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Émile Zola (1840 - 1902)

Related: 1840 - 1902

Related: 1800s literature - naturalism - social realism - realism in literature - French literature

"Zola descends into the sewer to bathe in it, I to cleanse it." — Henrik Ibsen

Novels: La Bête Humaine (1890) - Émile Zola

Émile Zola was the central novelist and theorist of naturalism, a literary movement whose objective was the exact and scientific description of social reality.

The basic ideas of trangressional fiction are by no means new. It can be argued that the 19th century French author Émile Zola's works about social conditions, and 'bad behaviour' are direct ancestors. Zola's works were extremely controversial at the time, and this may be the reason for their enduring popularity. His hardboiled story La Bête Humaine (the human beast) has been adapted for film by Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir. A film adaptation of Therese Raquin by Charlie Stratton (who played Jerry in the 1995 film adaptation of Notes from the Underground is expected in 2008. [Dec 2006]

La Bête Humaine (1890) - Émile Zola
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Cover illustration by Monet

Did possessing and killing amount to the same thing deep within the dark recesses of the human beast? La Bete humaine (1890), is one of Zola's most violent and explicit works. On one level a tale of murder, passion and possession, it is also a compassionate study of individuals derailed by atavistic forces beyond their control. Zola considered this his `most finely worked' novel, and in it he powerfully evokes life at the end of the Second Empire in France, where society seemed to be hurtling into the future like the new locomotives and railways it was building. While expressing the hope that human nature evolves through education and gradually frees itself of the burden of inherited evil, he is constantly reminding us that under the veneer of technological progress there remains, always, the beast within. This new translation captures Zola's fast-paced yet deliberately dispassionate style, while the introduction and detailed notes place the novel in its social, historical, and literary context. --from the publisher


Émile Zola (April 2, 1840 – September 29, 1902) was an influential French novelist, the most important example of the literary school of naturalism, and a major figure in the political liberalization of France. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%88mile_Zola [Sept 2005]

The Birth of the Beast: Death-Driven Masculinity in Monneret, Zola and Freud (1877) - Lisa Downing

‘Zola’ represents here a dual author function. Firstly his name is a synecdoche for Naturalism, the literary school which, in the words of Daniel Pick, dreamed both of ‘mastering disorder’ and of providing a ‘master narrative of disorder’ (Pick, 74), by trying to make literary craft approximate scientific method. Secondly, and more specifically, Zola’s novel La Bête humaine (1890) will be considered in detail as a work which functions as a historical and imaginative bridge between two models of destructive beastliness. On the one hand it draws for inspiration on the aberrant pathological masculine typology described in alienist discourse by Monneret; in sexology by Richard von Krafft-Ebing; and in criminological accounts by Cesare Lombroso. It adheres rigidly to a model of predetermination and the belief in inherited moral, criminal and sexual traits. On the other hand, it prefigures in a number of suggestive ways the theory of destructivity expounded by my third set of texts, denoted by the author function, ‘Freud’. These texts deal with the psychoanalytic model of the instincts that opposed life drive or Eros to death drive or Thanatos in the early decades of the twentieth century. The Freudian turn marked a de- personalization of the drive towards death. In Freud’s model it was no longer perceived as a perverted outcome of sexual instinct; but as the primary condition of instinctual life. --Lisa Downing via http://www.sdn.ac.uk/dixneuf/september05/downing/Downing52005.pdf [Sept 2005]

Thérèse Raquin (1867) - Emile Zola

Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin was Zola's first literary "success", a success met with outcries of "pornography!" from critics, which thus guaranteed the book (and him) a future. Zola was 28 when he wrote his novel, a grisly tale of lust, murder and revenge set in the seedy, impoverished demi-monde of Paris during the Second Empire of Napoleon III. Zola wrote the manifesto for the literary movement of Naturalism, the logical follow- up to the Realism of Balzac and Flaubert. Gone was the prettiness of life. Politics apart, his work was underlined by the philosophy of the time: the scientific determinism of Huxley and Darwin. Any spiritual interpretation of human behaviour was replaced by physiological function and the material environment as the only explanation for man's actions. --Classical: Lust, murder and revenge (2001) - Annette Morreau

L'Assommoir (The Drunkard) (1877) - Emile Zola

In search of alcoholism in fiction

L'Assommoir (The Drunkard) (1877) - Emile Zola
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Cover illustration by Lautrec

L'Assommoir (1877) is the seventh novel in Emile Zola's twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. Usually considered one of Zola's masterpieces, the novel - a harsh and uncompromising study of alcoholism and poverty in the working-class districts of Paris - was a huge commercial success and established Zola's fame and reputation throughout France and the world. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27Assommoir [Dec 2006]

From the publisher:
Not realism, but filth; not crudity, but pornography, is how one contemporary critic described L'Assommoir. The seventh novel in Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, it is Zola's monumental natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire. The story of a good-hearted, but weak-willed and vulnerable laundress, L'Assommoir is widely regarded as Zola's masterpiece and was an immediate sensation, selling 50,000 copies within a year of its publication in 1877. This edition includes Zola's response to critics who denounced his work as immoral.

Written in gritty street language and unflinchingly portraying the darker side of French culture and society, L'Assommoir transcends Zola's stated intention to expose the powerful effects of heredity and environment on the human condition and, as Robin Buss writes in his introduction, is marvelous, warm and human...with a tragic heroine who is among the most touching and credible creations in all the literature of the nineteenth century.

See also: 1877 - realist literature - Zola - alcoholism

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