Thérèse Raquin, completed in 1867 when Émile Zola was only twenty-seven years old, was actually his fourth novel. The previous three novels, however, were plainly immature work, awkwardly composed and sensationalistic, written solely for money. Thérèse Raquin, on the other hand, embodied Zola’s serious ideas about the art of the novel and was his first real critical success, not merely because it was a daring story of a wife and her lover who conspire to murder her inconvenient husband, but because it was well written, constructed with a sense of form, and filled with powerfully unforgettable scenes and images. Perhaps because, in it, Zola also succeeded so well in conveying the gritty feel of daily life among the urban poor, Thérèse Raquin became the first of Zola’s books to attract substantial sales. That makes Thérèse Raquin a milestone, marking the start of Zola’s distinguished career as a novelist of realism—or, as he would later call it, naturalism, the literary movement in France that Zola founded.
The significant sense of form exhibited in this novel can be seen in its unusual organization into thirty-two very short chapters, each of which advances the narrative in a terse and dramatic way. This structure imparts a feeling of rapid movement and suspense to the novel, which compels the reader’s excited attention. Viewing the novel as a whole, one also recognizes a symmetrical division into three approximately equal parts, like the three acts of a play, each part ending on a note of high drama: part one, the adultery, culminating in the murder of Camille; part two, the marriage of the criminals, apparent proof that they got away with their crime; part three, the horror of their haunted marriage, ending in a double suicide. By confining the plot to just a few characters and presenting their story in three relentlessly fast-paced parts leading inexorably to the fatal outcome, Zola manages to give his novel the power and the inevitability of...
(The entire section is 821 words.)