Thérèse Raquin

The beginning of Thérèse Raquin, by Emile Zola, isn’t promising:

At the end of the Rue Guénégaud, coming up from the river, can be found the Passage du Pont-Neuf, a sort of dark, narrow corridor running between the Rue Mazarine and the Rue de Seine. This arcade is some thirty paces long and no more than two wide; it is paved with yellowish flagstones, worn, uneven, permanently exuding an acrid-smelling damp, and is covered by a right-angled glass roof black with grime.

On fine summer days when the sun beats oppressively down on the streets outside, the pallid light filters in through the filthy panes and lingers miserably in the passage. On foul winter days or on foggy mornings, the glass casts nothing but darkness on the sticky flags beneath, a vile and murky darkness.

Notice the details here. The flagstones are not yellow, they are yellowish and sticky. Fine summer days are not fine, they are oppressive, pallid, and miserable. Zola was one of the great Naturalist writers, who believed that social conditions and environment had great force in shaping human character: what could possibly grow or flourish in this filthy, vile, murky Passage du Pont-Neuf?

The answer: Thérèse Raquin. As a girl, she is brought up in the country by her aunt, Mme Raquin, with her weak and sickly boy-cousin Camille, whom she is destined to marry. After their move to Paris and the sinister Passage du Pont-Neuf, Thérèse and Camille make the acquaintance of Laurent, a vibrant, cheerful young artist who becomes close friends with Camille. It’s not many pages before the entanglements begin: Thérèse and Laurent are violently, brutally attracted to each other; Camille is weak and fatuous; the widow-mother’s eagle eye is on them all. And things are to get much, much worse before the end.

Jenny: This is a book I’ve read many times, and taught in French classes, but I never seem to get tired of it. Zola’s prose is so strong, and the plot is so exciting! He sketches his portraits in dark charcoal: the animalistic Thérèse, the powerful Laurent, the blind and stupid Camille. Yet they don’t seem clichéd.

Teresa: For some reason, I’ve always been intimidated by Zola. I assumed that his work was all very philosophical and abstruse. No one told me, and I never bothered to ask, that he was actually from the Naturalist tradition. Thomas Hardy devotee that I am, I’m drawn to Naturalist authors. Now I feel silly for avoiding Zola because this was an incredibly absorbing read. There were points where it felt like the literary equivalent of a Hitchcock film! There’s this strong sense of inevitability throughout where you know what’s almost certainly going to happen, but the tension remains nearly unbearable.

Jenny: Ha! I knew you were going to love this book. It’s right up your alley, with the dark and the gripping. I agree about the sense of inevitability, almost of doom, that shadows the book. I think that goes with the Naturalist tradition, doesn’t it? If social conditions and heredity create character, then surely the threesome in the Passage du Pont-Neuf are not going anywhere good.

One thing I find interesting about this novel is Thérèse herself. She’s the center of the book, but she doesn’t fit in to most of the typical heroine-roles women could land in the 19th century: ingénue, mother, nurturer, reformer. She’s not even your typical harlot. She’s always described in animal terms: cat, wolf, beast. She’s hardly even human.

Teresa: You’re right that Thérèse doesn’t fit any of the usual roles. The animal imagery, which I hadn’t really picked up on, does seem telling. And it’s more than a little disturbing when you combine it with a comment Zola makes about her African mother’s blood beating through her veins in a moment of passion. I don’t think that’s meant to be a racist comment; I think Zola is taking pains to make Thérèse something totally other, someone who simply cannot properly function in normal society. She either retreats totally into herself and becomes a shadow or bursts all possible bounds, including the ones necessary for society to function. She’s only truly happy in the country, away from society.

Jenny: Yes, just where an animal would be happiest, right? Camille, on the other hand, is her polar opposite. He’s over-educated, for one thing, always with his nose in a book (although I wouldn’t mark him as being extremely intelligent or observant.) He’s extremely naive, with not the tiniest shadow of animal life or lust in him. But the effect is the same: his “civilized” weakness and illness have made him unable to function any more than Thérèse can. I wonder if Laurent is supposed to be the happy medium… if he weren’t trapped between these two pathological specimens. And what about the incredibly sinister Mme Raquin? I love her as a character. She’s in the same tradition as Mrs. Danvers and Mme Defarge, if you ask me.

