Zola, Emile(-Edouard-Charles-Antoine) (b. April 2, 1840, Paris, Fr.--d. Sept. 28, 1902, Paris)
French novelist and critic, the founder of the naturalist movement in literature.
Zola grew up in straitened circumstances. After failing his baccalaureat examination, he spent two years in a vain search for employment. He eventually secured a clerical post in a shipping firm, which he loathed, and in 1862 moved to the sales department of the publishing house of Louis-Christophe-Francois Hachette. Hachette encouraged him in his writing. Zola's first book, published in 1864, was a collection of short stories called Contes a Ninon. It was followed in 1865 by a sordid autobiographical novel, La Confession de Claude, which attracted the attention of the police and led to Zola's departure from Hachette.
Therese Raquin, a gruesome novel in which he put his "scientific" theories into practice for the first time, appeared in 1867. Madeleine Ferat (Shame), another experiment in scientific fiction, followed in 1868. In 1870 he wrote the first two novels of an ambitious project, later called the Rougon-Macquart cycle (1871-93), originally intended to include 10 novels but expanded to 20. The opening volume of the cycle, La Fortune des Rougon , was published in book form in 1871, and five more volumes followed in the next five years. The appearance in 1877 of L'Assommoir (Drunkard), a study of alcoholism, made Zola the best-known writer in France. The remaining 13 novels--including such well-known works as Nana (1880), Germinal (1885), L'Oeuvre (1886), and La Bete humaine (1890)--occupied him for another 16 years. The Rougon-Macquart cycle was followed by two short cycles, Les Trois Villes ("The Three Cities") and Les Quatre Evangiles ("The Four Gospels").
As a writer, Zola was both inspired and limited by his credulous faith in science and his uncritical acceptance of scientific determinism. He maintained that naturalism was indigenous to French life and believed that human nature was completely determined by heredity.
Zola's career is also notable for his involvement in the Dreyfus affair, especially for his open letter, J'accuse, denouncing the French army general staff. Zola died under mysterious circumstances, overcome by carbon monoxide fumes in his sleep. Although nominated 19 times for inclusion in the Academie Francaise, he was never elected.