La Bete Humaine by Zola

I read Zola’s La Bete Humaine years ago without realising that it is number 17 in the Rougon-Macquart series, and I find that I liked it more the first time around. For the first reading, I didn’t have many other Zola novels under my belt, but now at this later date, La Bete Humaine doesn’t make my favourite list. As a novel it has its problems, but more of that later….

If anyone out there has followed my blog posts regarding the Rougon-Macquart cycle, I started reading this 20-volume series back in 2007. Set in France’s Second Empire, the novels concern several generations of the Rougon-Macquart family. The Rougons are the wealthier branch and, in theory at least, the most respectable. The Macquarts hold a range of positions in life but they are certainly poorer and are plagued with madness and alcoholism–family traits which pop up at the very worst moments.

One of the main characters in La Bete Humaine is Jacques Macquart. To place Jacques in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, he is the son of Gervaise Macquart and Lantier (L’Assommoir), the brother of Claude (The Masterpiece), the brother of Etienne (Germinal) and the half-brother of Nana (Nana). Zola originally only created two brothers, Etienne and Claude, and these two are mentioned early in the series in L’Assommoir. Since Claude goes bonkers and is killed off  in The Masterpiece and Etienne appears in Germinal as a fairly stable character, this left Zola to  ‘invent’ a third brother rather late in the series. In La Bete Humaine, Zola adds a paragraph explaining that when Gervaise and Lantier left Plassans they ditched the middle boy Jacques with relatives. There is NO mention of Jacques in Gervaise’s story (L’Assommoir) so Jacques is an addendum, and indeed Zola’s paragraph explaining this sudden emergence of a third brother does feel a little awkward:

“Already down in Plassans as a youngster he had tried to understand himself. It was true that his mother Gervaise had had him when she was very young, fifteen and a half, but he was her second, and she was well under fourteen when she had her first, Claude. But neither of his two brothers, Claude or Etienne, who was born later, seemed to suffer because their mother was such a child and their father only a kid as well.”

Later in the same paragraph, Zola introduces the subject of the Macquart family trait of madness:

“The family was really not quite normal, and many of them had some flaw. At certain times he could clearly feel this hereditary taint, not that his health was bad, for it was only nervousness and shame about his attacks that had made him lose weight in his early days. But there were sudden attacks of instability in his being, like cracks or holes through which his personality seemed to leak away, amid a sort of thick vapour that deformed everything.”

The novel begins in Paris with married couple Roubaud and his much younger, beautiful wife, Severine.  Severine brought a 10,000 francs dowry to the marriage (from her guardian) and after the marriage, Roubaud was instantly promoted. Roubaud considers himself a very lucky man, and indeed they do seem to be a mis-matched and yet extraordinarily fortunate couple. Middle-aged Roubaud is a deputy stationmaster at Le Havre, and Severine, who is treated rather like a much-treasured and indulged pet, makes a few trips a year to Paris to shop. On this occasion, however, while Severine shops, Roubaud has an important meeting with a railroad official about an incident that took place some weeks previously. The incident could very well have cost Roubaud his job if not for the intervention of one of the directors of the Western Railway Company, President Grandmorin–a man who has a special interest in Severine. Severine’s father was one of Grandmorin’s servants and Grandmorin became Severine’s guardian when she was orphaned. She was raised with Grandmorin’s daughter, Berthe, and the two girls even attended the same boarding school together. Now that Roubaud is in trouble with the company, his connection–through Severine– with Grandmorin has proved useful yet again.

The afternoon following Roubaud’s meeting with railroad officials, a few choice questions lead to Roubaud’s shattering discovery that Severine was Grandmorin’s plaything. Roubaud uses the word ‘mistress’ but given Severine’s age and vulnerability at the time, I think that’s a bit misleading. Grandmorin’s continued sexual interest in Severine certainly explains his treatment of Severine, the marriage, the dowry and the favoured treatment. Enraged and violently jealous, Roubaud decides the murder of Grandmorin is the only way to satisfactorily cope with the rage and the humilation. Severine and Roubaud board the same train as Grandmorin, and during the trip Roubaud stabs Grandmorin to death with Severine’s assistance.

The crime looks like a robbery, but there are complications. For one thing, Jacques Lantier caught a flash of the murder scene as the train sped by, and also there are some extremely ugly rumours circulating about Grandmorin’s relationships and behaviour with vulnerable young women. In fact, it seems that he’s responsible for the death of Louisette, who worked as a maid in Grandmorin’s home until she fled  “badly knocked about” and later succumbed to these injuries. This makes Cabuche, Louisette’s fiance a convenient scapegoat for the crime…..

As the investigation gears up, then flounders and sinks, Roubaud and Severine’s marriage deteriorates. Roubaud’s pride in Severine moves to loathing and finally disinterest. Roubaud knows that Jacques is a witness to the murder, and so he encourages Severine’s relationship with Jacques–effectively pimping his wife in the process.

