Thérèse Raquin is a gruesome fictional implementation of the scientific theories that influenced Zola. Allying himself with “the group of naturalist writers” (his first mention of the term), he declared in the preface to the second edition (1868) that, much as a surgeon would dissect a corpse, he would attempt the objective study of two different temperaments brought together by circumstances. This novel is also a very good horror story in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Mme Raquin is aunt to the orphaned Thérèse and has reared her along with her own son, Camille. Even though they are not particularly suited for each other, for the young girl is sensual and vibrant and her cousin frail and weak, they nevertheless marry. The three characters then move to a seedy Parisian neighborhood, where mother and daughter-in-law open a dry goods shop and Camille becomes a railroad clerk. Life is so monotonous and marriage so boring that, when one night Camille brings home a colleague from the office, Thérèse finds herself “thrilled” by the newcomer’s robust physical animality.
The lusty Laurent and the unsatisfied Thérèse are soon involved in a highly charged affair. Wanting to be free of Camille (divorce is impossible) and unable to control their sexual needs, they drown him in an apparent boating accident, but not before he bites Laurent’s neck and leaves an indelible scar not unlike the mark of Cain. That at times Thérèse fantasizes about tearing it off with her teeth, so as to diminish her disgust and reach a new level of erotic pleasure, is indicative of a certain sadistic cruelty. In their increasingly unstable and guilty minds, the family cat seems to glare at the two murderers with a suspicious eye, while the victim’s ghost now lies between them in bed and prohibits their usually passionate sex and their sleep.
Close to a nervous breakdown, horrified by their remorse, and feverish from abstinence, Thérèse and Laurent can consider but one recourse: They take poison and at last find some consolation in their double death, although in Thérèse’s fall her mouth hits Laurent’s stigmatic scar. Paradoxically, this conclusion shows that far from being mere physiological temperaments, the two lovers made concrete moral—if wrong—choices by deciding how they would live in reaction to their nature; moreover, it shows that there is a moral law after all, in spite of Zola’s professed adherence to the axiom of Hippolyte Taine (“Vice and virtue are products like vitriol and sugar”), which he uses as an epigraph to the novel.
Thérèse Raquin is a tale of lust, murder, and suicide set amid the poverty of mid-nineteenth century Left Bank Paris. It involves a classically limited cast of characters such as that used by French dramatists Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine. At the center of the drama lies the triangle of Thérèse, Camille, and Laurent. The novel’s action is observed and recounted objectively by an omniscient narrator, who nevertheless occasionally slips in a moral judgment.
As the novel opens, the reader is introduced to the miserable Pont Neuf locale—the tiny dry-goods shop and the three rooms above it—where the three Raquins, Madame, her son Camille, and his wife Thérèse, are installed. The three barely survive on the money made from the shop’s sales and on Camille’s wages as a clerk at the Orleans railroad. Thus Émile Zola establishes the mixture with which he begins his “experiment”: a dull, listless husband and a sensual wife watched over...
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by an old woman and her fat cat, Francois.
Into this milieu one evening Camille introduces Laurent, a school friend whom he has encountered by accident at the railroad. Laurent, a former law student and a dabbler in oils on canvas, seems to Thérèse to have all the glamour and virility her husband lacks. While Camille is out buying wine to celebrate Laurent’s finishing of a portrait and Madame is downstairs in the shop, Laurent and Thérèse come together on the floor. Soon a full-blown affair is under way.
Difficulties in continuing their rendezvous in Thérèse’s bedroom eventually force the lovers to murder Camille in a boating “accident.” Laurent wrestles him into the Seine, suffering a bite on the neck in the process. Two weeks later, the corpse shows up in the morgue, which Laurent has visited each day, and Camille is declared officially dead. Under the eyes of Madame Raquin, the cat, and the regular Thursday-evening domino party, Thérèse and Laurent hide their guilt and for fifteen months resume their routines, without ever being alone together. Increasingly, however, they are unable to sleep at night because of nightmare visits from Camille. The two arrange matters so that their marriage, which they believe will bring them ease, is proposed by Madame and Police Commissioner Michaud, a member of the “Thursday Club.” The ceremony accomplished, Thérèse and Laurent’s wedding night is ruined by the ghost of the murdered Camille, who comes between them; the killing of Camille has killed their passion for each other. The pain of Laurent’s neck wound increases after he forces the reluctant Thérèse to kiss it.
The couple is trapped under the eyes of Laurent’s portrait of Camille, the cat, and the increasingly paralyzed and speechless Madame. Terrified, hating and distrusting each other, and sleepless by night, they continue to keep up the appearance of “turtle-doves” for the Thursday group. Laurent rents a studio, but, no matter what he attempts, he can paint only portraits of Camille. Thérèse goes her promiscuous way among the students in the local bars. Nevertheless, the pair is bound together by hatred, distrust, and a growing fear that the other one will report the crime to the authorities. Their life together has become a hell of recrimination and blows under the eyes of Madame, who accidentally learns everything but can tell no one. The pregnant Thérèse deliberately exposes her belly to Laurent’s kicks; she miscarries. Each decides to kill the other: She has a sharpened kitchen knife, he has prussic acid. Detecting each other’s intentions, under the brooding, hate-filled eyes of Madame, they share the prussic acid and fall dead, Thérèse’s mouth on the scar left by Camille on Laurent’s neck.