The Human Beast

by Émile Zola

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629

Upon its first publication, The Human Beast was criticized by reviewers for its brutal depiction of murder and criminality. Indeed, in the novel, Zola describes vividly the way Roubaud cuts Grandmorin’s throat, details the terrible deaths of the people in the train wreck, and describes Jacques’s murder of Séverine. Written in the third person with an omniscient narrator, the novel delves into the psychology of the characters, particularly Jacques’s eroticization of murder.

The Human Beast is an example of the nineteenth century naturalist novel. Influenced by Darwinism and the emerging field of criminology, Zola developed his characters as driven by their “animal” impulses: for example, lust, greed, and the desire to kill. Zola compares the men in the novel to beasts fighting for mates, and even Jacques, although seemingly gentle, is driven by a “primitive” desire to kill and conquer. At the beginning of the novel, each of the characters has a moral sense of right and wrong, but slowly they succumb to the stronger animal impulses that law and morality cannot suppress. Like the nineteenth century realists, Zola places his characters within a specific historical context and depicts in detail the social conditions of the middle and working classes. However, in a strikingly new way, Zola uses the scientific language of his day to describe the psychological nature of individuals.

In a radical way, Zola also critiques the government of the Second Republic in France and its suppression of justice to maintain a pristine image of its ruling class. Throughout the novel, the government is corrupt and inept in its investigation of the murders of Grandmorin and Séverine. For example, the secretary of justice, Monsieur Camy-Lamotte, conceals Séverine’s damning letter to Grandmorin to hide the fact that the judge is also a rapist. The investigating magistrate, Monsieur Denizet, forces confessions out of suspects to confirm his own prejudices about them. Because he is a lowly stone carter and has been in prison before, Cabuche becomes the scapegoat for both murders. To Denizet and the jurors at the trial at the end of the novel, Cabuche’s protests of innocence only confirm his emotionally violent, animal-like nature.

The image of soldiers being transported to duty in the Franco-Prussian War is Zola’s most severe condemnation of the French government. As Jacques and Pecqueux struggle in the train’s engine compartment, the soldiers in the carriages sing patriotic songs in a drunken fervor. Zola compares the soldiers to animals being carted off to slaughter, and with Jacques and Pecqueux dead, the ghost train with no driver symbolizes the French state with no moral authority.

Throughout the novel, the train serves as a potent symbol of the uncontrollable rage of the characters. Zola returns to the image of the train—its noise, grit, and unstoppable momentum—at key moments in the plot. Roubaud and Séverine hear the trains go by in Paris as they plot to murder Grandmorin, and Flore causes a deadly train wreck in an attempt to kill Séverine and Jacques. Zola also compares trains to women and uses this comparison to emphasize the characters’ objectification of women. At the beginning of the novel, Zola describes how Jacques treats his engine, La Lison, as if it were his mistress. As Jacques begins his affair with Séverine, however, he starts losing interest in La Lison. After the snowstorm that strands the train, La Lison becomes an aging, finicky woman who is no longer attractive to Jacques. Jacques’s confusion of the engine with women points to his objectification of Séverine. He fantasizes about slinging her dead body over his shoulder: He desires to kill her to turn her into a body or an object he can control and possess.

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