Emile Zola - Biography

Emile Zola - Biography

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Short biography - Emile Zola, one of the most famous literary men of the second half of the 19th century, left his mark on the French literary world until today. How not to think of works such as Rougon-Macquart, Au Bonheur des Dames or even at work, Germinal. But also to his action in the public sphere, which gave birth to the person of the intellectual, when he decided to commit to the cause of Alfred Dreyfus, accused of espionage and treason, the fruit of growing anti-Semitism in French society at the time. Yet nothing predicted that the young Emile would become the pantheonized intellectual in 1908, six years after his death.

A life marked by literature

Born April 2, 1840, Emile Zola lived in a relatively wealthy family, or at least sheltered from want. At the age of two, he suffered from a brain fever that put his life in danger, but recovered after a particularly painful period. In his childhood in Aix-en-Provence, he will have speech problems and at the age of seven, he does not yet know his alphabet and reading is foreign to him. Read, will be taught to him at eight years old. During his adolescence, he undertook studies in Paris during which he befriended Paul Cézanne. A lover of poetry, Zola liked to explore Paris during his walks, he who appreciated nature. After many family hazards, in 1859, he failed the baccalaureate test, thereby abandoning his studies and devoting himself to a sometimes difficult Bohemian life for lack of income. His life was then punctuated by literature and reading by the writing of stories and poems (Tales in Ninon). The writer was about to be born.

In 1862, he was employed by the publisher Hachette and this for four years before being appointed head of advertising in 1864, during which time he published his first chronicles. He contributed to various journals as a literary critic and art critic, and joined the realist current of Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant and published his first major novel: Therese Raquin (1867).

Zola and the Rougon-Macquart saga

Subsequently he devoted himself to the romantic series of Rougon Macquart, which is the natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire. It will be a colossal work of nineteen volumes, of which The Rougons' fortune (1871), The Assomoir (1877), Germinal (1885), The human beast (1890) ... Leader of the naturalist school, Zola wants to apply in literature with the experimental novel the method of biologists: the analysis of social determinism explains the behavior of the characters in his novels.

Émile Zola portrays the society of the Second Empire in its diversity, highlighting its harshness towards workers, its depravity (Nana, 1880), but also its successes (the advent of department stores in Au Bonheur des Dames, 1883). In a search for truth which takes scientific methods as a model, Émile Zola accumulates direct observations and documentation on each subject. But he does not stop at the simple observation and elevates to the level of myth what could have remained a vast historical chronicle. By his keen sense of "which rings true" detail and effective metaphor, by the rhythm of his sentences and his narrative constructions, he creates a powerful fictional world, inhabited by anguished questions about the human body and the social body.

After having scoured the various publishing houses of the time for thirty years, and having written a considerable amount of works, he took on the dimension of a writer who, scandalized by the situation of the Dreyfus affair, was to take its defense and give birth to the sphere of intellectuals under a third Republic threatened by the rise of nationalism and hatred between communities. The intellectual, today omnipresent and essential to public thought.

The Dreyfus Affair, the fight of an intellectual

The Dreyfus affair took place from 1894 to 1906, from the opening of the trial to the rehabilitation of Captain Dreyfus. It should all be a trivial matter of espionage. French intelligence intercepted a document (the famous "bordereau") proving that a French officer betrayed his country for the benefit of Germany. An investigation was immediately opened and suspicion immediately fell on a Jewish officer, who carried out an internship at the staff, Captain Dreyfus. Experts in graphology are then appointed. Despite their contradictory conclusions, Alfred Dreyfus was arrested, following a very rapid interrogation carried out by the commander of Paty de Clam, in charge of the investigation.

On December 19, 1894, the trial opened behind closed doors before the Conseil de guerre which declared the accused guilty four days later, in the light of a "secret file", that Dreyfus' lawyer, Maître Demange , was never able to consult. Dreyfus is therefore condemned to deportation for life. But he had to undergo beforehand the supreme dishonor, degradation in public. This took place on January 5, 1895, in the large courtyard of the Military School. The "one" of the Petit Journal shows him at attention, impassive in the face of the adjutant of the Republican Guard who breaks his saber on his knee after having torn off his stripes, the red bands of his pants, as well as all of them. the insignia of the rank, which lie on the ground. "The magnificent adjutant pulls, peels, mourns the traitor," writes Maurice Barrès.

Exile and death of Emile Zola

It was in 1897 that Emile Zola began to take sides with Captain Dreyfus. He published in L'Aurore on January 13, 1898 a letter to the President of the Republic Félix Faure entitled: J'accuse. The Ministry of War therefore brought him to trial from February 17 to 23 and he was sentenced to a fine of 3000 francs and one year in prison. He went into exile in England from 1898 to 199.

He died on September 29, 1902 in Paris, suffocated in mysterious conditions, apparently because of a criminal hand which would have blocked the chimney. On October 5, Zola was buried in the Montmartre cemetery, accompanied by a huge crowd. His ashes were transported to the Pantheon in 1908, making Zola, an apostle of the French Republic and one of its emblematic figures with Gambetta and Jules Ferry among many others.


- Zola, biography of Henri Troyat. Flammarion, Grandes Biographies Collection, 2002.

- Émile Zola - from J'accuse au Panthéon, by Alain Pagès. Editions Lucien Souny, 2008.

For further

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