First, a confession: I have not read any of Emile Zola's novels - yet. In fact I know very little about him; my only knowledge of Zola is through is association in the Dreyfus Affair, one of the most polarizing events in late-19th century France.
In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French Army, was arrested, then subsequently court-martialed and imprisoned for espionage. So what, you say – happens all the time. This case, however, was unique for a number of reasons:
- There was little concrete evidence linking Dreyfus to the crime; in fact evidence strongly pointed to someone else but was ignored; and
- Dreyfus was Jewish and in some circles deemed not a true Frenchman
Emile Zola, at this time a celebrated French novelist, was a Dreyfusard (believing in Dreyfus' innocence), as were most writers and intellectuals, and wrote several open letters in French publications in support of Dreyfus and to call for his exoneration. The most famous of these letters was “J’accuse” (Letter to M. Felix Faure, President of the Republic), published in L’Aurore on January 13, 1898.
This letter asks the President to consider how his legacy would be viewed if he let the Dreyfus affair continue as it had for four years. Zola explains the affair in detail (no doubt already familiar to M. Faure) and goes so far as to name the men he feels are responsible for this miscarriage of justice.
Zola was aware of the potential repercussions of this public accusation - he stated in the letter that he was aware of the libel laws to which he was potentially exposing himself. But he had no personal ill will against any of the accused:
"As for the people I accuse, I do not know them, I never saw them, I have against them neither resentment nor hatred. They are for me only entities, spirits of social evil. And the act I accomplished here is only a revolutionary mean for hastening the explosion of truth and justice."
Zola was tried and convicted for libel, however he fled to England to avoid serving his sentence. He returned to France after a change in goverment, and died suspiciously of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902.
I genuinely felt the passion that Zola felt for Dreyfus' cause and found "J'accuse" and his other Dreyfus-related writings very interesting to read. It is a look into an event in history that I've heard of but not known much about. I am also going to start reading one or two of Zola's novels.