I would like to take the opportunity offered by John Weightman’s essay on Frederick Brown’s biography of Zola [New York Review, March 21] to provide a somewhat different analytical emphasis. My remarks are not made with the intention of quarreling with anything that either Weightman or Brown has written, but to place at the center of our understanding of Zola a question that is touched on, but not emphasized, in both the biography and the review.
In the twenty Rougon-Macquart novels that form the core of his literary work, Zola is preoccupied with a problem that motivates a good deal of English and French literature of the nineteenth century: the mystery of the origin of character. It is this problem that not only appears over and over again in the novels, but that motivates the entire structure of the cycle.
The problem of character is distinct from the issue of human nature. The latter concerns the commonalities of human temperament and motivation, of what it is to be human. Especially after the appearance of The Origin of Species in 1859 made evolution part of public consciousness, the role that our animal ancestry plays in forming our species nature was a subject for literary concern. But the problem of character, of the origin of differences among individual human beings in temperament, intellect, emotion, motivation, morality, was a concern of nineteenth-century literature, certainly from the appearance of Dickens’s first serious novel, Oliver Twist, in 1837. How are we to understand the contrast between the gentle, delicate, moral, grammatically impeccable Oliver, born and raised in the parish workhouse, and the crude, grossly shaped, and criminal Artful Dodger, whose upbringing was no worse? Why does Estella, raised by Miss Havisham to hate and take revenge on men, soften toward Pip in the end? And what of the extraordinary career of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, who starts life as a typical English milord and ends as a student of the Talmud who emigrates to Palestine?
Nor is the mystery of character solely an Anglo-Saxon preoccupation. Eugène Sue, the most widely read popular French novelist of the first half of the century, in his most popular novel, Les Mystères de Paris, presents us with the archetype of the noble prostitute whose body and life are corrupt but whose soul is pure. For Dickens, Eliot, and Sue, the solution of the mystery lies in an unquestioned belief in the power of blood over circumstance. Oliver is the child of middleclass parents, never seen by him; Estella is the biological daughter of the right-minded convict Abel Magwitch. Deronda turns out to be the son of a Jewish actress whom he meets only when he is an adult. Sue’s noble whore is the child of a morganatic marriage.
An extraordinary feature of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels is that a series of twenty works, written over a period of twenty-four years, was built on a single structure laid out explicitly by the author from the …