Les Rougon-Macquart is the collective title given to French novelist Émile Zola's twenty-novel cycle. Subtitled Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire (Natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire), it follows the life of a fictional family living during the Second French Empire (1852-1870) and is an example of the French naturalism.
Early in his life, Zola discovered the work of Honoré de Balzac and his famous cycle La Comédie humaine. This had a profound impact on Zola, who decided to write his own, unique cycle. However, in 1869, in explained in Différences entre Balzac et moi, why he wasn't going to make the same kind of book as Balzac :
"In one word, his work wants to be the mirror of the contemporary society. My work, mine, will be something else entirely. The scope will be narrower. I don't want to describe the contemporary society, but a single family, showing how the race is modified by the environment. (...) My big task is to be strictly naturalist, strictly physiologist.
As a naturalist writer, Zola was highly interested by science and especially the problem of heredity and evolution. He notably read and mentioned the work of the doctor Prosper Lucas, Claude Bernard and Charles Darwin as a reference for his own work. This led him to think that people are heavily influenced by heredity and their environment. He intended to prove this by showing how theses two factors could influence the members of a family. In 1971, in the preface of La Fortune des Rougon, he explained his intent :
"The great characteristic of the Rougon-Macquarts, the group or family which I propose to study, is their ravenous appetite, the great outburst of our age which rushes upon enjoyment. Physiologically the Rougon-Macquarts represent the slow succession of accidents pertaining to the nerves or the blood, which befall a race after the first organic lesion, and, according to environment, determine in each individual member of the race those feelings, desires and passions--briefly, all the natural and instinctive manifestations peculiar to humanity--whose outcome assumes the conventional name of virtue or vice.
In a letter to his publisher, Zola stated his goals for the Rougon-Macquart : "1° To study in a family the questions of blood and environments.[...]2° To study the whole Second Empire, from the coup d'état to nowadays.
Since his first goal was to show how heredity can affect the lives of descendants, Zola started working on the Rougon-Macquart by drawing the family tree for the Rougon-Macquart. Even though the tree will be modified multiple times over the years, with some members appearing or disappearing, this shows how Zola planned the whole cycle before writing the first book.
The tree includes for each member the name and date of birth, but also many details about his heredity and his life :
Note : The gallery doesn't include the tree made for La Bete Humaine which included for the first time Jacques, the main protagonist of the book For example, the entry for Jean Macquart on the 1878 read : Jean Macquart, né en 1831 - Election de la mère - Ressemblance physique du père. Soldat (Jean Macquart, born in 1831 - Prepotency of the mother - Physical likeness to his father. Soldier)
To study the Second Empire, Zola thought of each novel as a novel about a specific aspect of the life in his time. For example, in the list he made in 1872, he intended to make a "political novel", a "novel about the defeat", "a scientific novel" and a "novel about the war in Italy". The first three ideas will respectively lead to Son Excellence Eugène Rougon, La Débâcle and Le Docteur Pascal. However, the last one will never be made into a book.
Indeed, at the beginning, Zola didn't know exactly how many books he would write. In the first letter to his publisher, he mentioned "ten episodes. In 1872, his list included seventeen novels, but some of them will never be made (such as the one on the war in Italy) and others will be added later on . In 1877, in the preface of L'Assommoir, he stated that he was going to write "about twenty novels" . In the end, he settled for twenty books.
Almost all of the main protagonists for each novel are introduced in the first book, La Fortune des Rougon. The last novel in the cycle, Le Docteur Pascal, contains a lengthy chapter that tie up loose ends from the other novels. In between, there is no "best sequence" in which to read the novels in the cycle, as they are not in chronological order and indeed are impossible to arrange into such an order. Although some of the novels in the cycle are direct sequels to one another, many of them follow on directly from the last chapters of La Fortune des Rougon, and there is a great deal of chronological overlap between the books; there are numerous recurring characters and several of them make "guest" appearances in novels centered on other members of the family.
The Rougon-Macquart family begins with Adelaïde Fouque. Born in 1798 in a middle-class family (members of the French "bourgeoisie") she has a slight mental deficiency. She marries Rougon, and gives birth to a son, Paul Rougon. However she also has a lover, the smuggler Macquart, with whom she has two children : Ursule and Antoine Macquart. This means that the family is split in three branches:
Because Zola believed that everyone is driven by their heredity, Adelaide's children show signs of the their mother's original deficiency. For the Rougon, this manifests as a drive for power, money, and excess in life. For the Macquarts, who live in a difficult environment, it is manifested by alcoholism (L'Assommoir), prostitution (Nana), and homicide (La Bête humaine). Even the Mourets are marked to a certain degree; in La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, the priest Serge Mouret has to fight his desire for a young woman.
As a naturalist, Zola also gave detailed descriptions of urban and rural settings, and different types of businesses. Le Ventre de Paris, for example, has a detailed description of the cheese market in Paris at the time.
As a political reflection of life under Napoleon III, the novel La Conquête de Plassans looks at how an ambitious priest infiltrates a small Provence town one family at a time, starting with the Rougons. La Débâcle takes place during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and depicts Napoleon III's downfall. Son Excellence also looks at political life, and Pot-Bouille and Au Bonheur des Dames look at middle class life in Paris.
Note that Zola wrote the novels after the fall of Napoleon III.
All 20 of the novels have been translated into English under various titles, but some of the translations are out of print, outdated and/or censored. Modern English translations are widely available for nine of the most popular novels in the cycle and more are being commissioned all the time.