Zola's Essays

ZOLA’S new book1 is of the nature of an argument in defense of himself, his method of writing, and what he believes will be the method of future novelists, and to this is added a very bitter denunciation of his foes. If there is any subject about which men will talk with interest, it is about themselves, and this volume is but another confirmation of this already widely-known truth.

His theories, as expressed in this book, illustrate the disadvantages of a rigidly logical nature, such as that which distinguishes the French. Since the general turn of thought at the present day is in the direction of science, he joins, as a volunteer, the advanced band of scientific men, and boldly announces that his novels meet contemporary thought more than half-way, because they are strictly scientific. His way of proving this is certainly new : Claude Bernard, in 1865, wrote a valuable statement of the need of studying medicine in a scientific instead of an empirical manner, and now Zola advances the theory that what is true of medicine is necessarily true of novel-writing, and indeed of all literature, and that the only thing to do is to give up treating literature as in any way an artistic thing, and to look upon it as simply a science. This theory he undertakes to prove by, as it were, holding on to Claude Bernard’s skirts, and applying to literature what that eminent authority said about medicine. It is to be noticed, however, that Zola overlooks one possible analogy that might have occurred to another writer; for he says nothing about the fact that medicine has for its sole object the cure of bodies, and that if literature is like medicine it must concern itself with the cure of men’s morals. This possible point of resemblance he disregards, confining himself merely to the question of method.

What Claude Bernard said about the proper method of studying medicine, of investigating the action of drugs, and the countless phenomena of life in health and disease, is of great importance and of undoubted truth. Zola urges similar methods on the part of novel-writers. He says: “ We of the naturalist school submit every fact to observation and experiment, while the idealists acknowledge mysterious influences that elude analysis, and they consequently remain in the unknown, outside of the laws of nature. . . . All that we do not know, that eludes us, is the ideal : we are continually endeavoring to diminish the ideal, to win truth from what is unknown. We are all idealists, if by that is meant that we busy ourselves with the ideal. Only, I call idealists those who take refuge in the unknown from the pleasure of being there; who like only the most uncertain hypotheses, and refuse to submit them to the test of experience. under the pretext that the truth is in them and not in things. They, I repeat, do a vain and evil thing, while the observer and experimenter are the only ones who work in behalf of the power and happiness of man, by rendering him gradually the master of nature. There is no nobility, or dignity, or beauty, in ignorance, in falsehood, in the pretension that one is greater the deeper one sinks in error and confusion. The only grand and moral works are those of truth.” Again, “ We are not chemists, physicists, or physiologists; we are simply novelists who rely on the sciences. Certainly, we do not pretend to make discoveries in physiology; . . . only, before studying man, we think ourselves not justified in refusing to take into account new physiological truths.” “ Our task is the same as that of the men of science. It is impossible to establish any legislation on the falsehoods of the idealists. I But on the true documents which the naturalists will produce in time, doubtless, it will be possible to establish a better form of society, which will live by logic and method. From the moment we are true, we are moral.”

These are inspiring words, and they give one a good opinion of Zola’s sincerity, although one cannot make out in exactly what respects the novel of the future is to surpass the one with which we are already familiar. The doctrine of heredity is the most precise instance we have given us of the influence that science has upon fiction, yet it is hard to see how it will be possible to enact laws from the facts that novelwriters give us. If the making of laws is to depend on statistics, novels cannot expect to count for much in comparison with blue-books, and when novels become scientific we have reason to fear that scientific books will become works of fiction.

What novels can do and novels have done is to affect enormously men’s opinions concerning a great many important questions. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, was of incalculable service to the cause of emancipation, Tourguénieff’s Hunter’s Sketches helped the abolition of serfdom, and there can be but little doubt that A Fool’s Errand has been a most effective “ campaign document ” during the last few months; yet science has received but little aid from the literary qualities of these books. They have rested on facts, it is true, but their influence has been on the emotions of their readers. They do something which is outside of the accomplishment of any scientific books. It is impossible to collect statistics of the degradadation that slavery, for instance, causes. We may read the number of illiterate persons in a given country, but we form thereby as dim a sense of the gloom of ignorance as we do of the terror of bereavement from reading the tables of mortality of, say, Moscow for three years ago. The books that are mentioned above have no scientific value, but what we may call their emotional value is great; and, to take the one of the highest literary merit, it is Tourguénieff’s imagination that renders his book a piece of real artistic work, especially in comparison with the somewhat formless texture of the other two.

