When it was first serialized in 1867, Emile Zola’s novel Therese Raquin was considered scandalous and “putrid” by critics, and no wonder, as the novel describes the sordid adulterous and murderous activities of the eponymous character and her lover.
A relatively slim novel, the story starts with Therese’s strange circumstances, raised by her aunt as companion and future wife to her sickly son, Camille. Forced as a child to stay by her cousin’s side in his sick room and to drink the medicines he had to take (despite being healthy), Therese grows resentful toward her aunt and cousin but remained compliant to their wishes. After Therese and Camille are married, the small family moves to Paris and opens a haberdashery in the dark Passage du Pont Neuf. Asserting his independence from his overbearing mother, Camille finds an office job, where he meets an old childhood friend from their village, Laurent. Born into a family with considerable means, Laurent is an indolent, hedonistic self-proclaimed artist, who would prefer nothing more than to lie around all day indulging his earthly pleasures. Using his charms to win over Camille and his family, he decides to take Therese as his lover more for convenience than love but quickly discovers that her quiet and calm demeanor hides a tempestuous and passionate nature. As Therese and Laurent start their ardent love affair, Therese grows ever more resentful toward her sickly and weak husband, who is the exact opposite of her virile and strong lover. To fulfil their passions, the lovers kill Camille by pushing him into the Seine. Unfortunately, instead of realizing their dream to be together, the murder succeeded only in killing their passion for each other. As their deed and Camille’s ghost, which existed only in their imaginations, haunt the lovers, preventing them from truly being happy, their personality slowly transforms as their mental, physical, and financial states decline.
Although the descriptions of the lovers’ affair and murder of Camille are quite sordid, this novel focuses more on the mental consequences of such such activities. The second half of the novel, after Camille’s murder, mostly shows how the events slowly change the lives of not only Therese and Laurent but also Camille’s mother. In their desperation to attain the happiness they so longed for, Therese and Laurent get married, hoping to rid themselves of the ghost of Camille but only worsening their mental and emotional anguish. From this point onwards, the author demonstrates the gradual and inevitable decline of the lovers’ sensibilities and sanity.
This tragic novel focuses less on the adultery and murder and more on the selfish and duplicitous nature of human beings as reflected in the different characters’ self-serving decisions and acts. However, despite the unsavory characters in this book, one can’t help but notice how normal and “human” they are.
This books was surprisingly readable and intriguing, but I found the second half a bit dragging, with the author drawing out the idea of Therese’s and Laurent’s mental breakdown, hatred toward one another, and eventual destruction.
Therese Raquin (1868) – Emile Zola
Penguin; 192 pages (tpb)
Personal rating: 2.5/5