Unlike Flaubert, the ‘hermit of Croisset’, who turned away from his age in an attitude of ironic detachment, Émile Zola (1840–1902) embraced his century in a way no French writer had done since Balzac. Zola’s ambition was to emulate Balzac by writing a comprehensive history of contemporary society. Through the fortunes of his Rougon-Macquart family, he examined methodically the social, sexual, and moral landscape of the late nineteenth century along with its political, financial, and artistic contexts. Zola is the quintessential novelist of modernity, understood in terms of an overwhelming sense of tumultuous change.
The motor of change was the rapid expansion of capitalism, with all that that entailed in terms of the altered shapes of the city, new forms of social practice and economic organisation, and heightened political pressures. Zola was fascinated by change, specifically by the emergence of a new, mass society. Henry James noted Zola’s ability to ‘make his characters swarm’, arguing that it was both the ‘fortune’ and ‘doom’ of the Rougon-Macquart cycle to ‘deal with things almost always in gregarious forms, to be a picture of numbers, of classes, crowds, confusions, movements, industries’. Industrialisation brought with it urban poverty and prostitution, class conflict, the rise of mass movements, the birth of a consumer culture, and the struggle between the forces of secularism and religion. As Erich Auerbach commented in Mimesis, his classic study of the representation of reality in Western literature, Zola ‘is one of the very few authors of the century who created their work out of the great problems of the age’.