Fallen Empire: Degeneration in Émile Zola’s La Débâcle

Kit Yee Wong explores the themes of sickness and degeneration as metaphors for moral and political corruption in Émile Zola’s La Débâcle (1892).

This blog post is based on the author’s published article: ‘Degenerate Bodies: Max Nordau’s Degeneration and Émile Zola’s La Débâcle’, Essays in French Literature and Culture 58 (1): 15–31 (2021). It is part of the special issue on the Critical Medical Humanities, edited by Enda McCaffrey and Áine Larkin. Digital and print formats may be purchased directly from the journal, which is independent and self-funded. From January 2022, the issue will be available on ProQuest, EBSCO, and Informit.

La Débâcle, corrected proofs. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, NAF 10347

Lethal as poison, the red thread of corruption weaves through the twenty novels of Émile Zola’s celebrated Rougon-Macquart cycle (1871–93). Set during the French Second Empire (1852–70), the books contain characters who are tainted with mental and physical illness. Jacques Lantier may come to mind, the ‘human beast’ whose murderous urges overtake him in La Bête humaine [The Human Beast] (1890). There is also Aristide Saccard, whose desire to make money with his department store in Au Bonheur des Dames [The Ladies’ Paradise] (1883) becomes a pathological obsession. The sickness within these protagonists causes untold social harms. Not only do the characters cause suffering but sickness itself becomes an ungovernably destructive force. Illness in Zola’s work, as we will see, is degenerative in moral, physical, and social terms.

There is, however, no better representation of the decadent Second Empire that Zola sought to depict than Napoleon III in La Débâcle [The Debacle] (1892). Zola portrays this elite politician as the very principle of corruption. From the emperor’s body flows degeneracy itself, contaminating the French bourgeoisie and wider society. The impurity becomes so potent that its power is enough to engulf and destroy empires. As Susan Harrow has observed, Napoleon III’s body provides the outflow from the imperial centre (2006, 58).

Published twenty years after the fall of the Second Empire, La Débâcle’s sick emperor offers an unsettling image in the story of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). He is a deathly figure to gaze upon, as the character Delaherche reports to us:

les moustaches si fortement cirées, les joues si colorées, qu’il [Delaherche] le jugea [l’empereur] tout de suite rajeuni, fardé comme un acteur. Sûrement, il s’était fait peindre, pour ne promener, parmi son armée, l’effroi de son masque blême, décomposé par la souffrance […], il était venu, de son air silencieux et morne de fantôme, aux chairs ravivées de vermillon. (579)

[his moustache [was] so heavily waxed, his cheeks so highly coloured, that he [Delaherche] thought he [the emperor] had been rejuvenated, covered in make-up like an actor. He had undoubtedly had himself painted so as not to show his army the horror of his pale mask, decomposed by suffering […], he had come, with his ghostly expression, silent and bleak, with flesh lit with vermilion.] (my translation)

The emperor’s attempt at disguising his ill health with cosmetics has created an uncanny figure. Instead of enhancing his appearance, his rouged cheeks merely highlight the artifice of a healthy constitution.

Moral and political corruption is part of the Rougon-Macquart novels from the first volume. It is only in La Débâcle, the nineteenth volume, that we glimpse the origin of this pathology — and it emanates directly from the chief political body of the emperor. From this figure, we see that Zola’s Naturalism is a medical aesthetic, combining the moral and the political with sickness.

In this and other Rougon-Macquart novels, sickness extends outwards from the body politic to physical bodies, to then contaminate the national body. Zolian bodies are sites of morality, and sickness, for Zola, is both a moral and a physiological state. So it is that the character Maurice, after France’s catastrophic defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, laments the final decline of his country: ‘[i]l n’y avait plus rien, la France était morte’ (715) [‘there was nothing left, France was dead’] (my translation).

The preceding Rougon-Macquart novels portray, at times, the grotesque nature of political power where money and influence reigns. Bourgeois decadence has literally weakened the country’s constitution in novels 1 to 18. The decline into degeneration is of such significance that it culminates in the fall of the Empire when France is finally ruined.

