I was excited to learn that Zola is one of the featured French authors on the Classics Circuit this April. Therese Raquin is the third Zola novel I’ve read; I’ve read The Masterpiece twice and Germinal once. The grit and hardcore Naturalism of Zola’s plots is what I like most in his novels. There are no unpredictable turns of good luck or shiny happy fake moments. In fact, I remember when the economy totally crashed being happy I read Germinal at that time; yes, unemployment was high, but at least we were all better off than miners in France. No one had ripped off anyone’s genitalia, shoved it on a stick and paraded it through the streets. And yes, that does happen in Germinal.
In Zola’s novels, people are taken down a notch. We humans — despite our clothes, art, education, and relationships — are animals. We claw for food, water, and shelter. We crave sex and power. We have the capacity for violence, deceit, and greed. All of these vices, which many try to ignore, are illuminated in the pages of Zola.
Written in 1867, Therese Raqin is Zola’s first novel and is just as gritty and full of human vices as his later work. Therese was raised by her aunt in a lower middle-class home. Her aunt had a sickly, whiny, certainly obnoxious son — Camille. Throughout her girlhood, the feisty Therese is raised as if she were just as sickly as Camille. Soon, Therese’s spirit is broken, she is quiet and obedient and never betrays her true feelings or expresses desires of her own. Her aunt wishes her to marry Camille, and Therese agrees.
Soon the mother, son, and daughter-in-law move to Paris and open a haberdashery business. Once the trio is settled into their business they make new friends and soon have a sociable Thursday night game of dominoes. It is during a Thursday night game when Camille brings home a coworker from his office — a clerk named Laurent. Laurnet and Therese share a mutual attraction and soon begin a torrid affair. This indulgence in their lust leads to murder, violence, greed, deceit, suicide, and madness.
The book was not received well; Zola discusses the reception of Therese Raquin in his preface to the second edition. In this caustic preface, he declares that he is a member of the school of Naturalism. He describes writing Therese Raqin as a scientific process:
“I only wanted one thing: given a powerful man and a dissatisfied woman, to search out the beast in them, and nothing but the beast, plunge them into a violent drama and meticulously note the feelings and actions of these two beings. I have merely performed on tow living bodies the analytical work that surgeons carry out on dead ones.” (page 4)
Their are dark consequences to the murder that takes place; characters who think eliminating a bothersome person will bring happiness are instead forever torn by paranoia, guilt, and the knowledge that murder has only brought further misery. If you are a fan of Theodore Drieser — especially An American Tragedy — you will be similarily engrossed in Therese Raquin.