5 Émile Zola books you absolutely need to read
Émile Zola is a world-famous French author who lived and worked in Paris in the mid-late 19th century and the early 20th century. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in both 1901 and 1902.
Zola is perhaps most well-known for his 20 volume series called Les Rougon-Macquart. He penned and published the masterpiece between 1871 and 1893. The series is centered on two French families and is also one of the best examples of Naturalism in literature. Zola spearheaded the Naturalist literary movement, which was focused on studying natural selection and evolution through literature.
Zola is also very widely known for his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair. Ever heard the phrase “J’accuse!”? It means “I accuse!” and it comes from the headline of an open letter that Zola wrote to the President of France at the time in response to a captain (Alfred Dreyfus) in the French military who was wrongly accused of supplying Germany with top-secret information in the 19th century.
Sadly, in 1902, Zola was found dead in his apartment in Paris due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Initially, his death was thought to be an accident, but due to his role in the Dreyfus Affair, some people think that he was killed by someone who didn’t agree with his stance. There are a lot of questions surrounding his death, and it has never been proven whether his demise was an accident or not.
In addition to the J’accuse…! letter, there are a few other Émile Zola books you absolutely need to read! Let’s find out which ones.
1. La Fortune des Rougon (1871)
To get you started on the Rougon-Macquart series, the first book on my list is the first book in the long series! La Fortune des Rougon, or, The Fortune of the Rougons in English, kicks off the 20 volume series. I’m a big advocate of reading book series in order, which is why I’ve started my reading recommendations here!
La Fortune des Rougon will introduce you to the Rougon family, one of the main families of the series. The book is set in a provincial town in the South of France and, in addition to being centered on the Rougon family, also touches on the coup d’état of 1851, which would go on to create the Second Empire of France, led by Napoleon III.
You may want to keep a pen and paper handy as there are a lot of characters to keep track of. Things will get clearer as the book goes on, and as you continue on in the series!
2. L’Assommoir (1877)
L’Assommoir is the seventh novel in the Rougon-Macquart series. The word “assommoir” can’t be directly translated into English, but it comes from the French verb “assommer,” which means “to knock out.” “L’Assommoir ” was a slang word for a place in Paris in the later 19th century that sold cheap alcohol. It is an appropriate title for this Zola book, as the plot is centered on the problems of alcoholism and poverty in Paris at the time.
The main character, Gervaise Macquart, is forced to fend for herself and her two sons after her lover abandons them. She then has to worry about protecting her family against her new lover who happens to be an alcoholic.
3. Au Bonheur des Dames (1883)
Au bonheur des Dames, or, The Ladies’ Paradise, is another novel from the Rougon-Macquart series! Spoiler alert: all of the books on the list are in the series. There are just so many good stories to choose from within this larger 20-volume series that I couldn’t resist. It’s also a great place to start with Zola.
Back to my list! Au bonheur des Dames is set in a department store, which was a very innovative invention at the time that it was written. Before the late 19th century, these types of stores just didn’t exist! Zola was fascinated by this novel invention and so he chose to create a story that was based on Le Bon Marché, one of the first modern department stores.
The book’s main character is a woman named Denise Baudu, who is from a small town in northern France. Denise moves to Paris to work at the department store, Au Bonheur des Dames. Zola switches between Denise’s narrative and the department store owner’s. The juxtaposition of their two lives serves as a marker of the large differences between the upper and working class in Paris at the time.
4. Germinal (1885)
Germinal is the 13th novel in the Rougon-Macquart series. “Germinal” actually comes from the calendar that was created during the French Revolution (one that hasn’t been used since).
Germinal tells a very realistic story of a coal miners’ strike in Northern France in the 1860s. The novel’s main character is Étienne Lantier, who is also in L’Assommoir, book number two on this list. Like the rest of the series, in this novel, Zola focused on determining the effect of the environment as well as family influences on a human being.
This novel is often considered to be one of Zola’s best works, and also one of the most important French novels in general. The novel shines a light on the harsh, brutal, and unfair working conditions of French coal miners in the mid 19th century.
5. La Bête Humaine (1890)
I saved one of the best for last! La Bête Humaine is one of Zola’s most gruesome tales, but it is also one of my favorites. La Bête Humaine, or, The Beast Within, is said to be based on the Jack the Ripper murders that occurred in London in the late 19th century.
The novel takes place on a train that travels between Paris and Le Havre, which is a city in the north of France. This novel isn’t for the faint of heart as it is a psychological thriller for sure.
The main character is a man named Jacques Lantier (you’ll recognize the last name from Germinal) who suffers from a hereditary mental illness that makes him “mad.” Lantier associates murder with sex, and this drives him to kill innocent women. I won’t say too much more – but know that this is a very intense story!
Now that you know where to get started (as it turns out, the Rougon-Macquart series!), I hope you’ll start to love the French writer Émile Zola as much as I do!
If you’re interested in learning more about Zola’s life in Paris, or about a few French writers in general, I suggest you hop on one of our Paris walking tours! There is so much to learn about this city and the writers and artists who have lived here. Click here to learn more and to make your booking!