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...
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