Zola and Naturalism

The marvelous Classics Circuit has taken the 19th century French writer, Émile Zola as their featured author for this tour. Where would we be without the classics circuit? It’s one of those blogworld inventions that we needed, even though we didn’t know we needed it. Anyway, I said I would discuss the theory behind Zola’s work and the ideas that cohered into the genre of naturalism.

When Zola came on the scene with his racy, sordid novels, the prevailing literary genre of realism had already reached a zenith in France. Writers like Flaubert had undermined it with irony and excess whilst elsewhere, interest in the supernatural was running at an all time high, with up and coming authors like Maupassant and Gauthier busy producing gripping and disturbing tales of the fantastic. Zola’s imagination seemed to go in a different direction, rehabilitating exhausted realism with a new injection of super-reality, but on the quiet, the super-real, as a kind of mystical magic nevertheless sneaked in. Influenced by the advances made in science and medicine, Zola adhered to scientific principles and to the close, sociological observation of society. He thought that it was possible for a novelist who gathered information carefully and analysed documentation to bring himself into the field of science, to be more than a mere artist and to become instead a kind of Cassandra in a white coat, a soothsayer of the future, but one shored up by unimpeachable scientific fact.

Zola wrote Le Roman expérimental (1880) in which he described, carefully and in detail, what his intentions were: he intended to create a whole new genre, and he called it ‘naturalism’. It was to be a kind of lurid, vibrant hyper-realism, as real to the reader as if he or she were walking through the slum areas of Paris. It would be a stencil off the world, and authors would be sensory recorders of everything about their environment, the dilapidated buildings, the pungent, slangy speech of the working classes, the taste of the absinthe that was the anesthetic of the poor. There would be no frills, just the bare, unadulterated truth of life in Second Empire Paris. And Zola wanted to write about this because he truly believed that literature could be a kind of laboratory. You could set up the context for any situation, and it would play out in a scientific kind of way, showing you exactly what would happen in reality. The thing was, Zola had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to prove, before he ever began writing. He argued that we are all inevitably determined by the twin factors of genetic inheritance and environment, which, struggle as we might, we cannot possibly transcend, and his novels set out to prove how the stain of ‘bad blood’, particularly when linked with poor living conditions, would cause despair and catastrophe through countless generations.

Zola’s series of novels about the Rougon-Marquart family is the outcome of this inspiration. The family’s two branches represent two dominant strands in lower class Parisian life – the Rougons were small shopkeepers and petty bourgeois, and the Marquarts were petty criminals who had problems with alcohol. The point of the series was to merge the genetic lines of grafters with the line of transgressors and see what catastrophes resulted, particularly in the tough working conditions of post-revolution Paris, a place of massive opportunity, but also of great hardship and poverty. Zola presented the idea to his publisher in 1868 in these rather pretentious terms. “The Rougon-Macquart – the group, the family, whom I propose to study – has as its prime characteristic the overflow of appetite, the broad upthrust of our age, which flings itself into enjoyments. Physiologically the members of this family are the slow working-out of accidents to the blood and nervous system which occur in a race after a first organic lesion, according to the environment determining in each of the individuals of this race sentiments, desires, passions, all the natural and instinctive human manifestations whose products take on the conventional names of virtues and vices.”

Fortunately, the books were an awful lot less dry than Zola’s leaden description. Instead, they were completely shocking, depicting vice such as the literary milieu had never before seen. People swore and used colourful slang, they had what was considered graphic sex (not to our jaded eyes now, of course), and Zola plumbed the depths and dregs of society, taking his notebook to the brothels and the absinthe houses, interviewing the working classes and vividly depicting a world of whores and drunkards and laundry workers and miners and shop girls that the polite reading folk barely knew existed. He was, in this way, one of the first authors not to romanticise or sentimentalise poverty and the brutal, relentless toil of the working classes. And his range of society was immense; the novels did not only represent the lower levels of society, but the higher ones too, and one of Zola’s great skills was to show how they interacted, how the life of the rich was dependent and even sometimes threatened, by the lives of the poor.

But although Zola is undeniably correct in his privileging of genetic inheritance as a determinant of behaviour, it’s the part of his novels that I admire the least. I remember reading L’Assommoir in a horrified hypnotic trance, following the fortunes of Gervaise with fingers crossed that she might make her small business work, and receiving each step on the route to her downfall (so many caused by her stupid drunken husband) as a body blow. Zola wracks up the misery by having each chapter start on a positive note, and end with his heroine ever nearer destitution. Poor Gervaise was not allowed to move up a class because she was always already damned by genetic weakness and stuck in the slums, her earlier mistake in running away with the feckless Lantier an act with excessive consequences. I don’t believe for a second the line that authors sometimes spin about not having absolute control over what their characters do, and if his protagonists end up dying unloved and alone in a tiny room, their bodies discovered only weeks later by Alsatians (and yes the cliché has its origins here) then it’s because Zola, and the historical absence of a welfare state, has decided to put them there. What he most certainly refuses to countenance is a way out of the genetic deadlock and instead he embraces the endless loop of historical repetition. Zola is determined to show us that we are condemned to live and relive the faults of our ancestors, and our actions and responses will always be inevitable.

