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 beginning, a structure to which he had committed himself irrevocably. That structure was a family tree, first sketched by Zola in his notes in 1868–1869 before writing the first of the novels, La Fortune des Rougon. It was then produced in three slightly altered further versions, the last of which was published, in the form of an espaliered tree with grapevine leaves, as the frontispiece to the final novel in the cycle, Le Docteur Pascal. Except for renaming the characters in the first version (they were originally the Richauds and the Machards) the scheme remains constant. This scheme is not only a structure of family relationships among the characters, but more important, a description, years in advance of their actual literary development, of the qualities of temperament and intellect that will mark them throughout their fictional lives. When he appears briefly in his mother’s Legitimist salon in the first novel, Pascal Rougon shows the same intellectual, disinterested, charitable departure from her crass bourgeois pretensions as he does in the last novel, of which he is the central character, written twenty-four years later. Moreover, the genealogical tree does not simply describe the variations of character that will mark and motivate the members of the family; it also gives a short theoretical explanation for the origin of these variations. So, in the 1869 tree, Eugène Rougon is described as

born in 1811, 40 years old in ’51 [the historical moment of the first novel]. Law of heredity: fusion mixture with moral preponderance of the mother and a physical resemblance to the father. Ambitious official functionary with talent.

Like his predecessors, Zola takes heredity to be the secret of the origin of character, but in Zola an unexamined belief in the power of blood has been replaced by an articulated scientific theory of heredity. In the preface to La Fortune des Rougon, an introduction to the cycle that is to come, Zola tells his readers that “heredity has its laws, just like gravity” and that his purpose in writing will be “to find and follow…the thread that leads mathematically from one man to another.” This first episode, he says, “ought to be called by its scientific title: The Origins.”


The Rougon-Macquart novels are based on what is called, in modern jargon, a “half-sib family study”—a pedigree with two halves that are united at their origin through a single common ancestor, used for studying the effects of heredity and environment. In Zola’s cycle, that ur-ancestor, adélaïde Fouque (Tante Dide), has two mates. From her first, legitimate, husband, a stolid peasant (“thick” is the adjective often used by Zola) endowed with typical peasant craftiness, there flows the line of the Rougons who rise high both economically and politically under the Second Empire: From her second mate, the violent, unpredictable smuggler Macquart, springs an illegitimate line marked by madness, violence, corruption, alcoholism, and sexual license. These lines then come together again in the third generation to produce an extraordinary mixture in Father Mouret, torn by the conflict between holiness and sexuality.

The laws of heredity that rule this family of thirty people, belonging to four successive generations sprung from Tante Dide, were found by Zola in a corpus of Continental scientific literature on heredity and nervous degeneracy that had widespread influence both intellectually and practically. In the course of his writing, Zola studied the Traité de l’hérédité naturelle of Prosper Lucas, the Traité des dégénérescences of B.A. Morel, and J. Dejerdine’s L’Hérédité dans les maladies du système nerveux. It was from Lucas, who also was a source for Darwin’s notions of heredity, that Zola got his systematic classification of the forms of inheritance.

This classification is explained in detail by the physician and geneticist Pascal Rougon to his niece in the scene in Chapter 5, which is the dramatic hinge of the last novel. By candlelight the middle-aged Pascal pores over the dossiers and the genealogical tree of the family, accompanied by the adolescent, “half-naked” Clothilde, seducing her intellectually by a nightlong learned discourse on the forms of heredity. These include “election” of the psychic characteristics of one parent; mixture of parental traits by the “welding” of psychic traits of one parent with physical traits of the other; equilibrated mixture in which both parents’ traits are fully displayed; fusion by averaging of parental traits; a “fusion mixture” in which the traits; lose their individual coherent identity but there is still some element of each; throwbacks and indirect heredity; and “inneity,” in which characteristics that appear nowhere else in the family make their appearance as a result of the “chemical mixture” between the parental elements, producing a wholly new result.

Most remarkable of all is the phenomenon of “influence,” illustrated by the sexually exuberant Nana, in which characteristics of the first husband of a woman appear in her offspring fathered by a second spouse. These family dossiers carry an immense weight for it is only by their final physical destruction that the entire cycle of novels is allowed to come to an end.

Perhaps the reason that ideas of heredity of character are not usually given a central role in analyses of Zola’s work is that they are seen as just another manifestation of Zola’s general method. As Brown describes in considerable detail, Zola, in the writing of his “naturalistic” fiction, made personal inquiries into the material details for the setting of each novel. He observed closely the daily workings of Les Halles in preparation for Le Ventre de Paris, the working of mines for Germinal, the operation of department stores for Au Bonheur des Dames. Perhaps his interest in scientific theories of inheritance was simply another example of careful scene setting. Such a view, however, does not differentiate between the individual details of setting that give each novel an air of modern reality and the overall structural role that the problem of origin of character gives to the entire cycle. The mine, the laundry, the railroad, the atelier are the different physical and social spaces for the working out of a common problem: the explanation of human psychic diversity.

Although Zola calls his novels a “natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire” and writes in his preface that he wants to resolve “the double question of temperament and circumstances,” there is never any doubt he believes that interior forces, inborn tendencies, are overwhelming. The effect of the social milieu is to provide the external condition, or trigger, for the appearance of the internal. The laundress Gervaise at first overcomes her innate vices and builds up a thriving business, avoiding the dissolution and drunkenness she inherited from her father, Antoine Macquart. But one day, as she is working with her arms immersed in dirty laundry, “her face bent over the bundles, a lassitude seized her…as if she were drunk on this human stench, vaguely smiling, eyes glazed. It seemed as if her first sloth arose here in the asphyxia of the dirty linen polluting the air around her.” Like the single drink that ruins the reformed alcoholic, the very smell of the corporeal is enough to call forth Gervaise’s inner nature.


Zola’s notion of the dominance of the internal over the external was part of the long tradition of a belief in the power of blood. But Zola, the admiring son of an engineer, writing in the France of the second half of the nineteenth century, has his view of causation formed in a very different intellectual milieu than that of the early Victorian Dickens and Eliot, children of, respectively, a clerk and an estate steward. Jules Verne had just published in 1864–1865 A Journey to the Center of the Earth and From the Earth to the Moon, half novels, half textbooks. The physiological work of Claude Bernard was carefully studied by Zola and was incorporated into the scientific theories that formed the medical practice of the fictional Pascal Rougon. The scientific study of the variety of human characteristics was an important intellectual activity in France. The Society of Anthropology was founded in 1859, and the municipal authorities of Paris later underwrote the Society’s formation of a school. Criminal anthropology was highly developed by Alphonse Bertillon, the inventor of fingerprinting as a method of criminal identification, who entered Zola’s later life in the flesh when he was called as a prosecution expert on handwriting in the Dreyfus trial.

What marks Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels is not simply naturalism, or the employment of the details of craft and science to make them seem vraisemblable. It is, rather, the attempt to transfer a dominant preoccupation of nineteenth-century literature, the problem of character, from the realm of pre-scientific folk wisdom to the realm of a coherent scientific materialism.

This Issue

May 23, 1996