Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Madame Raquin

Madame Raquin (rah-KA[N]), a plump, sixty-year-old, doting mother who centers her life on her son, Camille, and gratifies his every whim. When he decides to go to Paris to look for a new position, she leaves her comfortable country retirement at Vernon and uses a portion of her savings to rent a miserable little haberdashery on a wretched Left Bank alley. Camille, his mother, and his wife, Thérèse, live a life of unbroken plainness and regularity until they are enlivened by Camille’s vivacious coworker and friend, Laurent. After the seemingly accidental death of Camille, Madame Raquin’s sorrow eventually is tempered by her apparently devoted daughter-in-law, Thérèse, and the thoughtful Laurent. She is maneuvered into suggesting their marriage. At first, they guard the secret of their culpability for Camille’s death and hide their psychological torment from her. After Madame Raquin suffers a progressively debilitating paralysis, which leaves her unable to move or speak, Laurent, in one of his regular anguished and angry bouts with Thérèse, lets the truth slip out in front of the invalid. Unable to communicate the awful truth to the members of the Thursday night gatherings, Madame Raquin festers in her hatred, relishing the destructive behavior of Thérèse and Laurent. She has the ultimate satisfaction of witnessing their double suicide.

Thérèse Raquin

Thérèse Raquin (tay-REHZ), the twenty-eight-year-old daughter of Madame Raquin’s brother, Captain Degans. He left Thérèse to her aunt’s care after the death of the toddler’s Algerian mother. Thérèse, a strong and lissome person, has fine features, with dark hair and eyes. Madame Raquin decides that her niece and ward should marry her son, Camille. Although she is deeply repelled by Camille’s sickly smell and touch, the passive Thérèse acquiesces. Without protest, she gives up the life in the country, which she loved, for the dismal shop and apartment in Paris. She molders away until her passionate nature is brought to life and unleashed by the advances of Laurent. When their secret but tempestuous affair is threatened by lack of opportunity, it is she who suggests the murder of her husband. After Camille’s death, their ardor cools, and in its place grows guilt. They hope that their marriage will bring peace; instead, it brings greater guilt and psychological anguish. They cannot stand to touch each other, and the two engage in protracted bouts of hateful recrimination. Unable to find peace in dissipation, Thérèse, in despair, decides to escape...

(The entire section is 1082 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

At the center of this novel is the smoldering, frustrated Thérèse. Her arranged marriage to her cousin, Camille, teams her with a sickly, dull husband, and the stage is set for the entry of the third member of the “love” triangle. Laurent allows his appetite for the easy life and sexual gratification to lead him into Thérèse’s embraces. Like a surgeon working on a corpse, as he comments in his preface to the second edition of Thérèse Raquin, Zola traces with his “analytical method” the actions and reactions of the “human animals” in his experimental scene. Adultery leads to murder, and murder to what passes for remorse, or at least to a breakdown of the overburdened nervous systems of the participants. Zola then dispassionately records in their interior monologues the detailed workings of their passions, instincts, and mental processes, culminating in their double suicide.

Watching this breakdown is the speechless figure of Madame, who contributes greatly to the tension between Thérèse and Laurent. She sets the cycle in motion and presides horrified over what it becomes. Brooding also over the couple are the gothic elements of Laurent’s portrait of Camille and the tiger cat, Francois, which Laurent hurls out of the upstairs window and flattens on the opposite wall of the alley.

The damp, dismal, penny-pinching setting also plays an important role in the drama. Rendered almost exclusively in pervasive shades of gray or black or depressing greens, the oppressive environment functions like another character, ever present in the minute, carefully labeled details of the realistic artist. Thérèse’s name is written ominously in red across one of the panes of the shop door. Each character works exquisitely on the sensibilities of the others in a manner not far removed from that of Jean-Paul Sartre’s protagonists in Huis-clos (1944; No Exit, 1946).