, “all is right!” At least he does not seem far from the belief that all will become so. “Let nature work,” he counsels, “let us live!” And henceforth he seems to wish to apply himself to disengaging the factors of a better future. ‘Lourdes’ is the cry of eternal suffering, wringing from the heart of ignorant man a pitiful appeal to hopes hidden in mystery: it is the phase of superstition. ‘Rome’ is the appeal to the supernatural, the second state of human evolution; the age of faith hardened into routine, into convention, under the administrative genius of a pontificate which seems to have inherited from ancient Rome the dream of a universal empire. This dream will never be realized. The future will not belong to a church. To scientific investigation only is assured the promise of indefinite duration, and to Zola that remains the sole guardian and sole mistress of all truth. ‘Paris,’ the third novel of the series, will be the proclamation of the arrival of the positive and universal reign of science. In the ‘Trois Villes,’ as in the ‘Rougon-Macquarts,’ the usual faults of the author are seen side by side with his least disputed merits. Into the mass of hastily gathered technical details, into the confusion of notions generated by a superficial vulgarization of knowledge, he has known how to put order and movement. He sketches with an alert touch; and above all he succeeds in giving wing to his hyperbolical imagination, boundless and eager for the abnormal and fantastic.  17
  The whole is massively but firmly established in this same spirit of simplification which inspires him in composing an action or in delineating a type. To a vast and ample outline, usually in somber atmosphere, where are thrown up distorted silhouettes, he contributes numerous reiterated touches, often heavy additions. Accumulation, repetition—therein lies his whole method. Unlike the Goncourts, he has not the word or epithet for overruling preoccupation. His style, at the beginning rather hesitating, afterward surer and richer, is now both vigorous and careless, often monotonous,—with a frequent mixture of trivial locutions and sonorous adjectives. In short, the heavy rhythm of the sentences, the crude violence of the colors, correspond with the inspiration of his great melodramatic frescoes, of his swarming dioramas. At a distance, the falseness of detail appears less; the exaggeration less shocking. There is visible a mass animated with a dense collective life, like a monstrous organism. The masses, the crowd, have always found in Zola an almost Homeric singer of their tumults and furies. Their elementary and quite instinctive psychology puts him at ease. The unacknowledged romanticism within him evokes them with a somber lyricism. He contemplates them with a visionary eye, he makes them stir and move in compact phalanxes with their outcries and their way of behavior. In ‘Germinal,’ the novel of the proletariat and of socialism, and in ‘La Débâcle,’ the novel of the army and of war, he has in this respect exercised a powerful mastery. Elements, natural forces, even material objects, receive from him an obscure and mysterious vitality. Under his pen the Sea, the Tavern, the Cathedral, the Store, the Machine, become real and redoubtable existences. They rule the creatures of flesh, they devour them in their anger or break them in their catastrophes. Thus one is brought back to the pure personification of savages.  18
  And we return at the same time to that diminution of man, to that degradation of the reasonable and reflecting being, which haunts all Zola’s work. He has often found a way to degrade even his humblest heroes still more by calumniating them. Under pretext of a new civilization, he denies violently all the past, destroys all that is most precious in the human patrimony. Under color of science, he persists in outraging those inseparable allies, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. “Woe,” exclaimed Bossuet, “woe to the science which does not turn to love.” One may apply the same sentence with still more justice to literature and art. Certainly it would not be just not to render homage to the persevering and courageous patience which attests a work ample and vast in its barbarity. The more bitterly must one deplore the too common application of this faith, this ardor, this force, to sickly exceptions, to unjustifiable vulgarities, to a conception so arbitrary, and when all is said, so insignificant.  19
  “The victory of the idea kills the sect which propagates it,” Zola has written. We can bear witness that the naturalistic sect is dead; but the idea it advanced has not conquered. Hatched in a period of crisis and transition, it responded to an abasement of taste and morals! Hence the reason of its vogue. As a whole, the work of its inventor and prophet remains isolated. Instead of showing encyclopædic and definitive, like a majestic synthesis of modern times, it appears only as a factitious edifice both apocalyptic and sordid; valuable only for some merits of imagination and composition,—superficial merits which will preserve but a few fragments of it, and those discredited by the recollection of a still-echoing scandal.  20
  Zola was a born fighter and he found a signal opportunity for exhibiting his zeal and devotion for what he conceived to be the truth in connection with the famous Dreyfus case. His pamphlet ‘J’Accuse’ was the most sensational literary incident of a long series of extraordinary events. He was prosecuted by the Government, and having, on advice of his council, fled to England, was condemned in his absence to a heavy fine. Ultimately Zola and his supporters triumphed, and he became a popular idol. He made the struggle the subject of one of the novels of his last cycle ‘The Four Gospels,’ of which he only succeeded in completing three before his death, owing to an accident, on September 29th, 1902. The other two “Gospels,” ‘Fecondité’ and ‘Travail,’ enforcing his favorite doctrines of population and co-operative industry, are frankly romantic in character, and suggest that he had finally abandoned the theories upon which his main work claims to be based.  21

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