Jack J. Woehr in Well.com:
At the peak of European power and culture, in the Third Republic era of French literary and artistic supremacy within Europe, Émile Zola (1840-1902) was the most popular and widely-read French novelist among French speakers. (Victor Hugo, his elder contemporary, is to this day probably more widely read in translation.) Zola wrote with a journalistic eye, filling notebooks with facts gathered by personal observation and by correspondence with his network of experts preparatory to his work of authorship. He would then write a sketch of the projected work, and finally, write daily and methodically, sometimes for years, to produce his “experimental” and “realistic” novels. Zola's novels deserve more attention today by English speakers, especially Americans, than in fact they receive: hence, this web page. Zola's most prominent work is the twenty-novel cycle (yes, 20!) Les Rougon-Macquart subtitled “Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire”, that is, “The social and natural (e.g, anthropological, genetic) history of a family under the Second Empire”. This series is not well known in the English-speaking world, though individual novels of the cycle have achieved popularity in translation, notably Germinal (1885) and L'argent (Money) (1891). The most popular in French are Germinal and L'assomoir (The Dram Shop). Many of the Rougon-Macquart novels have been made into movies in France and have circulated with subtitles in the English nations.
Each book in the Rougon-Macquart cycle is woven from four thematic threads:
- First, each novel has an intricate plot, generally an engaging story about people caught up in the struggles of life and love and tragedies of life.
- Secondly, there is always woven into the story a social concern. Zola points out some political or social injustice or abuse. The most notable example of this thread in the Rougon-Macquart series is Germinal (1885) which deals with the working and social conditions of coal miners in northern France under the Second Empire.
- Thirdly was Zola's systematic indictment of the Second Empire (1851-1870), the semi-despotic, semi-parliamentary kleptocracy of Louis Bonaparte (Emperor Napoléon III) established by the coup d'etat of December, 1851. Zola had already projected ten novels of the series, and was in the course of finishing the first for publication when the Second Empire suddenly collapsed in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the Emperor himself being personally captured near the front lines at Sedan.
- Finally, there is Zola's fascination with science, notably genetics, in exposition of which he follows two branches of a family stemming from a common ancestress wherein certain salient characteristics, particularly pathological psychological bents, repeat in individual members generation after generation. The Rougons are prosperous but given to immense appetites for money and/or power. The Macquarts are more human but full of failings, notably an inheritance of alcoholism. Any member of either family, as a descendant of the common ancestress Adelaïde Fouque, may be subject to “excessive nervosity”, i.e., congenital mental illness and breakdown at any time in life.
Though the novels of the Rougon-Macquart cycle all share common features, each nonetheless posesses one or more aspects which make the individual novel unique in the cycle.