Emile Zola - The Noble Writer

Each writer has his/her own set of personal goals he/she expects to achieve through writing. Those goals could be egocentric or altruistic or both, ranging from self-gratification to attaining fame and money, from defending certain moral principles to moving people to reflect and act, from uninhibited self expression to finding resonance. Irrespective of whether the set goals can be attained, a writer’s writing is ultimately just an honest portrait of one’s true character, none worse, none better. A crook can never write anything righteous. A righteous can never write anything crooked.

Graham Greene once said that a pen, like a bullet, can draw blood. In the story of Emile Zola, the pen can be a tool of sublime humanity. In the latter part of his life, for totally altruistic reasons, Zola wrote something that moved a whole society to reflect and change course from ugly discrimination and flagrant miscarriage of justice.

A political scandal broke out in France in the 1890s and early 1900s which involved a Jewish artillery officer in the French army, named Alfred Dreyfus. In November 1894, he was convicted of treason in a secret military court-martial, during which he was denied the right to examine the evidence against him, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in November 1894. He was convicted largely on the basis of testimony by professional hand-writing experts. After sentencing, he was put in solitary confinement at Devil’s Island in French Guiana.

In 1896, evidence emerged pointing to the real culprit having committed the crime of selling military secrets to Germany. But then the new evidence was dismissed by high-ranking military officials as groundless. The real culprit was tried but quickly acquitted. The officials even went as far as fabricating false documents which sought to reconfirm Dreyfus’ conviction.

In January 1898, after collecting evidences on his own, Emile Zola was convinced of the innocence of Dreyfus and wrote a scathing open letter titled J’Accuse and had it published in L’Aurore, which was a popular Parisian newspaper. The letter was addressed to the then president of France, Felix Faure, and it accused the government of anti-Semitism and the unlawful jailing of Dreyfus. As a result of the popularity of the letter, J’Accuse became a common generic expression of outrage and accusation against the powerful.

By this time, Zola was already a well-heeled popular novelist in France and was leading a very comfortable life. At the time, anti-Semitism was the mainstream sentiment in society. Few people cared enough to defend Dreyfus. Such a backdrop made Zola’s righteous act all the more noble and worthy of accolade. However, for his audacity, he was brought to trial for libel and sentenced to jail in February 1898. To avoid prison, he had to flee to England and stayed there until June 1899 when the French government collapsed. He never stopped fighting for Dreyfus’ exoneration. His letter awakened society’s collective conscience and public pressure forced the military to reopen the trial in 1899. However, the darker forces still had the upper hand, and Dreyfus was still found guilty, although he was pardoned. It was not until 1906 that Dreyfus was completely exonerated.

In 1902, Zola was found dead in his home from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a blocked chimney. (Decades later, a Parisian roofer confessed in his deathbed that he had blocked the chimney for political reasons.) He was initially buried in the Montmartre Cemetery with little fanfare. Then on June 4, 1908, his remains were exhumed and re-buried in the Pantheon, a mausoleum dedicated to distinguished French citizens, alongside other iconic French writers like Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.