Émile Zola

My various reading lists have all converged this last month and I was to have read three novels by Émile Zola. Being far less organized than it might seem, I have read none of the three but intend to read at least one in the coming week.

Zola, the quintessential Naturalist tells an excellent story, even if he is at times a tad melodramatic. Remember, Naturalism in literature is, for simplicity, a heightened form of realism which blends the new sciences like psychology into the fiction. Zola created a novel series where he took two families through time:  this is generally referred to as the Rougon-Macquart Series. Unlike Balzac who paused in the middle of his voluminous writing and decided to associate much of what he had already written into La Comédie Humaine, Zola planned out the novels of the Rougon-macquart cycle in advance of writing the texts. The titles in this series are:


  • La Fortune des Rougon (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • La Curée (The Killing)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (The Conquest of Plassans)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (The Sins of Father Mouret)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (His Excellency Eugene Rougon)
  • L’Assommoir (Saloon)
  • L’Attaque du moulin (The Attack on the Mill), short story included in Les Soirées de Médan
  • Une Page d’amour (The Interlude for Love)
  • L’Inondation (The Flood) novella
  • Nana (Nana)
  • Pot-Bouille (The Stew Pot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (Women’s Paradise)
  • La Joie de vivre (Zest for Life)
  • Germinal (Germinal)
  • L’Œuvre (Masterpiece)
  • La Terre (Earth)
  • Le Rêve (The Dream)
  • La Bête humaine (The Human Beast)
  • L’Argent (Money)
  • La Débâcle (The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (Doctor Pascal)

Zola wrote other series or collections and several independent works of fiction. His earliest works were quite melodramatic and there are even times in the later, more mature works, where he throws in some of the old sensationalism for effect.

Les Trois Villes (The Three Cities)

  • Lourdes (1894)
  • Rome (1896)
  • Paris (1898)

Les Quatre Evangiles (The Four Gospels)

  • Fécondité (1899)
  • Travail (1901)
  • Vérité (1903, published posthumously)
  • Justice (unfinished)


  • Contes à Ninon, (1864)
  • La Confession de Claude (1865)
  • Les Mystères de Marseille (1867)
  • Thérèse Raquin (1867)
  • Madeleine Férat (1868)
  • Nouveaux Contes à Ninon (1874)
  • Le Roman Experimental (1880)

There is a problem with translations of Zola into English that you might run across in old editions, online, and in-house printings of public domain editions:  his contemporary, Ernest Vizatelly, translated many of Zola’s works very early on and they still are in print. The problem with the Vizatelly translation is not the skill of the translator but rather Vizattelly’s penchant for cleaning up the naughty bits and playing fast and loose with scenes that he felt were not good for the reading public. So try for a newer translation if possible; or better yet, read the novels in the original French.

Not all the Zola titles are still in print:  even Penguin Classics only maintains a few of the major titles and apparently rotates the less well-known titles every decade or so. Today Grand Oak Books is committed to publishing the entire Rougon-Marquart series, two titles a year (ten years?). The publisher speaks of the series as if it were all in print but I have only seen the first two titles. It’s certainly worth looking into.


I have always cringed when Jessica Fletcher explains how she discovered the killer and the entire solution keyed on a visual clue that the viewer didn’t have a chance to see—maybe from a scene that was edited out to make room for an extra commercial selling lard products or artificial human odors.

When I was in college I learned something about Naturalism in literature. My over simplified recollection of the definition was that the Naturalist author took a character, gave him certain attributes, and placed that character in a controlled environment. Much like a laboratory experiment, the actions and responses of the character were predictable and inevitable. You can see that much of the new science developing at the end of the 19th century was important to this view of Naturalism.

I’ll have to look up a better definition of Naturalism, but I bring these two experiences of mine together to make a small comment about Émile Zola and his novel La Bête humane. On more than one occasion Zola’s “murder she wrote” tossed in a clue or an attribute at the last-minute presumably to plug any holes in the story. It’s one thing to describe a pistol on the mantel early in the novel and have the reader expecting its  use before the end of the story, but it’s another to have the murderer grab a pistol just as the narrator explains that gun was inadvertently dropped behind the potted palm earlier that day when the local officer was adjusting his Sam Browne.

For example:  Roubaud flips out and has a tantrum; then we learn that he is quick to anger. Shouldn’t Zola have set up that character trait and then when the situation arrived, it would be natural for Roubaud to respond as he did?