History of Literature

Emile Zola


(I accuse)

Letter to the President of the Republic by Émile Zola


Emile Zola

Édouard Manet
Portrait of Émile Zola, 1868


Émile Zola

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Émile François Zola (French pronunciation: [emil zɔˈla]) (2 April 1840 – 29 September 1902) was an influential French writer, the most important exemplar of the literary school of naturalism, an important contributor to the development of theatrical naturalism, and a major figure in the political liberalization of France and in the exoneration of the falsely accused and convicted army officer Alfred Dreyfus.

Émile Zola was born in Paris in 1840. His father, François Zola, was the son of an Italian engineer. With his French wife, Émilie Aubert, the family moved to Aix-en-Provence, in the southeast, when he was three years old. Four years later, in 1847, his father died, leaving his mother on a meagre pension. In 1858, the Zolas moved to Paris, where Émile became friends with the painter Paul Cézanne and started to write in the romantic style. Zola's widowed mother had planned a law career for him, but he failed his Baccalauréat examination.

Before his breakthrough as a writer, Zola worked as a clerk in a shipping firm, and then in the sales department for a publisher (Hachette). He also wrote literary and art reviews for newspapers. As a political journalist, Zola did not hide his dislike of Napoleon III, who had successfully run for the office of President under the constitution of the French Second Republic, only to misuse this position as a springboard for the coup d'état that made him emperor. Zola was very opinionated, as his writings also showed.

During his early years, Émile Zola wrote several short stories and essays, four plays and three novels. Among his early books was Contes à Ninon, published in 1864. With the publication of his sordid autobiographical novel La Confession de Claude (1865) attracting police attention, Hachette fired him. His novel Les Mystères de Marseille appeared as a serialized story in 1867.

After his first major novel, Thérèse Raquin (1867), Zola started the long series called Les Rougon Macquart, about a family under the Second Empire.

Literary output
More than half of Zola's novels were part of this set of 20 collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart. Unlike Balzac who in the midst of his literary career resynthesized his work into La Comédie Humaine, Zola from the outset at the age of 28 had thought of the complete layout of the series. Set in France's Second Empire, the series traces the "environmental" influences of violence, alcohol, and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the industrial revolution. The series examines two branches of a single family: the respectable (that is, legitimate) Rougons and the disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts, for five generations.

As he described his plans for the series, "I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world."

Although Zola and Cézanne were friends from childhood and in youth, they broke in later life over Zola's fictionalized depiction of Cézanne and the Bohemian life of painters in his novel L'Œuvre (The Masterpiece, 1886).

From 1877 onwards with the publication of l'Assommoir, Émile Zola became wealthy–he was better paid than Victor Hugo, for example. He became a figurehead among the literary bourgeoisie and organized cultural dinners with Guy de Maupassant, Joris-Karl Huysmans and other writers at his luxurious villa in Medan near Paris after 1880. Germinal in 1885, then the three 'cities', Lourdes in 1894, Rome in 1896 and Paris in 1897, established Zola as a successful author.

The self-proclaimed leader of French naturalism, Zola's works inspired operas such as those of Gustave Charpentier, notably Louise in the 1890s. His works, inspired by the concepts of heredity (Claude Bernard), social manichaeism and idealistic socialism, resonate with those of Nadar, Manet and subsequently Flaubert.

Activism on behalf of Captain Dreyfus
Émile Zola risked his career and even his life on 13 January 1898, when his "J'accuse", was published on the front page of the Paris daily, L'Aurore. The newspaper was run by Ernest Vaughan and Georges Clemenceau, who decided that the controversial story would be in the form of an open letter to the President, Félix Faure. Émile Zola's "J'accuse" accused the highest levels of the French Army of obstruction of justice and antisemitism by having wrongfully convicted a Jewish artillery captain, Alfred Dreyfus, to life imprisonment on Devil's Island in French Guiana. Zola declared that Dreyfus' conviction and removal to an island prison came after a false accusation of espionage and was a miscarriage of justice. The case, known as the Dreyfus affair, divided France deeply between the reactionary army and church, and the more liberal commercial society.

The ramifications continued for many years; on the 100th anniversary of Zola's article, France's Roman Catholic daily paper, La Croix, apologized for its antisemitic editorials during the Dreyfus Affair. As Zola was a leading French thinker, his letter formed a major turning-point in the affair.

Zola was brought to trial for criminal libel on 7 February 1898, and was convicted on 23 February, sentenced, and removed from the Legion of Honor. Rather than go to jail, Zola fled to England. Without even having had the time to pack a few clothes, he arrived at Victoria Station on 19 July. After his brief and unhappy residence in London, from October 1898 to June 1899, he was allowed to return in time to see the government fall.

The government offered Dreyfus a pardon (rather than exoneration), which he could accept and go free and so effectively admit that he was guilty, or face a re-trial in which he was sure to be convicted again. Although he was clearly not guilty, he chose to accept the pardon. Zola said, "The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it." In 1906, Dreyfus was completely exonerated by the Supreme Court.

The 1898 article by Émile Zola is widely marked in France as the most prominent manifestation of the new power of the intellectuals (writers, artists, academicians) in shaping public opinion, the media and the State. The power of intellectuals lasted well into the 1980s, with a peak in the 1960s with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a stopped chimney. He was 62 years old. His enemies were blamed because of previous attempts on his life, but nothing could be proven. (Decades later, a Parisian roofer claimed on his deathbed to have closed the chimney for political reasons). Zola was initially buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris, but on 4 June 1908, almost six years after his death, his remains were moved to the Panthéon, where he shares a crypt with Victor Hugo.



