The Death of Emile Zola


Image via History Today

Cadynce Harmon, Writer

The death of Emile Zola is a simple story, however, the stories and theories created by his loved ones and fans after the fact make his demise appear quite interesting. It’s important to be educated about his past and the kinds of dilemmas he got himself into. He was a man with many enemies, some of whom would go so far as to poison both him and his wife.

Emile Zola was a French novelist, journalist, and playwright who was nominated for the first and second Nobel Prizes in Literature. He was very active in politics, a trait which was well reflected in many of his novels. He strived to make his works of literature as realistic as possible, to give a feeling of realism and everyday life to his readers. 

Zola’s death occurred on September 29, 1902. He and his wife had just arrived at home again after a spell in the country. A shameless coal fire was lit in their cold, wet room in the hopes of keeping it warm. He had received many death threats over the years, so he’d developed a habit of locking his door and shutting his window before going to bed. Interrupting their slumber, the couple were awoken by intoxicating carbon monoxide fumes. Although they were both feeling extremely sick, Zola prevented his wife, Alexandrine, from calling for their maids. He assumed that whatever made them sick was just a case of indigestion, and he saw no point in calling for help for something that wasn’t too big of a deal. This fatal decision was probably the worst one he had ever made. 

By 9 am the next morning, help was finally found, but it was too late for Emile Zola. He was found dead, while his wife was lying in bed unconscious. Doctors were sent for her, and she made a recovery.  

Although Zola was married, he had a mistress, Jeanne, and with her, he fathered two children, Denise and Jacques. His wife was reluctant to accept this truth, but she ended up doing so because she didn’t have any children of her own. Upon hearing of Emile Zola’s death, Jeanne immediately jumped to the conclusion that he was murdered, considering the circumstances. He was very political, so he “made fanatical enemies on the nationalist right by his attack on the authorities over the Dreyfus Affair.” (Alfred Dryefus was a Jewish army officer who had been accused of treason by the French Republic for supposedly passing secrets to Germany. Zola was among those who publicly defended Dreyfus, although he was eventually found guilty). Dreyfus was one of the many people who came to pay their respects at Zola’s open-casket funeral. It was assumed that the gas leak wasn’t accidental and that Zola may have been murdered until a confession was provided. A letter claimed that he had been murdered by an anti-Dreyfusard stove-fitting contractor who had allegedly blocked Zola’s chimney while working on the neighbor’s roof. He then slyly uncovered it early the next day. This story could be true, as the man supposedly confessed on his deathbed, however it is now no longer possible to be sure. 

We’re left with many questions, but I believe there’s an answer to only one that can put our minds at ease: was the man who “confessed” telling the truth, or did the confession never even occur in the first place?