Zola and Dickens

24 Jul

“I am little concerned with beauty or perfection. I don’t care for the great centuries. All I care about is life, struggle, intensity. ” —Emile Zola

‘In the mid-nineteenth century critics routinely checked out novels for literal accuracy, as if this was understood that this was one of the products advertising promises and the novelist had better make good on it.’ He continues, ‘Novelists routinely accepted the unpleasant task of doing reporting, legwork, “digging,” in order to get it just right. That was part of the process of writing novels. Dickens travels to three towns in Yorkshire using a false name and pretending to be looking for a school for the son of a widowed friend – in order to get inside the notorious Yorkshire boarding schools to gather material for Nicholas Nickleby.

‘Social realists like Dickens and Balzac [you should read Balzac’s Le Père Goriot (1835) for a better understanding of the social and literary background of the time] seemed often to delight in realism pure and simple that it was held against them throughout their careers. Neither was regarded as a literary artist in his own lifetime (Balzac was not even invited into the French Academy). From the 1860s on, literary people – as well as critics, I should add – began to develop the following theory: Realism is a powerful device but is of trivial interest unless it is used to illuminate a higher reality … the cosmic dimension … eternal values … the moral consciousness … a road that lead them right back to the classical tradition by and by, to the idea that literature had a spiritual mission, that it “speaks to men unborn,” that it is magic, fable, myth, the mythos. By the 1920s in both France and England, the novel of social realism already seemed gauche.’ —Tom Wolfe, p55, The New Journalism, Picador, London 1990.

Naturalism and the Experimental Novel

‘New writers found the Victorian tradition both aesthetically and morally constraining, an they looked elsewhere, above all to Paris – where, in 1880, two writers well known to [Henry] James published highly influential works. Guy de Maupassant brought out his frank tale of a fat working–class girl, Boule de Suif, and Émile Zola his sexually scandalous Nana, as well as the essay Le Roman expérimental [The Experimental Novel], a literary manifesto for the rising trend of Naturalism. Zola used the term “experimental novel” in a different, more scientific, sense than we would now expect. His experiment was sociological and deterministic; he urged that, using laboratory–style methods and documentary and journalistic techniques, novelists should explore systems and processes, the laws of economics, heredity, environment and social evolution, to determine the fate of the typical, representative characters. “A symmetry is established,” he claimed, “the story composes itself out of all the collected observations, all the notes, one leading to another by the very enchainment of the characters, and the conclusion is nothing more than a natural and inevitable consequence.” This was realism schematised; individuals were subject were subject to universal systems, typified general laws; as Zola noted, “A like determinism will govern the stones of the roadway and the brain of man.”’ —Malcom Bradbury, p21, The Modern British Novel, Secker and Warburg, London 1993.

Naturalism and Realism were the emerging forms of literature. Tom Wolfe compares these forms to the emergence of the New Journalism and points to similar criticisms levelled at both. The Naturalist view is that man is simply a part of nature and as such there is no need to seek explanations of man’s existence outside the physical world. This goes against the tradition of magic, fable, myth and mythos Wolfe talks about which came out of the Romatic period of literature. The Naturalists refuse to accept cosmological, religious, or super-natural explanations for man’s behaviour. Both Dickens’s and Zola’s work is predominantly a study of the working–class in a very real sense. They went out into the world and observed, condensing what they saw into novels such as Hard Times, Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby by Dickens and Nana, Thérèse Raquin and Germinal by Zola. Their work coincided with a general increase in literacy that allowed their novels to reach a wide audience. Both worked as journalists and Dickens’s fiction first appeared as serials in the periodicals of the day. So as far as research is concerned their methodology was very similar. However their narrative techniques are quite distinct, though neither was readily accepted during the authors’ lifetimes.


Zola saw himself as what today we might call a ‘social scientist’. In his preface to the second edition of Thérèse Raquin he says: ‘I had only one aim, which was: given a powerful man and an unsatisfied woman, to seek within them only the animal, to plunge them together in a violent drama and then take scrupulous note of their sensations and their actions. I simply carried out on two living bodies the same analytical examination that surgeons perform on corpses’ — p2, Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, 1992.

The introduction to the French edition sums up the portrait he paints: ‘Violence, fureur impitoyable, cannabalisme, sauvagerie, passion vivent cachés, nichés au plus creux des viscères de l’homme, de l’homme qui se targue justement (et pourtant) d’être supérieur, voire l’être supérieur. Mais qu’un petit grain de sable, qu’un vent chaud, qu’une passion vienne malgré les interdits de la société et de l’éducation, qu’une passion vienne à affleure jusqu’à la lumière des lèvres ou du cœur, c’est alors un raz de marée, un cataclysme qui s’empare du bipède le plus convenu, le plus dressé soit–il.’ — p5, Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola, Le Livre du Poche, France.

Zola often suffers in translation to English because of his creative use of the wide variety of tenses of French prose. However the consistency of his technique can be demonstrated by comparing two sections from the begininng and middle of the book. Again this works better in French.

French p19-20, ‘Au bout de la rue…’ p99-100, ‘Laurent se donna…’
English p7 ‘At the end…mahogany boxes.” p74-75 ‘Laurant gave…grim laughter.’

Zola’ smain device is the massive use of metaphor. Germinal (Émile Zola, Penguin Books, London.) is itself one big metaphor for life with the miners being the ‘seeds’ planted in the ground to germinate. For example: p67 – the metaphor of ponies for miners, p47 – trains as phantom animals, p28 – the mine as a best devouring the miners.

