Emile Zola Biography – French Writer, Journalist, Novelist, Naturalism, Legacy

Emile Zola biography
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Emile Zola. Étienne Carjat, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Emile Zola Biography and Legacy

Emile Zola was a French writer and journalist, who was a significant figure in the political liberalization of France and an important pioneer of the literary school of Naturalism.

Zola wrote several novels, plays, and articles. Through his plays, he assisted in the development of theatrical naturalism along with other great writers such as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Anton Chekhov.

Early Life

Emile Zola was born on 2nd April 1840 in Paris, France, to Emilie Aubert and Francois Zola. Francois was an Italian-born French engineer known for engineering the Zola Dam near Le Tholonet in Aix-en-Provence.

In 1843, when Zola was only 3 years old, the family moved to Aix-en-Provence. And in 1847, when he was 7 years old, his father died, leaving the family dependent on a meager pension.

While the family lived in Aix-en-Provence, Zola met and befriended a young boy named Paul Cezanne, who was a year younger than him. Cezanne, as we all know, would go on to become one of the most influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Zola and Cezanne became good friends and when Zola and his family moved to Paris in 1858, Cezanne soon joined him there to pursue an artistic career.

Life in Paris & Early Writings

By the time the family moved to Paris, Emile Zola had already begun writing and wished to become a writer.

During these early years, Zola wrote in the romantic style as he was most probably influenced by the romantic writers that came before him.

However, his mother was not pleased with his desire to become a writer and wanted him to pursue a career in law. Zola relented to his mother’s wishes and decided to give the baccalauréat examination, which he failed twice.

After failing the examination the second time, he gave up on a law career and pursued a career in writing.

Zola first began working as a clerk in a shipping firm for minimal pay while trying to make it as a writer. Eventually, he got a job in the sales department of Hachette publishing house and also began writing art and literary reviews for different newspapers.

He also regularly wrote articles on politics, literature, and art, and was known to be an aggressive critic in these fields.

During these early years of his writing career, Emile Zola wrote several essays, short stories, three novels, and four plays. In 1865, his autobiographical novel, La Confession de Claude, was published, immediately attracting controversy, criticism, and condemnation from critics and authorities, who moved to censor the work.

The ensuing controversy led to Zola being fired from Hachette.

Breakthrough Work

In the year 1868, Zola’s third novel, Thérèse Raquin, was published as a book when he was 28 years old. The novel was initially published in a serialized form in the L’Artiste literary magazine in 1867.

Thérèse Raquin was Zola’s breakthrough novel and attracted a lot of attention and some negative publicity due to the murders and adultery present in the novel, thereby popularizing the work further among the general public.

The novel revolves around the story of an unhappy married woman named Thérèse Raquin, who enters into an affair with her husband’s friend.

According to Emile Zola himself, the purpose of the novel was to study temperaments instead of characters.

The novel has a detached and scientific approach to the themes it deals with and is therefore regarded as a work of literary naturalism.

The success of the novel brought Zola’s name to the forefront of the French literary scene of the time, forcing critics and his peers to take him seriously as a writer. Five years later, the novel was adapted into a play written by Zola himself.


In May 1870, Emile Zola, aged 30, married his mistress Eleonore-Alexandrine Meley, who was a seamstress.

Alexandrine became his greatest and most ardent supporter, playing an important role in promoting his work.

Although the two would remain married for the rest of his life, Zola would go on to father two children with another younger seamstress named Jeanne, who was hired by Alexandrine and briefly lived with them in Médan.

Alexandrine only found out about the affair in 1891, the year Jeanne gave birth to Zola’s second child.

Zola and Alexandrine’s marriage hit rock bottom after the discovery of Zola’s affair with Jeanne, and the two almost got divorced. However, they did not separate. Although their marriage was never the same again, they succeeded to some extent in moving on from the affair.

Alexandrine remained Zola’s wife until the end of his life, but they would never have children of their own.

Les Rougon-Macquart Series

Shortly after the publication of Thérèse Raquin, Emile Zola began writing the most ambitious series of novels of his career, collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart.

The series would go on to include 20 novels, spanning over two decades of his career from 1871, when the first book of the series was published, to 1893, when the twentieth and last book of the series was published.

The entire series ended up comprising more than half of Zola’s entire literary output.

Zola was 28 years old when he began and completed the entire layout of the series. The series follows the lives of the members of two branches of a single family during the Second French Empire from 1852 to 1870 under the rule of Napoleon the Third.

Zola was inspired to write the series after reading Honore de Balzac‘s famous cycle, La Comédie Humaine, which had a great influence on him.

Inspired by Balzac’s work, Zola decided to write his own unique series, one that mirrored contemporary society and was narrower in scope as it dealt with the history of a single family, showing how human beings are influenced and modified by their environment.

Considering himself a naturalist writer, Zola was very interested in and influenced by the works of Charles Darwin, Prosper Lucas, and Claude Bernard. The works of these men convinced him that humans were greatly influenced by heredity and their environment, and with this series, he wished to show the evolution of the family’s members after being influenced by these factors.

Les Rougon-Macquart series closely examines the two branches of a single family, that is, the respectable and legitimate Rougons and the disreputable and illegitimate Macquarts, over the course of five generations.

As the series progresses, Zola traces the hereditary and environmental influences of alcohol, violence, and prostitution.

