Emile Zola: Biography & Books

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, you will learn about Emile Zola, one of France's most famous writers. We will discuss his early life, his writings, his part in the Dreyfus Affair, death and legacy.

Early Life

Emile Zola was born April 2, 1840, in Paris, France, and grew up in the south of France in Aix-en-Provence. His father died in 1847, leaving he and his mother poor. Zola went to school with Impressionist painter, Paul Cezanne, and the two formed a friendship that would last into adulthood. Zola twice failed his baccalauréat exam, so he could not continue his studies, and instead tried to find work. He lived in poverty until he landed a job as a clerk at a publishing company.

He also started submitting articles to newspapers, and writing fiction. He published his first novel, La Confession de Claude in 1865. The novel was seedy and controversial, and earned him a reputation with the public, and the police. Zola's writing style was a success, and he quickly became the most popular writer in France. He married Alexandrine Zola, but also carried on a fourteen-year affair with one of his housemaids, Jeanne Rozerot, who had Zola's only children, Denise and Jacques.

Emile Zola
Emile Zola

Famous Books

Zola is most famous for his massive 20 novel series called Les Rougon Macquart. The first book of the series was published in 1870, and he continued to produce almost one novel every year until finishing them in 1893. It followed a family, with each novel focusing on a different member of the family. Zola also called the series the 'Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire' of Napoleon III.

In the series, Zola wrote using the style known as Naturalism. Naturalism is a style of writing in which the author observes the world like a scientist or reporter, and simply delivers the facts. He also liked to write about the poor, lowliest parts of French society. He became the leading naturalist writer of his time, and was particularly famous for writing explicit and grotesque scenes. He wrote about menstruation, orgasms and other taboo bodily functions. He scandalized many readers, but his novels were so popular he became wealthy man.

Near the end of his life, Zola intended to write four 'gospels' to explain his own philosophical principles. The gospels were entitled Fruitfulness Labor Truth, and the unfinished Justice.

The Dreyfus Affair

French Cartoon with Dreyfus the Traitor
French Cartoon with Dreyfus the ~

Emile Zola is known for his defense of the Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who was wrongly accused of treason. The Dreyfus Affair exposed deep anti-Semitism in French society. This affair began when a letter was discovered, offering the sale of French military secrets to Germany. The French military intelligence chief was anti-Semitic, and after a bungled investigation he accused the only Jewish officer on the General Staff, Alfred Dreyfus. In reality, Dreyfus was fiercely patriotic, and completely innocent. Nevertheless, he was convicted in a secret court martial in 1894. He was humiliated in ceremony at the Ecole Militaire while the crowd yelled, 'Death to Dreyfus! Death to the Jews'. Dreyfus was sentenced to exile on Devil's Island, a penal colony off the South American coast.

However, a small group of his supporters took up his case, and a new military intelligence chief decided to take a closer look. It was revealed that French officer Ferdinand Esterhazy was probably the real traitor. The case was reopened and Esterhazy was tried for treason. However, high-ranking French officials did not want their previous investigation exposed as an embarrassing frame job, so they protected Esterhazy during his trial, through lies and forgeries. When Esterhazy was acquitted in 1898, Zola penned a furious 4,000 word response published in L'Aurore newspaper.


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