Preface of La Fortune des Rougon, the first book of the serie
Les Rougon-Macquart is the collective title given to a cycle of twenty novels by French writer Émile Zola. Subtitled Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire (Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire), it follows the life of a fictional family living during the Second French Empire (1852–1870) and is an example of French naturalism.
Early in his life, Zola discovered the work of Honoré de Balzac and his famous cycle La Comédie humaine. This had a profound impact on Zola, who decided to write his own, unique cycle. However, in 1869, he explained in Différences entre Balzac et moi, why he would not make the same kind of book as Balzac:
"In one word, his work wants to be the mirror of the contemporary society. My work, mine, will be something else entirely. The scope will be narrower. I don't want to describe the contemporary society, but a single family, showing how the race is modified by the environment. (...) My big task is to be strictly naturalist, strictly physiologist."
As a naturalist writer, Zola was highly interested by science and especially the problem of heredity and evolution. He notably read and mentioned the work of the doctor Prosper Lucas, Claude Bernard, and Charles Darwin as references for his own work. This led him to think that people are heavily influenced by heredity and their environment. He intended to prove this by showing how these two factors could influence the members of a family. In 1871, in the preface of La Fortune des Rougon, he explained his intent:
"The great characteristic of the Rougon-Macquarts, the group or family which I propose to study, is their ravenous appetite, the great outburst of our age which rushes upon enjoyment. Physiologically the Rougon-Macquarts represent the slow succession of accidents pertaining to the nerves or the blood, which befall a race after the first organic lesion, and, according to environment, determine in each individual member of the race those feelings, desires and passions—briefly, all the natural and instinctive manifestations peculiar to humanity—whose outcome assumes the conventional name of virtue or vice."
In a letter to his publisher, Zola stated his goals for the Rougon-Macquart: "1° To study in a family the questions of blood and environments. [...] 2° To study the whole Second Empire, from the coup d'état to nowadays."
Genealogy and heredity 
Since his first goal was to show how heredity can affect the lives of descendants, Zola started working on the Rougon-Macquart by drawing the family tree for the Rougon-Macquart. Though it was to be modified many times over the years, with some members appearing or disappearing, the original tree shows how Zola planned the whole cycle before writing the first book.
The tree provides the name and date of birth of each member, along with certain properties of his heredity and his life:
- The prepotency : The prepotency is a term used by the doctor Lucas. It is part of a biological theory that tries to determine how heredity transmits traits through generations. Zola apply this theory to the mental state of his protagonists and uses terms from the work of the doctor Lucas: Election du père (Prepotency of the father, meaning the father is the main influence on the child), Election de la mère (Prepotency of the mother), Mélange soudure (Fusion of the 2 parents) or Innéité (No influence from either parent).
- Physical likeness: Whether the member looks like his mother or his father.
- Biographical information: his job and important facts of his life. Additionally, for members still living at the end of Le Docteur Pascal, their place of living at the end of the cycle may be included. Otherwise, the date of death is included.
The 1878 tree, published in a note included in Une Page d'amour
The 1892 and final tree, as part of the preparation work for Le Docteur Pascal
For example, the entry for Jean Macquart on the 1878 tree read : Jean Macquart, né en 1831 - Election de la mère - Ressemblance physique du père. Soldat (Jean Macquart, born in 1831 - Prepotency of the mother - Physical likeness to his father. Soldier)
The study of the Second Empire 
To study the Second Empire, Zola thought of each novel as a novel about a specific aspect of the life in his time. For example, in the list he made in 1872, he intended to make a "political novel", a "novel about the defeat", "a scientific novel" and a "novel about the war in Italy". The first three ideas will respectively lead to Son Excellence Eugène Rougon, La Débâcle and Le Docteur Pascal. However, the last one will never be made into a book.
Indeed, at the beginning, Zola didn't know exactly how many books he would write. In the first letter to his publisher, he mentioned "ten episodes". In 1872, his list included seventeen novels, but some of them will never be made (such as the one on the war in Italy) and others will be added later on. In 1877, in the preface of L'Assommoir, he stated that he was going to write "about twenty novels". In the end, he settled for twenty books.
Almost all of the main protagonists for each novel are introduced in the first book, La Fortune des Rougon. The last novel in the cycle, Le Docteur Pascal, contains a lengthy chapter that ties up loose ends from the other novels. In between, there is no "best sequence" in which to read the novels in the cycle, as they are not in chronological order and indeed are impossible to arrange into such an order. Although some of the novels in the cycle are direct sequels to one another, many of them follow on directly from the last chapters of La Fortune des Rougon, and there is a great deal of chronological overlap between the books; there are numerous recurring characters and several of them make "guest" appearances in novels centered on other members of the family.