Therese Raquin

Emile Zola

Therese Raquin is not the best of Emile Zola's novels; it has the hesitancy of a beginning and the dogmatism of a defense, rather than the assured scope of his later masterpiece Germinal (1885). Yet it is precisely the properties of uncertainty and of extravagance that make Therese Raquin a significant novel. In it we see one of the most important novelists of the nineteenth century struggling with his form, seeking, not without desperation, to transform the novel into the social scalpel he so devoutly believed it could be.
In keeping with the developing creed of Naturalism, Zola chose two "specimens" to enact his theories about sexual desire and remorse. But Raquin and Laurent, her lover, are so heavily invested with the responsibility of embodying Zola's mechanical determinism, that they become strange tortured creatures; individuals rocked by chance and bewildered by the obscurity and intensity of their feelings, rather than being exemplars of physiology and material circumstance. The result is a novel divided against itself, a wonderful amalgam of wild eroticism and meticulous detachment. The impersonality of the third-person narrator is pushed to outrageous extremes as the would-be "scientific" narrator is forced to provide ever more elaborate, mystified and mystifying explanations of the conduct of the two lovers. Therese Raquin herself is a magnificent creation; she enters the text as a site of mute desires and fears, as the "human animal" without free will, subject to the inexorable laws of her physiology. Gradually, however, and then volcanically, her history cumulates to give her voice and movement, and a superb consciousness of herself as a woman and of the bodily pleasures of being a woman.




Emile Zola

In Zola's own words, this is "a work of truth, the first novel about the common people that does not lie and that smells of the common people." The narrative details the fluctuating fortunes of Parisian laundrywoman Gervaise Macquart, whose determination to transcend the slum milieu through hard work is ultimately thwarted by circumstance. Gervaise's roofer husband suffers a fall and stops working. His ensuing alcoholism drains Gervaise's assets and seduces her into the fatal assommoir (bar), affecting her moral and physical dissolution. Urban vicissitude is linked with moral improbity; individual misfortune linked with environmental disintegration. Gervaise's tragic, pathetic decline is inexorable, as her alcoholism leads to infidelity, inertia,squalor,alienation,and prostitution.
Zola's insistence on his novel's ethnographic credentials deflected accusations that it actually caricatured working-class life. Its authentic and innovative use of street language; its lewd, sexual frankness;anti-clericalism;anti-officialdom; its general filth, deprivation, and bad manners, were deemed immoral, unpalatable, and potentially inflammatory by conservative critics. L'Assommoir stakes a serious claim for working-class experience and popular culture as aesthetically worthy, formally challenging material for the artist. And in overthrowing artistic conventions and inciting debate on the appropriate form and material for modern art, it earns its place as one of the first truly modern novels.



Emile Zola

Nana exposes a licentious Parisian sexual economy, hooked on prostitution and promiscuity. The respectable classes indulge in drunken orgies, homosexuality, sadomasochism, voyeurism, and more. An influential aristocrat, Count Muffat, is the epitome of this degradation and chastisement. His familial, political, and religious status is compromised by his infatuated devotion to Nana. She is an ostensibly luminous yet inherently tainted figure: debt, misogynistic violence, a dysfunctional family, class background, and an ultimately fatal sexual disease temper her success. Her eventual physical corrosion is horrific, reflecting the total corruption and disfigurement of both state and society. It is no coincidence that Nana's death throes take place against the backdrop of a screaming mob galvanized by the Franco-Prussian War, where the ultimate violent ruin, collapse, and purification of this stage of French history is completed.
Today's readers will find extraordinary prescience in the correlation of society's obsession with sex, celebrity, and power portrayed in Nana. A conscious emphasis on exploitation and disgraceful revelation is paramount in a novel that opens with a theatrical striptease, before going on to revisit connected themes of sexual and economic exhibitionism. Determinedly realist and deliberately explicit, Nana is a spectacular novel, which indicts a public appetite for voyeurism and sensationalism that to this day has never really abated.


Édouard Manet



La Bete Humaine

Emile Zola

La Bete Humaine was the seventeenth novel in Zola1s twenty-novel series Les Rougons-Macquart, through which he sought to follow the effects of heredity and environment on a single family, using the "scientific" terms central to late nineteenth-century Naturalism and to contemporary theories of degeneration and "hereditary taint." La Bete Humain was also a vehicle through which Zola explored the power and impact of the railway, bringing together his twin fascinations with criminality and railway liffe. The impersonal force of the train become inextricably linked in the novel with human violence and destructiveness, and in the character Jacques Lantier, a train driver tormented by his pathological desire to kill women, Zola depicted what a later generation would define as a serial killer. Murder is made inseparable from machine culture, and accident and psychopathology become indivisible. Lantier's violent desires are stimulated when he glimpses the murder, driven by sexual jealousy, of Grandmorin, one of the directors of the railway company. His "itch for murder intensified like a physical lust at the sight of this pathetic corpse.'The effects of this murderous desire are played out in the rest ofthe novel.
Zola's meticulous observation of the physical world is shown in his depictions of the railways, which paint in words the qualities of light and shadow, fire and smoke, that also acted as a magnet to the Impressionist painters of his time.




Emile Zola

Anyone interested in the intersection between literature and politics should know this famous, explosive novel of class conflict and industrial unrest, set in the coalfields of northern France in the 1860s. Zola's uncompromising presentation of an impoverished, subterranean, and vulnerable working existence, paralleled by bourgeois luxury, leisure,and security, provoked controversy.
The title recalls the seventh month of the French revolutionary calendar, associated with mass insurrection, rioting, violence, poverty, and starvation. All feature in Germinal's central story: the eruption and failure of a general strike and its universally negative outcome. The main narrative charts Etienne Lantier's emotional and political assimilation into a mining community, illuminating a dark disenfranchized world, ripe for revolt. His progression from neutral outsider to committed strike leader mobilizes a collective struggle subtly presented in tandem with the contradictions and compromises of individual belief and aspiration. The narrative is permeated with significant oppositions, but capitalism is the fundamental determinant, subjugating all of the protagonists. It is powerfully symbolized by the predominance of  The Mine, animated throughout as a mythical, sacrificial beast. That no absolute victor emerges from the novel's concluding calamity is significant. Mining survives, the system prevails, more labor is required.
Germinal's much debated ending resonates with a challenging question: what is the potential for social change and transition? The final images of destruction and renewal suggest possible political evolution through the germination of individual and collective working-class endeavor. It is significant though, that this remains inconclusive.



Type of work: Novel
Author: Emile Zola (1840-1902)
Type of plot: Naturalism
Time of plot: Nineteenth century
Locale: France
First published: 1885 (English translation, 1885)


One of the first novels dealing with the conflict between capital and labor, the book is still a work of fiction and not a manifesto. The events of the novel are based on an actual strike which occurred in France in 1884. Most notable about the work is Zola's ability to portray mob scenes; the emotions and movements of masses of people are so successfully rendered that the characters become believable results of the events which mold them.


