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Emile Zola: Figurehead Of Naturalism In Literature

Born in Paris in 1840 to Francois Zola an Italian Engineer and his mother Émilie Aubert a French housewife after his father’s death Zolas moved in 1858 to Paris, where Émile’s childhood friend Paul Cezanne soon joined him. Though Zola started to write in the romantic style, he emerged as the pioneer of a new fictional genre related to an extreme form of Realism. In his later life, he passed time in his luxurious villa (worth 300,000 francs in Médan, near Paris, after 1880. But Zola died on 29 September 1902 of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by an improperly ventilated chimney

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By: Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee

Zola’s experimental novel is a consequence of the scientific evolution of the century; it continues and completes physiology, which itself leans for support on chemistry and medicine; it substitutes for the study of the abstract and the metaphysical man the study of the natural man, governed by physical or chemical laws, and modified by the influences of his surroundings; it is in one word the literature of our scientific age, as the classical and romantic literature corresponded to a scholastic and theological age. Novelists should, he urges, “operate on the characters, the passions, on the human and social data, in the same way, that the chemist and the physicist operate on inanimate beings, and as the physiologist operates on living beings. Determinism dominates everything.” As such, “purely imaginary novels” should be replaced by “novels of observation and experiment”.

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This ideological shift of Zola in his novels is, of course, a full-frontal attack on all forms of Romanticism and Symbolism. This French novelist, journalist, playwright, the best-known practitioner of the literary school of naturalism Zola was nominated for the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 and 1902.  Born in Paris in 1840 to Francois Zola an Italian Engineer and his mother Émilie Aubert a French housewife after his father’s death Zolas moved in 1858 to Paris, where Émile’s childhood friend Paul Cezanne soon joined him. Though Zola started to write in the romantic style, he emerged as the pioneer of a new fictional genre related to an extreme form of Realism. In his later life, he passed time in his luxurious villa (worth 300,000 francs in Médan, near Paris, after 1880. But Zola died on 29 September 1902 of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by an improperly ventilated chimney. In 1953, an investigation (“Zola a-t-il été assassiné?”) published by the journalist Jean-Bedel in the newspaper Liberation raised the idea that Zola’s death might have been a murder rather than an accident.

With the publication of his sordid autobiographical novel La Confession de Claude 1865) he shifted to a new genre of fiction. His novel Les Mystères de Marseille appeared as a serial in 1867. He was also an aggressive critic, his articles on literature and art appearing in Villemessant’s Journal L’ Evenement.

After his first major novel, Therese Raquin 1867) Zola started the series of 20 novels called Les Rougon-Macquart and he no longer needed to look back. He got recognition as the father of naturalism, a new literary genre, and even in America, his influence was felt deeply in the novels of early twentieth-century novelists like Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and Dean Howells. The series traces the environmental and hereditary influences of violence, alcohol, and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. The series examines two branches of the family—the respectable (that is, legitimate) Rougons and the disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts—over five generations. In the preface to the first novel of the series, Zola states, “I want to explain how a family, a small group of regular people, behaves in society while expanding through the birth of ten, twenty individuals, who seem at first glance profoundly dissimilar, but who are shown through analysis to be intimately linked to one another. Heredity has its laws, just like gravity. Ideology is conceived to be the structure of assumptions that form the imaginative world of groups. Althusser writes that ideology is “a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to the real condition of existence.” Hence, ideology refers to both the real and imaginary reference to the world Ideology is seen as the basis of consciousness, and the Marxist literary critic argues this point in assessing the relationship between it and the literature in question. This relationship is a strong one, and one that will allow a greater understanding of the premises of any given work. In the context of narrative fiction, ideology may be defined as the frame of values informing the narrative. This frame installs hierarchical relationships between pairs of oppositional terms such as real vs. false, good vs. bad, and beautiful vs. ugly. The ideological shift is best exemplified in Emile Zola’s novels. This is a society secularized, desacramantalized, in which there is a radical secularization of death, marriage, and birth. From that aspect, Emile Zola’s novel is ‘not only a farewell to romantic suppositions but also a farewell to the sacred in man”. The novels of the French writer Émile Zola whose birthday falls on April 2 move toward a more extreme form of realism known as naturalism, taking its name from its allegedly scientific impulse to base its characters, events, and explanations on natural rather than supernatural or divine causes.

As such, Zola was the leading figure of French naturalism. He wrote a cycle of twenty novels under the rubric of Les Rougon-Macquart concerning the two branches of a family, the Rougons and the Macquarts. Zola traced the “natural and social history” of this family through several generations, emphasizing their behaviour as influenced by heredity and environment. Some of the best-known of these novels are L’Assommon, Nana L’Assommoir, and Germinal. In Zola’s essay ‘The Experimental Novel’ he attempted a justification of his novelistic practice, and it became the seminal manifesto of naturalism. Zola makes it clear at the outset of his essay that the inspiration and foundation of his arguments was Claude Bernard’s essay ‘Introduction a’l’Etude de la Medecine Experimentale’ which had endeavoured to show that medicine had a scientific basis, namely, the “experimental method.” Bernard had argued that this method, already used in the study of inanimate bodies in physics and chemistry, should also be used in the study of living bodies in the fields of physiology and medicine. Essentially, Zola sees Bernard’s attempt as a symptom of a larger pattern of intellectual development: the nineteenth century, he remarks, is marked by a “return to nature,” to a natural and scientific explanation of all phenomena. This return to nature is not the romantic ideology of Wordsworth in 19th century English literature. Rather it is a different ideological shift. Wordsworth’s pantheistic philosophy was a search for divinity in Nature while Zola denied the divinity of man and extolled animality instead. Many get confused over Nature and Naturalism. In naturalism, there is a return to nature in the sense, of a return to animality but the nature worshippers of early 19th century British literature meant a total shift to the transcendental view where human will and imagination are the basic forces. In Zola’s naturalism, man is never given this willpower as he is the victim of social forces which are dominated by heredity and Darwinian determinism. From merely being an observer, an artist in Zola’s ideological premise should be the photographer of phenomena, his observation should be an exact representation of nature” something like mirror reflection without the glow of the lamp of idealism a point which M.H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp discussed. From 1877, with the publication of L’Assommoir, the publication of Nana in 1880, and La Débâcle in 1892, he became a figurehead among the literary bourgeoisie and organized cultural dinners with Maupassant and Huysmans. (The author is a senior Academician and Trilingual poet cum columnist can be reached at profratanbhattacharjee@gmail.com)

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