This isn’t the only problem with his theory of naturalism, the first and most important being that Zola never stuck to his own rules. Far from being a no-frills realist writer, Zola drew heavily on myth, symbolism, the supernatural and metaphor in his writing. Zola’s idea of literature as a laboratory is sheer nonsense; no fictional narrative can be said to ‘prove’ what would happen in a similar real life set-up. And often Zola had to intervene quite heavily in his own novels to pull his determinist theories off. In Nana (a fabulous book, by the way), the slovenly courtesan of the same name rises to great heights in society and has the world at her feet. Zola creates a character of such power and charisma that you get the sense he scares the living daylights out of himself with his own creation, and in a last-ditch attempt to exert his control over the narrative he kills her off with a bizarre foreign illness. There’s no causal necessity to any of this. Zola just didn’t write narratives that conformed to the principles he was endorsing, although he was pretty confident that he had shown other novelists the way to embrace the doctrine of naturalism.

In this, perhaps, I cannot argue, as naturalism did have a notable influence, particularly in America with the work of novelist and critic Frank Norris (1870–1902), dubbed “the boy Zola” by contemporary critics. And Norris’s work went on to be part of the influences of writers like Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck. We can arguably trace its links further to the ‘kitchen sink’ drama of the sixties and seventies, and to all works that seek to force the reader to face unpalatable truths about terrible working conditions, social injustice and the more sordid and depressing parts of life. Gritty realism was the speciality of Zola, but what many writers have since abandoned is the magnificence with which he endowed it, the sumptuous descriptions of almost cinematic vividness, and the excruciating glimmer of hope that keeps the reader glued to the page exactly at the time that the knife is twisted in their hearts. This is what keeps Zola in a class of his own.


15 thoughts on “Zola and Naturalism

  1. Talk about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons! What a depressing world view. But it sounds like even Zola couldn’t manage it 100%. I’ve got to get around to reading him and your post makes me think, wow, this guy sounds really interesting! What book would you recommed starting with?

    • I did my undergraduate dissertation on Zola- arguably a mistake he was nothing if not prolific……! I couldn’t agree more he is in a class of his own.

      I love L’ Assommoir and Le Ventre de Paris. He went to school with Paul Cezanne – cool or what !

  2. What a fascinating review, Litlove. I so enjoyed reading and understanding more about the theory behind Zola’s work and the difference between that and his execution. I know him mostly for “J’accuse.” It made me also think of Raymond Carver whose work had so much impact on minimalism, but few people could do it as he did (though I think his editor had a lot to do with that, right?).

  3. Well you’ve made his work sound about as exciting as possible haven’t you? Prostitutes and theives and hardship all parcelled up with sumptuous descriptions sounds so good. I understand why realist writers don’t do that anymore, because it’s considered more realistic to show the hard side of poverty starkly, but there’s something to be said for long, dark descriptive passages. I guess that’s why Victorian pastiche has had such a resurge recently, as it typically contians lots of dark bitterness and atmosphere.

  4. Zola’s work must have been shocking when people were more likely used to reading about polite society no matter what their foibles might have been. Last summer I read Therese Raquin, which was very good, but dark and very grim. I wonder if any of his characters get a happy ending? I have a few more of his books to read, including Nana, which I am looking forward to. I’m sorry I didn’t get to read along with the classics cicuit on this one–but I’m following them now so there’ll be other opportunities.

  5. Lovely stuff, litlove! I remember having exactly the same reaction as you when I read L’Assommoir aged about 16. Just heartbreaking. I always feel Zola, though he mined the same seams of despair and unfairness as Hardy, is so much more emotionally involving. Just as you say at the end: it’s the hope he seems ot offer that is so hard to bear.

  6. This is such a great overview. Thanks for putting Zola in context. While I didn’t love reading THE MASTERPIECE, it has been haunting me, and I think I need to give some more of his books a try. I also am in a Steinbeck mood. Nice to see how it all fits together.

  7. Excellent look at Zola’s naturalism! What you say in paragraphs 6 & 7 pretty much sums up exactly how I felt while reading Le Rêve. There’s definitely something compelling about Zola’s writing, but I felt bothered by the “forced” quality of the characters and events in the novel. I do realize however that Le Rêve is not supposed to be his best; I may give one of his more well-known books a try in the future.

    Great post!