The Rougon-Macquart 
The Rougon-Macquart family begins with Adelaïde Fouque. Born in 1768 in the fictional Provençal town Plassans to middle-class parents (members of the French "bourgeoisie"), she has a slight mental deficiency. She marries Rougon, and gives birth to a son, Pierre Rougon. However, she also has a lover, the smuggler Macquart, with whom she has two children: Ursule and Antoine Macquart. This means that the family is split in three branches:
- The first, legitimate, one is the Rougons branch. They are the most successful of the children. Most of them live in the upper classes (such as Eugene Rougon who becomes a minister) or/and have a good education (such as Pascal, the doctor which is the main protagonist of Le Docteur Pascal).
- The second branch is the low-born Macquarts. They are blue-collar workers (L'Assommoir), farmers (La Terre), or soldiers (La Débâcle).
- The third branch is the Mourets (the name of Ursule Macquart's husband). They are a mix of the others two. They are middle-class people and tend to live more balanced lives than the others.
Because Zola believed that everyone is driven by their heredity, Adelaide's children show signs of their mother's original deficiency. For the Rougon, this manifests as a drive for power, money, and excess in life. For the Macquarts, who live in a difficult environment, it is manifested by alcoholism (L'Assommoir), prostitution (Nana), and homicide (La Bête humaine). Even the Mourets are marked to a certain degree; in La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, the priest Serge Mouret has to fight his desire for a young woman.
┌─ Eugène Rougon ┌─ Maxime Rougon Saccard ──── Charles Rougon Saccard │ 1811-? │ 1840-1873 1857-1873 │ │ ├─ Pascal Rougon ├─ Clotilde Rougon Saccard ── A child │ 1813-1873 │ 1847-? 1874-? │ │ ┌─ Pierre Rougon ────┼─ Aristide Rougon ───┴─ Victor Rougon Saccard │ 1787-1870 │ 1815-? 1853-? │ │ │ ├─ Sidonie Rougon ────── Angélique Rougon Saccard │ │ 1818-? 1851-1869 │ │ │ └─ Marthe Rougon ───┐ ┌─ Octave Mouret ──────────── Two children │ 1819-1864 │ │ 1840- │ │ │ │ ├─┼─ Serge Mouret ───────────── A son and a daughter │ │ │ 1841-? │ │ │ │ ┌─ François Mouret ─┘ └─ Désirée Mouret │ │ 1817-1864 1844-? │ │ Adélaïde Fouque ─┼─ Ursule Macquart ──┼─ Hélène Mouret ────── Jeanne Grandjean 1768-1873 │ 1791-1839 │ 1824-? 1842-1855 │ │ │ └─ Silvère Mouret │ 1834-1851 │ │ ┌─ Lisa Macquart ─────── Pauline Quenu │ │ 1827-1863 1852-? │ │ │ │ ┌─ Claude Lantier ─────────── Jacques-Louis Lantier │ │ │ 1842-1870 1860-1869 │ │ │ └─ Antoine Macquart ─┼─ Gervaise Macquart ─┼─ Jacques Lantier 1789-1873 │ 1829-1869 │ 1844-1870 │ │ │ ├─ Étienne Lantier ────────── A daughter │ │ 1846-? │ │ │ └─ Anna Coupeau dite Nana ─── Louis Coupeau named Louiset │ 1852-1870 1867-1870 │ └─ Jean Macquart ─────── Two children 1831-?
View of France under Napoleon III 
As a naturalist, Zola also gave detailed descriptions of urban and rural settings, and different types of businesses. Le Ventre de Paris, for example, has a detailed description of the central market in Paris at the time.
As a political reflection of life under Napoleon III, the novel La Conquête de Plassans looks at how an ambitious priest infiltrates a small Provence town one family at a time, starting with the Rougons. La Débâcle takes place during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and depicts Napoleon III's downfall. Son Excellence also looks at political life, and Pot-Bouille and Au Bonheur des Dames look at middle class life in Paris.
Note that Zola wrote the novels after the fall of Napoleon III.
List of the novels 
In an "Introduction" of his last novel, Le Docteur Pascal, Zola gave a recommended reading order, although it is not required, as each novel stands on its own.
A recommended reading order
English translation 
All 20 of the novels have been translated into English under various titles and editions, but many of the translations are out of print, outdated and/or censored.
