“Naturalism” as a school had a comparatively brief existence—Zola himself departed largely from its principles after the conclusion of the Rougon-Macquart series—but its effects have been far-reaching on the literature of many countries. In England the limits of literary convention have been extended, and pathways have been opened up along which later writers have not hesitated to travel, even while denying the influence of the craftsman who had cleared the way. It is safe to say that had L’Assommoir never been written there would have been no Jude the Obscure, and the same remark applies to much of the best modern fiction. In America, Frank Norris, an able writer who unfortunately died before the full fruition of his genius had obviously accepted Zola as his master, and the same influence is also apparent in the work of George Douglas, a brilliant young Scotsman whose premature death left only one book, The House with the Green Shutters, as an indication of what might have sprung from the methods of modified naturalism. M. Edouard Rod, an able critic, writing in the Contemporary Review (1902), pointed out that the influence of Zola has transformed novel writing in Italy, and that its effect in Germany has been not less pronounced. The virtue of this influence on German letters was undoubtedly great. It made an end of sentimentality, it shook literature out of the sleepy rut into which it had fallen and forced it to face universal problems.
One must regret for his own sake that Zola was unable to avoid offending those prejudices which were so powerful in his time. The novelist who adopts the method of the surgeon finds it necessary to expose many painful sores, and is open to the taunt that he finds pleasure in the task. On no one did this personal obloquy fall more hardly than on Zola, and never with less reason. It may be that he accumulated unseemly details and risky situations too readily; but he was an earnest man with a definite aim in view, and had formulated for himself a system which he allowed to work itself out with relentless fatality. The unredeemed baseness and profligacy of the period with which he had to deal must also be borne in mind. As to his personal character, it has been fitly described by M. Anatole France, himself a distinguished novelist. Zola, said he, “had the candour and sincerity of great souls. He was profoundly moral. He has depicted vice with a rough and vigorous hand. His apparent pessimism ill conceals a real optimism, a persistent faith in the progress of intelligence and justice. In his romances, which are social studies, he attacks with vigorous hatred an idle, frivolous society, a base and noxious aristocracy. He combated social evil wherever he encountered it. His work is comparable only in greatness with that of Tolstoi. At the two extremities of European thought the lyre has raised two vast cities. Both are generous and pacific; but whereas Tolstoi’s is the city of resignation, Zola’s is the city of work.”