Emile Zola: A Biography

Emile Zola: Pioneer of Naturalism and Social Activism in French Literature.

Émile Zola, the renowned French writer, novelist, and journalist, is recognized as a pioneer of the naturalist school in nineteenth-century French literature. His works are characterized by their portrayal of events and characters in relation to nature rather than supernatural or divine causes.

Zola's novels and literary works, translated into numerous languages, are known for their accurate and realistic depiction of French society during the Second Empire and the Third Republic. He sought to convey the social life of his time through his writings.

In addition to his literary contributions, Zola was also known for his political activism against the authoritarian excesses of the Second Republic. His notable involvement in the Dreyfus affair, including his famous open letter J'accuse addressed to the French president, showcased his strong stance on social and political issues of his era.

Birth and upbringing:

Émile Edouard Charles Antoine Zola was born into a bourgeois family in Paris on April 2, 1840. However, he spent his childhood in Aix-en-Provence, a city located in southeastern France, as the only son of his family.

His father, Francesco Zola, was an Italian civil engineer who worked in Aix-en-Provence and was responsible for building the canal that now bears his name, the Zola Canal. His mother, Emily Aubert, was French and hailed from the department of "Dogdon" in the southwest of Paris.

Tragedy struck at a young age when Zola's father passed away when he was only seven years old. This left his mother in difficult financial circumstances, which had an impact on his academic and educational journey. As a result, Zola did not learn to read and write until the age of eight.

Study and scientific training:

Zola commenced his studies at the Saint-Louis School in Paris, where he forged a close friendship with the visual artist Paul Cézanne. However, due to his challenging financial and familial circumstances, he was unable to pass his baccalaureate exams on two occasions, ultimately leading him to abandon his studies and embrace a bohemian lifestyle.

Driven by his passion for writing and poetry, Zola began penning short stories and poems, including "Tales in Ninon" (Contes à Ninon). In 1862, he found employment as a wage earner at the éditions Hachette press and later worked as an advertising manager at a printing press, all the while continuing to write his first newspaper articles.

Zola became a prolific contributor to various newspapers, specializing in literary and artistic subjects. He was instrumental in founding the naturalist (or natural) literary movement alongside Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant. In 1867, Zola published his maiden novel, Thérèse Raquin, which marked one of his earliest works that established the naturalist movement, intertwining narrative with a quasi-scientific exploration of human behavior.

Scientific and practical experience:

During the 19th century, Zola embarked on his journalistic career by penning critical essays on literature and art. This professional pursuit brought him into close association with the emerging naturalist movement, which boasted luminaries such as his close friend Cézanne. Zola frequented the cafes and bars of Paris, where he met and befriended other prominent artists of the French naturalist school, including Monet, Degas, and Renoir.

At the time, theories about the arts and their genres were hotly debated, and Zola found himself drawn to the works of the controversial painter Edouard Manet, whose objective approach to art appealed to Zola's sensibilities. Zola's admiration for Manet's paintings, such as "The Prostitute in Olympia," which depicted pure and unadulterated truths without revealing inner emotions, influenced Zola's own writing, notably in his first novel "Therese Racan."

While Zola's friendship with Manet thrived, his relationships with Cézanne and other artists suffered, particularly after the publication of his novel "L'Oeuvre" in 1886. The novel portrayed the struggles of an innovative painter unable to realize his creative potential, ultimately leading to his tragic demise. In 1868, Zola embarked on a project to write a series of interconnected novels, starting with "La Fortune des Rougons," the first installment of the Rougon-Macquart series, which also included "L'Assommoir" and other works.

Zola's novels delved into the social and political upheavals of his time, earning him a reputation as one of the greatest realist or naturalist writers of his generation. His literary art sought to raise the level of consciousness in society, with an unwavering belief in the powers of reason and objective observation. In his book "Le Roman expérimental" published in 1880, Zola expressed his doctrine, stating that his imagination was a mere analysis of the world as it is, aiming to reveal the hidden truths of human existence, including the impact of heredity and environment.

