Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

At the center of the naturalistic literary school, which Zola was instrumental in forming, is the idea of character and temperament. According to this theory, the people chosen make the events happen: The author is merely the objective reporter, watching, like everyone else, the characters he sets in motion. This at least was the conscious theory, which nevertheless postdated the early Thérèse Raquin, though it increasingly dominated the subsequent novels of Zola’s famous series, Les Rougon-Macquart (1871-1893; The Rougon-Macquart Novels, 1885-1907), including Le Ventre de Paris (1873; The Markets of Paris, 1879, better known as Savage Paris), L’Assommoir (1877; English translation, 1879), Germinal (1885; English translation, 1885), and La Terre (1887; The Soil, 1888, better known as Earth).

Thérèse Raquin is the earliest of Zola’s novels to have maintained a position of merit in his canon. He was at some pains subsequently to fit it into the naturalistic scheme that he developed during his extensive chronicling of the Rougon-Macquarts in the decades which followed. This ultrarealistic approach to writing sprang from the sociopolitical world which Zola inhabited in the second half of the nineteenth century. The middle class was in the process of increasing in numbers and power, and in replacing the nobility as a potential audience for books. Aristocratic characters were thus no longer the primary interest. In a movement which was international (including Charles Dickens in Great Britain...

(The entire section is 659 words.)