Published when Zola was still testing out and firming up his artistic principles, Thérèse Raquin is an expansion of an earlier Zola story that explores the themes of adultery, murder, and mutual suicide. In December of 1866, the author published “A Love Match”, which runs for only a few pages but follows the exact same plot trajectory as Thérèse Raquin and uses virtually identical main characters. (Here, Thérèse is called Suzanne, Camille called Michel, and Laurent called Jacques.) Aside from length, there is another major difference between Thérèse Raquin and this prototype: Thérèse Raquin was construed by Zola as an important bridge to his later endeavors as a Naturalist novelist.
In the 1868 “Preface” to Thérèse Raquin, Zola speaks of “methodical and Naturalist criticism” and “the group of Naturalist writers to which I have the honor to belong” (7-8). The Naturalist movement is widely understood as an outgrowth of the “realism” of Balzac and Flaubert: two French writers who meticulously observed and documented society, and who prized psychologically plausible characters and convincing representations of social and political forces. In large part, the analytic third-person style of these predecessors influenced Zola’s way of writing.
Yet Naturalism gave the ideals of realism a more scientific spin. In addition to incorporating the latest theories in psychology and heredity into his work, Zola’s naturalism paid significant attention to narrative elements - crowds, inanimate objects - that had traditionally been downplayed and ignored. As Zola stated, “Balzac says that he wants to depict men, women, and things. I, on the other hand, combine men and women while acknowledging natural differences, and I subject both to things.”
Naturalist works often display the underbelly of a society teeming with characters whose behavior is based on inherited traits. This is notable in the novel's portrayal of Thérèse and Laurent's temperaments and environments, which contribute to their crime and punishment, and in Zola's grim version of Paris. The Paris they inhabit is grim and grimy, full of people who do not understand them. Their environment exacerbates Thérèse's nerves and Laurent's sanguine nature, driving them to seek out a passionate affair and the violence it results in.
Paris versus the Provinces
Paris was the sole and indisputable cultural center of 19th-century France - and as such, it was where the ambitious young men of Zola’s day converged in hopes of earning fame, fortune, and power. This motif - the energetic young man who seeks glory in the French metropolis - was explored in depth in the novels of Zola’s predecessors, including Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Old Goriot. And Zola didn’t simply know this kind of ambition from literature; both he and his friend Paul Cézanne had moved to Paris from the French countryside, hoping to leave their mark on the contemporary arts.
The vast countryside areas beyond Paris are known as the French provinces. Thanks to satires of provincial life such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, these areas have tended to seem devoid of meaningful culture or worthwhile accomplishments. This is not the whole story; in fact, some of Cézanne’s most celebrated paintings focus on the natural beauties of the provinces. But with its gallery of small-minded characters from the peasantry (Laurent’s father) and the Paris suburbs (Mme Raquin and Old Michaud), Thérèse Raquin plays into the worst stereotypes about life beyond the city.
Thérèse Raquin even features its own story of a young man trying to make it in the city: Laurent. This robust young man is the son of a farmer with “fine fields of wheat over near Jeufosse,” and it is Laurent’s hope to make money and live the good life as a painter. Yet Laurent is a debased version of the typical ambitious young man; his paintings are terrible and he simply seems interested in fortune, not in any long-lasting version of fame.
By the time Zola wrote Thérèse Raquin, new writing genres were rising to worldwide popularity: crime and detective fiction. Revolving around difficult-to-solve crimes and the psychologies of criminals, these new modes of writing had been pioneered by American author Edgar Allan Poe in short stories such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter”. And Poe quickly gained visibility in France, thanks to the translation work of poet and critic Charles Baudelaire.
Zola was one of a number of authors who, perhaps without consciously intending so, turned the central motif of detective fiction on its head. The standard detective story is a solve-as-you-read narrative, which offers clues but leaves the solution to its central mystery uncertain until the very end. (Sometimes, the challenge is to see who discovers the culprit first: the reader or the detective.) In contrast, narratives such as Zola’s Therese Raquin, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and even Poe’s own “The Tell-Tale Heart” are upfront about who their criminals are, and spend most of their time describing the repercussions of crime and criminality.
Why did these authors “give away” potential crime mysteries in this fashion? With Zola, identifying the criminals prompts the reader to do a different kind of intellectual work; instead of figuring out “Who killed Camille?” the reader can intensively analyze the reasons and motivations behind Camille’s murder. But Zola also plays with the crime genre by making his only eligible detectives - police commissioner Michaud and his friends - ridiculous and useless. Old Michaud has a trove of murder stories, but he is conspicuously bad at recognizing the murder right under his nose.