Zola's novels were characterized by their detailed and reflective depictions of the external world, and his characters were often portrayed as soulless products of their heredity and environment. He explored the impact of misery and poverty on individuals and societies, highlighting the factors that lead to chaos and societal ills such as delinquency, alcoholism, and violence.

One of Zola's most well-known and controversial novels, "Nana," published in serial form in Le Voltaire between 1879 and 1880, tells the story of a prostitute actress who meets a tragic end. Despite the initial controversy, "Nana" was a huge success, with thousands of copies sold in its first edition and continuing demand from readers.

Zola's ambitious project of the Rougon-Macquart series was interrupted by the Franco-German War of 1870 but was eventually completed in 1893, with a total of 20 novels. In 1878, Zola's home in Médan on the Seine became a gathering place for his students, including renowned writers such as Maupassant and Huesmans, who collectively published a collection of short stories titled "Les Soirées de Médan" in 1880.

As the founder and leading figure of the naturalist school, Zola published several writings explaining his theories of art, including "Le Roman expérimental" in 1880 and "Les Romanciers naturalists" in 1881. However, his works were not without controversy, and his novel "La Terre" published in 1887 portrayed a bleak and harsh reality of peasant.

Zola's career in journalism began i the 19th century, where he initially wrote critical essays on literature and art. Through this professional experience, he was constantly in contact with the emerging naturalist movement, which included influential names such as his friend Cézanne. Zola's interactions with artists of the naturalist school in France, including Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and others, often took place in the vibrant cafes and bars of Paris.

During this time, theories about the arts and the relationship between different genres were the subject of intense debates. Zola was particularly drawn to the works of Edouard Manet, a controversial visual artist of his time whose paintings often provoked outrage and were excluded from exhibitions. Zola admired the "objectivity" of Manet's paintings, especially his portrayal of characters such as The Prostitute in Olympia, which depicted purity without revealing the inner self. This visual effect of Manet's works influenced Zola's writing in his first novel, Therese Racan.

Zola's friendship with Cézanne and other artists, however, suffered a setback after the publication of his novel L'Oeuvre in 1886. The novel depicted the life of an innovative painter who failed to realize his creative potential and ultimately committed suicide in front of one of his paintings. Despite this strain in his relationships with fellow artists, Zola continued to express his artistic vision and beliefs through his writing.

In 1868, Zola embarked on a ambitious project to write a series of interconnected novels, beginning with La Fortune des Rougons, which became the first book of the Rougon-Macquart series. This series, comprising of 20 novels published in episodes, explored the social and political landscape of 19th century France, with works such as L'Assommoir addressing issues such as poverty, alcoholism, and social unrest.

Zola's novels were known for their cold, reflective, and detailed perceptions of the external world and the characters that inhabited it. He portrayed human actions, both good and evil, as the products of heredity and environment. Zola believed in the powers of reason and objective observation as tools to elevate human consciousness, and he saw his art as a means to achieve this goal.

In his 1880 book Le Roman expérimental, Zola articulated his doctrine, stating that his imagination was a "simple piece of analysis of the world as it is." He aimed to tell the truth about humanity, revealing the intricacies of human lives, the hidden influences of heredity, and the impact of the environment. Zola's novels often depicted the harsh realities of poverty, misery, and their effects on society, delinquency, and violence.

One of Zola's most famous and controversial novels was Nana, which told the story of a prostitute actress who met a tragic end in miserable circumstances. Despite its controversial subject matter, Nana was a huge success, selling 55,000 copies in its first edition and gaining increasing demand from readers.

Zola's literary career was not without its share of controversies. In 1887, he published La Terre, a novel that portrayed a bleak and harsh picture of peasant life, which led to a group of his students disowning him in a manifesto published in Le Figaro. In 1892, Zola's novel La Débâcle, which criticized the actions of the French army and government during the Franco-German War, received harsh criticism from both French and German audiences.

Despite his fame and contributions to French and world literature, Zola was never elected to the Académie Française, despite being nominated 19 times. 


Zola's prolific career spanned nearly 40 years, during which he authored around 60 volumes of books, novels, and newspaper articles. However, he is most renowned for his 20-novel series Rougon-Macquart, a project he had been considering since 1868.

