(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Thérèse Raquin is a gruesome fictional implementation of the scientific theories that influenced Zola. Allying himself with “the group of naturalist writers” (his first mention of the term), he declared in the preface to the second edition (1868) that, much as a surgeon would dissect a corpse, he would attempt the objective study of two different temperaments brought together by circumstances. This novel is also a very good horror story in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Mme Raquin is aunt to the orphaned Thérèse and has reared her along with her own son, Camille. Even though they are not particularly suited for each other, for the young girl is sensual and vibrant and her cousin frail and weak, they nevertheless marry. The three characters then move to a seedy Parisian neighborhood, where mother and daughter-in-law open a dry goods shop and Camille becomes a railroad clerk. Life is so monotonous and marriage so boring that, when one night Camille brings home a colleague from the office, Thérèse finds herself “thrilled” by the newcomer’s robust physical animality.

The lusty Laurent and the unsatisfied Thérèse are soon involved in a highly charged affair. Wanting to be free of Camille (divorce is impossible) and unable to control their sexual needs, they drown him in an apparent boating accident, but not before he bites Laurent’s neck and leaves an indelible scar not unlike the mark of Cain....

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Thérèse Raquin Summary

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Thérèse Raquin is a tale of lust, murder, and suicide set amid the poverty of mid-nineteenth century Left Bank Paris. It involves a classically limited cast of characters such as that used by French dramatists Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine. At the center of the drama lies the triangle of Thérèse, Camille, and Laurent. The novel’s action is observed and recounted objectively by an omniscient narrator, who nevertheless occasionally slips in a moral judgment.

As the novel opens, the reader is introduced to the miserable Pont Neuf locale—the tiny dry-goods shop and the three rooms above it—where the three Raquins, Madame, her son Camille, and his wife Thérèse, are installed. The three barely survive on the money made from the shop’s sales and on Camille’s wages as a clerk at the Orleans railroad. Thus Émile Zola establishes the mixture with which he begins his “experiment”: a dull, listless husband and a sensual wife watched over by an old woman and her fat cat, Francois.

Into this milieu one evening Camille introduces Laurent, a school friend whom he has encountered by accident at the railroad. Laurent, a former law student and a dabbler in oils on canvas, seems to Thérèse to have all the glamour and virility her husband lacks. While Camille is out buying wine to celebrate Laurent’s finishing of a portrait and Madame is downstairs in the shop, Laurent and Thérèse come together on the floor. Soon a full-blown affair is under way.

Difficulties in continuing their rendezvous in Thérèse’s bedroom...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Thérèse Raquin Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A dramatic story of murder and adultery takes place in Paris among a small group of people from the same town in Normandy, Vernon, northwest of Paris. The group’s unifying link is Madame Raquin, a widow about sixty years old, who owns a small dry-goods shop on a dark, narrow street in Paris. She previously owned a dry-goods shop in Vernon, but, after her husband dies, she sells the business and retires. At the demand of her frail, sickly, but ambitious son, Camille, then twenty-two years old and married to his cousin Thérèse, Madame Raquin is compelled to move the family to Paris. She finds a tiny shop that she can afford with family living quarters above it. Madame Raquin and Thérèse run the shop together, while Camille finds employment in a railroad company office, where he hopes to rise to a high administrative post.

Thérèse is the child of Madame Raquin’s brother, a French army captain, serving in Algeria. One day, the brother, Captain Degans, appears in Vernon and presents his sister with a two-year-old baby girl, saying that the child’s mother, a native Algerian of great beauty, died and that he is unable to care for the child himself. Captain Degans leaves with his sister a certificate affirming that he is the father of this child born out of wedlock and that she bears his name. Her African heritage gives Thérèse a high-strung, emotionally intense nature, but growing up in Vernon with her aunt and her cousin, she develops a self-protective mask of reserved docility. She shows little emotion but willingly does whatever is asked of her to guarantee acceptance from her aunt. Two years younger than Camille, she is raised as his sibling, and when Madame Raquin announces her hope that the two will marry, Thérèse makes no objection, though she has no real affection—or even respect—for this small, delicate, insecure young man who is to become her husband.

The emotional dynamics among the Raquin threesome has to lead to trouble, even though they are, at first, isolated in Paris, living on an obscure little street seldom used except as a convenient shortcut from one lively Paris thoroughfare to another. To remedy this isolated feeling, the Raquins begin inviting company to their home every Thursday evening. Madame Raquin runs into an old acquaintance from Vernon, a retired commissioner of police named Michaud. Michaud comes to the Thursday evenings, accompanied by his son and daughter-in-law. Camille invites an older man, Camille’s superior at the railroad office, whose job Camille hopes one day to inherit. The Thursday evenings are...

(The entire section is 1053 words.)