Zola’s Scandalous Views on Family

Twenty-first-century progressives revere the 19th-century French novelist Émile Zola as one of their own—a daring writer whose often shockingly explicit writing challenged conventional sexual and moral proprieties. But a new study of Zola’s last years reveals that it is actually progressives who might find themselves most scandalized by some of the views the novelist expressed about sexuality and family life in his end-of-career writing.   In examining Zola’s final years in The Disappearance of Émile Zola, the poet and novelist Michael Rosen focuses largely on Zola’s role in the notorious Dreyfus case, detailing the novelist’s brave defiance of anti-Semitic military officials who had unjustly condemned a Jewish artillery officer of espionage. But while investigating this matter, Rosen can hardly ignore Fécondité, the astonishing novel Zola was working on during this sensational affair. Contemplating the themes of this novel and the views Zola expressed about those themes, Rosen can only acknowledge that on “questions of childbirth, contraception, eugenics, [and] birth control . . . [Zola’s beliefs] don’t fit easily into modern left/right, liberal/ conservative categories.” What else is a modern literary scholar supposed to say when he discovers that “Zola, the progressive, scientific, liberal socialist,” was “deeply hostile” to the kind of Malthusian and contraceptive thinking that has now become political orthodoxy among the progressive elite? Though progressives usually laud Zola for his ruthlessly frank and explicit literary style, they might not applaud the stunning realism of his attack in Fécondité on “Malthusian ideas of ending poverty through depopulation.” In this novel, that attack took the form of an assault on what Zola called the “religion of death.” As Rosen explains, Zola’s attack includes “graphic depictions of abortion, sterilization, contraception, baby-abandonment, baby-farming, wet-nursing an
Please subscribe or log in to read the rest of this content.