The Naturalism of Émile Zola

The novels of the French writer Émile Zola (1840–1902) move toward a more extreme form of realism known as naturalism, taking its name from its allegedly scientific impulse to base its characters, events, and explanations on natural rather than supernatural or divine causes. Perhaps more than any other major literary figure, Émile Zola registered in his fiction and his critical theory the rising tide of scientific advance in the later nineteenth century. Zola was deeply conscious of these movements toward naturalism, toward the restriction of one’s inquiries to the realm of nature (the realm of science, as opposed to the realm of supernature or the supernatural), and he saw naturalistic literature as merely a natural extension and completion of a far broader positivistic movement in recent history.


As such, Zola was the leading figure of French naturalism. He wrote a cycle of twenty novels under the rubric of Les Rougon-Macquart, concerning the two branches of a family, the Rougons and the Macquarts. Zola traced the “natural and social history” of this family through a number of generations, laying emphasis upon their behavior as influenced by heredity and environment. Some of the best known of these novels are L’Assommoir (1877), Nana (1880), and Germinal (1885). Zola’s essay The Experimental Novel (1880) attempted a justification of his own novelistic practice, and became the seminal manifesto of naturalism.

Zola makes it clear at the outset of his essay that the inspiration and foundation of his arguments was Claude Bernard’s essay Introduction à l’Étude de la Médecine Expérimentale, which had endeavored to show that medicine had a scientific basis, namely, the “experimental method.”1 Bernard had argued that this method, already used in the study of inanimate bodies in physics and chemistry, should also be used in the study of living bodies in the fields of physiology and medicine (2). Essentially, Zola sees Bernard’s attempt as a symptom of a larger pattern of intellectual development: the nineteenth century, he remarks, is marked by a “return to nature,” to natural and scientific explanation of all phenomena. Zola wishes to argue for “a literature governed by science.” He wishes to extend Bernard’s arguments specifically to the realm of the novel, thereby situating fiction and literature within this overall direction of scientific advance. Where Bernard aims to extend scientific study into the realm of physiology and medicine, Zola desires to extend it even further, into the realm of “the passionate and intellectual life” (2).

What are the premises of the so-called experimental method? According to Bernard, as reported by Zola, the experimentalist is distinguished from the mere observer in that the latter “relates purely and simply the phenomena which he has under his eyes . . . He should be the photographer of phenomena, his observation should be an exact representation of nature” (7). The experimentalist, on the other hand, directly intervenes in, and modifies, these phenomena for specific heuristic purposes, to confirm or disprove an experimental idea or hypothesis (6–7). The experimental method or experimental reasoning is “based on doubt, for the experimentalist should have no preconceived idea, in the face of nature, and should always retain his liberty of thought” (3). Bernard, as quoted by Zola, distinguishes experimental reasoning from scholastic inquiry: “it is precisely the scholastic, who believes he has absolute certitude, who attains to no results . . . by his belief in an absolute principle he puts himself outside of nature . . . It is . . . the experimenter, who is always in doubt . . . who succeeds in mastering the phenomena which surround him, and in increasing his power over nature” (26). Hence this scientific method overturns and rejects all previous authority: “it recognizes no authority but that of facts . . . The experimental method is the scientific method which proclaims the liberty of thought. It not only throws off the philosophical and theological yoke, but it no longer admits scientific personal authority” (44). Zola accepts Bernard’s characterization of the stages of progress of the human mind, through “feeling, reason, and experiment”: at first, feeling, which dominated reason, created theology; then reason or philosophy, assuming the dominant role, engendered scholasticism; finally, experiment, or the study of natural phenomena, brought us to “the objective reality of things.” Hence the experimental method of science is the culmination of a historical development which is progressively rational and naturalistic (33–34).

The second and related major principle of science, according to Bernard, and Zola after him, is the belief in an “absolute determinism” in natural phenomena; in other words, there is no phenomenon, no occurrence in nature, which does not have a determining cause or complex of causes (3). An important aspect of this principle is that science shows us “the limit of our actual knowledge.” But such a recognition of what we can and cannot know is empowering: “as science humbles our pride, it strengthens our power” (22). A passage from Zola neatly sums up this part of his argument, whereby he situates literature within the general context of scientific advance:

the experimental novel is a consequence of the scientific evolution of the century; it continues and completes physiology, which itself leans for support on chemistry and medicine; it substitutes for the study of the abstract and the metaphysical man the study of the natural man, governed by physical or chemical laws, and modified by the influences of his surroundings; it is in one word the literature of our scientific age, as the classical and romantic literature corresponded to a scholastic and theological age. (23)

