10 Things You Should Know About Émile Zola


As a self-proclaimed book worm, you’d better believe that I’m just as much a fan of French literature as I am English. Now that I’ve lived in Paris for a while and have learned the language, it’s an amazing thing to be able to read these works in their original forms!

There are dozens of French authors worth discussing, but I’m focusing on one of the masters, Émile Zola. Nominated for the Nobel prize in literature in 1901 and 1902, Zola is definitely one of the greatest French authors of all time.

Not only was Zola a master with words, but he also lived a pretty interesting life as well. Read on for 10 things you should know about the French author!

1.  Background on Zola

Émile Zola by Carjat

Émile Zola by Étienne Carjat – WikiCommons

Émile Zola was born in Paris in 1840 to Franco-Italian parents. When Zola was 3 years old, the family moved to Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. After the death of his father when he was just 7 years old, Zola and his mother lived a modest life, before Zola decided to move back to Paris to pursue his dreams of becoming a writer (to the chagrin of his mother, who had plans for her son to become a lawyer).

In Paris, Zola develops his writing style while working odd jobs to support himself.

In 1865, Zola meets his future wife Éléonore-Alexandrine Meley. Meley and Zola were married in 1870 and remained married until Zola’s death. The couple never had any children, and in 1888 Zola began an affair with Jeanne Rozerot, a seamstress that lived with the pair. Zola had two children with Rozerot, and when Meley found out about their years-long affair, the couple nearly divorced. Meley eventually forgave Zola, and he began to take on a more prominent role in his children’s lives.

Before embarking on the 20 volume series (more on that later!) that shaped his literary career, Zola wrote various short stories, essays, plays, and novels.

2. Zola Failed his Baccalaureate Exam


Homework by tjevans – Pixabay

Many of our readers may know what the Baccalaureate (Bac) exam is, but for those that do not, let me explain a bit. The Bac is a test that high school level students take to test and prove their academic level, and is required in order to pursue higher studies. The test would have been essential for Zola to become to the lawyer that his mother wanted him to be.

It may seem hard to believe that a literary master such as Zola failed his exam, not once, but twice! But I think this just goes to prove that even if you may not be a good student, it doesn’t mean you can’t be successful in literature…or in life.

3. Zola Spearheaded the Naturalist Literary Movement

Charles Darwin by Barraud

Charles Darwin by Herbert Rose Barraud – Wikicommons

France was the birthplace of many literary movements throughout history. The Naturalist movement, in particular, stems from Zola’s interpretation of a theory created by philosopher Auguste Comte. Comte introduced the use of a scientific method that called for a scientist to perform controlled experiments to prove (or debunk!) hypotheses. Zola started to apply this method in literature, by performing “experiments” on the characters in his works.

Naturalism took a lot of cues from the studies of Charles Darwin, the biologist that first suggested the theory of Natural Selection. Darwin states that only the “fastest and fittest” survive in the animal kingdom. Zola wanted to pose the same questions as Darwin, but as applied to social situations.

Naturalism is considered to be an extreme form of realism, and its use in literature wished to study the influence of characters’ environments on their personalities, and the path that their lives would then follow. If a character grew up in a rich family, how would this affect their future? What would happen if the character grew up in a poor family?

While the answers to the questions asked by the Naturalists may sound obvious to our modern ears, the movement was revolutionary for its time.

4. One of Zola’s best friends was painter Cézanne

Paul Alexis reading to Zola

Paul Alexis reading to Zola by Paul Cézanne – WikiCommons

If you’ve never heard of the French painter Paul Cézanne, I encourage you to do some research, or even better, head to the Orsay Museum! Pablo Picasso and Matisse have both credited Cézanne as a major influence, and he is said to have bridged the gap between Impressionism and Cubism, two considerable art movements of the 19th century. Talk about friends in high places, Mr. Zola!

Zola and Cézanne’s friendship began many years before either of them reached their fame as artists. The pair grew up in the south of France together, and it was actually Zola who encouraged his friend to join him in Paris in 1858. Cézanne painted a portrait of Zola and writer Paul Alexis, pictured above, entitled Paul Alexis Reading to Zola.

Although the two maintained their relationship for many years, unfortunately, they had a falling out due to the fact that Zola based one of his characters on Cézanne in a novel that criticized the bohemian life of painters at the time, and Cézanne found it insulting.

Their friendship is the subject of the 2016 movie Cézanne and I, which is worth checking out!

5. Zola penned a 20 volume series

Émile Zola, the Rougon-Macquart under his arm, salutes his model Honoré de Balzac

Émile Zola, the Rougon-Macquart under his arm, salutes his model Honoré de Balzac by André Gill – WikiCommons

Zola’s most famous work is a series called Les Rougon-Macquart, a 20 volume series that follows the lives of two families in 19th century France. The series is one of the best examples of Naturalism in literature.

Zola was obsessed with natural selection and evolution, and using literature to study these phenomena (hence the Naturalist movement!). His series is an inquiry into the effects of the environment they live in on a family through the years.