  8. Yet another hole – no, gulf, abyss even, in my reading, which you, as ever, make me want to fill. It’s always fascinating to me how a writer comes to write against his/herself. Truth will out comes to mind. Was Zola’s desire to produce a sort of series, mega-opus influenced by Balzac at all? At least I’ve read a little of him. I also wonder to what extent this deterministic view was in the air, at least the French air, at the time. I know some of the earliest sociologists were French. And is there any link to the painters, who seem to have headed for the bars and less morally elegant parts of society at this time? I think I did read a Zola novel long ago, which seemed to centre round a murder beside a train line. It had little in common with Murder on the Orient Express as far as I can recall!

  9. I read Germinal many years ago and was horrified and moved by it. I’m a little confused as to the difference between social realism and naturalism. Would be interested to explore this genre some more, perhaps in more modern form (as in Steinbeck).

  10. You absolutely have to be awarded The Beautiful Blogger and Honest Scrap Awards from me! The buttons can be purloined from The Curious Reader, you must divulge 10 things about yourself, keeping it pithy which you always always do, and then award ten other blogs with the Honors. The last bit is the easiest and the hardest, since there are many blogs I love, but they are loved by everyone else as well, and getting too many of the same award can be problematic. Anyway, you can save this one for a day when you can’t think of a post. Think of it as a piggy bank or blog insurance.

  11. I first read about bodies eaten by Alsatians in Bridget Jones’s Diary; that the phrase comes from Zola leaves me gasping. As always, your post is brilliant, but I’m particularly happy with the latter bit of information.

  12. Stefanie – he is generally a gripping read, even if a bleak one by the end (but at the beginning it’s usually fun! fun! and revolution!). As to where to begin, there are a handful of classics to choose from, depending on what subject matter appeals. Germinal is a great book about working in the mines, L’Assommoir is about alcohol abuse and running laundries, Nana is pretty fabby and that’s about prostitution. Therese Raquin is an earlier novel (and not Rougon-Macquart) but about passion and murder and it’s also very good! I’d love to know what you think of him.

    Lilian – Do you know, I haven’t read J’Accuse! I really ought to, although I sort of know the history that surrounds it. I really ought to get to grips with the real thing. It was a good cause there that Zola embraced, and he made a big difference.

    Jodie – that’s such a good thought about Victorian pastiche! You’re right – the contemporary stuff is all gritty and limpid, and you have to go back in time for a little fun and opulence in the mix. Zola is very much the union of gritty with opulent, and I love him for that!

    Danielle – you’ve got me wondering whether there are ever happy endings in Zola. Not in the books I’ve read, but he wrote LOADS and I have only really scraped the surface of his output. I’m glad you enjoyed Therese Raquin – it’s one I like a great deal.

    Deorah – it’s lovely to have you visit! I had never thought of the comparison with Hardy but that is a brilliant idea (and makes me want to read Hardy for the first time ever). Oh how I longed for Zola’s characters to take their promise to fruition! And you’re quite right; that in itself is the power of his work.

    Rebecca – The Masterpiece IS less engaging that some of his other works, I think. And after all, no one can like every book. If you’re still thinking about him, then you’re appreciating him and I’d say that was a very rich and useful reaction to have! Now I will confess to never having read Steinbeck and sort of fearing him. I should get over that! 🙂

    Grace – ooh you read Le Reve? I must come and visit you; that’s a novel I’d really like to read as it looks completely mad to me, and I want to see what Zola does with the premise. I am sure it couldn’t be counted among his best, but it’s an intriguing book.

    Bookboxed – let’s not start talking about gaps in reading – pre-1830, I have nothing BUT gap! I am sure Zola was influenced by Balzac, and by the general system-builing, grand narrative, encyclopedic feel of the 19th century. My goodness they knew how to produce a hefty tome in those days (magazine serialisation helped). Determinism was the big thing in the sciences and Zola tapped into that, and his novel The Masterpiece is all about the Impressionists, as he was buddies with Cezanne (well, until that novel, at least). This is the era that slides into modernism, with a clear cut interest in perception and reproducing it as accurately as possible. Zola, with his cinematic descriptions, and the odd, squinty perspectives of the Impressionists were two early approaches to precisely this issue. I have the name of that Zola novel on the tip of my tongue.. and can’t quite retrieve it!

    Pete – I think the main difference is determinism – social realism is a portrait of how things are, but it doesn’t suggest they are impossible to change or predetermined. But other people may have a better take on that. I agree that Germinal IS horrifying! And Steinbeck scares me… But if you read him and like him, I’d be tempted.

    Dear Grad – thank you so much! I am very, very honoured and delighted! And I also appreciate the thought of a rainy day post – don’t we all need those! 🙂

    Niranjana – I had forgotten about Bridget Jones until your comment! Yes! It is sheer delight to put both ends of that particular equation together! 🙂

  13. I’ve been wanting to read Zola for quite a while now, and this post just increases my interest. So often writers do such a terrible job of describing what it is they are trying to accomplish in their own work, don’t they? Thank goodness we don’t have to believe what they say 🙂

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