The grand structure of Rougon-Macquart

Je veux expliquer comment une famille, un petit groupe d’êtres, se comporte dans une société, en s’épanouissant pour donner naissance à dix, à vingt individus qui paraissent, au premier coup d’œil, profondément dissemblables, mais que l’analyse montre intimement liés les uns aux autres. L’hérédité a ses lois, comme la pesanteur.

Émile Zola – “Préface,” La Fortune des Rougon (1871)

I have read several of Zola’s novels. I know there are recurring characters and themes and that the entire Rougon-Macquart series takes place during the two decades of the French Second Empire. I was not sure if the Rougon-Macquart series had any sort of over-arching structure, nor did I have any idea how the novels relate to each other.

My main goal for my Zoladdiction project was to try and discover that structure, if any, and use my reading in April to fill in and support my understanding of that structure. Last week I made an attempt to arrange them chronologically. The results were not terribly convincing. There is a great deal of uncertainty in trying to date events in the novels and there seems to be more overlap than sequence.

I also took a look at the supposed Zola arrangement as described by Ernest Vizetelly. This made absolutely no sense to me. It was similar to the order of composition but not exactly and seemed to make a mess of any kind of apparent chronological sequence.  I offered a few possible suggestions on approaching the collection but felt unsatisfied and continued my search.

It turns out that I was lead astray by the title of the series. It is called Les Rougon-Macquart, Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire (Rougon-Macquart, Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire). As it turns out, Les Rougon-Macquart is not a histoire as described in the subtitle, it is a taxonomie, a classification of a family under the Second Empire. It does not describe a sequential chronology of events but rather a system of classification.

When looked at in this way, the arrangement makes perfect sense. I can’t believe I could have missed something so obvious. Zola, in the Preface, as well as his essay “The Experimental Novel” talks about writing as if he were a biologist. Even the literary term “Naturalism” comes from “Naturalist.” And this is what Zola is doing, he is a naturalist observing creatures in their natural habitat. He uses these observations to make classifications, form hypothesis and draw conclusions.

I have attached an illustration of Zola’s taxonomy for Rougon-Macquart. You can click on the image to see the enlarged version.


The chart shows the genealogy of the main characters in Rougon-Macquart. Each character will be looked at, in depth, in one or two books. In addition to looking at family and hereditary relationships, Zola was interested in money and social class. The characters are arranged, from top to bottom, in roughly the order of their wealth and social status. The particular branches of the family correspond to the different social classes: upper (Rougon), middle (Mouret) and lower (Macquart).


Zola also wanted a chance to explore all the different aspects and occupations of modern France as well as the difference in regional geography. Each of the twenty novels looks at a particular aspect of French society (Politics, Finance, Fashion, Prostitution, etc.)  and they are set in a range of different locations throughout France.

As far as how to read Rougon-Macquart this structure allows for many approaches. If a reader can refer to and familiarize themselves with the chart, they should have good sense of where they are in Zola’s system no matter where they start reading. One could read the novels in order of their typology (basically from richest to poorest) or read in family groups. Skip around to get a sense of variety or choose books that address a favorite subject or location. The paths are almost endless.

There are three books in Rougon-Macquart that are not part of the taxonomy and are part of a chronological sequence. The first book, La Fortune des Rougon, takes place in December of 1851, on the night of coup that creates the Second Empire and describes the first and second generations of the family. La Débâcle, the second to last book, describes the wars that bring it to an end. Le Docteur Pascal  is the final novel that reflects back on the entire cycle and provides something of a conclusion to the twenty novels.


~ by severalfourmany on March 27, 2013.

4 Responses to “The grand structure of Rougon-Macquart”

  1. Handy to have seen the taxonomy before April, I’m looking forward to uncovering the patterns and connections between the books. 🙂

  2. Hi Jim, thanks for this post. I found this very helpful, so I put a link to this post from my Zola birthday’s post today. Hope you don’t mind–I know you won’t.. 😉 Here’s my post:

  3. […] The grand structure of Rougon-Macquart ( […]

  4. […] The grand structure of Rougon-Macquart ( […]

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