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 and infanticide.” Seeing evidence that a growing number of British “medical men” were offering “abortion-inducing treatments,” Zola was “amazed that the British newspapers hardly spoke of these matters,” even though, “in his view, the welfare of the entire nation was being sacrificed” through social acceptance of such treatments. Zola thus explained his explicit treatment of abortion and the rest of the Malthusian population-control apparatus in these terms: “Let all be exposed and discussed in order that all may be cured.” (It would seem that Planned Parenthood and other Malthusian organizations in the 21st-century world disagree with Zola on the desirability of exposure—and cure.)

But in Fécondité Zola sought not merely to provoke “an outcry and [an] outrage” against the Malthusian “religion of death.” He also attempted to foster a new pro-natal familism by celebrating the beneficence of child-bearing and maternal child-rearing. Believing passionately that “France could find a new wealth through fecundity—having many babies”—Zola intended his book to push “the country as a whole to be more fecund, as it . . . call[ed] for an increased birthrate in France, an idea that would then be spread to the whole of the rest of humanity.”

Not surprisingly, Zola intended from the start to focus Fécondité on the image of “a fecund woman who would breast-feed her many children.” Zola himself perceived great beauty in such an image. “With Fécondité . . . ,” he explained, “I have exalted beauty. The budding flower is pretty, the open flower is beautiful. The virgin is not as beautiful as the mother. A woman gives off a perfume, shows off her whole soul, takes on her complete beauty when she achieves her natural end.”

The beauty Zola recognized in motherhood involved more than the biology of childbirth. He very much believed that mothers should breast-feed and nurture their young children. He regarded with disapproval the rich British women who were not only “becoming less inclined to breast-feed their babies” but also turning the care of their children over to nannies while they themselves spent their time “visiting or ‘receiving,’ reading novels, bicycling or playing lawn tennis.” “Ah well,” remarked Zola, “that is hardly my conception of a mother’s duty towards her infant, whatever be her situation in life.”

Largely because Fécondité has never received much attention, Zola remains a revered icon among progressives, who never tire of lecturing conservatives when they voice disapproval of some of his graphic portrayals of prostitution, violence, and alcoholism. But should Fécondité ever receive its due, it will be progressives, not conservatives, expressing strong disapproval.

(Michael Rosen, The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature, and the Dreyfus Case [New York: Pegasus Books, 2017], 56-60, 149-51, 209-10.)