The Human Beast

by Émile Zola

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Why is the book titled The Human Beast?

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The "human beast" of the title is Lantier, a psychotic train driver with murderous impulses. He's recognizably human, but at the same time, there's something less than human, something bestial, about the way that he conducts himself.

Much the same could be said about Séverine, Lantier's lover. She taps into Lantier's murderous rage to get him to kill Roubaud, her ex-husband, who himself was once involved in a murder. For a while, it seems that Séverine fulfills a similar function in Lantier's life as his train La Lison, which has always provided him with an outlet for his pent-up sexual frustration. Since becoming Séverine's lover, Lantier has managed to control his psychotic urges. But as the hour of the planned murder of Roubaud approaches, Lantier reverts to his urges once more and kills Séverine.

As is often the case with Zola, he presents his characters as being the victims of contemporary society. This is a rapidly-changing world, a world of machines like steam-trains, a world in which rampant capitalism is turning so many of the old values upside-down. In such a jungle-like environment, man's inner beast, never completely held in abeyance despite thousands of years of civilization, comes bursting out, with truly calamitous consequences.

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