Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Thérèse Raquin, despite the young Zola’s theories on scientific objectivity, is a cautionary tale on the text of the biblical commandments against adultery and murder. Once Thérèse and Laurent surrender to their adulterous sexual urges, they are launched on a path to murder. Those who engage in sexual indulgence often, in Zola’s work, deteriorate into bestiality. The sensitive, even puritanical young author is obsessed with this theme. When murder is added to the list of sins, all concerned head further toward despair, madness, revenge, and retribution—none of which is “scientific” but instead is clearly called for by the author. The first lover who comes back, alive or dead, to trouble the second is also a common theme in Zola’s fiction.

The very real tension in the unfolding of these events, however Zola tips the scale of objectivity, is helped enormously by the oppressive environment and gloomy atmosphere which he creates to accompany it. The drama, which is almost palpable and which makes Thérèse Raquin Zola’s most successful theatrical piece, is created in no small part by its gothic setting. The squalid shop; the play of light and dark; the greenish portrait of Camille; the long description of the corpses in the morgue; the bite-scar; the baleful presence of the cat; the brooding, speechless figure of Madame—all play their nightmarish parts. The comic relief and the bathetic contrast—supplied by the dull banality of the Thursday-evening domino group—also play their necessary roles. Zola very expertly, both in his structuring of events and in his selection of macabre details, creates his impressive moral world. It is perhaps amusing to contemplate the furor that would have arisen had he done otherwise—had he, for example, permitted Thérèse and Laurent to live happily ever after. As it was, Zola was accused of dealing in the putrid and the pornographic when he was actually painting his own highly moral view of reality, with all of its “wallowing,” “brutality,” and “blood”—to cite but three words very often repeated in Thérèse Raquin.