Zola was also interested in the turn towards pleasure that society was taking at the time. Drinking, staying out all night, dancing, and using drugs began to become more and more normal, and the Rougon-Macquart family was not immune to these vices. Zola examines the effects that these amusements had on the progression of their lives.

6. Zola actually made money as a writer

Book cover of L'Assommoir by Émile Zola

Book cover of L’Assommoir by Émile Zola – WikiCommons

Many famous authors of the 19th century lived on almost nothing, as their works were not recognized when they were alive. Zola was definitely lucky in this sense, as he made a considerable amount of money while he was alive.

The seventh novel in his Les Rougon-Macquart series, L’Assommoir, was a best-seller and skyrocketed Zola to fame. The book was a commentary on alcoholism and poor living conditions plaguing the lower class at the time.

While Zola did not necessarily intend for the novel to raise awareness, it drew attention to the conditions of a huge population in Paris that was not really being talked about.

The fame of L’Assommoir made Zola a household name, and the novel’s sales ensured a very comfortable life for the author.

7. His home in Médan was a hot spot for other writers

Médan - Maison d'Émile Zola

Médan – Maison d’Émile Zola by Spedona – WikiCommons

Due to the success of his Les Rougon-Macquart series, Zola was able to purchase a large property located just outside Paris in the town of Médan.

Zola lived in this sanctuary for most of the year, and he was known to invite authors like Guy de Maupassant and Joris-Karl Huysmans to convene to discuss literature. The meetings eventually evolved into the authors penning a series of novels entitled Les Soirées de Médan. The novels tell the story of a group of friends who come together at Zola’s home, and what they discussed at their meetings.

All of the novels also include conversations the authors had in regards to the Franco-Prussian war that occurred in 1870-1871. Prussia was a German state, and the conflict involved the Second and Third French Empire’s. The group wanted to discuss the war in a more realistic way, as it was often written about from a heroic standpoint which the authors disagreed with.

8. The Dreyfus Affair


J’accuse by Émile Zola in L’Aurore newspaper – WikiCommons

Although Zola’s novels were what he was most famous for, an open letter he penned in 1898 to the President of France sparked controversy and is said to have divided France into two.

The Dreyfus affair was arguably one of the most scandalous judicial cases of the 19th century in France. In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly accused of giving top-secret information to German enemy troops.

Severe antisemitism at the time caused the French government to wrongly accuse Dreyfus of giving up the information, even though evidence quickly emerged that Dreyfus was not involved. Dreyfus was then condemned to life in prison on Devil’s Island in French Guiana.

Zola was appalled that although it had become common knowledge that Dreyfus was innocent, that nothing was being done to free him. As a response, Zola wrote a seething letter to the President entitled J’accuse…! (I accuse…!) to plea for Dreyfus’ release. The letter divided France into two sides – those who agreed with the government, and those who agreed with Zola.

Zola was quickly charged with libel (defamation) and was brought to trial. He was convicted and removed from the Legion of Honor, and rather than going to jail left for England. He stayed in England for 1 year before returning to France as the current government was falling.

It wasn’t until 1906 that Dreyfus was acquitted for the crimes he did not commit, and many believe it was thanks in part to Zola’s letter.

9. Suspicion surrounding Zola’s death

Émile Zola 1902

Self-portrait of Émile Zola 1902 by Émile Zola – WikiCommons

Not surprisingly, after publishing J’accuse…!, Zola had some enemies. It is for that reason that there is a lot of questions surrounding the circumstances of his death.

Zola was found dead in his Parisian apartment in 1902, having died of carbon monoxide poisoning. His death was originally said to be accidental, the cause being that his chimney did not have a proper ventilation system.

Due to the many people that disagreed with his stance in the Dreyfus affair, some believe that Zola was the victim of an assassination plot, but it was never been proven either way.

10. Zola is buried among other famous writers

Pantheon of Paris

Pantheon of Paris by Moonik – WikiCommons

After his death, Zola was originally buried in the Montmartre cemetery in Paris. 5 years later, his remains were removed and placed in the Pantheon. The Pantheon is a massive mausoleum in Paris that contains the remains of famous French citizens like Voltaire, Marie Curie, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

During the ceremony honoring Zola’s placement in the Pantheon, there was even an assassination attempt on Dreyfus who was present for the service, showing that even so long after the affair was settled, there were still some French citizens that were against Dreyfus’ acquittal.

Zola shares his resting place with infamous French writers Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas! If you find yourself in Paris, I definitely recommend taking a trip to the Pantheon. Not only are there some pretty amazing French authors, intellectuals, and scientists buried there, the architecture is impressive, and it is located in the Latin Quarter in the 5th arrondissement.


I hope you enjoyed learning more about this French literary star! I personally recommend checking out the English translation of his Les Rougon-Macquart series, to get an insider’s look into France in the 19th century.

Have any of you read Zola’s works already?! Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts in the comments below, and happy reading!

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