The œuvre of is the completed work of the artist Claude Lantier: the novel stands as the symbolic masterpiece its hero fails for years to achieve, and as “I’œuvre manqué de sa vie”1 narratively represented in both its promise and its end. Lantier’s painting should have made him
As a novel, is about the unfinished business of naturalism as a literary and artistic program; and the double implications of this theme are suggested by one of the many titles Zola considered for the work: Fin de Siècle. Radical break or impotent defeat, ongoing project or possible failure: the hesitations are basic to the work, to its questioning of the conditions of modern artistic working and works. Zola summarizes his dual conception in the preliminary outline:
The difference evoked here between historical limits, “l’évolution,” and individual achievement, is crucial not only to the fictional fortunes of Claude and his friends, and to the various destinies outside the novel of Zola’s naturalist associates on which they are based, but to the entire project of naturalism from the time of its formulation in Le Roman expérimental The program which advocated on the one hand a scientific objectivity on the part of the artist, and on the other a democratic openness of subject matter and licence to practice, automatically undermined the notion of the artist as Romantic genius, against which it was expressly posited. Yet the theory of heredity, which Zola used in tandem with his general evolutionary determinism, allowed for the possibility of individual differences. Thus tempérament came to function as a kind of deus ex machina, preserving a category of originality or deviation from the norm. Zola says of Lantier when he is planning the character in the ébauche: “Naturally I’ll make him a naturalist, but he ought to be taken with his personality.”4 In the essay “Du Roman,” he goes so far as to defend other members of the Médan literary group from anti-naturalist attacks precisely on the grounds of their originality:
Such a distinction of individuals and perspectives is hardly the form of justification to be expected for the art which Zola describes elsewhere by its generality and community of aim, and its neutrality of style and subject matter.