Teresa: Mme Raquin provided some of the best moments in the whole book! There’s that incredibly intense scene when she’s trying to tell what happened. And then her eventual fate—absolutely chilling. Her character brings a strong sense of the Gothic to the story.

One thing that occurred to me as I was reading was how much more frank this novel was than most British novels of the same period. In Victorian novels, the sex tends to be hinted at, and the violence rarely described in such detail. It’s relatively tame by today’s standards, and it never seems to be about titillation. But I still can’t imagine Dickens, or the Brontës, or even Hardy attempting to get away with some of what Zola does here. Is that kind of frankness typical of French novels of the period?

Jenny: That’s a great observation. The first half of the century was all about Romanticism, so not as much graphic sex and violence there. Then, later in the 19th century, you got Realists like Balzac and Flaubert, and the Naturalists, who were reacting against Romanticism. That meant a lot more sex, especially among the bourgeois and lower classes, and deaths that were intended to be as revolting as death can truly be — not the sanctified breathing-one’s-last sort of thing. Right at the very end of this time period, you get Proust, as well, and that’s a whole different kind of sex that most of the British novelists didn’t get into until nearly fifty years later. What fun it is to read globally, eh? And I can’t wait to do it again next time!

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This review is part of the Classics Circuit, which will be featuring Emile Zola through April 25. The next tour will feature Alexandre Dumas as part of the Paris in Springtime theme, and following Dumas will be the Golden Age of Detective Fiction tour.

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18 Responses to Thérèse Raquin

  1. The “literary equivalent of a Hitchcock film” would have sold me if I wasn’t already reading this later this month for the Classics Circuit! I’m very excited and look forward to reading your observations once I’ve read the book.

  2. Eva says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. :) I”m about to start Ladies’ Paradise for the tour…I’m worried Zola might not be my style, but I hope I’m wrong.

    • Jenny says:

      Eva, I’d be surprised if you didn’t get something out of it. It’s strong and suspenseful, but not “melodramatic,” at least in my view. Looking forward to what you think!

  3. JoAnn says:

    Therese Raquin was on my list of favorites last year. It is the most amazing psychological portrayal of guilt and accessible enough for any book club. I’m really enjoying The Ladies’ Paradise now – Zola is becoming one of my favorite authors.

    • Jenny says:

      JoAnn, that’s so much fun for me to hear. I love it when some of the French authors I like get more widely known and appreciated.

  4. I love when you guys tag team this posts! So much fun.

    You know, this is the second time so far that I’ve seen comparisons between Hardy and Zola during the tour. I never really picked up on the connection before, but now I totally see it. Also, now that unread Hardy book on my shelf is calling to me.

    I think that either this or Germinal may be my next Zola read.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I like Therese Raquin best, but Germinal is my next favorite of Zola’s. I don’t think you can go wrong either way!

  5. rebeccareid says:

    Although I didn’t LOVE my Zola pick, I have to completely agree about the tension and the sense of doom. Zola was great at that. And oh my, I really can’t stop thinking about it, as depressing as it was! I think that is a mark of a classic.

    Thanks for this, and Jenny, i really appreciate the info you included that put it in context. I really needed to see where Zola fits in.

  6. Kathleen says:

    I’ve always been intimidated by Zola too but I did read and enjoy several Thomas Hardy novels so I think I should step out of my comfort zone and try this one!

    • Jenny says:

      Don’t let Zola intimidate you any more than authors from any other country, Kathleen. Try him and see what you think!

  7. Pingback: Classics Circuit Review: Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola «

  8. bybee says:

    I read Nana but am not sure which Zola to read next.

  9. Pingback: Therese Raquin – Book Review – caribousmom

  10. Tea says:

    I want to read this one more than Germinal. All of his books seem fascinating. I’ve never read one of his books. I’m so ashamed. Thanks for the dialogue.

  11. Pingback: Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola « The Zen Leaf

  12. Pingback: ‘Thérèse Raquin’ by Émile Zola « Between a Rock and a Hardcover

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