The book is an account of the career of Eugene Rougon, the eldest son of Pierre Rougon (See: La Fortune des Rougon), who went to Paris from Plassans, becoming involved in the plots which resulted in the coup d'état of 1851 and the return of a Bonaparte to Imperial power.
The future career of Rougon was assured; his services had been too important to be overlooked, and he ultimately became Minister of State and practically Vice-Emperor. He fell for a time under the influence of Clorinde Balbi, the daughter of an Italian adventuress, but realizing the risk of compromising himself, he shook himself free, and married a lady whose position in society tended to make his own still more secure.
The novel gives an excellent account of the political and social life of the Second Empire, and of the cynical corruption which characterized the period.
In a preface to the English translation (His Excellency. London: Chatto & Windus), Mr. EA Vizetelly states that in his opinion,
"with all due allowance for its somewhat limited range of subject, Son Excellence Eugene Rougon is the one existing French novel which gives the reader a fair general idea of what occurred in political spheres at an important period of the Empire. But His Excellency Eugene Rougon is not, as many critics and others have supposed, a mere portrait or caricature of His Excellency Eugène Rouher, the famous Vice-Emperor of history. Symbolism is to be found in every one of Zola's novels, and Rougon, in his main lines, is but the symbol of a principle, or, to be accurate, the symbol of a certain form of the principle of authority. His face is Rouher's, like his build and his favorite gesture; but with Rouher's words, actions, opinions, and experiences are blended those of half a dozen other personages. He is the incarnation of that craving, that lust for power which impelled so many men of ability to throw all principle to the winds and become the instruments of an abominable system of government. And his transformation at the close of the story is in strict accordance with historical facts."