The Masterpiece


For a writer who so strongly asserted the claim of Naturalist literature to be an experimental analysis of human psychology, Zola has seemed, to many critics like György Lukács,[15] to be strangely deficient in the power of creating lifelike and memorable characters. These critics admit his ability to evoke powerful and moving crowd scenes but argue that he lacked the ability to create memorable characters, in the manner of Honoré de Balzac or Charles Dickens and the ability to make his characters true to life. It was important to Zola that no character should appear larger than life;[16] but the criticism that Zola’s characters are cardboard is a substantially more damaging one. Zola, by refusing to make any of his characters larger than life (if that is what he has indeed done), did not inhibit himself from also achieving verisimilitude.

Although Zola would not accept that it was either scientifically or artistically justifiable to create larger-than-life characters, his work does present a number of larger-than-life symbols which, like the mine Le Voreux in Germinal, take on the nature of a surrogate human life. The mine, the still in L'Assommoir and the locomotive La Lison in La Bête humaine impress the reader with the vivid reality of human beings. The great natural processes of seedtime and harvest, death and renewal in La Terre are instinct with a vitality which is not human but is the elemental energy of life.[17] Human life is raised to the level of the mythical as the hammerblows of Titans are seemingly heard underground at Le Voreux or in La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, the walled park of Le Paradou encloses a re-enactment – and restatement – of the Book of Genesis.

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