Principal Characters

Etienne Lantier, a trained mechanic from Paris who becomes a miner and falls under the influence of socialism, which he believes is the workers' only hope. He organizes the miners, only to lose his popularity when a strike is settled and the people go back to work. His suffering, even the loss of his lover in a mine accident, only persuades him that he must continue his revolutionary work. He is the illegitimate son of Gervaise Macquart.
Catherine Maheu, a girl who works as a miner. She is loved by Lantier, even though she is forced to take another man as her lover. She eventually becomes Lan-tier's mistress, sharing his miserable, lonely life until she dies of suffocation after an accident in the mine where she and Lantier work.
Vincent Maheu, an elderly miner nicknamed Bonne-mort because of his many escapes from accidental death in the mines.
Toussaint Maheu (known simply as Maheu), Vincent's son, the father of seven children. He becomes Lan-tier's friend and works with him in the mine. He is killed by soldiers during a strike at the mine.
La Maheude, Maheu's wife.
Zacharie Maheu, son of Maheu. He is a young miner who marries his mistress after she presents him withjtwo children.
Philomene Levaque, Zacharie's mistress and, later, his wife.
Souvarine, a Russian anarchist who becomes Lantier 's friend.
M. Hennebeau, director of the Montsou mines. He refuses to make any concessions to the miners and imports strikebreakers to operate the closed mines.
Paul Negrel, an engineer, nephew of M. Hennebeau. He feels compassion for the miners and leads a rescue party to save them after an accident traps Lantier and others below the surface of the ground.
Chaval, a miner who seduces Catherine Maheu. He is jealous of his rival, Lantier, and their mutual animosity ends in a fight below the surface of the ground in which Chaval is killed.
Dansaert, head captain of the mine in which Lantier works.
Cecile Gregoire, daughter of a mine stockholder, fiancee of Negrel. She is strangled to death by old Vincent Maheu (Bonnemort), who has become senile.
Maigrat, a rapacious storekeeper who extends credit to the women who grant him amorous favors.
M. Gregoire, a mine stockholder who justifies low pay for the workers by asserting that they spend their money only for drink and vice.
Jeanlin Maheu, an eleven-year-old who works in a mine until he is crippled in an accident. He murders a mine guard, but his crime is hidden by Lantier.
Alzire Maheu, a deformed sister of Catherine. The little girl dies of starvation during the strike.
Pluchart, a mechanic who persuades Lantier to join the workers' international movement.


The Story

Etienne Lantier set out to walk from Marchiennes to Montsou looking for work. On the way, he met Vincent Maheu, another workman, called Bonnemort because of successive escapes from death in the mines. Nearing sixty years old, Bonnemort suffered from a bad cough because of particles of dust from the mine pits.
Bonnemort had a son, Maheu, whose family consisted of seven children. Zacharie, Maheu's eldest son, twenty-one years old, Catherine, sixteen years old, and Jeanlin, eleven years old, worked in the mines. Etienne, too, was given a job in the mine. He descended the mine shaft along with Maheu, Zacharie, Chaval, Levaque, and Catherine. At first he mistook the latter for a boy. During lunchtime, Chaval roughly forced the girl to kiss him. This act angered Etienne, although the girl insisted that the brute was not her lover.
The head captain, Dansaert, came with M. Negrel, M. Hennebeau's nephew, to inspect Etienne, the new worker. Although there was bitterness among the workers, danger lurking in the shafts, and so little pay that it was hardly worth working, Etienne decided to stay in the mine.
M. Gregoire had inherited from his grandfather a share in the Montsou mines. He lived in peace and luxury with his wife and only daughter, Cecile. A marriage had been arranged between Cecile and Negrel.
One morning, La Maheude (Maheu's wife) and her younger children went to the Gregoires to seek help. They were given warm clothing but no money, since the Gregoires believed working people would only spend money in drinking and nonsense. La Maheude had to beg for some groceries and money from Maigrat, who ran the company shop and who would extend credit only if he received a woman's caresses in return. He had Catherine in mind. Catherine, however, escaped him, met Chaval that night, and allowed him to seduce her. Etienne witnessed the seduction and was disillusioned by the young girl.
Etienne so quickly and expertly adapted himself to the mine that he earned the profound respect of Maheu. He made friends with the other workers. Only toward Chaval was he hostile, for Catherine now openly behaved as the man's mistress. At the place where Etienne lived, he would chat with Souvarine, a quiet Russian who espoused Nihilism, the abolition of all forms of government. Etienne discussed a new movement he had heard about from his friend Pluchart, a Lille mechanic. It was an international trade-union movement to strengthen the workers. Etienne had come to loathe the working and living conditions of the miners and their families, and he hoped to collect a fund to sustain the forthcoming strike. He discussed his plan with Rasseneur, with whom he boarded.
After Zacharie married his mistress Philomene Levaque, the mother of his two children, Etienne came to the Maheu household as a boarder. Night after night he urged the family to accept his socialistic point of view. As the summer wore on, he gained prestige among the neighbors, and his fund grew. As the secretary, he drew a small fee and was able to put aside money for himself. He began to take on airs.
The threat of strike was provoked when the company lowered the wages of the workers. As a final blow to the Maheus, a cave-in struck Jeanlin, leaving him a cripple. Catherine went to live with Chaval, who had been accusing her of sleeping with Etienne. In December, the miners struck.
While the Gregoires and the Hennebeaus were at dinner arranging the plans for the marriage between Cecile and Negrel, the miners' delegation came to see M. Hen-nebeau, but he refused to give any concessions. The strike wore on through the weeks while the workers slowly starved. Etienne preached socialism, and the strikers listened; as their misery increased, they became more adamant in their resistance to M. Hennebeau. The long weeks of strike at the Montsou mines ended in a riot when the people advanced to other pits to force the workers to quit their labors and join the strike. The mob destroyed property throughout the day and raged against their starvation.
Catherine had remained faithful to Chaval, but when, during the riot, he turned renegade and ran to get the gendarmes, she deserted him to warn her comrades, especially Etienne.
Etienne went into hiding, assisted by Jeanlin, who had become a street urchin and a thief. The Maheu family fared poorly. Crippled Alzire, one of the younger children, was dying of starvation. Everywhere neighbors quarreled fretfully over trifles. Etienne frequently slipped into Maheu's house for a visit; for the most part, however, he wandered alone at night. After the strike had been in force for two months, there was a rumor that the company was bringing strikebreakers, Borain workers, to the pits. Etienne began to despair. He suggested to the Maheus that the strikers bargain with M. Hennebeau, but La Maheude, who once had been so sensible and had resisted violence, shouted that they should not give in to the pressure of the mine director's demands.
One night at Rasseneur's, while Etienne was discussing matters with Souvarine, Chaval and Catherine entered. The animosity between Etienne and Chaval flared up. and they fought. Chaval was overpowered and ordered Catherine not to follow him but to stay with Etienne. Left alone, Catherine and Etienne were embarrassed and confused. Etienne had no place to take the girl. It was not possible for her to go home, since La Maheude could not forgive her for having deserted the family and for working during the strike. Resignedly, Catherine went back to her lover.
After Catherine had gone, Etienne walked by the pits. where he was a witness to the murder of a guard by little Jeanlin. Etienne dragged the body away and hid it.
When the strikebreakers began to work, the strikers stormed the entrance to the pit and threatened the soldiers on guard. After a while, the soldiers fired into the mob. Twenty-five workers were wounded, and fourteen were killed. Maheu was among those killed.
Company officials came to Montsou to settle the strike. The Borain workers were sent away. Etienne's popularity ended. He brought Catherine home and began to stay at Maheu's house again. The bleak house of mourning filled Etienne with remorse.
Souvarine resolved to leave Montsou. Before he went, he sneaked into the pit and committed enough damage to cause a breakdown in the shafts. That same morning,
Etienne and Catherine decided that they must go back to work. Chaval managed to be placed on the same work crew with Etienne and Catherine. Repeatedly the two men clashed; Chaval still wanted Catherine.
Water began rushing into the shaft. Chaval, Etienne, and the rest were trapped below when the cage made its last trip up and did not come down again. The people above waited and watched the mine slowly become flooded by subterranean torrents of water.
Negrel set about to rescue the entombed workers; as long as they were below, they must be assumed to be still alive. At last, he and a rescue party heard faint thumpings from the trapped workers. The men began to dig. An explosion injured several of them and killed Zacharie.
Meanwhile, the trapped workers had scattered, trying to find a place of safety. Etienne and Catherine came upon Chaval in the gallery to which he had climbed. There the animosity between the two men led to a fight, which ended when Etienne killed Chaval. Alone, the two lovers heard the rescuers' tapping. For days they continued to answer the tapping. Catherine died before the men outside reached them, but Etienne was still alive when help came.
After six weeks in a hospital, Etienne prepared to go to Paris, where more revolutionary work awaited him.