I was some way into The Bete Humaine when I began to connect similarities with Therese Raquin. Both novels concern a love affair and the murder of the husband, and both novels illustrate the idea that relationships are corrupted by murder. Roubaud regrets involving his wife in the murder, and the murder creates an unbreachable barrier:

“Weariness, indifference, such as comes with age, seemed to have been produced between them by the dreadful crisis and the spilt blood.”

But back to Jacques….

Early in the novel, it’s clear that Jacques wants to murder a woman, and this throbbing drive is connected with sexual desire. In fact when Jacques has successful sex with Severine, he marvels that he doesn’t want to murder her:

“With other women he had not been able to touch their flesh without feeling the urge to dig into it with an abominable lust for slaughter. Could he really love this one and not kill her?”

Does Jacques have an impotence problem that is sublimated by the desire to kill? At one point, Jacques thinks that murdering Roubaud will satisfy the desire to kill–but no–ultimately Jacques wants to murder women and his sexual  “desire had always gone to his head and made him see red.” In Jacques’ case Zola brings up the old Macquart family trait of madness and drops in the idea of Man as Beast:

“At such times he lost control of himself and just obeyed his muscles, the wild beast inside him. Yet he did not drink, not even allowing himself a single tot of spirits, having seen that the least drop of alcohol drove him out of his mind. He was coming to think that he was paying for others, fathers, grandfathers who had drunk, generations of drunkards, that he had their blood, tainted with a slow poison and a bestiality that dragged him back to the woman-devouring  savages in the forest.”

La Bete Humaine is a problematic novel. Zola created the Rougon-Macquart cycle partly to explore hereditary weaknesses (specifically madness), and in Jacques’ case, his madness is manifested by his desire to kill.  Zola’s imperative to explore the family trait of madness is challenged as Jacques isn’t the only one with a murderous streak, and unfortunately the impact of the Macquart madness is diluted by the sheer number of murders and murderers in the novel. I lost count of the number of people trying to off someone. Zola describes this drive to kill as Jacques’ bestial nature, but what excuse does everyone else have? Zola drops a few references to Man as Beast, indicating that Jacques is not the only person plagued by violent impulses. Roubaud, for example, becomes addicted to gambling–a habit which results in “removing all desire for women from this bestial male.” And then there’s Grandmorin running around deflowering virgins and engaging in sadistic practices with his maid.

 Are some of the Macquart family as nutty as a Cadbury’s Whole Nut bar or is the state of humanity just one step away from murder and mayhem if given half the chance? Well which is it?

My Penguin version includes an introduction by translator Leonard Tancock which answers that question. Zola outlined the series originally in 1868, and then after being influenced by two sensational murder cases, Zola decided to create a novel with “his central figure cursed with the hereditary taint of his family, fighting against it as a man but doomed to succumb to it as a beast.” But at one point the Man as Beast theory is no more than Jacques’ justification regarding the murder of Roubaud:

“He was only clearing away the obstacle, that was all. If two wolves come up against each other in the forest when a she-wolf is there, doesn’t the stronger get rid of the weaker with a snap of the jaws? And in ancient times when men found shelter like the wolves in the depths of the caves, wasn’t the desirable woman the property of the member of the tribe who could win her with the blood of his rivals? So as it was the law of life it had to be obeyed, irrespective of scruples invented later in order to make life in society liveable. Little by little his right seemed absolute.”

Zola argues for man’s bestiality–not just Macquart madness manifested as bestiality, but then sends a mixed message when Jacques uses the Man as Beast argument as a final justification for murder.  After 17 novels in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, I’ve read about so many of these family members now, and I know how potty they are. I mean, this is a man who has a better love affair with his train than with his woman….This torrid tale may be peppered with characters who almost unanimously sink to their baser natures but the motivations are complex and range from love, jealousy, revenge and money.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is not the plot but the undercurrents referring to justice–or the lack thereof. At one point in the novel, the investigators are convinced that Cabuche is the murderer, but then there’s solid evidence that the Roubauds are the killers. Monsieur Camy-Lamotte, Secretary to the Minister of Justice ruminates over the alternate cases of guilt and the potential impact of each:

“He was busily calculating the results of the alternate case, that of the Roubauds. What was certain was that if the husband were committed for trial he would blurt out everything, how his own wife had also been seduced when she was a young girl, and the subsequent adultery and the jealous rage that must have goaded him to murder, to say nothing of the fact that it was no longer a case of a servant-girl and an old lag, and moreover that this official, married to this pretty wife, would rag in a whole section of the bourgeoisie and people on the railway staff. And besides, with a man like the President, could you ever tell what thin ice you were on? Perhaps they would come upon undreamed-of abominations. No, decidedly, the case of the Roubauds, who were the real guilty ones, was filthier still. He had made up his mind and he rejected it absolutely. If one case had to be followed up, he would be inclined to stick to that of the innocent Cabuche.”

