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Emile Zola and Honere De Balzac were writers that embraced their century and time period. They wrote comprehensive histories of their respective contemporary societies. Although they share a similar interest in dissecting time throughout their novels, Emile shows a more modern take on time than does Honere De Balzac. In fact, his methodical approach to the social, moral, and sexual landscape of the late nineteenth century proves Zola as the quintessential novelist of modernity. Zola shows this through irregular change in his novels: The Drinking Den, Germinal, La Bete Humaine, Nana, and The Debacle. Whereas Balzac, in his work, Le Comedie Humaine, Eugenie Grandet, and Father Goriot, follows an old fashioned classic style of realism that focuses on the upper class. Balzac shows time through detail and structure, Zola through change and dynamic fluidity.
Zola's epic kind of realism is shown through variety and complexity. His characters are all different and come from various backgrounds. Some are poor, others crazy, and some rich. He was, in his work, actively engaged in his era. He critiqued in several art forms from literature to painting. And although he was influenced by Balzac's style, even so much as creating Les Rougon-Macquart to rival Balzac's s Comedie humaine, his commentary on modern society made him different from Balzac. He researched everything from mining to the way his characters would talk to offer a more authentic perspective to his stories. Balzac was similar in this style, except his focus was narrow and based on the lives of the wealthy. It was Zola's inclusion of every person that made his work appear more modern than his classically styled predecessor.
The first of Zola's novels to describe the everyday man and perhaps the downtrodden man is The Drinking Den. It is in this novel that readers become aware of what happened during that time and how people lived their lives. Beautiful portraits such as that from page 112 elaborate on the despot reality some of the people in his world faced. "Gervaise pitied Father Bru from the bottom of her heart, he lay the greater part of the time rolled up in the straw in his den under the staircase leading to the roof. When two or three days elapsed without his showing himself someone opened the door and looked in to see if he were still alive."(Zola, and Buss 112) Tme to Zola was not just in that instant or in that moment. To him it transformed and changed within the setting of each scene.
It is through his descriptions of, for example, Father Bru, that the representation of modern time is clear. Page 66 is a great instance of his descriptive language to indicate age and time lapse. "Father Bru, with his white beard and his face wrinkled like an old apple, sat in silent content for hours at a time, enjoying the warmth and the crackling of the coke." (Zola, and Buss 66) People of the modern age wasted a lot of time doing nothing. It cannot be applied to all, but some who were depressed or lost spent their days like minutes in a state of silence, much like that of Father Bru. Unlike Balzac, Zola sought to show the varied side of people, not just the "shiny," drama filled sides.
However, Zola did use drama to quicken the plot and demonstrate the growth or lack thereof, of his character. On page 98, Zola mentions the possible dismissal of Mme. Putois. "But she was mistaken, and soon it became necessary for her to dismiss Mme. Putois, keeping no assistant except Augustine, who seemed to grow more and more stupid as time went on. Ruin was fast approaching." (Zola, and Buss 98) She, like other characters in the story, have a short shelf life, much like most workers in modern times. He continues to discuss the continual downward spiral of Gervaise and Coupeau by using alcohol and pride as a means of advancing time.
An example of this on page 76: "The men kept time with their heels and the women with their knives on their glasses. The windows of the shop jarred with noise."(Zola, and Buss 76) People use entertainment and chaotic atmospheres like that in bars to speed up time. Zola uses these details to aid in better representing people and their existence in his era. And much like how it is presently, his character's perspectives are similar. Balzac on the other hand uses fancy settings and uppity scenarios to limit his representation to a point where it almost reaches romanticism.
La Bete Humaine another of Zola's novels with the homicidal tendencies of Lantier and his affair with Severine. Zola uses the imagery of the train and the railroad as a way to represent the innovations of his time. On page 70, the setting as seen through the rail way shows the vast expanse of possibility that the railroad brings to people during this time."but beyond, the vast expanse of sky on to which it opened was already ablaze with a conflagration of sunbeams, while gradually the whole horizon was turning pink, with every foreground detail sharply delineated in the pure air of a fine winter's morning." (Zola, and Pearson 70) In fact, a lot of the story focuses on and around the railroad and the tran the rides it.
Page 167 discusses Lantier's affair with Severine: "Over to his left a storm had been following him ever since Rouen, moving up the valley of the Seine with great, blinding flashes of lightning; and from time to time he looked around anxiously, for Severine was to come and meet him that evening."(Zola, and Pearson 167) Modern texts depict time through drama and action. And so as Zola puts these two characters in a love affair, so does this help the plot speed along. Zola sticks to a realist aesthetic in the motives behind the characters and even in Lantier's cowardice when confronted with the opportunity of killing people, including Severine's husband. Much the opposite of Romanticism, where characters when confronted with obstacles face it with bravery and gumption, Lantier is much so that he faces it as a normal person would, with caution and fear.
A lot of the descriptions in the novel help herald in a setting that Balzac fails to represent in his stories. Page 168 has a good example: "On the left, beside the line of vices used for repairs, a sheet of boiler-plate which had been left upright rang out with the echoing chime of a church bell." (Zola, and Pearson 168) In his descriptives, Zola is able to represent everything from what people did for a living to how they measured time. This "footprint" the writer leaves with his settings helps instill in the reader the memory of Zola when he himself was in the towns and locales he went to or researched.
It was mentioned before how Zola uses drama to move along the plot and progress the characters. The railroad, the theme set out in the book, represents the fluidity and quickness of modern times. The way the characters view and handle the trains that move along the railroads indicate how people handled the transport innovation of the time. As is mentioned in this following quote: "From then on he proceeded with extreme caution, but without being able to reduce speed because the wind resistance was enormous and delay of whatever kind would in any case be just as dangerous."(Zola, and Pearson 183) the railroad was a dangerous place. People could get mugged in the train carts and crashes killed hundreds of people in the train. It was a necessity as well as a danger that propelled people forward. Balzac seldom does this in his work. He remains stagnant and steadfast instead of moving forward.
Nana Zola's take on the end of the Second Empire in France, uses Nana, the protagonist as a man eater who financially ruins all the men who pursues her. She ultimately dies a horrible death of smallpox and in her death shows the mark of the influence of Napoleon in France. This perhaps is another reason why Zola has a better modern representation of time than Balzac because he tries to stay current and writes about what's happening, what's interesting at the time he's writing, whereas Balzac sticks to what he's interested in and then tries to meticulously write in the details. Page 112 shows a great example of the time in which Zola writes this and the research he did when placing Nana as a coquette."She did not sit down again but began pacing feverishly to and fro between the fireplace and a Venetian mirror hanging above an Italian chest." (Zola, and Ripoll 112)
Money like in France at the time, was all Nana could think about. Decadence was the theme of Nana and in page 302 the reader sees the extent of it."Before her departure she had treated herself to a new sensation: she had held a sale…[continue]
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