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Little reviews on little (and big!) books

Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola

on February 17, 2015

I9780140449440t’s been a while since I read any Zola (despite my best efforts to do so!) I loved L’Assommoir and his style of writing overall so, to be honest, it was inevitable how I was going to feel about this novel! Thérése Raquin is one of Zola’s shorter novels which is why it’s so amazing how much content he is able to squeeze into around 190 pages. The book is not part of the Rougon-Macquart series and therefore stands alone, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Actually, I would probably recommend this novel as a good introduction to his work – it’s short and easy to read, but is also gritty and detailed.

Published in 1867, its content shocked nineteenth-century readers, and if I’m brutally honest, I can completely understand why. Filled with murder, adultery, violence, and goodness knows what else, it escalated Zola’s name within society. Some critics claimed that Zola’s career only really began with Thérèse Raquin, whereas others denounced it as ‘a pool of filth and blood,’ essentially a putrid novel. I can see both sides; it really is an experimental novel, fixated on analysing the temperament and effect that such a heinous crime has on the individual, but at the same time, there really is a great deal of images that I could have done without while I was having my morning coffee! However, this was easy to block out; I think I enjoyed it so much simply due to its frankness and its ability to analyse human nature in a number of ways. Upon finishing this book, it just asserted to me how much of a literary genius Zola really was 🙂

So, to the story… Unsurprisingly, the plot centres on the life of Thérèse – a girl so full of passion who is eventually married off to her sickly cousin, Camille. As a result of this union, Thérèse is bludgeoned into submission. No longer allowed to run free, she is brought up in Camille’s sick room, and this is essentially where she stays all of her married life. Her aunt, Mademoiselle Raquin, moves them to Paris, where they run a haberdasher’s and for a while, things are boring but peaceful. That is until Camille finds a job, and meets Laurent. Laurent is the complete opposite to Camille. He is strong, healthy, and full of life – everything Camille isn’t. He is everything a man should be, but he is inherently lazy, taking advantage of his friend’s hospitality. Then he meets Thérèse. She is never described as a real beauty; in fact, Laurent isn’t even that bothered about her to start off with. However, something about the sullen look Thérèse permanently wears intrigues Laurent and eventually he finds himself infatuated with her. They exchange their first kiss, an act which is described as ‘silent and brutal,’ and therefore begin their affair. The lovers keep it entirely secret, with Laurent using a back staircase to reach Thérèse’s room while Camille is away to work and Mme Raquin is busy running the business downstairs. What makes the whole story ironic is that Camille considers Laurent to be one of his closest friends, and Mme Raquin loves his company. As their affair progresses, Thérèse lets slip how discontented she is in her marriage, how disgusting she finds her sickly husband, but also that she is finding it more difficult to make excuses to go out and join Laurent.

One night in Laurent’s loft, the lovers come to the drastic conclusion that the only way they can be together is to get rid of Camille.

‘People do die sometimes,’ she murmured at length. ‘Only it’s dangerous for those who survive.’ Laurent said nothing. ‘You see,’ she went on, ‘all the usual methods are no good.’ ‘I didn’t mean that,’ he said calmly. ‘I’m not a fool, I want to love you in peace. I was just thinking that accidents do happen every day, that a foot can slip or a tile fall off the roof… Do you understand? In that last case, only the wind is to blame.’

So the lovers plan to kill Camille in a way that will protect themselves from prosecution. The murder takes place when the 3 of them travel to the banks of the river to enjoy a day out and rest in the sunshine. Laurent seizes this moment as the one where he can put into practice his ‘accident’ for Camille. At first, Laurent plans the murder a different way and decides to kill him whilst asleep under the trees.

‘Laurent swiftly lifted up his foot. He was about to crush the face with a single blow. Thérèse stifled a cry. She paled and closed her eyes, turning her head away, as though to avoid the splash of blood. And Laurent, for a few seconds, stayed there, his foot raised, poised above the sleeping Camille’s face. Then he slowly withdrew his leg and walked a few steps away. It occurred to him that this would be a stupid murder: the crushed head would bring the whole police force down on him.’

The couple are desperate to be together, but they are far from stupid – they know this has to be done discretely if they are to have any chance of peace. With quick thinking, Laurent suggests a boat trip, knowing full well how scared Camille is of water. The 3 of them step into the boat, and as soon as Laurent judges it is safe, starts to wrestle jokingly with Camille. This soon turns into something more sinister as Camille realises that his so-called friend is trying to push him in. Zola describes it thus:

‘Laurent was still shaking Camille, with one hand gripped around his throat. Eventually, he managed to prise him away from the side of the boat with his other hand. He held him up like a child in his powerful arms. As he bent his head forward, leaving his neck uncovered, his victim, mad with fear and fury, twisted round, bared his teeth and dug them into the neck. And when the murderer, choking back a cry of pain, briskly threw Camille into the river, his teeth took away a piece of flesh.’