What does all of this mean in practice for the naturalistic novel? To begin with, Zola’s attitude represents an extreme reaction against Romanticism and all forms of mysticism and supernaturalism. Zola sees his own literary era as placing an exaggerated emphasis on form and as “rotten with lyricism” (48). He insists that the subject matter of the experimental novelist is rooted in actuality, in observation of human beings and their passions; he conducts a “real experiment” by altering the conditions and circumstances of the characters he creates, positing certain causes of their actions (10–11). Such an attitude is directly opposed to attitudes such as vitalism, which “consider life as a mysterious and supernatural agent, which acts arbitrarily, free from all determinism” (15). Anticipating Freud, Zola extends the principle of determinism from its application throughout natural phenomena to encompass human behavior. He extends the principle to literature, to the novel, which is a “general inquiry on nature and on man” (38), saying that “there is an absolute determinism for all human phenomena” (18). Zola sees this determinism, then, as both external and internal, as governing the external world and the psychology of man (17). Novelists should, he urges, “operate on the characters, the passions, on the human and social data, in the same way that the chemist and the physicist operate on inanimate beings, and as the physiologist operates on living beings. Determinism dominates everything.” As such, “purely imaginary novels” should be replaced by “novels of observation and experiment” (18).

If determinism dominates in both worlds, in nature and in the mind of man, the experimental novel must consider man in both social and psychological aspects. He suggests that “heredity has a great influence in the intellectual and passionate manifestations of man.” Considerable importance must also be attached to the “surroundings” (19). Hence, while he acknowledges that the novelist should continue the physiologist’s study of the “thoughts and passions,” he reminds us that these are not produced in a vacuum: “Man is not alone; he lives in society, in a social condition; and consequently, for us novelists, this social condition unceasingly modifies the phenomena. Indeed our great study is just there, in the reciprocal effect of society on the individual and the individual on society” (20). Zola sees the experimental novel as freeing this literary genre from “the atmosphere of lies and errors in which it is plunged” (42). The following is perhaps Zola’s most comprehensive definition of the program of the experimental novel:

this is what constitutes the experimental novel: to possess a knowledge of the mechanism of the phenomena inherent in man, to show the machinery of his intellectual and sensory manifestations, under the influences of heredity and environment, such as physiology shall give them to us, and then finally to exhibit man living in social conditions produced by himself, which he modifies daily, and in the heart of which he himself experiences a continual transformation. (21)

Hence, Zola views literature as not merely the expression of an author’s mentality; the artist’s personality, he says, “is always subject to the higher law of truth and nature.” In fact, this personality is manifested only in the formal aspects of the novel rather than in its truth-value, which is independent of any such subjective basis (51). Zola explains that in the experimental novel all existing rhetorical elements are still allowed, since they do not impinge at all on the method of the novel (48).

The Titans: The Warrior of Words (Emile Zola)One of the most interesting aspects of Zola’s essay is his attempt, notwithstanding his scientism, to redeem the moral function of literature. Zola sees science as progressing toward a state where humanity will be in control of life and able to direct nature. Ultimately, for Zola, this capacity is directed toward a moral purpose: “We shall enter upon a century in which man, grown more powerful, will make use of nature and will utilize its laws to produce upon the earth the greatest possible amount of justice and freedom. There is no nobler, higher, nor grander end” (25). Sadly, the passage of another century has proved Zola’s vision to be inordinately optimistic. His position might well be seen as an attempt to reincarnate the classical idea of the highest good as the end to which all science and art is ultimately directed. He sees this noble dream as directing also the efforts of the experimental novelist who has, fundamentally, the same goal as the scientist: “we also desire to master certain phenomena of an intellectual and personal order, to be able to direct them. We are, in a word, experimental moralists, showing by experiment in what way a passion acts in a certain social condition.” The novelist, as moralist, can help analyze and control the mechanism of the passion, and in this, says Zola, “consists the practical utility and high morality of our naturalistic works” (25). This function of the novel, then, coheres with the paths of science and also is integrated with the efforts of legislators and politicians “toward that great object, the conquest of nature and the increase of man’s power” (31). Zola effectively sees idealistic novels as morally harmful, operating under the pernicious desire to “remain in the unknown, through all sorts of religious and philosophical prejudices, under the astounding pretense that the unknown is nobler and more beautiful than the known” (27). This of course is a full-frontal attack on all forms of Romanticism and Symbolism, which Platonically project reality into another realm beyond that of experience. The upward flight of such writers, insists Zola, “is followed by a deeper fall into metaphysical chaos” (31). It is only the experimental novelists that “work for the strength and happiness of man.” Zola effectively equates the epistemological status of literature with its moral function: “The only great and moral works are those of truth” (37). The foremost writers in this vein, according to Zola, are Balzac and Stendhal. Balzac, for example, shows in his Cousin Bette how an entire family is destroyed under the action of Hulot’s “amorous temperament” (28–29). Answering some common objections, Zola denies that the naturalistic novel is somehow fatalistic on the grounds that the genius of the novelist is required to arrange and rearrange the natural order of phenomena, in accordance with the hypothesis, concerning human behavior, that he is aiming to test (11, 29). Finally, Zola concedes that philosophical idealism may ennoble and provide stimulus to the scientific enterprise, but on its own account it cannot discover truth (47). Hence, Zola’s theory fits squarely into the tradition of positivism.


1. Émile Zola, The Experimental Novel and Other Essays, trans. Belle M. Sherman (New York: Haskell House, 1964), p. 1. Hereafter page citations are given in the text.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Naturalism, Realism

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