Article Expert: Emile Zola’s “The Experimental Novel”

In his essay, “The Experimental Novel,” Emile Zola relies heavily upon Claude Bernard’s Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine. Zola states Bernard’s book is “set forth with force and marvelous clarity” (Zola 162). Understanding that Zola is using Bernard’s work is crucial to following Zola’s line of reasoning throughout his essay; Zola refers to Bernard’s Introduction to underline, or bring emphasis to, nearly every point or argument he asserts within “The Experimental Novel.”

Zola asserts that by “replac[ing] the word ‘doctor’” with “the word ‘novelist’” he will be able to “make [his] thought clear and bring it to the rigor of scientific truth” (162). He adds to this that “medicine, like the novel, is still an art” (162). He discusses the differences between the “experimental” and “observational” sciences, stating that “observation ‘shows’ and experiment ‘informs’” (166). He later adds that “[o]bservation shows” while “experiment instructs” (168).

According to Zola, the “naturalistic novel…is a true experiment which the novelist makes on men, with the support of observation” (167). Zola makes constant comparisons between the scientist and the novelist, or uses the sciences and the methods used therein to prove the work of the naturalistic novelist is scientific in nature. “We novelists,” he states, “are examining magistrates of men and their passions” (168).
Zola also makes a point to highlight the differences between the idealist novelists and the naturalists. In one example he states that the idealist writers “leave observation and experiment to base their works on the supernatural and the irrational” ([emphasis mine] 177). His comments on the idealists are not favorable. (See also middle of page 178.)

Ever drawing the experimental novelists’ close alignment with science, Zola asserts, “The experimental novel” or the naturalist’s novel, “is a result of the scientific evolution of the age; it continues and completes physiology, which…leans on physics and chemistry” (176). Yet, while Zola draws similarities, he also highlights a major difference, “Since our power is not the same as that of scientists. Since we are experimenters without being practitioners, we must be content to seek out the determinism of social phenomena, leaving to legislators, to those with power of application, the task sooner or later of directing these phenomena…to develop the good and reduce the bad from a standpoint of human utility” (180-181).

He defends naturalists against the accusation that they are fatalists. Zola explains that rather they are determinists (179). (For more on this see the top of pages 180 and 184)
In short, Zola sees the naturalist novelists “role” to be “experimental moralists” (181). “We show the mechanism of the useful or the harmful; we disengage the determinism of social phenomena so that we may one day control and direct these phenomena. In a word we work with the whole age at that great task which is the conquest of nature, the unleashing of man’s power” (181).

Zola’s incredible sense of importance (almost grandiose) that the experimental novelist holds within in society is evidenced repeatedly. He states that “[t]he genius of the experimenter dominates everything” (183). He then asks, “What…happens to genius in the experimental novelist? It remains genius…only if it is controlled by experiment” (183). He concludes this point with, “[i]n our scientific age, experiment ought to provide proof of genius” (184).
My questions are these: Can a novelist truly experiment upon, or only observe, his characters when he is their creator and writes every movement and breath they take? Can a writer help but be moved by personal biases when creating a novel? I say no. Does knowing how Zola viewed his work change your reading of L’Assommoir? How? Why or why not?

Submitted by Amy M.


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