The Dreyfus Affair and The Image of The Intellectual

What began as a wastepaper basket scandal, ended up generating mass media attention and sparking the interest of yet another character in the drama that became known as the Dreyfus Affair – Émile Zola. Zola’s blisteringly savage letter, “J’accuse…!”, to the president of the French Republic and published in l’Aurore, in many ways gave birth to the idea of the intellectuel engagé – an individual with pre-existing knowledge fighting for ultimate truth and justice. Yet the cartoon war that ensued after Zola’s outrage at the acquittal of Esterhazy, the true traitor, arguably helped anchor Zola as a real intellectual, placing him visually at the centre of the political and moral debate associated with the Dreyfus Affair (even if it was not always in the most favourable light). At a time when the meaning of the word intellectuel was still being formed, cartoon images circulated after “J’accuse…!” was published potentially exemplified the idea of Émile Zola as an intellectual in the mind of the French public more so than “J’accuse…!” itself.

The know-it-all

Zola’s criticism of militarism and anti-Semitism within the Dreyfus Affair in “J’accuse…!” heightened the divisions between nationalistic, rightist anti-Dreyfusards and Universalist, leftist Dreyfusards, as he inadvertently made himself a figurehead for the Dreyfus cause. “J’accuse…!” essentially ‘moved the fight for Dreyfus from the legal to the public sphere’, giving public opinion ‘a clear choice between two diametrically opposed camps’ (Rimoch 2008, p.23). If for Zola to become an intellectual meant immersing himself and his fight for Dreyfus’ justice within the realm of the ‘public sphere’ via his article, so in a space where different societal and political issues are discussed, then the backlash he faced as a result in rightist press cartoons suggests, that his new found public image as an intellectuel engagé was one fraught with controversy.

The idea of the intellectual as a figure surrounded with opposition is clearly exemplified in a caricature published in the Catholic French magazine La France Illustrée a month after J’accuse was released. It plays with the idea of the intellectual getting involved in political matters merely for the sake of it. Already the title is a good give away as to how Zola’s endeavours to bring justice to the falsely accused Captain Dreyfus was scorned by the Right (figure 1). The quotation marks have a derogatory tone (Zola et ses “intellectuels”), that mock and allude to Dreyfusards signing petitions to have Dreyfus’ trial renewed after J’accuse was published. Thus, by portraying Zola as the big-headed shepherd of a bunch of pigs, the animal synonymous with Zola, it seems that the rightist press wanted to make fun of Zola using his fame as a writer to correct the supposed flaws in society.

Given that Zola’s previous history with anticlerical texts had turned up the noses of the Right, it seems fitting that this Catholic paper used a rather twisted, but nonetheless biblical image of a shepherd to portray him. Zola is clearly regarded as the head of a filthy or piggish new religion – that of the leftist intellectual. In fact, by drawing Zola amongst pigs, the contemporary and racist symbol of Jewish otherness, the anti-Dreyfusard La France Illustrée was able to make use of the ‘primitive power of the image’ and so ensure that a negative portrayal of Zola the intellectual outsider was instantly recognisable (Balakirsky-Katz 2006, p.119). Whether or not this was his initial intention, Zola was visually placed at the forefront of the Dreyfusard intellectualist cause, a status that put him at odds with the rightist and nationalistic circles around him. 

Figure 1

Literary baggage

If figure 1 reinforces the idea of the intellectuel engagé being an outsider thrust to the forefront of political controversy, then similar can be said of figure 2, which paints Zola to be as much of a traitor as Dreyfus supposedly was. Yet, reading between the lines of the caricature of Zola being sick from his own literature, there is also a nuance within this cartoon of the intellectual having a pre-existing literary career, that in this case is used to taunt and discredit him. Whilst it is important to note that Zola did not consciously write “J’accuse…!” as an intellectual, the fact he was an already established author writing the letter to speak his truth on the Dreyfus case to the powers of France, nevertheless makes him one. His rhetoric such as repetition (“c’est un crime” or ‘J’accuse…’) or dramatic tone throughout “J’accuse…!”, persuading readers to recognise Dreyfus’ unjust treatment, reminisce of his literary career (Zola, 1898). His knowledge of writing is being used for a moral cause.

Figure 2

It is precisely Zola’s polemic literary pre-existence that elevates him from the position of activist to that of an intellectuel engagé. However, the caricature in the nationalist and anti-Semitic satirical magazine, Le Pilori, purposely undermines Zola’s credibility by suggesting to its readership that this leftist intellectual is not to be trusted. If rhetoric is ‘la face significante de l’idéologie’, then the nationalistic undertones of Le Pilori are difficult to overlook (Barthes 1964, p.49). Zola’s books Le Débâcle (1892)and Paris (1898) are clearly cause for a stomach upset, most likely because they critique the French army during the Franco Prussian war or have anti-clericalist sentiments. These rather un-nationalistic topics render Zola a traitor to the French state, as it is a German and an Italian solider, enemies of France, who play nurse to the sickly author. Even Zola’s clothes are red, yellow and blue, matching those of the German and visually affiliating Zola to him.

