Émile Zola - Thérèse Raquin
From the opening page, we are aware that this will be a dark work. 'Above the glazed roof the wall rises towards the sky,' writes Zola, 'black and coarsely rendered, as if covered with leprous sores and zigzagged with scars.'
A small household is described. We have Camille, a sickly, mothered, placid boy. As he becomes older, his mother's protective nature remains as strong as it was when he was a child. He is plied with medicines and 'adoring devotion', such that 'His growth had been stunted, so that he remained small and sickly looking; the movement of his skinny limbs were slow and tired.' Camille is presented as a wholly unattractive young man, with his ignorance 'just one more weakness in him.'
And then we have Therese Raquin. She was given to Camille's mother by his uncle when she was two, and has remained in Madame Raquin's household ever since. Therese has suffered the medicinal ministrations of Camille's mother, and because of this, has developed a quiet, introspective, intense demeanour. 'she developed a habit of speaking in an undertone, walking about the house without making any noise, and sitting silent and motionless on a chair with a vacant look in her eyes.'
This is an unhappy household. Or, perhaps, because everyone is so concerned with repressing any spark of feeling or emotion, it is a dead house that just happens to still be living. Camille is too ignorant and sick to have a personality beyond the studied egotism of a man who has grown up with a dominating, too-concerned mother, while Therese is a blank piece of paper, purposely unwritten upon. When her twenty-first birthday arrives, Madame Raquin informs Therese that she is to marry Camille. Therese accepts the decision, with all that changes of her life being she sleeps in Camille's bed and not her own. All else remains the same.
But soon an idea enters into Camille's head. He has always wanted to work in an office, the idea makes him 'pink with pleasure'. Against his mother's wishes, they move to Paris, where he finds a job working for the railway. Very quickly, life settles for everyone and time, as it does, plods along.
Thursday evenings become a social occasion for the family. Camille invites a colleague from work and his mother, a retired policeman she knew in Vernon, for a weekly game of dominoes. A few others arrive, and another routine is added to that of the Raquin's. Here, Zola is quite clear in his disdain for the evenings, 'After each game the players would argue for two or three minutes, then the dismal silence would descend again, interrupted only by more clicking.'
We are still near the very beginning of the novel. What Zola is doing now is to put all of the pieces into place - much like a game of dominoes - before adding the final character. A well-developed sense of drudgery, boredom and inevitability lies heavily across the text. We can quite comfortably imagine these characters continuing their lives in much the same manner until they are dead, and happily at that. What we do not want is for their life to become our own.
One day, Camille bumps into an old friend, Laurent. Camille invites his friend to Thursday's festivities, an invitation Laurent readily accepts.
When Therese lays eyes upon Laurent, she is floored. He seems, when compared to the colourless Camille, a real man, red-blooded and active. He has passions - he wishes to be a painter. He has emotions - he hates his father. He has desires - he speaks openly of painting naked women, and admiring their curves.
Over time, Laurent and Therese develop a clandestine relationship, meeting and making love under the nose of Camille and Madame Raquin, coming together in Therese' bed. Her husband and mother-in-law are shown to be so docile and unsuspecting that we can fully believe Therese capable of getting away with such activities, in their home.
From what we have read so far, Zola has written a reasonably commonly themed novel. We have the wife who is unappreciated and dreams of a love worthy of her lust; we have the inconsiderate, uncaring husband; we have the oblivious, hyper-affectionate mother. It would be easy to assume that Zola is spinning a fable such that finding and keeping love is more important than remaining within the shackles of a loveless marriage.
But hold on. Zola is far more clever than that. The passion Laurent and Therese share is shown as animalistic and obsessive; theirs is not the pure, passionate love we might expect. Therese declares, 'I love you, I have done since the day Camille first pushed you into the shop. You may not respect me, because I gave myself to you all at once, everything...Truly, I don't know how it happened. I am proud, I'm impetuous too, and I felt like hitting you that first day, when you kissed me and threw me to the floor here in this bedroom...'. But Laurent, too, is equally afflicted with lust, '...the regular satisfaction of his desires had given him sharp, imperative new appetites. He no longer felt the least unease when embracing his mistress, but sought her embrace with the obstinacy of a starving animal.'. Both Lauren and Therese show the negative aspects of secret, furtive lust - they are not in love, they are animals, tethered to one another with chains of desire and deceit.
