Therese Raquin, by Emile Zola
Translated from the French by Robin Buss
First published 1867
This translation first published 2004 (Penguin Books)
Nature and circumstances seemed to have made this man for this woman, and to have driven them towards one another. Together, the woman, nervous and dissembling, the man, lustful, living like an animal, they made a strongly united couple. They complemented one another, they protected one another. In the evening, at table, in the pale light of the lamp, you could feel the strength of the bond between them, seeing Laurent's heavy, smiling face and the silent, impenetrable mask of Therese. - from Therese Raquin, page 43 -
Therese Raquin is an unhappy, somber woman who has married her cousin, Camille -- a sickly man who repulses her. They live together with Camille's mother Mme Raquin in a dingy apartment in Paris and the joyless days crawl past, with the only interruption being a weekly Thursday night domino game with visitors. So when Camille's co-worker and friend Laurent arrives one evening, it is not surprising that his ruddy good looks and easy-going nature gain Therese's attention. Soon the two are engaged in an unseemly affair right beneath the noses of Camille and his mother. The affair becomes more and more passionate, and the two lovers hatch a scheme to rid themselves of Camille so that they can marry each other.
Therese Raquin is a psychological thriller of sorts which explores the psyche of the criminal mind and seeks to examine the repercussions of a criminal act. The plot is simple and the novel takes place primarily in the dreary apartment of the Raquin's. To fully understand the novel, the reader should understand some of the science of the time. Zola, at only twenty-seven years old when he published Therese Raquin, was interested in a theory of human psychology which was well-accepted in the mid-nineteenth century...namely that of human temperament being the key to understanding human behavior. Simply put, human temperament could be divided into four basic categories: bilious, sanguine, nervous and lymphatic. At the time of the writing of this novel, doctors believed a person's temperament could be altered by circumstance. It is this idea which motivated Zola to write Therese Raquin. Faced with fierce criticism that the novel was pornographic and "putrid," Zola added a preface to the second edition of the book where he writes:
In Therese Raquin I set out to study temperament, not character. That sums up the whole book. I chose protagonists who were supremely dominated by their nerves and their blood, deprived of free will and drawn into every action of their lives by the predetermined lot of their flesh. - from the Preface of Therese Raquin, page 4 -
Zola assigns Therese a nervous temperament which becomes inflamed when her love for Laurent is awakened.
With the first kiss, she revealed the instincts of a courtesan. Her thirsting body gave itself wildly up to lust. It was as though she were awakening from a dream and being born to passion. She went from the feeble arms of Camille to the vigorous arms of Laurent, and the approach of a potent man gave her a shake that woke her flesh from its slumber. All the instincts of a highly-strung woman burst forth with exceptional violence. - from Therese Raquin, page 35-36 -
Laurent, on the other hand, demonstrates a sanguine temperament.
Underneath, he was lazy, with strong appetites and a well-defined urge to seek easy, lasting pleasures. His great, powerful body asked for nothing better than to lie idle, wallowing in constant indolence and gratification.- from Therese Raquin, page 28 -
Zola uses the temperaments of the characters to demonstrate what happens when two people with these temperaments come together to commit a crime for their own personal gain. It is heady stuff.
At its core, however, Therese Raquin is a classic tragedy. It is also a moral tale -- examining the consequences of adultery and murder. Both Therese and Laurent are narcissists who fail to regret the evil of their actions. In pursuing their own selfish desires, they not only inflict cruelty on Mme Raquin (who loves and trust them), but they ruin their own lives in the process.
Emile Zola's writing is surprisingly accessible and modern given the time in history the story was penned. Zola quickly pulls the reader into the dark and despairing lives of his characters. This is far from an uplifting story -- in fact, it is a rather depressing read. Despite that, I enjoyed getting inside the heads of these characters who are admittedly grotesque. Although psychology today does not agree with psychology in Zola's time, some things do remain the same ... namely that immoral behavior rarely results in happiness and violent crime is almost always punished, if only by the impact it has on the perpetrators' psyche.
Readers who enjoy classic literature, psychology, and crime novels will undoubtedly want to add Therese Raquin to their list of potential reads.
Four stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".