The cover of the French-language Gallimard edition of La Débâcle

Reading Zola through Nordau

We can better understand this decline in nineteenth-century terms by bringing in Max Nordau’s Entartung [Degeneration], first published in Germany in 1892. A European bestseller, the work conflated the biological and the social in its denunciation of Decadent art and its practitioners. Nordau believed that fin-de-siècle artists shared the same ‘somatic features’ (v) as degenerates, such as criminals, and he included Zola in this group. The ‘pathological character’ (vi) of these works would undermine progress and order in society, qualities that were key for the evolution of humankind. As progress was equally of biological and moral concern, if degeneration — a moving backwards instead of forwards — took hold, it would mean the end of civilised life. For this cataclysmic situation, Nordau suggested the term fin-de-race as a more accurate description for fin-de-siècle (Baldwin, 1980, 101–02, 106).

Nordau’s vision of the end of civilisation brought on by degeneration is one we recognise in La Débâcle. As the formerly illustrious nation of France meets its demise on the battlefield, the accompanying biological and social disintegration are evident in Zola’s Napoleon III. It is said that power corrupts, and Zola shows us that corruption in the Rougon-Macquart ends where it began — within France’s political elite. Writing from his historical vantage point in the early Third Republic (1870–1940), looking back to the Second Empire, this is Zola’s Naturalist shot across the bows on how a political regime rises and falls, plunging a nation into the abyss.

About the author

Awarded her PhD in 2018, Kit Yee Wong is an associate research fellow in the department of Languages, Cultures and Applied Linguistics at Birkbeck, University of London, UK. In 2019, she organised the international conference ‘The Pathological Body from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Present’ and is currently guest editing an open-access journal special issue with the Open Library of Humanities based on the conference, focusing on the intersection of literature, Medical Humanities, and European Modern Languages.

Twitter handles: @KitYeeWong19 and @pathbodylit


Baldwin, P. M. 1980. “Liberalism, Nationalism, and Degeneration: The Case of Max Nordau.” Central European History 13, no. 2 (June): 99–120. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0008938900009067.

Harrow, Susan. 2006. “Food, Mud, Blood: The Material Narrative of Zola’s La Débâcle.Dalhousie French Studies 76 (1): 51–61. JSTOR.

Nordau, Max. 1993 [1892]. Degeneration. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Zola, Émile. 1967; vol. 5. “La Débâcle [1892].” In Les Rougon-Macquart: histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire, edited by Armand Lanoux and Henri Mitterand, 399–912. Paris: Gallimard.

Further resources

Zola, Émile. 2017. La Débâcle. Translated by Elinor Dorday. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [English-language edition]. Since 2020, the Oxford World’s Classics have all 20 Rougon-Macquart novels in print in English-language translation. Each contains full notes on the origins of the novel, an extensive introduction from a Zola scholar, supplementary material, commentary, and background reading.

Zola, Émile. 2006. The Debacle. Translated by Leonard Tancock. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics. [English-language edition].

Zola, Émile. 1984. La Débâcle. Edited by Henri Mitterand. Paris: Gallimard. [French-language edition].

The Émile Zola Society, London, UK, organises lectures and talks for its members. A recent addition to its activities is the monthly Zola Zoom Book Club. There are also publications on Zola’s work available for sale that are not available elsewhere.

Recording and slides for Birkbeck Arts Week public talk (21 May 2019): Kit Yee Wong, “Sickness and Cure in Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart Novels”.

Cambridge University Library digitised a six-volume collection of caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune (1870–71).

2 thoughts on “Fallen Empire: Degeneration in Émile Zola’s La Débâcle

  1. The description of Napoleon III’s terrible makeup job has strong echoes of Aschenbach’s final moments in Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ and, perhaps, Donald Trump’s bizarre orange visage.

    At least Aschenbach got to go on holiday.

  2. Someone else had suggested the same comparison with Trump a while ago when I was talking about the scene. Degeneration reflected in the face also has strong ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ vibes.

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