Zola was an influential French novelist, the most important example
of the literary school of naturalism, and a major figure in the
political liberalization of France.
in Paris, France, the son of an Italian engineer, Émile
Zola spent his childhood in Aix-en-Provence and was educated at
the Collège Bourbon (now called College Mignet). At age
18 he returned to Paris where he studied at the Lycée Saint-Louis.
After working at several low-level clerical jobs, he began to
write a literary column for a newspaper. Controversial from the
beginning, he did not hide his disdain for Napoleon III, who used
the Second Republic as a vehicle to become Emperor.
than half of Zola's novels were part of a set of 20 collectively
known as Les Rougon-Macquart. Set in France's Second Empire, it
traces the hereditary influence of violence, alcoholism, and prostitution
in two branches of a family, the respectable Rougons and the disreputable
Macquarts, for five generations.
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."
and the painter Paul Cézanne were friends from childhood
and in youth, but 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).
risked his career and even his life on 13 January 1898, when his
"J'accuse" (see  and) was published on the front
page of the Paris daily, L'Aurore.
paper 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. "J'accuse" accused
the French government of anti-Semitism and of wrongfully placing
Alfred Dreyfus in jail. Zola was brought to trial for libel for
publishing "J'Accuse" on 7 February 1898, and was convicted
on 23 February.
declared that the conviction and transportation to Devil's Island
of the Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus came after a false accusation
of espionage and was a miscarriage of justice. The case, known
as the Dreyfus affair, had divided France deeply between the reactionary
army and church and the more liberal commercial society. The ramifications
continued for years, so much so that on the 100th anniversary
of Émile Zola's article, France's Roman Catholic daily
paper, La Croix, apologized for its anti-Semitic editorials during
the Dreyfus Affair.
was a leading light of France and his letter formed a major turning-point
in the Dreyfus affair, causing the captain's case to be reopened,
whereupon he was acquitted. In the course of events, Zola was
convicted of libel, sentenced, and removed from the Legion of
than go to jail, he fled to England. Soon he was allowed to return
in time to see the government fall. Dreyfus was convicted again,
but was ultimately freed, in large part due to the moral force
of Zola's arguments. Zola said "The truth is on the march,
and nothing shall stop it."
1906, Dreyfus was completely exonerated by the Supreme Court.
died in Paris on 29 September 1902 of carbon monoxide poisoning
caused by a stopped chimney. He was 62 years old. His enemies
were blamed, but nothing was proved. He 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
biographical film The Life of Emile Zola won the Academy Award
for "Best Picture" in 1937. The film focuses mainly
on Zola's involvement in the Dreyfus Affair.
January 1998, President Jacques Chirac held a memorial to honor
the centenary of "J'Accuse".
us never forget the courage of a great writer who, taking every
risk, putting his tranquility, his fame, even his life in peril,
dared to pick up his pen and place his talent in the service of
truth." — Jacques Chirac
descends into the sewer to bathe in it, I to cleanse it."
— Henrik Ibsen
will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the
last church falls on the last priest." — Émile