In Thérèse 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.
In describing Thérèse and Laurent (respectively) as "dominated by their nerves and their blood," Zola is not positioning his characters as simplistic types or stereotypes. Rather, he is drawing on contemporary theories of human behavior, which posited that personality and "temperament" are determined by bodily composition: the predominance of blood, or nerves, or other substances entirely. However, it is also possible to read this quotation as an answer to Zola's critics. Throughout the "Preface", Zola recorded the scandalized reactions and apparent misconceptions of early reviewers of Thérèse Raquin. But if Thérèse Raquin can be summed up as efficiently as Zola sums it up here, isn't the protracted misunderstanding of the critics both absurd and idiotic? And since the novel really is a dispassionate "study" of "predetermined" conditions, aren't accusations of scandal-mongering irrelevant?
She was still the child brought up in the bed of an invalid. But inside, she lived an ardent and passionate existence. When she was alone, in the long grass by the river, she lay flat on her stomach like an animal, her eyes dark and wide, her body flexed, ready to pounce.
This passage describes Thérèse's early years, which in many years set the pattern of her adult life. Though she seems outwardly docile and subservient to her sickly cousin Camille, Thérèse has an inner life that is anything but calm. She is capable of wild imaginings and seethes with aggression. In adulthood, Thérèse lives this "double life" in ways that are even more extreme; she affects supreme passivity and obedience in the presence of Camille and his mother, yet indulges her vicious, animalistic nature in her lovemaking and her murderous plotting with Laurent.
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.
Here, Zola explains one of the central ironies of Laurent's character. Despite Laurent's apparent physical strength and sexual vigor, the young man wishes for nothing more than to take these capabilities and let them lie dormant. In his love of undemanding and predictable pleasures, Laurent is actually very much like Camille, who is otherwise presented as Laurent's foil. This is one of the many ironies in Thérèse Raqun: that two such different personalities, one "strong" and one "weak," can share so many of the same values.
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, and the man, lustful, living like an animal, they made a strongly united couple. They completed one another, they protected one another.
This passage describes Thérèse and Laurent at the height of their affair. But even though Thérèse and Laurent are intoxicated with passion, the level-headed Zola has designed this passage to resonate with other parts of his novel. In the course of depicting Thérèse's childhood, Zola states that his heroine is "like an animal"; now, Thérèse has found the perfect lover to help her unleash her animalistic side. Yet this passage also foreshadows changes and developments that trouble the protagonists. Here, before Camille's murdered, Thérèse and Laurent feel capable of protecting one another; after the crime, they only feel weak and unprotected when they are together.
The poor mother saw her son tumbled along in the murky waters of the Seine, his body stiff and horribly swollen; and, at the same time, she saw him as a little baby in his cot, when she used to defend him from death as it tried to claim him. She had brought him into the world more than ten times and she loved him for all the love she had shown him in the previous thirty years. And now he had died far away from her, all of a sudden, in cold, dirty water, like a dog.
Mme Raquin's remembrances involve a horrible irony. Camille didn't die when he was weakest or when death would be most expected, but when he had finally escaped his cot (where death repeatedly "tried to claim him") and evolved into a satisfied and somewhat self-sufficient young man. Mme Raquin senses this dark reversal of expectations, but what most moves her is the loneliness of Camille's death and the sheer horror of his fate: "his body stiff and horribly swollen." Here, Camille seems tortured and powerless, yet his corpse will return with the power to torture his two murderers, Laurent and Thérèse.
For more than a year, Thérèse and Laurent carried the chain lightly that was clamped to their limbs, binding them together. In the mental collapse that followed the acute crisis of the murder, in the feelings of disgust and the need for calm and forgetting that came after that, the two prisoners could imagine that they were free and that no iron link bound them together.