The first novel, The Fortune of the Rougons, was published in 1871 when Zola was 31 years old, and the last novel of the series, Doctor Pascal, was published in 1893 when he was 53 years old.

Increasing Success as a Writer

Over the course of the twenty-novel series, spanning over twenty years of his career, Emile Zola became one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful writers of his time. He had managed to establish himself as a great writer and was highly admired and respected in literary and intellectual circles.

The massive commercial success of the seventh novel in the series, L’Assommoir, saw Zola become a wealthy man. The novels that followed, Nana and La Debacle, were even more commercially successful than L’Assommoir and propelled Zola to new heights in his career.

As a writer, he was now earning even more than Victor Hugo.

Zola became a prominent figure in literary and intellectual bourgeoisie circles, and frequently held dinners at his luxurious villa in Médan, which were attended by prominent French writers of the time such as Joris-Karl Huysmans and Guy de Maupassant.

The Dreyfus Affair

In January 1898, Emile Zola wrote and published an open letter titled J’Accuse…! to the President, Felix Faure, on the front page of the Paris daily L’Aurore.

The letter was regarding the controversial case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French-Jewish artillery officer who was accused of passing military secrets to the German Embassy without any concrete evidence.

Dreyfus was put on trial, convicted of treason, and then sent to the penal colony of Cayenne, infamously known as Devil’s Island, in the Salvation Islands of French Guiana in 1894.

However, the case became messy when it was discovered that not Dreyfus but another officer named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy was actually responsible for the treason.

When the highest levels of the army were informed of the discovery, instead of clearing Dreyfus’ name and setting him free, they tried to protect Esterhazy and even forged documents to prove that Dreyfus was guilty of treason.

In the open letter, Zola accused the highest officials in the French Army of antisemitism and obstruction of justice for wrongfully convicting Dreyfus in spite of knowing he was innocent.

By publishing the letter, Zola knew he was putting his career at risk. In fact, he wished to be prosecuted for libel just so that he could put forth to the general public new evidence proving Dreyfus’ innocence.

By then, Zola was a well-known public figure and thinker, and he knew that his words could have a significant impact on the case. And he was right. His open letter became an important turning point in the case as it brought a lot of public attention to the case.

More importantly, his plan succeeded. In February 1898, Zola was tried and convicted of criminal libel and was removed from the Legion of Honour. The first conviction was overturned on a technicality, but another suit was soon filed against him.

But before the verdict was out, Zola fled to England on the advice of his lawyer. Meanwhile, the controversy surrounding the case raged on in France, dividing public opinion. The Major who had forged the documents implicating Dreyfus, Hubert-Joseph Henry, was found guilty of forging evidence and was arrested and thrown in jail, where he would die in August 1898.

In June 1898, Zola returned to France from England after the Supreme Court annulled the original verdict against Dreyfus. However, the following year, after much lobbying from the anti-Dreyfusards, Dreyfus was convicted again in September 1899.

Upon applying for a retrial, the government said that they could not completely exonerate him but could pardon him if he admitted to being guilty. Dreyfus accepted the government’s offer and admitted to being guilty even though he was innocent.

Dreyfus was finally completely exonerated by the Supreme Court in 1906.

Zola’s open letter is now often regarded in France as the most significant indication of the new influence and power of the intellectuals in shaping public opinion, the state, and the media.


On 29th September 1902, Emile Zola, aged 62, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his Paris apartment, which was caused by a blocked, improperly ventilated chimney.

Zola’s death immediately gave birth to controversies and theories of his being assassinated. Many believed that the blocking of the chimney was not an accident but was done on purpose by his enemies who had previously made assassination attempts on his life.

However, at the time of his death, nothing could be proved as no evidence was found to validate the assassination.

For almost a week immediately after his death, Zola’s house was flooded with prominent French writers, artists, thinkers, and politicians of the time. Messages of condolences and sympathy poured in from all over France, while simultaneously his detractors and enemies celebrated his demise, some even going as far as to suggest that he had committed suicide.

Over the years since his death, the theory of his being assassinated gained more credibility and traction after his great-granddaughter revealed that when she was 8 years old, her grandfather, who was Zola’s son, said that in 1952 a man came to his house to give him information about his father’s death. The man had been with a dying friend who had confessed to taking money to block the chimney of Zola’s apartment.

Zola’s funeral was attended by thousands of people, including Alfred Dreyfus. He was first buried in the cemetery of Montmartre in Paris, and then five years later his remains were relocated to the Panthéon, where he rests in a crypt with fellow great writers Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo.


Emile Zola is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential writers of French literature. His name and legacy as a writer are often put in the same category as Voltaire, Balzac, Dumas, and Hugo.

Zola was even nominated for the first and second Nobel Prizes in Literature in 1901 and 1902 but never won.

Toward the latter part of his career, Zola had become one of the very few writers who had achieved both critical and massive commercial success, making him a wealthy and respected man in French society. He was revered and admired not only in literary circles but also in scientific and intellectual circles.

Perhaps Zola’s greatest contribution was to the school of naturalism in both novels and plays. His Les Rougon-Macquart series is widely considered a masterpiece of the literary naturalist movement, inspiring countless subsequent writers across the world.

Zola’s name continues to come up in popular culture through references in literature, movies, plays, etc. His life as well as his works have been adapted into movies, television series, and documentaries.

Through his extensive literary output and his impact on popular culture and literature, the name and legacy of Emile Zola continue to live on.