Note on Zola
In his 1877 preface to, and defence of, his novel L’Assommoir, Émile Zola writes:
“I wanted to depict the inexorable downfall of a working class family in the poisonous atmosphere of our industrial suburbs. Intoxication and idleness lead to a weakening of family ties, to the filth of promiscuity, to the progressive neglect of decent feelings, and ultimately to degradation and death. It is simply morality in action.”
Zola’s two great themes are poverty and vice. With a near-clinical precision, he shows them struggling against, while anchoring and giving rise to one another, fixed like the two headed serpent in Egyptian mythology. L’Assommoir, the story of a destitute family whose patriarch drinks away the earnings, triggering the vices of wife and daughter, caught hell from French conservatives for its adultery, promiscuity, and immorality; and from the socialists for its all-too-reproachable poor. Then, as now, poverty and vice are delicate subjects, particularly in combination. Suggesting they fuel one another is a provocation to both conservatives and socialists who bemoan vice and poverty respectively, while ignoring the effects of poverty and vice respectively.
Does Zola’s liberalism hold up? In 2012, his fascination with the “filth of promiscuity” likely seems old fashioned and “sex negative”, and his characters’ alcoholism seems positively antiquated in an era in which the situation of the poor has improved to the point that they have meth. But his paramount theme, beyond vice and poverty, is oblivion- the oblivion that men create for themselves and one another, but which seems to be the inheritance of a particular class. His great skill is in depicting his characters in a way that is at once pitiless and sympathetic. The milieu, those Second Empire industrial suburbs, is changed, along with some of the particulars, but the theme might be eternal in human life. Reaching ever upwards, we slide ever downwards.