The Human Beast

by Émile Zola

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I have to write a commentary on a section in chapter 9 that starts with “and Jacques looked at Roubaud coming straight towards them” and ends at “I can’t! I can’t!” Any ideas on what I could speak about in this? My commentary has to be between 700 and one thousand words.

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The action Zola is describing in this chapter is an opportunity that presents itself for Jacques Lantier to kill Roubaud, the abusive husband of Severine, whom Jacques is in love with.

The complex background of this situation, stripped down to essentials, is that Jacques, a train engineer, is a man with a deeply troubled psychological history. He has persistently felt the urge to kill women (it has been suggested Zola got the idea for this from the contemporaneous Jack the Ripper murders in London), until he falls in love with Severine. Severine is the one woman Jacques has been able to love without feeling his instinct for violence will overcome him. Roubaud is Severine's angry, brutish husband who, like Jacques, works for the railway system. When Roubaud finds out that Severine as a teenaged girl had a relationship with the much older Grandmorin, a powerful railway executive, Roubaud goes wild and beats her up. He then forces Severine to get on a train with him he knows Grandmorin will be on. Dragging Severine with him, Roubaud forces his way into Grandmorin's private compartment and stabs him to death.

Later, Jacques and Severine meet and begin a relationship. They both wish Roubaud were dead, since he stands in the way of their happiness, and Severine hates him for what he's done. In the passage you've cited, atmosphere is significant, as it takes place at night in the rail yards at the station. Roubaud is a ghostly presence, and it's so dark that he approaches without seeing Jacques and Severine. Despite Jacques's previous, potentially murderous nature of his own, he can't bring himself to attack and kill Roubaud, as Severine wishes him to.

The incident is emblematic of the characters' tortured inner conflicts. Zola deliberately focuses upon the darkest aspects of human nature, as the novel's title indicates. Jacques, Roubaud, Severine, the railway signal man's daughter Flore (who is also desperately in love with Jacques), and others all are beset by uncontrollable passions and urges to commit violent and destructive acts. In this chapter it's a kind of blessing to Jacques that he doesn't use this opportunity to kill Roubaud, because it shows that his relationship with Severine has changed him into something better than he was. Yet if anyone deserves to die, it's Roubaud, both because of the murder he has committed and because of his treatment of Severine.

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