‘Then, with the quiet skill of a good workman who has carefully thought out the job, he set to work. He began by sawing a panel out of the partition separating the escape shaft from the main winding shaft. By the short-lived flame of one or two matches he was able to ascertain the state of the lining and the extent of recent repairs.

‘Between Calais and Valenciennes the sinking of pit shafts met with appalling difficulties because they had to pass through enormous subterranean lakes that lay at the level of the deepest valleys. The only way to hold back these gushing springs was to construct linings of pieces of timber joined to each other like the staves of a cask. These linings isolated the shafts in tunnels through the middle of the lakes, the dark and mysterious waves of which lapped against the outside of th orlds. When Le Voreux was sunk two distinct linings had to be made; one for the upper part of the shaft where it went through the shifting sands and white clays found near chalky soils, and these were riddled with fissures and soaked with water like a sponge; and the other lower down, immediately above the coal measures, through yellow sand as fine as flour, flowing like liquid. Behind his lower lining was the Torrent, the underground sea that was the terror of the pits in the Nord department – a sea with its own storms and wrecks, unexplored, unfathomable, the black rollers of which heaved more than three hundred metres below the ground.’ p432.

When Souvarine is about to destroy the pit the detail adds to the tension:

“Look at these hands of mine – if they could do so they would take hold of the world like this and shake it into little pieces so as to bury the lot of you under the wreckage.” Souvarine – p383.

Catherine is suffocating in foul air: ‘She knew all about this foul air – dead air, miners called it – heavy asphyxiating gases at the bottom, light, explosive gases at the top which can blow up all the teams in a mine, hundreds of men, in one thunderclap. She had swallowed so much of it since early childhood that she was surprised to be taking it so badly n, with noises in her ears and a burning throat.’ p296.

Jeanlin after his accident – “he undressed the child himself, unfastening his ca, pulling down his trousers and lifting off his shirt with the skill of a nurse. And the pathetic little boy came into view , as thin as an insect, soiled with black dust and yellow earth and mottled with bloody stains. It was impossible to see anything; he had to be washed as well. The sponging seemed to make him thinner than ever, his flesh was so pallid and transparent that the bones showed through. It was pitiful to see this last decadent specimen of a race of starving toilers, this mere wisp of suffering, half crushed by the rocks. (p.189)


By the nineteenth century the serfs had become the ‘working class’, the aristocracy remained but a new ‘business class’ had arisen and were dubbed the ‘middle class’. The working class itself could be divided into the agrarian and urban, those who still worked on the farms, and those who had moved to the cities in search of work in the new industries that were being founded at this time. The only problem with this definition is that at times the distinction between the upper-middle-class and the upper class or aristocracy becomes blurred. Dickens concentrates on the plight of the working class. Hard Times was one of his more successful novels after a low patch in the 1840s despite the success of A Christmas Carol (1843), and Dombey and Son (1848). It has been said in Hard Times and his other writings Dickens captured the contemporary popular imagination ‘as no other novelist done’.

‘The chapters of the novels Dickens wrote for weekly serial publication, like Hard Times and Great Expectations, are much shorter than those in novels like Dombey and Son or Bleak House, originally published in monthly parts. The magazine instalments often had to meet a very precise and uniform length requirement.’ — David Lodge, p167, The Art of Fiction, Secker and Warburg, London 1992.

Dickens is a very visual author. This is his description of Jacob’s Island in Oliver Twist (1838): ‘To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of the waterside people … The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream form the house–parapet and windows … he walks beneath tottering housefronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half–crushed, half–hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginabel sign of desolation and negelct.’

One accusation leveled at Dickens is that his characters are somewhat two dimensional but they are made three dimensional and given colour by the environments they inhabit which are described in rich detail. Dickens also uses symbolism as in Dombey and Son when describing the railway: ‘The power that forced itself upon its iron way – its own – defiant of all the paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.’

Description weather can play an important role when aided by metaphor in setting the mood and aiding the description of the scene as in Bleak House: ‘London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting at Licoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, [a possible biblical reference] and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, [a reference to Darwinism] waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft balck drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in the mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umberellas, in a general infliction of ill temper, and losing their foot–hold at street corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.’ p49, Bleak House, Charles Dickens, Penguin Books, London 1985.

This continues: ‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it lows among green aits and madows; fog down the river where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollution of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all around them, as if they were up in a balloon , and hanging in the misty clouds.’ p49 Bleak House.

‘The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest, near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation: Temple bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord high Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.’ p50, Bleak House.

But Dickens is whimsical too: ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in the course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means.’ p52, Bleak House.

He also uses the device of repetition. For instance in Bleak House describing the death of the crossing sweeper: ‘Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.’

Dickens uses realism to good effect but it can become strained. This is the scene in Hard Times where Stephen Blackpool refuses to join in a Trade Union strike on conscientios grounds, note the use of vulgar speech: ‘“Stephen Blackpool,” said the chairman, rising, “think on’t agen. Think on’t agen lad, afore thour’t shunned by aw owd friends.”

‘There was a universal murmor to the same effect, though no man articulated a word. Every eye was fixed on Stephen’s face. To repent of his determination, would be to take a load from all their minds. He looked around him, and knew that it was so. Not a grain of anger with them was in his heart; he knew them, far below their surface weaknesses and misconceptions, as no–one but their fellow labourer could.

‘“I ha thowt on’t, above a bit sir. I simply canna come in. I mun go th’way as lays afore me. I mun tak my leave o’aw heer.”’ — Hard Times, Charles Dickens, Oxford University Press, 1989.

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Literature


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