The Human Beast

by Émile Zola

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Identify four to five themes found in the section in chapter 9 of The Human Beast that starts with "And Jacques looked at Roubaud coming straight towards them" and ends with "I can't! I can't!"

Themes found in this passage from chapter 9 of The Human Beast include death, violence, love, peer pressure, and right versus wrong. At the start of this passage, Jacques is determined to kill Roubaud, because it would be easy and beneficial for his own happiness. But then, he reflects on how Roubaud is defenseless, and he cannot bring himself to do it.

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There are many interesting themes in this passage! Right at the beginning, the theme of love and passion is evident in the narrator’s description of Séverine’s emotions. Jacques and Séverine embrace for a long moment, in which the narrator says that Séverine "would have wished to have conveyed her own blood to him.” This line shows how intensely devoted Séverine is to Jacques. Yet the image of blood also foreshadows her own murder. She loves Jacques so much she would give her own blood to him, and she eventually does this when he stabs and kills her. In a way, this line shows how ignorant Séverine is in this relationship and suggests that love and passion can blind people to reality.

In this same moment, the theme of gender roles and expectations is evident. Consider how Séverine wishes that she could commit the murder herself. She does not want to put that responsibility on Jacques but she feels she is “too feeble” and that the act requires “the fist of a man.” Here, we see how gender norms can cause men to take part in violence more frequently than women.

Another theme present in this passage is right versus wrong. Consider how determined Jacques initially is to murder Roubaud. “He wanted to kill; he knew why he would kill,” the narrator describes. This repetition suggests that Jacques was repeating this in his mind, that he was trying to make himself stay focused on the task at hand. But then Jacques suddenly changes his mind. “No, no! he would not, he could not kill a defenseless man in this way,” the narrator explains. Here Jacques reflects on how it would be wrong to kill someone even though the opportunity presents itself. The moment suggests that it is morally unethical to kill an unarmed person. This theme is unpacked throughout the book, as Jacques’s morality is frequently overpowered by his urges to kill women.

The theme of death and violence is also evident here, as Jacques grapples with how easy it would be to kill. “He had merely to plunge this knife into the man to win happiness,” the narrator reminds the reader. Yet when Roubaud actually comes by, both Jacques and Séverine are “in terror” of him. This irony shows how while death and violence can seem easy and matter-of-fact concepts, in reality, they are a lot more grim and tough to comprehend.

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