The author: Emil ZOLA
Like Charles Dickens, Zola knew poverty in his youth.
Dickens stuck labels on tins of bootblacking in a factory.
Zola's widowed mother was impoverished when speculators
bankrupted his father's company that was building a canal to
supply fresh water to the town of Aix in southern France.
Friend of the
Zola went to live in the seediest part of Paris. He was
friends with rising young Impressionist painters, then
regarded as outrageous rebels: Manet, Monet , Degas, Pissaro
- and especially his boyhood friend from Aix, Cezanne. He
helped make his reputation as a controversial journalist by
espousing the Impressionists' cause in 1863, when their
paintings were all rejected by the jury for the annual Salon
Literacy rose dramatically in 19th century France: by 1850
over 60% of the French could read, compared with 20% in 1820
- the result of educational reforms. This created a huge
market for newspapers and for popular novels - "realistic"
stories, with obvious plots, violent melodramas, full of
action, and simply written.
novel "Les Miserables" published
in 1862 was an instant success. Zola had gained notoriety as
an outspoken columnist. Unable to find more work on
newspapers - which were subject to frigid censorship- he
turned to writing novels to make money. Back
Themes of his
A reviewer of Zola's early novels advised him to seek out
social themes instead of personal domestic dramas - like
Dickens, Balzac or Shakespeare. In response, Zola planned a
family saga initially of 10 books, that eventually expanded
to 20 and took most of his writing life to produce. The
family would symbolise major themes of the violent social
changes transforming France under the Second Empire:
- the huge gaps between the 'haves' and
- wasteful extravagance next to
widespread grinding poverty;
- corruption in high places, with whole
sections of society being exploited.
Zola explored the political consequences:
the class struggle, and the pressures to resort to violence
and terrorism. He clearly took sides in the contemporary
- science vs. religion;
- education vs. oppression;
- labour vs. capital.
But he fell short of advocating
socialism, and his message seemed to be that workers and
bosses were both being swept along by an irresistible tide
of social change. Back
Zola spent his working life as a writer; the vivid detail in
his novels came from painstakingly thorough research. In
1877 number 7 in the saga, 'L'Assommoir', was his first
big-selling success. It was the first French novel to
feature working class characters - English translations were
called 'The Gin Palace', 'The Dram Shop' or 'The Drunkard'.
By the time no.13 was being planned, Zola
was financially prosperous. He decided to set this
life-and-death conflict between labour and capital in a coal
mine. Miners strikes, where strikes often involved hardship
and violence; the dark tunnels of the mine offered many
dramatic and symbolic possibilities. Back