Zola, Emile (1840–1902) By Bowles, Emily
Emile Zola was a key figure in French realism and a leading figure of the naturalist movement. A prolific novelist, journalist, and theorist, he is best known for his reflections on contemporary French society in the ambitious twenty-novel Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, a series focussed on the fortunes of one family over several generations. Zola sought to express new scientific ideas about heredity and environmental factors in the development of human behavior, as well as to use his fictional family to represent the paradoxical nature of a corrupt yet dynamic society, emerging out of the Second Empire. Over more than twenty years, Zola’s novel cycle examined nineteenth-century French society through social, political, and artistic lenses, causing controversy within the literary establishment for his representations of the working class, changing morality and sexuality at the end of the century, and the emerging concerns of modernity. These themes were also more broadly expressed in Zola’s thirty-one novels, five short-story collections, diverse literary criticism, several plays, and a long journalistic career. His political writings culminated in Zola penning the infamous “J’Accuse…!” open letter regarding the Dreyfus Affair to the President of France, as the final move in his campaign on behalf of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who was wrongly convicted of communicating French military secrets to Germany in 1894.