One of Zola’s first full-length novels, Thérèse Raquin remains one of his best-known. When he sat down to write the story of Thérèse, her acquaintances, and her descent into murder and suicide, Zola was only twenty-seven years old. In 1866, he had left his marketing job at the publishing firm Hachette in order to pursue his writing full-time; by the end of 1868, when critical and commercial success Thérèse Raquin entered its second edition, Zola had become infamous in literary circles.
Zola was not by any means the only French artist of his day to stir up scandal, and raise his visibility dramatically by doing so. In 1857, Gustave Flaubert was tried for obscenity for the explicit nature of his novel Madame Bovary. And in the 1860s, Edouard Manet shocked and offended Parisian audiences with earthy, sexually-suggestive paintings such as Olympia (1863) and Luncheon on the Grass (1862-1863). Zola’s novel can be placed in the same tradition of provocatively realistic art, and the character of Thérèse bears strong similarities to Flaubert’s Emma Bovary: an attractive woman stifled by her surroundings and driven to extreme, self-destructive measures.
Both Zola and these precursors created their works during a time of great material prosperity, known as France’s Second Empire. Under the leadership of Emperor Napoleon III (lived 1808-1873, reigned 1852-1870), France enjoyed a period of relative peace and security and witnessed transformative cultural projects, including the massive redesigning of Paris’s layout and architecture that took place under Baron Haussmann (1809-1891). This history is the backdrop for Thérèse Raquin, but never comes to the fore of the novel; trapped in gloomy and isolated conditions, Thérèse feels little of Second Empire’s enormous wealth and excitement.