Critical Evaluation

When Emile Zola's novel Germinal appeared in 1885, as the thirteenth of a projected series of twenty interrelated novels designed to give "the natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire," it was acclaimed by some as the most impressive and powerful of the series that far, and dismissed by others as a deliberately sensational catalogue of the horrors of sex and violence prevalent in French coal-mining communities. A century later, the initial ambivalence about Germinal's reputation has largely dissipated, and most critics willingly grant it a place among the greatest novels of the nineteenth century, in any language.
To know that Germinal gives a painstakingly detailed account of daily life in a coal-mining community of northern France, in accordance with Zola's well-known literary theory of naturalism, and that the novel's central action, the account of a strike among the miners of Mont-sou, was given extraordinary authenticity because Zola paid a personal visit to a mine under strike conditions and took careful notes for his novel, is to deepen one's appreciation for the value of the novel as a social and historical document. None of that kind of information, however, can explain why Germinal stands out as a major work of literary art. To evaluate Germinal fairly as literature, one must go beyond its acknowledged realism and consider the range and believability of its characters, the ingenuity and force of its structure, and the scope and significance of its themes.
The cast of characters in this monumental novel is unusually large, for Zola wished to represent as many facets as possible of social and economic life in the northern region of France, near the Belgian border, where the novel's action takes place. The central figure of the novel is actually an outsider to the mining country, a Parisian mechanic named Etienne Lantier, who comes to the region in March of 1866 looking for work of any nature, because times are bad. Lantier is also the sole link in the novel to the other novels of Zola's vast series, since he is a member of the Rougon-Macquart family that Zola invented as a focus for his series. Lantier accepts menial work in the Montsou mine, but with his education and native intelligence he quickly becomes a skilled and respected miner and emerges within months as a leader who helps organize a union among the miners.
The miners, who live in small company-built houses, are chiefly represented by one family, named Maheu, consisting of Toussaint Maheu and his wife (called La Maheude); Maheu's father, Vincent Maheu (called Bonnemort); and Maheu and La Maheude's seven children, ranging in age from an infant daughter to an adult son named Zacharie who is a full-time miner like his father and grandfather before him. The reader is given some knowledge of several other families, neighbors of the Maheus in the mining village, who add to the variety of types and ways of living found among the miners, though life is generally hard and impoverished for all. A different social level is represented by a character named Rasseneur, a former miner, now the proprietor of a tavern, and ambitious to be a leader of the miners; a strange foreigner, Souvarine, who works as an engineer in the mines, keeps largely to himself, and harbors anarchist principles brought from his Russian homeland; and a sinister figure named Maigrat, who runs the company store in the village and abuses his power by demanding sexual favors of the miners' wives and daughters in exchange for credit.
Ownership and management of the mines is represented by four individuals: the director of Montsou, Hen-nebeau, who is tormented by an adulterous wife; Hen-nebeau's nephew, Paul Negrel, employed as chief engineer in the mines; Deneulin, an independent owner of a small mine in the area; and Gregoire, a stockholder in the Montsou mine, who lives a very comfortable bourgeois life solely on the income he derives from his inherited mining stock. An array of marginal figures, involved in one way or another in the life of the mining community, also people the novel's pages, and there is frequent mention of the Montsou mine's board of directors, remote and mysterious in its Paris headquarters, yet the source of all the decisions that most directly affect life in Montsou.
Zola places this carefully balanced cast of characters in a series of actions, arising out of tensions between labor and management, which escalate relentlessly in hostility and violence. The protests begin as a dispute about working conditions and develop into a full-scale strike, followed by the use of troops to break the strike; the crisis culminates in Souvarine's attempt, based on anarchist principles, to destroy the mine by sabotage. The most notable feature of the novel's action is that most of the events are sprawling crowd scenes of increasing complexity as the novel progresses, which allowed Zola to demonstrate impressive mastery of that special kind of writing. This series of major actions, forming a crescendo of emotional intensity, allows all levels of the small community to come into cooperation or confrontation with one another and to display all that is good, and all that is bad, in their natures as well as in their respective situations.
Zola is at great pains to preserve some kind of balance in the distribution of good and evil traits, so as not to oversimplify the moral and political issues the novel raises. Those on the side of labor are neither always virtuous nor always ignorant; those on the side of capital are neither always inhuman nor always rational. There is blame and praise enough to assign to all levels of the community. The result is that, as the action builds to an ever higher emotional pitch from section to section of the novel, the reader, having no clear villain and no clear hero on whom to focus, is overwhelmed by a sense of helplessly witnessing an inevitable tragedy for which no individual or group bears the ultimate responsibility. Zola certainly tried to depict in Germinal the central crisis of industrialized society in that era: the clash between capital and labor. Constrained, however, by the principle of objectivity inherent in his quasi-scientific literary theory, which he called naturalism, Zola was careful to show the crisis as complex, multifarious, unpredictable, and hence hardly reducible to any black-and-white formula ranging all virtue on one side and all villainy on the other.
The attempt at a semblance of objectivity in Germinal was for Zola an artistic imperative, but it did not imply neutrality or indifference on his part with respect to the social and economic struggle of his time. The socialist tendencies Zola had developed by 1885 were publicly known and are perhaps expressed in the vaguely ambiguous closing scene of the novel, in which Lantier, resorted to health after the mine cave-in and flood that nearly killed him, leaves Montsou for Paris to continue the struggle as a union organizer, full of hope that he and his mining comrades will eventually triumph in the name of social justice. What makes the hope seem just a bit ambiguous is that Lantier thinks of himself and his comrades in violent terms, as a "black avenging army," forecasting more death and destruction before a better world can be attained.
Zola's last-minute choice of the title Germinal is one possible clue to the significance of the ambiguity in the ending. As a title, Germinal evokes the French Revolution, since it is the name of a month in the revolutionary calendar that was invented after 1789. Zola's thought was perhaps that the industrial crisis of his time, depicted in his novel, had brought France once again to the same political and social situation that had existed in 1789. His novel was therefore intended as a warning, perhaps, of a new revolution about to burst forth, with social justice as its admirable goal but with the attendant threat of volatile and unpredictable violence as well, as in the well-remembered aftermath of 1789.