As Zola’s own use of literary rhetoric for a moral mission of justice in “J’accuse…!” makes him an intellectual, this cartoon seeks to undermine him completely by mocking his written work as collaborationist. Images have a potent level of discourse because of their immediate accessibility, potentially more so than the written form of “J’accuse…!” (Polachek 1990, p.205). As a result, this caricature is able to very quickly paint Zola as an intellectual with a questionable literary past and thus questionable contemporary morals, perfectly aimed at a French public hungry to lap up anything Dreyfus related.


Zola’s involvement in the Dreyfus Affair clearly pushed him into the consciousness of the French press as an intellectuel engagé, who could be used at their disposal to portray the affair and Zola’s status as an intellectual. It must however be acknowledged that the pro-Dreyfusard cause also took their share of Zola within their campaigns, just in a more positive way. Figure 3 is an 1899 postcard that specifically evokes Zola’s letter “J’accuse…!” in order to advocate the Dreyfusard cause of justice, but it also serves rather well as exemplifying Zola as a quintessential intellectuel engagé. Interestingly the ‘Dreyfusards [favoured] the word over the image, information over propaganda’, presumably to create an even larger division between themselves and the anti-Dreyfusards (Conner 2014, p.145). Yet, this postcard helps summarise in picture form the essence of Zola’s written letter “J’accuse…!” – the idea of speaking truth to power. Zola, quill in hand like a sword, stabs at the French military, whose reaction is just as nonchalant as it was during Dreyfus’ trial. The black ‘blood’ on the contrasting white paper certainly evokes the general idea of good (truth) versus evil (lies).

Figure 3

This is a Dreyfusard souvenir that gives Zola’s letter an intermedial quality, exploring the relationship between different media of communication – in this case, a letter symbolised as an image, a newspaper article as a picture postcard. As an effect, it subverts the idea of the 19th century press being just as much ‘écrire pour diverter, pour effrayer’, by turning Zola’s letter into positive propaganda. If Zola’s letter speaks the truth, then this picture of him, quill at the offensive, speaks the truth also (Wrona 2011, p.714). Image and word are interlinked here, but the postcard takes the sensationalism of Zola, the intellectuel engagé fighting for Verité, to a more literal level, which ultimately can be said to be a more vivid way of identifying him.

Power of image

The Dreyfus Affair was evidently Zola’s cue to step into the French public sphere with his skill as an author, as an intellectuel engagé. Yet, the caricatures and cartoons of him that his letter “J’accuse…!” provoked were able to effectively visualise this intellectual identity, that his intervention in the affair encouraged – whether negatively or positively. The accessibility and quick intelligibility of printed press cartoons and postcards anchored Zola as an intellectual at the centre of the Dreyfus debate, using his pre-existing knowledge to speak truth to power, in a more sensationalist way than the written form of “J’accuse…!”. It was up to the ideology of the press in question to either mock or advocate Zola’s status as an intellectual, but either way he remained one from then onwards.  

Primary Sources

Figure 1 = Archives Zoliennes, (1898), Zola et ses ‘intellectuels’. [Image] Available   from: [Accessed 31/10/2021].

Figure 2 = Bibliothèque National de France, (1898). Son nouveau livre. [Image] Available from : [Accessed 01/11/2021].

Figure 3 =Musée de Bretagne, (1899), J’accuse. [Image] Available from: [Accessed 01/11/2021].

ZOLA, E. (13 January 1898). J’accuse, [online]. Available from: [Accessed 31/10/2021].


BALAKIRSKY-KATZ, M., 2006. Émile Zola, the Cochonnerie of Naturalist Literature, and the Judensau, Jewish Social Studies [online], 13 (1). Available from: [Accessed 31/10/2021].

BARTHES, R., 1964. Rhétorique de l’image, Communications, 4, 40-51.

CONNER, T., 2014. The Dreyfus Affair and the rise of the French public intellectual. North Carolina: McFarland.

POLACHEK, D., 1990. A Witness to Its Time: Art and the Dreyfus Affair: A Review Essay, Modern Judaism, 10 (2). 205-214.

RIMOCH, D., 2008. The Affair or the State: Intellectuals, the Press, and the Dreyfus Affair. Senior Honours Thesis. University of Pennsylvania. Available from: [Accessed 02/01/2021].

WRONA, A., 2011. Ecrire pour informer. In : D. Kalifa and P. Régnier, ed., La Civilisation du Journal. Paris: Nouveau Monde éditions, 771-743.


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