Recent English translations (post-1970) are available for fourteen of the novels:
1. The Fortune of the Rougons (La Fortune des Rougon)
2. The Kill (La Curée)
3. The Belly of Paris (Le Ventre de Paris)
4. The Conquest of Plassans (La Conquête de Plassans))
5. The Sin of Father Mouret (La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret)
6. His Excellency (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon)
7. The Dram Shop (L'Assommoir)
10. Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille)
11. The Ladies Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames)
14. The Masterpiece (L'Oeuvre)
15. The Earth (La Terre)
16. The Dream (Le Rêve)
17. The Beast Within (La Bete Humaine)
19. The Debacle (La Debacle)
- Bibliothèque nationale de France, Manuscrits, NAF 10345, f. 14-15. Available online here (in French)
- In a note included in Une Page d'amour. Text available at wikisource (in French)
- In Le Roman expérimental (1888), Zola talks extensively about Claude Bernard and mentions the work of Charles Darwin. Text available at wikisource (in French)
- Extract from the author's preface of La Fortune des Rougon. Original text in French available at wikisource, translated text by the Project Gutenberg
- Image:Plan Rougon 1860.jpg. Text available online here
- Traité philosophique et physiologique de l'hérédité naturelle dans les états de santé et de maladie du système nerveux: avec l'application méthodique des lois de la procréation au traitement général des affections dont elle est le principe... Lucas, Prosper (1805-1885) Available online as part of the online archive of the BNF here
- BNF, Manuscrits, NAF 10274, f. 581
- Information found here http://expositions.bnf.fr/zola/grand/z075.htm (in French)
- Original text available at wikisource (in French).
- The reading order recommended by Zola can be found in Ernest Alfred Vizetelly's Emile Zola, novelist and reformer: an account of his life & work (1904), ppg.348-364.
- The Fortune of the Rougons; first trans. by Brian Nelson in 2012. Oxford Worlds Classics. ISBN 978-0-19-956099-8
- The Kill (La Curée); first trans. by Brian Nelson in 2004. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 978-0-19-953692-4 (re-issue 2008)
- The Kill; first trans. bu Arthur Goldhammer in 2004. Modern Library. ISBN 978-0-679-64274-9 (2004)
- The Belly of Paris (Le Ventre de Paris); first trans. by Brian Nelson in 2007. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 978-0-19-280633-8 (2008)
- The Belly of Paris; first trans. by Mark Kurlansky in 2009. Modern Library. ISBN 978-1595690487 (2005)
- The Conquest of Plassans (La Conquête de Plassans). Mondial 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-280633-8 (2005)
- The Sin of Father Mouret; first trans. by Sandy Petrey in 1969 by Prentice-Hall. Latest edition is University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-9901-6 (1983)
- His Excellency. ISBN 978-1595690555 (2006)
- L'Assommoir; first trans. by Margaret Mauldon in 1995. Oxford World's Classics (re-issued 1999). ISBN 978-0-19-283813-1
- The Drinking Den (L'Assommoir); first trans. by Robin Buss in 2000. Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0-14-044954-9 (re-issued 2004)
- Nana; first trans. by Douglas Parmee in 1992. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 978-0-19-283670-0 (re-issue 1999)
- Nana. first trans. by George Holden in 1972. Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0-14-044263-2 (1972)
- Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille); first trans. by Brian Nelson in 1999. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 978-0-19-283179-8 (1999)
- The Ladies Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames); first trans. by Brian Nelson in 1995. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 978-0-19-953690-0 (re-issued 2008)
- Au Bonheur des Dames; first trans. by Robin Buss in 2001. Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0-14-044783-5 (re-issued 2004)
- Germinal; first trans. by Roger Pearson in 2004. Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0-14-044742-2 (2004)
- Germinal, first trans. by Peter Collier in 1993. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 978-0-19-953689-4 (re-issued 2008)
- Germinal. first trans. by Stanley Hochman in 1970. Signet Classics. ISBN 978-0-451-51975-7 (1970)
- The Masterpiece (L'Oeuvre); first trans. by Thomas Walton in 1993. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 978-0-19-953691-7 (re-issued 2008)
- The Earth (La Terre); first trans. by Douglas Parmee in 1980. Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0-14-044387-5 (re-issued 2002)
- The Dream, first trans. by Michael Glencross in 2005. Peter Owen Ltd. ISBN 978-0-7206-1253-0 (2005).
- The Dream, first trans. by Andrew Brown in 2005. Hesperus Press. ISBN 978-1-84391-114-2 (2005)
- La Bete Humaine; first trans. by Leonard Tancock in 1977. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044327-4 (1977)
- La Bete Humaine; first trans. by Roger Pearson in 1999. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 978-0-19-283814-8 (1999)
- The Best Within (La Bete Humaine); first trans. by Roger Whitehouse in 2008. Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0-14-044963-1 (2008)
- The Debacle (La Debacle); first trans. by Leonard Tancock in 1973. Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0-14-044280-9 (1973)
- La Débâcle, first trans. by Elinor Dorday in 2000. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 978-0-19-282289-5 (2000)
- The Rougon-Macquart Novels of Emile Zola (for English-speaking Readers) provides an American enthusiast's introduction, insights and synopses.