Two great contemporary writers of the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy of Russia and Emile Zola of France, were haunted by the same problem, the individual's relation to God and the universe and the purpose of his relatively short life in it. Although Tolstoy and Zola took different approaches to this problem in their literary work, both were profoundly affected by pessimism and lack of faith in institutional religion in their life-long search for answers to humanity's greatest question and to the seeming hopelessness of the individual to affect history or even his own fate.
Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1828-1910), after a self-admitted privileged existence full of hedonism and nihilism, at the age of fifty came to the conclusion that the purpose of an individual's life was to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, that is, to struggle to achieve the highest state of personal and individual morality, love, and faith within one's capability to do so, whatever the desperate circumstances of history or one's own existence. Tolstoy's entire creative work, from his earliest philosophical writings to his last, from CHILDHOOD to THE CAUSE OF IT ALL, was dedicated to the didacticism of this spiritual premise, and like the main characters in his works, Tolstoy came to understand that the meaning of human life is based on Christ's message of selfless love, which alone comes from God and distinguishes the individual immortal soul from each mortal, animal person who inhabits this earth.
Emile Zola (1840-1902), in the era of Charles Darwin, scientific discovery, and exploration of the earth environment, took a scientific, naturalistic, and deterministic approach to the same problem. A youthful life dominated by crushing poverty and grief led the main focus of Zola's creative work, the twenty-novel saga of the ROUGON-MACQUART (1871-1893), to deal in mostly pessimistic and graphic terms with the hopeless lives and fates of individuals of the lower classes of the French Second Empire (1851-1870) and its fall. His last two series of novels, the TROIS VILLES [Three Cities] (1894-1898) and the QUATRE EVANGILES [Four Gospels] (1899-1902), have a more optimistic, sometimes utopian outlook as they treat the moral and religious problems of ordinary people in the latter nineteenth and future twentieth centuries as well as the conflict between science and religion. In the latter part of his life, especially with the advent of the Dreyfus Affair in 1894, Zola became more concerned with the moral progress of individuals, especially as examples and leaders for the spiritual and social development of humanity. For Emile Zola reason guided by science and the continual discovery of natural truths was to provide the way to the meaning of life based on the true Christian teaching of pure, or selfless love.