Therese Raquin By Emile Zola

Emile Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin, is, at the same time as being a scandalous tale of adultery and murder, an attempt to produce a piece of literary Naturalism, which simply observes the characteristics of a group of characters, maintaining authorial and narratorial objectivity throughout.

The story follows the eponymous character Thérèse Raquin, who, after being adopted by her domineering aunt as a child, is married off to her sickly and apathetic cousin Camille. Stuck in the tedium of this domestic arrangement, Thérèse, whose true nature is fiery and passionate, spends her days longing for escape. Beneath her calm exterior, a savage, almost bestial energy simmers. It is for this reason that, when she meets Camille’s friend Laurent, she allows him to seduce her. The two enter into an intense and dangerous affair, which sends them into a spiral of lies and violent manipulation, gathering momentum until their passions culminate in the murder of one of the protagonists. And this marks only the halfway point of the novel; the following chapters bombard the reader with accounts of paralysing guilt, visions of ghosts, hysteria and death, until finally, we reach the moment of Thérèse and Laurent’s tragic end.

In his preface to the novel, Zola claimed that it would ‘study temperaments and not characters’, suggesting that Thérèse Raquin would be less a piece of fiction, and more an analysis of the factors and events that influence the different facets of human behaviour. He implied that his role would simply to be observe, rather than to comment or critique, and his – arguably ineffective – attempts to achieve this objectivity result in a uniquely probing and detailed style of writing. The narration delves into every detail of the protagonists’ thoughts, feelings and actions, breaking them down and trying to relate their inward impressions to the way in which they behave to the outside world. This graphic account shocked critics of the time, and Zola’s work was even described as ‘la littérature putride’ (‘putrid literature’) in a review in Le Figaro. So if you enjoy shocking stories of murder and intrigue, you should definitely take a look at Thérèse Raquin!

a portrait of Emile Zola