The novel begins with a detailed description of the Passage du Pont-Neuf, a dingy, grimy Paris street populated by small shopkeepers. In the midst of this ill-lit thoroughfare, one can find a shop bearing two signs: the first reading “Haberdashery” in black letters, and the second reading “Thérèse Raquin” in red. The shop is full of old items and knickknacks - sleeves, socks, fabric samples - many of them yellow with age or faded to unpleasant grayish colors.
This shop is maintained by a young woman with a pale face, a sharp profile, and abundant dark hair, who sits motionless behind the shop counter for hours on end. Though Zola does not revel the characters' names until Chapter 2, this is Thérèse Raquin. Occasionally she is joined by an old woman (Mme. Raquin) with a tabby cat, and by a young man of about thirty years old who chats and reads - Camille. These three individuals are related: the man and young woman are husband and wife, and the old woman is the young man’s mother. At night they retire to their apartment upstairs. The young woman is the last to go to bed, and often spends a little while surveying her surroundings with boredom and contempt before she lies down to sleep.
Mme Raquin is a haberdasher originally from the rural town of Vernon. In Vernon, she had rented a small house on land running down to the Seine River. It was here that she raised Camille, a boy who faced various sicknesses throughout his young life. Madame Raquin repeatedly nursed him back to health. In Vernon, Thérèse spent her entire youth under her the supervision of Mme Raquin - her aunt.
Thérèse’s father was Mme Raquin’s brother, a sea captain who fathered Thérèse while in Algerian, and her mother was a local beauty. When Thérèse's mother died, Mme Raquin's brother left his daughter in his sister's care, and died in Africa some years later. Though a healthy and passionate young girl, Thérèse was kept in a confined, unpleasant atmosphere because of Camille’s constant illnesses. As a result, she developed a suspicious, calculating, and outwardly cold personality.
Camille never develops any real romantic attachment to Thérèse (and actually fears her wildness at times), yet he accepts the marriage between them that Mme Raquin proposes. On the night she is married, Thérèse simply moves into Camille’s room. Otherwise, her life changes little.
Soon after his wedding, Camille announces that he wants to leave Vernon and seek employment in Paris. He dreams of becoming an employee in a large organization. After an initial period of opposition, the doting Mme Raquin gives in to her son’s plan and even finds a new haberdashery shop, which is going for a bargain price, in the Passage du Pont-Neuf.
Despite Mme Raquin’s reassurances that life in the Passage du Pont-Neuf will eventually become enjoyable, Thérèse sees the dingy little shop and unpleasant street for what they really are. Yet Camille deeply enjoys his new life. He finds a job at the Orleans Railway and develops a personal routine. In the morning he walks along the Seine river, and in the evening he stops by Paris’s zoological garden, the Jardin des Plantes, too look at the animals. At night, Camille reads history books in order to improve his mind. Yet Thérèse has no interest in making an attempt to better her situation, and three dull years pass in roughly the same fashion.
Eventually, a group of regular guests begins to form around the Raquin household. Mme Raquin re-encounters an old acquaintance from Vernon: the police commissioner Michaud, who begins to frequent the Passage du Pont-Neuf. Old Michaud brings along his son, a tall and self-important police official named Olivier. And Olivier is often accompanied by his wife, a small and meek woman named Suzanne.
Camille makes his own contribution to the social life in the Passage du Pont-Neuf, bringing along one of his office supervisors, a man named Grivet. Together, these guests make a habit of showing up at the Raquins’ apartment on Thursday evenings, when they gather around to play dominoes and drink Mme Raquin’s tea. Thérèse is irritated, even maddened by these visitors. She does her best to avoid the gatherings, but Camille always urges her back into the apartment, and into the presence of her grotesque guests.
ON one of the Thursday gatherings, Camille brings along a new friend: one of his fellow co-workers at the Railway, a tall and hearty young man named Laurent. It turns out that Camille and Laurent knew one another as schoolboys. Laurent feels at home, but he also makes a few declarations that shock and unnerve the Raquins, including Thérèse. There had been a falling out between Laurent and his father, an ill-tempered peasant, and now Laurent is attracted to the easygoing lifestyle of Paris’s artists - a lifestyle of leisure and sensual pleasures - despite having no real talent as a painter.
In the course of the evening, Laurent declares that he would like to paint Camille’s portrait. Both Camille and Mme Raquin are delighted by this plan. But Thérèse’s reaction to Laurent is not one of simple delight; she is disturbed by his presence, but also intoxicated by a personality so unlike her own.
There are a few different reasons why Zola refrains from naming his characters in the first chapter. First, Zola is determined to set a mood of filthiness, squalor, and hopelessness: he focuses on how uncomfortably closed-in the Passage du Pont-Neuf is, and describes how its walls seem to be “stricken with leprosy and crisscrossed with scars” (9). Filling in the names and histories of his characters could distract from this task. But perhaps Thérèse and her family also remain unnamed because Zola wants to suggest that there are many filthy corners of Paris just like this one — that in different parts of the same city, the same kind of depressing scenes are being played out by nameless, interchangeable people.
The second chapter of Thérèse Raquin doesn’t simply explain who the Raquins are; it also explains the urges and motivations behind some of the odd reactions that Thérèse exhibits in the first chapter. We learn that Thérèse looks out at her surroundings with “contemptuous indifference” (12). And soon enough, the reasons for her contempt are explained: her repressed passions, her wild and unrealized dreams, probably even her family heritage. A closed-in Paris street seems like a poor setting for the daughter of an adventurous French sea captain and an Algerian mother, and Thérèse becomes aware of this disparity between her lifestyle and her heredity as she grows older.
Another virtue of the first chapter is that it strikes the mood of disappointment that Zola returns to so often. The narrowness and darkness of the Passage du Pont-Neuf aren’t simply realistic details; they symbolize the set of narrow possibilities that Thérèse is offered in life and seem to point to her dark future. Even when her future isn’t decidedly bleak, it involves “choices” that are both inevitable and insipid, such as Thérèse’s marriage to Camille.
Thérèse’s hopelessness is given a new turn by the appearance of Old Michaud and the other guests. She barely regards these Thursday evening visitors as human beings, viewing them instead as horrid, living decorations: “mechanical bodies whose heads moved and whose arms and legs waved when their strings were pulled” or “paper dolls grimacing around her” (25). Thus, Thérèse’s wild animal energy is stunted in another way, since she is only given these predictable, half-dead companions.
All of these depressing details make the arrival of Laurent seem like a miraculous departure from the usual conditions of Thérèse’s life. The robust Laurent is a foil to the sickly and complacent Camille, but this does not mean that Laurent has the better character; in fact, Camille’s diligence and loyalty to his mother can seem admirable compared to Laurent’s shortsighted unwillingness to obey his father. Thérèse, though, has little time for such distinctions and seems to be craving a way out of her stolid life. But there is another change that Laurent’s presence brings: a shift in the novel’s use of perspective. While the first few chapters cover Mme Raquin, Camille, and mostly Thérèse, the rest of the book will take Laurent as one of its dominant - if not the dominant - perspectives.