The Dreyfus Affair

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, was wrongly accused of spying for the Germans and thus arrested and tried for treason. A military court sentenced him in 1890 to life imprisonment on Devil's Island and expelled him from the army.

The Dreyfus Affair split the nation. While, for example, Emile Zola obtained a reopening of the trial with his open letter "J'accuse," anti-Semites, nationalists, and antiparliamentarianists gathered together in the opposition camp. In 1898, the principal piece of evidence, a document, was shown to be a forgery, and Dreyfus was cleared in 1906.

The affair was a struggle between restorative and republican ideas, and the Republic emerged from it strengthened Degradation of Alfred Dreyfus as liberal ideals triumphed.


J'accuse (I accuse)

Letter to the President of the Republic by Émile Zola , translated by Wikisource

Published January 13, 1898 on the front page of the Paris daily, L'Aurore. This text was written by Émile Zola, an influential French novelist. It is written as an open letter to Félix Faure, President of the French Republic, and accuses the government of anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair.


Mr. President,

Would you allow me, in my gratitude for the benevolent reception that you gave me one day, to draw the attention of your rightful glory and to tell you that your star, so happy until now, is threatened by the most shameful and most ineffaceable of blemishes?

You have passed healthy and safe through base calumnies; you have conquered hearts. You appear radiant in the apotheosis of this patriotic festival that the Russian alliance was for France, and you prepare to preside over the solemn triumph of our World Fair, which will crown our great century of work, truth and freedom. But what a spot of mud on your name — I was going to say on your reign — is this abominable Dreyfus affair! A council of war, under order, has just dared to acquit Esterhazy, a great blow to all truth, all justice. And it is finished, France has this stain on her cheek, History will write that it was under your presidency that such a social crime could be committed.

Since they dared, I too will dare. The truth I will say, because I promised to say it, if justice, regularly seized, did not do it, full and whole. My duty is to speak, I do not want to be an accomplice. My nights would be haunted by the specter of innocence that suffer there, through the most dreadful of tortures, for a crime it did not commit.

And it is to you, Mr. President, that I will proclaim it, this truth, with all the force of the revulsion of an honest man. For your honor, I am convinced that you are unaware of it. And with whom will I thus denounce the criminal foundation of these guilty truths, if not with you, the first magistrate of the country?


* * *

First, the truth about the lawsuit and the judgment of Dreyfus.

A nefarious man carried it all out, did everything: Major Du Paty de Clam, then a simple commander. He is the entirety of the Dreyfus business; it will be known only when one honest investigation clearly establishes his acts and responsibilities. He seems a most complicated and hazy spirit, haunting romantic intrigues, caught up in serialized stories, stolen papers, anonymous letters, appointments in deserted places, mysterious women who sell condemning evidences at night. It is he who imagined dictating the Dreyfus memo; it is he who dreamed to study it in an entirely hidden way, under ice; it is him whom commander Forzinetti describes to us as armed with a dark lantern, wanting to approach the sleeping defendant, to flood his face abruptly with light and to thus surprise his crime, in the agitation of being roused. And I need hardly say that that what one seeks, one will find. I declare simply that commander Du Paty de Clam, charged to investigate the Dreyfus business as a legal officer, is, in date and in responsibility, the first culprit in the appalling miscarriage of justice committed.