Another lovely Zola description 😛 As I’ve examined in my previous Zola review, the author does nothing to hide the more ghastly moments, and we see this once again in Camille’s attempt to save his own life. The wound that he inflicts plagues Laurent throughout the rest of the novel, a constant reminder of what he has done. Zola’s description of the event is short but he seems consistently fixated on the juxtaposition of the 2 men; one a strong and daring young man, the other a weak, sickly and pathetic creature. Zola seems to want to take the time to draw our attention to the differences between the 2 men, perhaps to show that the strong man in the long run can eventually turn into the sickly one as we see through the course of the novel. Laurent takes great pains to make the boating fiasco look like an accident and so throws himself and Thérèse overboard to complete the show. However, after the murder, the novel takes an extremely dark turn (as if it wasn’t dark enough already!)

Ironically, after all of their hard work, the lovers become disgusted with one another and when the time comes for them to marry, they can hardly stand being in the same room as each other! They continue to live with Mme Raquin, pretending that they really care for her and her lost son. Every morning, Thérèse disturbs the bedclothes to imply that they have both slept in the same bed (a good sense of play-acting) when in reality, they sit across the room from each other every night, haunted by the ghost of Camille. The murderers fully believed that the ghost of the dead man had taken up residence in their bedroom and sat or lay between them at night, just to remind them of his presence. Laurent eventually takes a little loft apartment in order to escape and paint and let his frustrations out, but when an artist friend points out that all of his paintings look alike, Laurent realises he can now only paint figures that resemble his victim. Here, Zola launches into the real psychological side of the novel. He uses Camille’s murder and the effect it has on the people who carried it out to analyse how events can change someone. He shows the murderers to be altered into almost a schizophrenic state, especially Thérèse who floats between indifference, pity, sorrow, anger, and the rest. Zola claims that Laurent:

‘underwent a strange internal process: his nerves developed and came to dominate the sanguine element in him, this fact by itself changing his character. He lost his calm and his heaviness, no longer living a half-awake existence. A time came when the nerves and the blood balance each other out, and this was a profoundly pleasurable moment, a time of perfect living. Then the nerves dominated and he fell into the paroxysms that rack unbalanced minds and bodies.’

Zola wishes to portray the great turmoil a person goes through when they are racked with guilt, and with every passing chapter, I think he excels at this. The reader is never given the impression that the murderers are going to get away with it scot-free; rather, the emphasis is put on how much more they will suffer before the close of the novel (which is exactly what we want to see, if we’re being honest!) All of Zola’s descriptions of Laurent as the strong and dominating male are broken down and destroyed as he sinks more and more into despair. It’s highly satisfying to see 2 people get their comeuppance the way Zola describes. Thérèse doesn’t fare much better – she turns to prostitution to block out the life she is now living, her mental state slowly but surely deteriorating.

I must quickly mention the fate of Mme Raquin. She becomes very ill, eventually becoming paralysed as a result of a stroke. During their very heated and soon abusive arguments, Thérèse and Laurent admit their crime in front of Camille’s mother, knowing that they can be safe that she will never tell the police – an extremely cruel act. Imagine hearing this news and being able to do nothing about it. This reminds me in some ways of the idea Zola created in L’Assommoir where he claims that the characters can essentially be bludgeoned and paralysed by their environment and the people around them. Mme Raquin is also bludgeoned in the most extreme sense in that she cannot remove herself from her situation even though she desires it. At one of their regular Thursday night card games with friends, Mme Raquin summons up all the strength she can find and, in one of the most tense moments in the novel, manages to move her hand and spell out ‘Thérèse and Laurent are…’ before once more becoming fully paralysed. Everyone else thinks she is just trying to say how well they are looking after her and shrug it off, but the reader knows how desperately she wanted to tell the truth. This bit is so frustrating! I so wished that she had managed to spell out the rest! I don’t want to spoil the ending of the novel as I found it highly satisfying so I suggest you give this one a read! There are several rather crude and disturbing moments that I have omitted from this review, so if you want the gritty bits, go find a copy. Not that I don’t want to mention them, but I feel it makes more of an impact if you are in the process of reading the novel for yourself when you come across the parts where Zola takes us into the public spectacle of the Paris morgue for example.

All in all, I thought this was another great novel by Zola – this man can do no wrong in my opinion! After reading L’Assommoir, I was ready for the filth and direct style of his writing and it certainly did not disappoint in that sense. Using it as an analysis of human nature was a smart move and I feel that it still would resonate today – every human, no matter whether you are born in the 1800s or in the present day, is affected by guilt; we just all experience it in different ways, something Zola makes explicit through his description of the trials and tribulations of the murderers. Despite never actually being caught and being put on a legal trial, the remainder of their lives is a trial in itself; they may have never reached the guillotine, but Zola’s description of the downward spiral of their lives implies to the reader that this would have been a more preferable punishment.

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3 responses to “Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola

  1. heavenali says:

    I read this and a few other Zola when I was in my early twenties I really liked them. Your review makes me want to revisit this one in particular.

  2. I wish I had more hours in the day to investigate all of your book recs! Another on the TBR list.

  3. […] events in this novel, but could also be used in reference to Zola’s novels like L’Assommoir and Thérése Raquin (see earlier reviews). The quotation is from Victor Duruy’s L’Introduction Générale à […]

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