The first novel of the series was published in 1870 and delves into the natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire, a political era dating back to the 1870s when Napoleon III ruled France.

Notable novels in this series include "The Belly of Paris" (1873), "On the Happiness of Ladies" (1883), "The Earth" (1887), "The Human Monster" (1890), "The Catastrophe" (1892), and "The Doctor Pascal" (1893), among others.

Zola employed his signature writing style known as Naturalism, which was based on keen observation and portrayal of people's everyday lives, presenting facts without embellishment.

Furthermore, Zola was known for his depictions of the impoverished and marginalized classes in French society, making him a pioneer of the naturalist literary movement of his time. He fearlessly broached taboo subjects like menstruation, orgasm, and other physical conditions in his writing.

Dreyfus Affair:

Zola, known for his critical portrayal of the social and political milieu in his novels and writings, maintained an "objective" stance and refrained from aligning with any political party. However, his position changed in 1898 during the infamous Dreyfus affair, which was the biggest political scandal of the Third Republic.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer, was accused in 1894 of betraying military secrets to the Germans. The evidence against him was weak, but due to his Jewish heritage, he was deemed to be against the interests of France more so than if he were a Christian. Dreyfus was convicted and imprisoned. When compelling evidence emerged pointing to another soldier, Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, as the real culprit, the military refused to retry Dreyfus.

Convinced of Dreyfus's innocence, Zola wrote several newspaper articles in his defense, particularly after Esterhazy was acquitted by a military court in January 1898. Zola's most famous journalistic work, "Open Letter to the President of the French Republic" Félix Faure, was published on January 13, 1898, in L'Aurore, under the title "J'accuse!" In this letter, Zola denounced the principle of "the end justifies the means," exposed the names of the generals involved in the wrongful conviction of Dreyfus, accused the entire War Department of complicity, and called on the French government to take action against the generals.

Zola was aware that his article, "The Letter," could be deemed defamatory according to the French Press Code of 1881. He quoted passages from the law to highlight this fact, with the intention of provoking the French authorities to arrest him, so that he could use his trial as a means of exposing the corruption within the army.

Zola was indeed tried and convicted in 1898, receiving a one-year prison sentence and a fine of 3,000 French francs. Despite an appeal, the Court of Appeal upheld the same sentence. Zola then fled to England, fearing for his safety and avoiding imprisonment, while hoping for a change in political conditions in France. In 1899, Dreyfus was retried and convicted again, even though Esterhazy fled France and pleaded guilty, and another conspirator took his own life to evade prosecution.

It was not until 1906 that Dreyfus was finally acquitted, following a pardon by French President Félix Faure.


Emile Zola's literary legacy comprises a diverse range of works, including novels, stories, poetry, and theatrical writings. Some of his notable works include:


  • Nana (1880), a famous novel published in 1880 as part of the Rougon-Macquart series.
  • Tales to Ninon (1864).
  • The Confessions of Claudius (1865).
  • Le Mystère de Marseille (1867).
  • Thérèse Raquin (1867).
  • Madeleine Férat (1868).
  • The Experimental Roman (1880), part of the Three Cities Series.

Three Cities Series:

  1. Lourdes (1894), set in London.
  2. Roma (1896), set in Rome.
  3. Paris (1898), set in Paris.

The Four Gospels Series:

  1. Fertility (1899)
  2. Travail (1901), meaning "work".
  3. Vérité (1903), meaning "truth".
  4. Justice.

Theatrical scripts:

  • Perette (1861), also known as "Beret".
  • Thérèse Raquin (1867).
  • Les Héritiers Rabourdin (1874)
  • The Rosebud (1878).
  • Renée (1887).
  • Madeleine (1889), also known as "Madeleine".
  • L'Oeuvre.


On September 29, 1902, Émile Zola was discovered lifeless in his Paris home, specifically in his bedroom. The cause of his death was attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning, which was believed to have been inhaled from a coal-burning stove. The coroner's investigation did not reveal any blockage in the chimneys, and the death was deemed accidental, though without any clear explanations.

In 1908, Zola's ashes were transferred from Montmartre cemetery to the Temple of the Pantheon in Paris, where he was laid to rest alongside literary luminaries such as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.