The memo was for some time already in the hands of Colonel Sandherr, director of the office of information, who has since died of general paresis. "Escapes" took place, papers disappeared, as they still do today; the author of the memo was sought, when ahead of time one was made aware, little by little, that this author could be only an officer of the High Comman and an artillery officer: a doubly glaring error, showing with which superficial spirit this affair had been studied, because a reasoned examination shows that it could only be a question of an officer of troops. Thus searching the house, examining writings, it was like a family matter, a traitor to be surprised in the same offices, in order to expel him. And, while I don't want to retell a partly known history here, Commander Paty de Clam enters the scene, as soon as first suspicion falls upon Dreyfus. From this moment, it is he who invented Dreyfus, the affair becomes that affair, made actively to confuse the traitor, to bring him to a full confession. There is the Minister of War, General Mercier, whose intelligence seems poor; there are the head of the High Command, General De Boisdeffre, who appears to have yielded to his clerical passion, and the assistant manager of the High Command, General Gonse, whose conscience could put up with many things. But, at the bottom, there is initially only Commander Du Paty de Clam, who carries them all out, who hypnotizes them, because he deals also with spiritism, with occultism, conversing with spirits. One could not conceive of the experiments to which he subjected unhappy Dreyfus, the traps into which he wanted to make him fall, the insane investigations, monstrous imaginations, a whole torturing insanity.

Ah! this first affair is a nightmare for those who know its true details! Commander Du Paty de Clam arrests Dreyfus, in secret. He turns to Mrs. Dreyfus, terrorizes her, says to her that, if she speaks, her husband is lost. During this time, the unhappy one tore his flesh, howled his innocence. And the instructions were made thus, as in a 15th century tale, shrouded in mystery, with a savage complication of circumstances, all based on only one childish charge, this idiotic affair, which was not only a vulgar treason, but was also the most impudent of hoaxes, because the famously delivered secrets were almost all without value. If I insist, it is that the kernel is here, from whence the true crime will later emerge, the terrible denial of justice from which France is sick. I would like to touch with a finger on how this miscarriage of justice could be possible, how it was born from the machinations of Commander Du Paty de Clam, how General Mercier, General De Boisdeffre and General Gonse could be let it happen, to engage little by little their responsibility in this error, that they believed a need, later, to impose like the holy truth, a truth which is not even discussed. At the beginning, there is not this, on their part, this incuriosity and obtuseness. At most, one feels them to yield to an ambiance of religious passions and the prejudices of the physical spirit. They allowed themselves a mistake.

But here Dreyfus is before the council of war. Closed doors are absolutely required. A traitor would have opened the border with the enemy to lead the German emperor to Notre-Dame, without taking measures to maintain narrow silence and mystery. The nation is struck into a stupor, whispering of terrible facts, monstrous treasons which make History indignant; naturally the nation is so inclined. There is no punishment too severe, it will applaud public degradation, it will want the culprit to remain on his rock of infamy, devoured by remorse. Is this then true, the inexpressible things, the dangerous things, capable of plunging Europe into flames, which one must carefully bury behind these closed doors? No! There was behind this, only the romantic and lunatic imaginations of Commander Paty de Clam. All that was done only to hide the most absurd of novella plots. And it suffices, to ensure oneself of this, to study with attention the bill of indictment, read in front of the council of war.

Ah! the nothingness of this bill of indictment! That a man could be condemned for this act, is a wonder of iniquity. I defy decent people to read it, without their hearts leaping in indignation and shouting their revolt, while thinking of the unwarranted suffering, over there, on Devil's Island. Dreyfus knows several languages, crime; one found at his place no compromising papers, crime; he returns sometimes to his country of origin, crime; he is industrious, he wants to know everything, crime; he is unperturbed, crime; he is perturbed, crime. And the naiveté of drafting formal assertions in a vacuum! One spoke to us of fourteen charges: we find only one in the final analysis, that of the memo; and we even learn that the experts did not agree, than one of them, Mr. Gobert, was coerced militarily, because he did not allow himself to reach a conclusion in the desired direction. One also spoke of twenty-three officers who had come to overpower Dreyfus with their testimonies. We remain unaware of their interrogations, but it is certain that they did not all charge him; and it is to be noticed, moreover, that all belonged to the war offices. It is a family lawsuit, one is there against oneself, and it is necessary to remember this: the High Command wanted the lawsuit, it was judged, and it has just judged it a second time.

Therefore, there remained only the memo, on which the experts had not concurred. It is reported that, in the room of the council, the judges were naturally going to acquit. And consequently, as one includes/understands the despaired obstinacy with which, to justify the judgment, today the existence of a secret part is affirmed, overpowering, the part which cannot be shown, which legitimates all, in front of which we must incline ourselves, the good invisible and unknowable God! I deny it, this part, I deny it with all my strength! A ridiculous part, yes, perhaps the part wherein it is a question of young women, and where a certain D… is spoken of which becomes too demanding: some husband undoubtedly finding that his wife did not pay him dearly enough. But a part interesting the national defense, which one could not produce without war being declared tomorrow, no, no! It is a lie! and it is all the more odious and cynical that they lie with impunity without one being able to convince others of it. They assemble France, they hide behind its legitimate emotion, they close mouths by disturbing hearts, by perverting spirits. I do not know a greater civic crime.

Here then, Mr. President, are the facts which explain how a miscarriage of justice could be made; and the moral evidence, the financial circumstances of Dreyfus, the absence of reason, his continual cry of innocence, completes its demonstration as a victim of the extraordinary imaginations of commander Du Paty de Clam, of the clerical medium in which it was found, of the hunting for the "dirty Jews", which dishonours our time.

* * *

And we arrive at the Esterhazy affair. Three years passed, many consciences remain deeply disturbed, worry, seek, end up being convinced of Dreyfus's innocence.

