‘Thérèse Raquin’ by Émile Zola

Publicité pour Thérèse Raquin - ca 1877
Image via Wikipedia

This novel zooms in.  First we see an alleyway, then come to understand the true nature of those who walk along it.  Then we see some shops.  Then an empty damp dark shopfront.  Back in time, we are introduced to Thérèse and Madame Raquin through the eyes of a distant passer-by, at various times of the day.  Only then are we introduced to the characters, the nature of Thérèse’s upbringing and the ways in which her life has been dictated to her; her marriage to her uninterested cousin and her distaste with the dingy store she works in.  We know from the very start that there will be a tragedy, something that removes the Raquins from their dull but stable lives.

Quite honestly Zola admitted that he wrote not to provide characterisation, but a more clinical assessment of the effects of status, circumstance and temperaments on behaviours and events.  The storytelling techniques switch perspectives – mainly between the characters Thérèse and Laurent – to showcase these temperaments and the thoughts, observations and conditions that produce the final tragic scenes of the book.

It is fascinating.  Though I had a bit of trouble empathising with the characters, their ‘timorous desires’ and the cascade failure of social and personal troubles that befall the characters was hard to turn away from.  So too the objective assessments that often accompanied scenes and characters; their complexion and reactions and words are often described in a logical manner, mentioning this childhood trauma or that selfish desire as an explanation.  Most of the knowledge involves insight that none of the characters have, and seeing them suffer in this almost absolute lack of self-awareness is an interesting type of storytelling.

All the ways in which we lie to ourselves, especially in matters of love and fear, are laid bare before the reader through this.  In some ways it is the honesty of this, rather than the symbolism or the selfish fear of the characters, that is the really thrilling part of the story.  The implicit concept that not only would anyone with the opportunity for a crime commit it, but that we would attempt to punish and absolve ourselves after the fact.  Zola used the originally serialised medium to explore what ways other than the law that humans in this situation would be punished, and he pulls off the fear, paranoia, guilt, and denial so effortlessly that it is hard to believe that Thérèse and Laurent are fictional.

The commas, of course I, found, somewhat confusing and frustrating in the earlier chapters.  Either they were a result of the translator’s early clumsiness, or I simply became blind to them as I was drawn into the story.  If like me you find uneccessary  commas unnerving, please, endure the first few chapters as I do believe it is much more readable by page fifty or so.

I have never read Zola’s writing before, though I’ve seen the name here and there and always intended to pick up a book or two.  I chose Thérèse Raquin solely because it was available on Project Gutenberg, and was a stand-alone novel of his.  I am very glad that I did give it a try.  I’ve had a lovely evening, and though I have never been very curious about Paris, I can’t help but feel that I have seen a glimpse of the Paris that Zola saw.  Perhaps the highly descriptive opening chapters are to blame.  Even with their commas, the scene was very well set.  The book has impacted so strongly on me that my brain has been considerably blown, and I hope this review is at least partway lucid.  I plan on looking in to the rest of Zola’s work soon, but for the moment I will turn my attentions to the letter Y and my next hurdle in the A to Z reading challenge.

Other reviews of Thérèse Raquin:

The Guardian website has a short review with some insight into symbolism

Shelflove and caribousmum wrote interesting and in-depth reviews as part of a ‘classics tour’ series.

The Asylum has a review that summarises the story and mentions the sexual honesty in the book, especially for its time.

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