Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Roubaud and his wife, Séverine, are in Paris. Roubaud, an assistant station-master for a railway company, had made a political comment displeasing to his bosses, so the company had sent him to Paris, possibly to fire him. Because Séverine had grown up in the household of an influential judge, named President Grandmorin, Roubaud was able to keep his job.
While the couple has dinner at their lodgings in Paris, Séverine gives Roubaud a gift: a knife she has just purchased. However, Séverine accidentally reveals that the ring that she wears had been given to her by Grandmorin, and that she had long been his mistress. Roubaud goes into a fit of jealousy, beats Séverine, and forces her to help him murder Grandmorin. Roubaud makes her write a letter to the judge to lure him into taking the same train that they plan to take back to Le Havre.
Meanwhile, train driver Jacques Lantier is able to stop at his old home at La Croix-de-Maufras because of railway repair. His Aunt Phasie tells him that she suspects that her second husband, Misard, a seemingly timid man, has been poisoning her to inherit her one-thousand-franc legacy. She vows that he will never get his hands on the money and tells Jacques that she has hidden it so well that Misard will never find it.
While on a walk that night, Jacques finds his cousin Flore on the property of Grandmorin’s country house, which also happens to be at La Croix-de-Maufras. Flore has always been in love with Jacques, and the two kiss. Jacques pulls away, however, because he has long been suffering from a psychological impulse to kill the women who arouse him. Jacques is tortured by his desire to kill, and after leaving Flore, he walks along the railway tracks. While the express train from Paris goes by, he sees the shadow of a man with a knife raised ready to kill another man and another figure falling over the legs of the man about to be killed.
Jacques runs into Misard on the way home, and Misard tells Jacques that he has discovered the body of a man on the side of the railroad tracks. While Misard goes to contact the police, Flore arrives, turns the body over, and recognizes it to be that of Grandmorin. Seeing the body’s slit throat, Jacques’s desire to kill intensifies. He also realizes that he has witnessed the murder of the judge but cannot decide whether to reveal this information.
Monsieur Denizet is the ambitious magistrate in...
(The entire section is 993 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In contrast to many of Zola’s other novels, The Human Beast focuses on the darkness of the human soul and the evil deeds which proceed from it rather than the determinism of environment. Much like his other novels, though, The Human Beast does center on the energy of an inhuman machine—in this case, a locomotive—that exacerbates the dark desires of the human soul.
When Zola was planning to write this novel, he had two ideas. First, he wanted to write a carefully observed portrait of railroad life. Second, he wanted to write a novel depicting the corruption of the legal and judicial system in late nineteenth century France. These two ideas merged when he began to contemplate the heart of darkness in Jacques Lantier, a railroad employee whose sexual passion borders on lust for killing.
Lantier, whom Zola contrived to make the orphan son of Gervaise Macquart and Auguste Lantier, is an engineer on the Paris-Le Havre line. He is so consumed by his locomotive that he treats it like a lover, tenderly driving her on the difficult portions of his route and being sure she is well taken care of before he leaves his shift. Lantier fears women, however, because the wild beast that lurks within him manifests itself in a desire for murder in the place of a desire for sex. He attributes this murderous desire to hereditary madness, and he literally runs away from possible sexual liaisons before he commits a deadly act.
(The entire section is 578 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Baguley, David, ed. Critical Essays on Émile Zola. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. A compilation of important essays by literary critics and theorists on the works of Zola. Provides as well an overview of theoretical approaches, including philosophy and genre criticism.
Brooks, Peter. “Zola’s Combustion Chamber.” In Realist Vision. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. A chapter on Zola’s novels is part of a larger study of realist literature and art in France and England during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Hemmings, F. W. J. The Life and Times of Émile Zola. London: Paul Elek, 1977. An accessible overview of Zola’s life and works in a variety of contexts, including art and the publishing industry. Discusses extensively Zola’s relationship with Impressionism. Also features chapters on Cézanne and Manet.
King, Graham. Garden of Zola: Émile Zola and His Novels for English Readers. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1978. A general overview of Zola’s novels. Includes a chapter on The Human Beast and the railway industry.
Nelson, Brian, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Zola. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. An accessible compilation of essays that explore the relationship between Zola’s novels and various topics, such as sexuality and nineteenth century art. Includes the essay “La Bête humaine: Zola and the Poetics of the Unconscious” by Rae Beth Gordon that discusses the novel in terms of madness and pathological criminality.
Richardson, Joanna. Zola. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978. A biography of Zola that follows his literary career and the publication of his fiction. Contains extensive descriptions of his novels, including The Human Beast.
Walker, Philip D. Zola. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. A biography by a prominent Zola scholar that draws on personal research as well as on the work of many other critics, historians, and biographers to depict Zola’s life. Includes a select bibliography.