After all, this medication of literature which Zola advocates is only of use so far as it is an appeal in favor of realism in literature. He declares he is making the world over again, when in reality he is but knocking the legs from under the romantic school. Victor Hugo seems to him the incarnation of all that is unreal in literature, and he feels a natural craving to substitute for that writer’s brilliant inventions something familiar to human beings. When he says that poetry is to be deposed, that it is to be henceforth only a sort of orchestra to grind out music for the naturalists who shall be working, one can but smile at the way Zola’s hobby-horse has run away with him. When we think how broad and magnificent is the stream of literature, we are amazed at the complacency of this Frenehman who says it is only to work his mills in future, and not water the shores where poets like to roam.

When Zola descends from these somewhat vague generalities to the firmer ground of fact, it is interesting to see what he has to say about his friends who imitate him, and his enemies the critics. About these last-named gentlemen He writes with especial severity. He has been accused, it seems, of fondness for the gutter, and he defends himself from this charge by saying that his aim is to portray not merely low life, but all the strata of society ; and he carries the war into the territory of the newspapers that have attacked him by giving a few short extracts illustrative of their improprieties. Then, too, with much cleverness, he takes some old criticisms of Balzac, and lets the reader see how the writers of the present day do but repeat in their denunciations of him the long-forgotten abuse of Balzac. And in speaking of Balzac he strengthens his ground that observation is of the first importance for a novelist by showing how at times Balzac’s imagination was fantastic and clumsy, while his observation was, so to speak, infallible. He says, “I confess that I have no admiration for the author of the Femme de Trento Ans, for the inventor of the type of Vautrin. . . . That is what I call Balzac’s phantasmagoria. I have no greater fondness for the aristocratic society which he invented out of the whole cloth, for, with the exception of some few grand types which his genius divined, it makes the reader smile. In a word, Balzac’s imagination, which led him into all sorts of exaggeration and a desire to make over the world anew, I find irritating rather than attractive. If that had been all his outfit, he would be only a morbid specimen and a curiosity in our literature. But, fortunately, Balzac had the keenest perception of reality that has ever been seen. His best novels prove this ; the Cousine Bette, . . . Eugénie Grandet, . . . Pere Goriot, the Rabouilleuse, the Cousin Pons, and many others.” This is discreet criticism, and so far forth as they encourage novelists in the careful study of life, words like these cannot fail to be of service. When, too, Zola shows the flimsy unreality of Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, he does good work ; but he appears to stray from his beat when he blames all use of the imagination, and affirms that the novel-writer can busy himself solely with observed facts. Take, for instance, if his statements deserve disproof, Alfred de Musset’s Caprices de Marianne, a little play which certainly is wholly a work of the imagination ; how can any one, who does not trim his views of fact to suit his theories, maintain that it belongs to an inferior order of composition, and that it would be improved by full realistic details ? The imagination, without a substratum of truth to nature, is apt to become simply melodramatic ; with truth to nature, it gives us the masterpieces of all the literatures of various times. Now to assert that the imagination is an obsolete thing is like saying that henceforth perspective must never be used in pictures, because it is of the nature of deception; that artists must content themselves with arranging things in different actual planes.

When one sees what novels of his contemporaries Zola takes occasion to praise, one feels able to prefer old-fashioned errors to his new theories. Huysmans, Paul Alexis, Edmond de Goncourt, are writers of considerable merit, but even if we add Zola to their number we do not find that the revolution in literature is so great as has been said. Their main importance is, so to speak, a local one ; they lead a school which comes in good season to teach French novelists that their artificial way of writing unreal novels is a device of the past, but it is hard to escape the impression that they have a certain fondness for unsavory subjects. If it were possible for them so far to alter human nature as to slay the imagination, they would do harm to literature, and they never will do much good to science; but their sole effect will be to encourage the study of nature, which is the ground on which the imagination must rest.

Meanwhile, however, Zola’s book will be found very entertaining reading. He denounces the French fondness for beauty of form, and he writes with a carelessness of it that is more effective than the neatest and most polished of epigrams. He speaks from a full heart ; he takes himself very seriously, and believes most thoroughly that Balzac’s mantle has fallen on his shoulders. If we could only take his word for his excellence, the matter would be very simple ; but while we have his definite statement of his superiority to every one else, we have, on the other hand, the novels themselves, and they sometimes fail to convey the same impression. Of his volume about them, however, there can hardly be but one opinion ; it is entertaining and exceedingly readable, but it is not full of wisdom.

  1. Le Roman Experimental. Par EMILE ZOLA. Paris: Charpentier. Boston: C. Schönhof. 1880.