Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Teaching the Naturalist Novel: Emile Zola

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Teaching the Naturalist Novel: Emile Zola

Article excerpt


Using Zola's method of writing evidenced in the speech of the Sandoz character as a model, the students in a freshman honors course (Honors 156) are able to deconstruct The Masterpiece as a means to understand Zola's naturalist approach to literature. The subsequent reconstruction of the novel enables students to demonstrate a familiarity with French naturalism that exceeds typical expectations of the freshman classroom.


Teaching a 19th-century French naturalist novel in a freshman-level English course at a predominately blue-collar commuter university in an economically depressed region firmly rooted in the rust belt of the Midwest appears daunting at best and disproportionately frightening at worst. Not only do students have difficulty simply reading a text beyond merely for comprehension of plot, attacking a work from a century, place and culture radically different from their own poses additional pedagogical hurdles. These obstacles are heightened by the importance that the naturalist writer places on the descriptions and depictions of various cultural elements in the text. With this in mind, the challenge for the professors lies in the adequate preparation of their students as well as in the consistent and appropriate guidance during and after their reading of the naturalist work. In the absence of teaching aids specific to the text at hand, such as a hypermedia version of the work that would help reconstitute both the context in which the work was written and the world that the author created, the professors must do their best to guide their students through the naturalist landscape all the while substantially supplementing their reading with documents from the real world.

Establishing the Literary Framework

There are several reasons to read Zola at the undergraduate level. There are many advantages to the inclusion of his novels by the undergraduate literature professor that outweigh any disadvantages. From a purely literary standpoint, Zola did not attach himself to one single popular genre; rather, he was willing to experiment with various genres to arrive at literary innovation (Baguley 17). Therefore, the inclusion Zola in the undergraduate literature curriculum will provide the basis for discussion of several genres and literary devices. Since Zola's two scholarly subjects were heredity and the Second Empire, his work provides an authentic glimpse into nineteenth-century French society (Walker 29). Ahead of his time, Zola used the same goals as the sociologist, thus raising sociology to an art form before it became a science (Hemmings 5). As a result, Zola's novels provide a springboard for an interdisciplinary approach to literature. The society and culture of Zola's France play as prominent a role in his texts as the characters themselves. Finally, Zola's application of scientific methods to literature prevented him from resorting to sentimentalism in his novels, thereby differentiating him from the Romantics (Howe 123).

Emile Zola often speaks to the reader in his The Masterpiece (L'Oeuvre) through the character of Pierre Sandoz, an up-and-coming writer in 19th-century Paris. Zola's naturalist approach to his Rougon-Macquart series of novels parallels the plans of Pierre Sandoz who professes a similar "scientific" study of contemporary society by placing characters of known provenance in different cultural settings to examine the interactions between the nature of the characters and their social milieu.

Viewing The Masterpiece through the framework of a general definition of Naturalism and of the particular brand of Naturalism that Zola uses and outlines in the words of Pierre Sandoz increases students' accessibility to this novel. In order to arrive at a sensible definition of Naturalism in general and at an understanding of Zola's interpretation of this definition in particular, my students examine this question from the point of view of an encyclopedia and of Zola's characters in The Masterpiece. …

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