I will not give the history of the doubts and of the conviction of Mr. Scheurer-Kestner. But, while this was excavated on the side, it ignored serious events among the High Command. Colonel Sandherr was dead, and Major Picquart succeeded him as head of the office of the information. And it was for this reason, in the performance of his duties, that the latter one day found in his hands a letter-telegram, addressed to commander Esterhazy, from an agent of a foreign power. His strict duty was to open an investigation. It is certain that he never acted apart from the will of his superiors. He thus submitted his suspicions to his seniors in rank, General Gonse, then General De Boisdeffre, then General Billot, who had succeeded General Mercier as the Minister of War. The infamous Picquart file, about which so much was said, was never more than a Billot file, a file made by a subordinate for his minister, a file which must still exist within the Ministry of War. Investigations ran from May to September 1896, and what should be well affirmed is that General Gonse was convinced of Esterhazy's guilt, and that Generals De Boisdeffre and Billot did not question that the memo was written by Esterhazy. Major Picquart's investigation had led to this unquestionable observation. But the agitation was large, because the condemnation of Esterhazy inevitably involved the revision of Dreyfus's trial; and this, the High Command did not want at any cost.

There must have been a minute full of psychological anguish. Notice that General Billot was in no way compromised, he arrived completely fresh, he could decide the truth. He did not dare, undoubtedly in fear of public opinion, certainly also in fear of betraying all the High Command, General De Boisdeffre, General Gonse, not mentioning those of lower rank. Therefore there was only one minute of conflict between his conscience and what he believed to be the military's interest. Once this minute had passed, it was already too late. He had engaged, he was compromised. And, since then, his responsibility only grew, he took responsibility for the crimes of others, he became as guilty as the others, he was guiltier than them, because he was the Master of justice, and he did nothing. Understand that! Here for a year General Billot, General De Boisdeffre and General Gonse have known that Dreyfus is innocent, and they kept this appalling thing to themselves! And these people sleep at night, and they have women and children whom they love!

Major Picquart had fulfilled his duty as an honest man. He insisted to his superiors, in the name of justice. He even begged them, he said to them how much their times were ill-advised, in front of the terrible storm which was to pour down, which was to burst, when the truth would be known. It was, later, the language that Mr. Scheurer-Kestner also used with General Billot, entreating him with patriotism to take the affair in hand, not to let it worsen, on the verge of becoming a public disaster. No! The crime had been committed, the High Command could no longer acknowledge its crime. And Major Picquart was sent on a mission, one that took him farther and farther away, as far as Tunisia, where there was not even a day to honour his bravery, charged with a mission which would have surely ended in massacre, in the frontiers where Marquis de Morès met his death. He was not in disgrace, General Gonse maintained a friendly correspondence with him. It is only about secrets he was not good to have discovered.

To Paris, the truth inexorably marched, and it is known how the awaited storm burst. Mr. Mathieu Dreyfus denounced commander Esterhazy as the true author of the memo just as Mr. Scheurer-Kestner demanded a revision of the case to the Minister of Justice. And it is here that commander Esterhazy appears. Testimony shows him initially thrown into a panic, ready for suicide or escape. Then, at a blow, he acted with audacity, astonishing Paris by the violence of his attitude. It is then that help had come to him, he had received an anonymous letter informing him of the work of his enemies, a mysterious lady had come under cover of night to return a stolen evidence against him to the High Command, which would save him. And I cannot help but find Major Paty de Clam here, considering his fertile imagination. His work, Dreyfus's culpability, was in danger, and he surely wanted to defend his work. The retrial was the collapse of such an extravagant novella, so tragic, whose abominable outcome takes place in Devil's Island! This is what he could not allow. Consequently, a duel would take place between Major Picquart and Major Du Paty de Clam, one with face uncovered, the other masked. They will soon both be found before civil justice. In the end, it was always the High Command that defended itself, that did not want to acknowledge its crime; the abomination grew hour by hour.

One wondered with astonishment who were protecting commander Esterhazy. It was initially, in the shadows, Major Du Paty de Clam who conspired all and conducted all. His hand was betrayed by its absurd means. Then, it was General De Boisdeffre, it was General Gonse, it was General Billot himself, who were obliged to discharge the commander, since they cannot allow recognition of Dreyfus's innocence without the department of war collapsing under public contempt. And the beautiful result of this extraordinary situation is that the honest man there, Major Picquart, who only did his duty, became the victim of ridicule and punishment. O justice, what dreadful despair grips the heart! One might just as well say that he was the forger, that he manufactured the carte-télegramme to convict Esterhazy. But, good God! why? with what aim? give a motive. Is he also paid by the Jews? The joke of the story is that he was in fact an anti-Semite. Yes! we attend this infamous spectacle, of the lost men of debts and crimes upon whom one proclaims innocence, while one attacks honor, a man with a spotless life! When a society does this, it falls into decay.

Here is thus, Mr. President, the Esterhazy affair: a culprit whose name it was a question of clearing. For almost two months, we have been able to follow hour by hour the beautiful work. I abbreviate, because it is not here that a summary of the history's extensive pages will one day be written out in full. We thus saw General De Pellieux, then the commander of Ravary, lead an investigation in which the rascals are transfigured and decent people are dirtied. Then, the council of war was convened.

* * *

How could one hope that a council of war would demolish what a council of war had done?

I do not even mention the always possible choice of judges. Isn't the higher idea of discipline, which is in the blood of these soldiers, enough to cancel their capacity for equity? Who says discipline breeds obedience? When the Minister of War, the overall chief, established publicly, with the acclamations of the national representation, the authority of the final decision; you want a council of war to give him a formal denial? Hierarchically, that is impossible. General Billot influenced the judges by his declaration, and they judged as they must under fire, without reasoning. The preconceived opinion that they brought to their seats, is obviously this one: "Dreyfus was condemned for crime of treason by a council of war, he is thus guilty; and we, a council of war, cannot declare him innocent, for we know that to recognize Esterhazy's guilt would be to proclaim the innocence of Dreyfus." Nothing could make them leave that position.

They delivered an iniquitous sentence that will forever weigh on our councils of war, sullying all their arrests from now with suspicion. The first council of war could have been foolish; the second was inevitably criminal. Its excuse, I repeat it, was that the supreme chief had spoken, declaring the thing considered to be unassailable, holy and higher than men, so that inferiors could not say the opposite. One speaks to us about the honor of the army, that we should like it, respect it. Ah! admittedly, yes, the army which would rise to the first threat, which would defend the French ground, it is all the people, and we have for it only tenderness and respect. But it is not a question of that, for which we precisely want dignity, in our need for justice. It is about the sword, the Master that one will give us tomorrow perhaps. And do not kiss devotedly the handle of the sword, by god!