At this point in the narrative, Thérèse and Laurent are not yet married and have not yet succumbed to the feelings of desperation, captivity, and helplessness that their marriage will bring. Because they are physically separate much of the time, they can maintain illusions of freedom. Yet Zola's omniscient narrator is clear that this sense of freedom is just that: an illusion. There is indeed a chain of anxiety that binds Thérèse and Laurent together, and in reality, they lack the freedom either to oppose their captivity or to escape the self-destructive cycle that started with Camille's murder.
Every week brought its Thursday evening and every week once again reunited around the table these dead, grotesque heads that had once exasperated Thérèse. The young woman talked about showing them the door; they irritated her with their bursts of silly laughter and their idiotic remarks. But Laurent told her that it would be a mistake to do this. As far as possible, the present must seem like the past; and, most of all, they had to keep friends with the police, those imbeciles who were guarding them against suspicion.
In a novel where the central characters change so conspicuously, the minor characters are curiously incapable of even the least evolution. Old Michaud, Grivet, and the rest of the Thursday evening guests were insufferable to Thérèse in the beginning; they remain insufferable to her to the end. The irony is that, rather than desiring these "imbeciles" with their "bursts of laughter and their idiotic remarks" to leave her life, Thérèse is forced to endure them in order not to suffer a worse fate: discovery of her crime. And the Thursday guests don't need to do anything in particular in order to help Thérèse and Laurent survive; in yet another irony, the Michauds and Grivet manage to be useful simply by being annoying, useless hangers-on.
A dull fury had overtaken Laurent. He broke the canvas with his fist, thinking with despair of his great painting. Now, he could no longer even consider it. From now on, he knew, he would only draw heads of Camille and, as his friend had said, figures that all looked alike would just make people laugh.
Technically, the only person that Laurent paints in the course of Thérèse Raquin is Camille. The first painting that Laurent executes is his inept portrait of Mme Raquin's pampered son; then, as soon as he returns to painting, he finds that every figure he creates bears some haunting resemblance to the drowned man. Weirdly enough, even Laurent's cats and dogs look like the murdered Camille. And this situation can be seen from either a comic or a tragic angle. Laurent's painter friend, with his privileges of distance and his limited knowledge of Laurent's life, sees the comic side; Laurent sees himself as caught in a tragedy of useless talent and inescapable obsession.
The thought of suicide began to weigh on her when she suddenly considered the unknowns that she would take into the tomb: there, amid the cold and silence of the earth she would sleep, eternally racked by doubts about the punishment of her tormentors. To sleep properly the sleep of death, she had to lapse into insensibility feeling the sharp joy of revenge; she had to take with her a dream of hatred satisfied, one that she would dream throughout eternity.
By the time the story reaches this late stage, Mme Raquin has discovered the murder and repudiated her earlier beliefs in God and goodness. Indeed, she has come to see "the reality of life as it was, mired in a slough of passion. God was bad" (153). It is nonetheless possible to read this passage, with its references to "eternity", as involving an afterlife of some sort. But this is no longer the Christian afterlife where virtue is rewarded; it is a state bordering on oblivion or "insensibility", a state that Mme Raquin will only feel she has earned if she succeeds in avenging Camille.
And, suddenly, Thérèse and Laurent burst into tears. A supreme crisis overwhelmed them and drove them into each other's arms, as weak as children. They felt as though something soft and loving had awoken in their breasts. They wept, without speaking, thinking of the degraded life they had led, and that they would continue to lead, if they were cowards enough to go on living. So, remembering the past, they felt so weary and sickened by themselves, that they had a vast need for rest, for oblivion.
Here, Thérèse and Laurent have just discovered that their plans for murder are mutual; Thérèse is holding her knife, and Laurent is preparing a glass of water laced with poison. They have been driven to a final extreme, not because they have strong desires or are in competition, but because they are too weak to continue in their state. The two murderers seem to understand this shared weakness, and it is this realization that finally reconciles them. For once, "something soft and loving," not something harsh and hateful, drives them toward one another.
Therese Raquin Questions and Answers
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