Thérèse Raquin

by Émile Zola

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Critical Context

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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 and Frank Norris and William Dean Howells in the United States) and also involved painters such as Edouard Manet and Paul Cezanne, who were Zola’s personal friends, the realist spirit was an outgrowth of the scientific determinism of the age. The writings of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Claude Bernard, as understood by many creative writers, suggested to novelists that they too might employ the “scientific method” in their creation of human characters and milieus. The characters acted upon are, in this view, almost always lower class; the milieu is invariably (perhaps inevitably) constraining, if not actually depressing.

In this context, then, Zola set about, in the manner of his friend Gustave Flaubert, who had created the character of Emma Bovary (with whom Thérèse shares many important traits), to describe the world as objectively as possible, and to portray that world and its denizens as realistically as possible. The novelist had no overt thesis, no moral point of view, in theory anyhow, that he had to communicate. His task, as Zola saw it, was simply to record faithfully what takes place when a repressed female encounters a libertine and both surrender to their physical appetites.

There is little doubt about the graphic success of Zola’s writing in the novel form. In Thérèse Raquin, he displayed the nervous sensitivity and atmospheric tension which raised his subsequent series of novels beyond social commentary to a level of impressionistic realism very rare in literature. Zola saw people and places in the fashion of the Impressionist painters who were his friends. That the world of the Second Empire was a corrupt one he was not at pains to demonstrate in his fiction beyond the interaction of his carefully chosen subjects. In this novel, his naturalistic treatment was neither as broad nor as rich as it would become subsequently, but the critical storm produced by the novel gave him both the money and the attention he needed to continue writing. In his life beyond literature he did indeed take stands on issues, most noticeably in the celebrated case against Captain Alfred Dreyfus, in which Zola accused the establishment as a whole of wrongdoing, at no small inconvenience to himself. His literary achievement is that he created an organic world despite the constraints of the current naturalistic determinism to which he, in theory, subscribed. From viewing sexual intercourse as a manifestation of society’s weakness, he moved over a lifetime of writing to something approaching hope for a world in which fecundity and a gradual socialism would have a future.

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Critical Evaluation