I have shown in addition: the Dreyfus affair was the affair of the department of war, a High Command officer, denounced by his comrades of the High Command, condemned under the pressure of the heads of the High Command. Once again, it cannot restore his innocence without all the High Command being guilty. Also the offices, by all conceivable means, by press campaigns, by communications, by influences, protected Esterhazy only to convict Dreyfus a second time. What sweeping changes should the republican government should give to this [Jesuitery], as General Billot himself calls it! Where is the truly strong ministry of wise patriotism that will dare to reforge and to renew all? What of people I know who, faced with the possibility of war, tremble of anguish knowing in what hands lies national defense! And what a nest of base intrigues, gossips and dilapidations has this crowned asylum become, where the fate of fatherland is decided! One trembles in face of the terrible day that there has just thrown the Dreyfus affair, this human sacrifice of an unfortunate, a "dirty Jew"! Ah! all that was agitated insanity there and stupidity, imaginations insane, practices of low police force, manners of inquisition and tyranny, good pleasure of some non-commissioned officers putting their boots on the nation, returning in its throat its cry of truth and justice, under the lying pretext and sacrilege of the reason of State.

And it is a yet another crime to have [pressed on ?] the filthy press, to have let itself defend by all the rabble of Paris, so that the rabble triumphs insolently in defeat of law and simple probity. It is a crime to have accused those who wished for a noble France, at the head of free and just nations, of troubling her, when one warps oneself the impudent plot to impose the error, in front of the whole world. It is a crime to mislay the opinion, to use for a spiteful work this opinion, perverted to the point of becoming delirious. It is a crime to poison the small and the humble, to exasperate passions of reaction and intolerance, while taking shelter behind the odious antisemitism, from which, if not cured, the great liberal France of humans rights will die. It is a crime to exploit patriotism for works of hatred, and it is a crime, finally, to turn into to sabre the modern god, when all the social science is with work for the nearest work of truth and justice.

This truth, this justice, that we so passionately wanted, what a distress to see them thus souffletées, more ignored and more darkened! I suspect the collapse which must take place in the heart of Mr. Scheurer-Kestner, and I believe well that he will end up feeling remorse for not having acted revolutionarily, the day of questioning at the Senate, by releasing all the package, [for all to throw to bottom]. He was the great honest man, the man of his honest life, he believed that the truth sufficed for itself, especially when it seemed as bright as the full day. What good is to turn all upside down when the sun was soon to shine? And it is for this trustful neutrality for which he is so cruelly punished. The same for Major Picquart, who, for a feeling of high dignity, did not want to publish the letters of General Gonse. These scruples honour it more especially as, while there remained respectful discipline, its superiors covered it with mud, informed themselves its lawsuit, in the most unexpected and outrageous manner. There are two victims, two good people, two simple hearts, who waited for God while the devil acted. And one even saw, for Major Picquart, this wretched thing: a French court, after having let the rapporteur charge a witness publicly, to show it of all the faults, made the closed door, when this witness was introduced to be explained and defend himself. I say that this is another crime and that this crime will stir up universal conscience. Decidedly, the military tribunals have a singular idea of justice.

Such is thus the simple truth, Mr. President, and it is appalling, it will remain a stain for your presidency. I very much doubt that you have no capacity in this affair, that you are the prisoner of the Constitution and your entourage. You do not have of them less one to have of man, about which you will think, and which you will fulfill. It is not, moreover, which I despair less of the world of the triumph. I repeat it with a more vehement certainty: the truth marches on and nothing will stop it. Today, the affair merely starts, since today only the positions are clear: on the one hand, the culprits who do not want the light to come; the other, the carriers of justice who will give their life to see it come. I said it elsewhere, and I repeat it here: when one locks up the truth under ground, it piles up there, it takes there a force such of explosion, that, the day when it bursts, it makes everything leap out with it. We will see, if we do not prepare for later, the most resounding of disasters.

But this letter is long, Mr. President, and it is time to conclude.

I accuse Major Du Paty de Clam as the diabolic workman of the miscarriage of justice, without knowing, I have wanted to believe it, and of then defending his harmful work, for three years, by the guiltiest and most absurd of machinations.

I accuse General Mercier of being an accomplice, if by weakness of spirit, in one of greatest iniquities of the century.

I accuse General Billot of having held in his hands the unquestionable evidence of Dreyfus's innocence and of suppressing it, guilty of this crime that injures humanity and justice, with a political aim and to save the compromised Chie of High Command.

I accuse General De Boisdeffre and General Gonse as accomplices of the same crime, one undoubtedly by clerical passion, the other perhaps by this spirit of body which makes offices of the war an infallible archsaint.

I accuse General De Pellieux and commander Ravary of performing a rogue investigation, by which I mean an investigation of the most monstrous partiality, of which we have, in the report of the second, an imperishable monument of naive audacity.

I accuse the three handwriting experts, sirs Belhomme, Varinard and Couard, of submitting untrue and fraudulent reports, unless a medical examination declares them to be affected by a disease of sight and judgment.

I accuse the offices of the war of carrying out an abominable press campaign, particularly in the Flash and the Echo of Paris, to mislead the public and cover their fault.

Finally, I accuse the first council of war of violating the law by condemning a defendant with unrevealed evidence, and I accuse the second council of war of covering up this illegality, by order, by committing in his turn the legal crime of knowingly discharging the culprit.

While proclaiming these charges, I am not unaware of subjecting myself to articles 30 and 31 of the press law of July 29, 1881, which punishes the offense of slander. And it is voluntarily that I expose myself.

As for the people I accuse, I do not know them, I never saw them, I have against them neither resentment nor hatred. They are for me only entities, spirits of social evil. And the act I accomplished here is only a revolutionary mean for hastening the explosion of truth and justice.

I have only one passion, that of the light, in the name of humanity which has suffered so and is entitled to happiness. My ignited protest is nothing more than the cry of my heart. That one thus dares to translate for me into court bases and that the investigation takes place at the great day! I wait.

Please accept, Mr. President, the assurance of my deep respect.



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