Zola, pronounced ZOH luh, Emile, pronounced ay MEEL (1840-1902), made naturalism the leading form of literature in France in the late 1800's. He described life as he saw it, and his books and his life demonstrate his courage, intelligence, and sense of justice. Zola's open letter J'accuse (1898) helped win a new trial for Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer unjustly convicted of spying. Zola was convicted of libel after publication of the letter. He fled to England for a year, but he later became a national hero for his part in the affair. Zola also tried to win acceptance for artist Edouard Manet and other impressionist painters who broke with artistic tradition.
Zola was born in Paris. He began his career as a journalist and novelist in the 1860's. His first novel of merit was Therese Raquin (1867). After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he started working on a long series of novels, The Rougon-Macquart. Zola subtitled the series the "natural and social history of a family in the Second Empire." Each of the 20 novels in the series describes the adventures of one or several members of the Rougon-Macquart family, and each treats a different profession, trade, or class of society.
The Belly of Paris (1873), the third volume in the series, gives a vivid picture of the central markets of Paris. The Grog Shop (1877) is a terrifying portrait of the effects of alcoholism on industrial workers in Paris. Nana (1880), a study of prostitution and other vice, caused a scandal when it was published. Germinal (1885) is probably Zola's best novel and perhaps the finest novel ever written on the life of miners. The Crash (1892) describes France's defeat by Germany in 1870.
Zola wrote a second series, The Three Cities, dealing with religious and social problems. A third series, The Four Gospels, was still unfinished at his death.
In his fiction, Zola tried to practice the scientific method. He argued that the novels of The Rougon-Macquart showed the effects of heredity and environment on society. However, the scientific basis of Zola's work is weak. But he used the documentary style skillfully and his novels are still valid portraits of various aspects of French life from 1860 to 1890.
Each of Zola's major novels is dominated by a symbol, such as the mine in Germinal. His style is somewhat heavy, but he excelled in writing descriptions, especially of crowds. Zola's characters often lack complexity, but they perform vividly in dramas of death and destruction.
Zola wrote several works of criticism defending the naturalist movement. These include The Experimental Novel (1880), The Naturalistic Novelists (1881), and Naturalism in the Theater (1881).