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More than half of Zola's novels were part of this set of 20 collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart. Unlike Balzac who in the midst of his literary career resynthesized his work into La Comédie Humaine, Zola from the start at the age of 28 had thought of the complete layout of the series. Set in France's Second Empire, the series traces the "environmental" influences of violence, alcohol and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. The series examines two branches of a family: the respectable (that is, legitimate) Rougons and the disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts for five generations.

As he described his plans for the series, "I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world."

Doctor Pascal is one Zola's best known work.

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