It becomes clear that Camille must die for their relationship to progress beyond mere lust and into the love that they feel they deserve. He is dispatched with relative haste, and the novel proper begins.
Guilt, remorse and obsession form the remainder of the piece. Zola is clinical in his dissection of his character's psyche. It is as though he has laid out their mind on an operating table, and carefully removes a slice of personality for the purpose of analysis and understanding. No thought, no desire, no regret is left untouched. It is perhaps predictable that they would suffer from guilt following the murder of a man who, while timid and boring, was ultimately good, but Zola makes the focus of the novel something much greater than mere regret. He does not question or lay judgement, rather he presents the thoughts and feelings of these two people as they descend through the psychological depths of what they have done.
The novel is unrelentingly bleak. Chapter after chapter, the characters suffer their hearts and mind being torn apart. Zola slips the word 'insanity' into the text a few times, and we know he is giving us a clear clue. What would happen if two normal people commit an abnormal, horrible act? Zola pushes the limit of our understanding as far as he is able.
The peripheral characters exist to further the darkness of Laurent and Therese. It is quite clear that their function is to serve the primary characters, and not to exist as people in their own right. Perhaps with a lesser author this would be a problem, but because Zola possesses such psychological acuteness, we allow it. The Thursday night domino games continue, purely because the unending stretch of sameness is precisely what is tearing the lovers apart. They becomes married so that Zola can show us that when the price for our desire is too great, we no longer wish to possess it. And so on, and so on. They fall in and out of debauchery, violence, hatred, remorse and guilt, all so that Zola can analyse the workings of two minds that were once normal, but have become diseased.
Moving away from the psychological aspects of the novel for a moment, it is worth mentioning that Zola also has a tremendous gift for description and mood. Throughout the nineteenth century, Paris boasted a morgue, which was open to the public for inspection. On rows of gray slabs lay the bodies of the recently deceased, with a wall of clear glass separating the living and the dead. There was no such thing as refrigeration at the time, so as the days progressed, the bodies would putrefy and rot as they waited to be identified. Laurent, at an early stage of his guilt, visits the morgue daily, waiting to see Camille's drowned corpse. And when he does, Zola provides us with this breathtaking description, 'Camille was a revolting sight. He had been in the way for a fortnight. His face still looked firm and stiff; his features had been preserved, only the skin had taken on a yellowish, muddy hue. The head, thin, bony, and slightly puffy, was grimacing; it was at a slight angle, the hair was plastered against the temples, and the eyelids were up, revealing the globular whites of the eyes; the lips were twisted down at one corner in a horrible sneer; the blackish tip of the tongue was poking out between the white teeth.' And on it continues. Macabre? Certainly. But Zola's eye for description makes this a powerful scene.
Therese Raquin is a short novel. There is no space for side plots, or avenues of digression. According to Zola, 'I simply carried out on two living bodies the same examination that surgeons perform on corpses.' What we have is an exploration of the darker parts of our psyche in brevity, a bleak early masterpiece.
Other works by Émile Zola under review:
Links kindly provided by The Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010
Boojum, L'animal Littéraire
Cairn (electronic journal archive)
Chroniques de la Luxiotte
Evene (Book section)
French Book News (English)
French Cultural Agency (English)
Gallica (Bibliotheque nationale de France digital library)
L'Express (Book section)
Lire: le magazine littéraire
La Femelle du Requin
La Vie des idées
Le Centre National du Livre
Le Magazine Littéraire
Le Matricule des anges
Le Monde (Book section
La République des Livres
Le Monde Diplomatique (Book section)
Le Nouvel Observateur (Book section)
Le Tiers Livre, littérature et Internet
English translation of François Bon's blog
Libération (Book section)
Palimpsestes (French and English)
Transfuge, literature et cinéma
About the author
Émile Zola was born in Paris in 1840. He helped found the Naturalism literary movement, and among many other works, published the Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, which was comprised of 20 novels. Zola died in 1902, under suspicious circumstances following the publication of his famous "J'Accuse...!" newspaper article concerning the Dreyfus affair.