Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

One of my goals in life is to finish Zola’s twenty volume Rougon-Macquart series, and I’d just finished number 11 (The Ladies’ Paradise) when I decided to take a break, well sort of, and begin Zola’s Therese Raquin.

It’s a very dark novel that tells the tale of a love triangle, with a careful-what-you-wish-for horrific aftermath. When the novel begins, Therese is married to her sickly cousin Camille, and they live together with his mother above a drab little shop in a dingy part of Paris. Therese was brought up by Camille’s mother (her aunt) with the understanding that one day she’d marry Camille–a semi-invalid even as a child. Therese is bored and emotionally disconnected from her life, but since she possesses no dreams, no imagination or longings, she doesn’t examine her boredom and unhappiness, but accepts it–rather as someone who accepts shabby surroundings. And then one day, Camille brings home a friend, Laurent.

Laurent works as a petty clerk in the same office as Camille, and since he doesn’t have quite the same means as the Raquins, his life is bleaker and impoverished. He is invited to join the Raquins’ little circle of friends, cadging free meals and attending the ritual Thursday evening domino games with the Raquins’ dull friends.

During his evenings with the Raquins, Laurent brags about being a painter. It seems that at one point, Laurent attended university but dropped out to pursue art. But since Laurent has little talent, he ended up in a meager position as a petty clerk. To Therese, this tiny amount of knowledge releases her imagination, and something in her awakens. Therese and Laurent begin a passionate affair that’s stifled by the mundane details of her home life. The lovers scheme to be together, but Camille stands in their way….

Leonard Tancock is the translator for my Penguin edition, and the translator includes an introduction to the text. Tancock explains that Zola as a “naturalist novelist” saw himself as a “scientist on the same footing as a surgeon or any other experimenter upon organic matter, that his characters are animals motivated solely by the physical processes of their bodies and nervous systems.” Tancock also argues that Zola used this same sort of approach to The Abbe’s Transgression: “the formula is to arrange some temperaments, add some medical or neurological jargon, deliberately omit the interplay of character and all purely psychological reactions, and call the mixture ‘fatality.'” Therese Raquin mainly succeeds as a novel–whereas The Abbe’s Transgression strikes many false and formulaic notes.

For the 2/3 of the novel, Therese Raquin is a marvelous read, and for a while, I thought I was reading a novel on the level of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, but somewhere around Chapter 21, the novel, at least for me, fizzled a bit. Zola’s introduction of guilt’s impact upon the lovers, which takes the form of Poe-like, almost supernatural happenings, is over-the top at some points. Even the translator, obviously a tremendous fan of the book, admits that Zola was “still young and relatively inexperienced” and that he failed to pace the novel’s “climaxes,” and indeed that too is my complaint. While I have this niggling feeling that I am being too picky (and committing Zola Heresy), the last third of novel’s almost hysterical tone is a bit grating after a while.

For me, the very best parts of the novel explain Therese’s duplicitous nature. An indolence, and a general lack of interest in her own life–which could be misconstrued as dullness covers layers of deceit, hatred and submerged passion:

“She preferred to do nothing, staring in front of her and letting her thoughts run on. She still remained equable and easy to get on with–indeed she devoted her whole will power to making herself a passive instrument, completely acquiescent and free from all self interest.”

Suppressed by a twisted childhood, her explosive adulterous joy in the early days of her affair with Laurent, once unleashed, is unstoppable:

 “On her part she seemed to revel in daring and shamelessness. Not a single moment of hesitation or fear possessed her. She threw herself into adultery with a kind of furious honesty, flouting danger, and as it were, taking pride in doing so.”

Zola will always remain one of my favorite 19th century writers, but Therese Raquin is not my favorite Zola by any means. It sits with some of the good ‘stack’ from the Rougon-Macquart cycle (and there will be a post that goes into that subject when I’ve actually finished all twenty). As a novel on the theme of adultery and female sexuality, Therese Raquin must be read. Its depiction of Therese raised to wed her puny cousin, allowed no alternative, and no avenue for her passionate nature is an incredibly strong portrayal. But for me, at least, it wasn’t one of those phenomenal reads that leave me mentally shaken by its power.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

  1. Guy Savage

    Comment from Max Cairnduff (Pechorin’s Journal) Good review, this was very much my experience also. I enjoyed it at first, indeed much of the first half or so of the book is effective and memorable, but as we get into the final third it becomes increasingly gothic and unfortunately increasingly far-fetched. By the end, I felt I was in decidedly sub-Poe territory, in the realm of overwrritten and indeed overwrought gothic horror. The relentless awfulness of events started to become almost funny for me, which was not I think the intent. It has huge power in places, as you note, but the ending does let it down.

    Which leaves me no less keen to visit other Zola, this is an early novel after all and one does have to bear that in mind, besides which your other reviews make him a tempting writer to return to.

  2. Guy Savage

    Thanks Max:
    I’ll have to admit that I was a bit surprised, initially at the gothic stuff in Therese Raquin, but then the translator’s note in the beginning of the book helped clarify that for me–especially since I had so recently read The Abbe’s Transgressions. I think the formula the translator refers to took over at the end of the novel.

    As John Self pointed out (the Asylum) one must stop and think that Zola was 28 at the time this was written–still in embryo in many ways.

  3. Thanks for moving my comment, not sure how I ended up putting it against The Cutie.

    I agree about the formula taking over, the earlier parts are more persuasive perhaps in part because they’re less blatantly forensic.

  4. Guy Savage

    Yes, I agree.
    I’m very glad that I read the translator’s notes. The Abbe’s Transgression was a terrible disappointment (the poorest out of the 11 I’ve read in the Rougon-Macquart series so far). Its quality just seemed so out of synch with the others, but once I read the translator’s notes, it all fell into place.

    John Self (Asylum) pointed me to another blogger who stopped the R-M series after reading the Abbe’s Transgressions. While I can understand why he did, it’s unfortunate as he was just about to hit some really good titles.

  5. One of the reasons I prefer Penguin editions, is the notes are often of a very high quality. They also often contain plot spoilers, so I tend to read them after the book itself rather than before, but taken that way they do often shed a fair bit of light.

    It’s something I liked with the Dedalus edition of Huysmans’ Marthe, the translators notes were I thought quite excellent.

  6. Guy Savage

    Marthe (the edition you recommended) is due to arrive any day. I think I’ll start it after I finish The Bunin collection.

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