This  passage struck me most particularly. In the late 1800s Zola became involved in the notorious Dreyfus case when he wrote J’Accuse. La Bete Humaine was published in 1890, and in 1898 Zola wrote the letter J’Accuse in which he pointed out the egregious miscarriage of justice in the Dreyfus case. The Dreyfus case–which involved espionage–included the suppression of evidence and the imprisonment of a man who was known to be innocent–because the truth was judged to be too been inflammatory. This is a simplification, but I drew parallels between Zola’s plot in La Bete Humaine and the Dreyfus case which occurred a few years later.

On a final note, I’ve seen two interesting versions of this novel on screen:  Jean Renoir’s La Bete Humaine (1938)  & Fritz Lang’s  noir film Human Desire (1954) . For some reason, the latter–which stars Gloria Grahame–is the one that kept coming to mind when I read the novel. I’m not sure why.



Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

11 responses to “La Bete Humaine by Zola

  1. Nick

    I really enjoyed it when I read it. I cannot wait for your final best of, because if this is not the best one… (I’ve just read a few of them)

    It’s true that the problems you note are a little confusing, though maybe Zola wanted to note the difference between Jacques who is truly flawed and compelled to be a beast, and all the others who are not and still act like some. Maybe it is a way to incriminate more society ‘s corruption. (just a thought, I honestly don’t recall enough of the book to be sure this a relevant point)

  2. Well it’s just my opinion that it’s not one of his best. Many readers feel differently. To me, it has the same ‘forced’ feeling to it–along the lines of Therese Raquin–another novel in which Zola’s ‘scientific determinism’ fought for the number one spot against such issues as character….

    As I said in the review, I enjoyed the novel more the first time around. But at that time I didn’t even know there was such a thing as the Rougon-Macquart cycle. Now I compare Le Bete Humaine with the others I’ve read. Since I’m now deeply into the cycle, the ‘bestial’ aspect of Jacques (and several other characters) feels added on–layered on if you will–almost as an after-thought.

  3. Jonathan

    I’ve just finished this novel and it was a re-read for me as well. Unlike you, I preferred it more this time than when I first read it about ten years ago. I’m reading it at the end of the series – I’ve only got Doctor Pascal to go now.

    It’s definitely over the top, which I don’t really mind – ‘Too many trains, and too many crimes’ is the critic’s quote in the introduction. For me it would have been better if Zola had chopped out the derailment chapter and the final deaths of J & P. There would still have been many deaths and many trains but a ‘more reasonable’ amount for my tastes. The derailment chapter just seems to be gratuitous, though its inclusion was probably a result of its serial publication.

    I really must read Thérèse Raquin when I’m done with R-M.

    • TR isn’t a favourite which surprised me when I read it. I’ve seen a few versions of La Bete Humaine which I liked a lot. Congrats, btw, on being close to the end of the series. It’s a good feeling, but then I wished there were more left to read.

  4. Gill Price

    I read this novel a few years ago and loved it. Zola has a very dim view of human nature. I also read Therese Raquin, which I didn’t think was as good, I found it rather dry.

    • I’m a bit surprised that TR seems to be the Zola he’s known for, and the book is often on University course lists. I really liked parts of it, but other parts were much weaker, and I think you could see Zola imposing his theories on the text.

  5. I’m about half way through this now, and I pretty much share your estimation of it, but I do enjoy the lurid emotions and all the sex. And how can you not love a line like this?

    So it had happened—he had possessed Severine and had not taken the hammer to smash her skull.

    While reading the book, I keep thinking of Chabrol’s film, “Le boucher.” Looking back at my post on it from eight years ago, on which you commented 🤗, I see that that connection has been academically discussed. In some ways, I think the Chabrol flick is more true to the novel than Lang’s, despite Fritz’s RR setting…and I did love seeing Gloria…😍🤪

    But I don’t buy all this “curse of the troglodyte” crap, or Zola’s crude understanding of heredity, so I prefer Lang’s film anyway….And there’s Gloria G.🤓

    BTW, in your comments you mentioned a professor with the risible notion that a lute is a symbol of the male genitals. HA! Everyone knows it represents the female body. 🤓😀. Or so I always thought.

  6. Well clearly my old prof missed the point. Or was trying to be ‘controversial.’
    Yes Gloria Grahame … one of my favs. She drives any film up the charts.
    Zola is definitely weaker on the hereditary stuff although some novels work it in smoothly, IMO, without taking that hammer to the skull.
    I’me going to have to go back and rewatch Le Boucher. It’s been a while.

    • Over the top, for sure. EVERYONE is a muderer!! And his pseudo-scientific asides on male race memory are absurd, although not very unusual for that period among intellectuals.

      His portrayal of the self-satisfied police inspector in love with his own theories reads like recent news stories in NYC about various detectives whose cases are now being rexamined. And you are right: there’s a straight line from that guy’s boss to J’accuse.

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