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!
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.