The Middle Class
The social class that Thérèse and her companions belong to is known as the "bourgeoisie": the equivalent, in several ways, of today’s white-collar middle class. A typical member of the bourgeoisie would be a minor to mid-level official (Grivet, Michaud) or a small merchant (Mme Raquin). Such individuals were not surrounded by massive material wealth, though they would have financial security and would take part in popular recreations, perhaps even have some worthwhile yet limited knowledge of culture and the arts. Yet the bourgeoisie was often criticized as a conservative segment of society. In Marxist accounts of history, this middle class group is often contrasted with the proletariat: the dynamic working class that moves along social and historical improvement.
In his depiction of Grivet, the Michauds, and even Camille, Zola takes a few standard bourgeois characteristics to satirical extremes. Grivet, Camille, and Olivier are proud of what they have accomplished in life, even though they have done little more than find a way to fit in and make money. In fact, Camille’s dreams in his youth of simply being “an employee in a large department; he blushed with pleasure when he imagined himself in the middle of a huge office, with glazed sleeves and a pen behind his ear” (19). Like a good bourgeois, Camille also reads history books as a way of “improving himself,” but doesn’t improve his understanding of those around him—starting with his melancholy wife.
It should be noted, though, that Zola was an equal-opportunity offender. His later books depicted the Paris aristocracy (The Kill), the urban poor (The Drinking Den), provincial laborers (Germinal), and the French military at all levels (The Debacle). Each of these books features characters who embody greed, selfishness, and other vices; each of these books gives Zola a field for the same brand of satiric irony he employed in Thérèse Raquin.
In the course of his novel, Zola repeatedly describes Thérèse as “nervous” and Laurent as “sanguine.” These are not simply recurring adjectives; instead, these labels are motivated by a medical and psychological idea that was fairly popular in Zola’s day. Known as the theory of the “temperaments,” this belief posited that an individual’s major traits, reactions, and behavior patterns were the product of the physical make-up of his or her body. The sanguine Laurent is dominated by blood, which makes him strong yet self-indulgent; the nervous Thérèse is dominated by nerves, which make her sensitive yet volatile.
These medical and psychological concepts are outgrowths of the once-popular theory of the humors, which divided humanity into four primary personality types: choleric (angry), melancholic (pensive), phlegmatic (sluggish), and sanguine (energetic). Laurent’s sanguine type is a fairly straightforward holdover, but Thérèse could be classified as either choleric or melancholic - as could Laurent, during his brooding later chapters. Camille could easily be classified as phlegmatic, but Zola avoids applying this adjective directly.
Even if Thérèse Raquin escapes rigid medical and psychological rules, the novel itself is nonetheless a testament to Zola’s abiding interest in applying medical, analytic ideas to the messy realm of art. As Zola moved forward to compose his later novels, he would become less interested in temperament and more interested in another much-discussed biological topic: the influence of heredity.
There are many moments of irony, both comical and cruel, in Thérèse Raquin. Even though Laurent is a foil for Camille, the two men are more similar than they at first appear. Laurent is of hearty peasant stock, the picture of virile masculinity, while Camille is a sickly young man with little power. Despite Laurent's physical prowess, he aims for a life of leisure and idleness, the kind that has plagued Camille. It is ultimately ironic that Thérèse chooses a lover who shares values with Camille.
Mme Raquin has nursed her child from the clutches of death throughout his childhood, but she cannot protect him from murder. This horrible twist is played out as the murderers live under her nose for so long. When she becomes ill, the people she has surrounded herself with cannot understand the crime she is trying to convey. Her entire life becomes a cruel irony, as the world of love, or "Temple of Peace", she has built, reveals itself to be utterly false.
The last section of the book culminates in Thérèse and Laurent's matching murder plans. Though Camille's murder was motivated by the pair's desire to be together, Camille's corpse gets between them. In an almost darkly comical moment, the erstwhile lovers discover each other's plan for one another and decide to kill themselves out of desperation. In their parallel scheming they prove they are meant to be, and they collapse in death in an embrace they were unable to manage in marriage.
Even though Thérèse and Laurent are not convicted for their crimes, they are imprisoned nonetheless. In the year following Camille's murder, "Thérèse and Laurent carried the chain lightly that was clamped to their limbs, binding them together." (94) Zola refers to the lovers as "prisoners" in their guilt and insomnia. Their fate is worse than jail as they are tortured on a nightly basis and their eventual coupling - the motivation for the murder - does nothing to soothe them.
The characters are trapped in their environment and by their temperaments. This is evident even in the opening descriptions of their corner of Paris. Before Laurent's appearance, Thérèse had been hemmed in by her situation her entire life. She found little pleasure in her childhood in Vernon, raised alongside sickly Camille. Her zeal was always stifled by her cousin, and nothing changed in their marriage or their move to Paris. Her subjugated animal passion leads to an affair with Laurent and her contribution to Camille's murder. Even when she is free from Camille, her nervous temperament makes it impossible for her to act according to her will.
Mme Raquin perhaps suffers the worst form of imprisonment, as she succumbs to total paralysis. Despite her physical health, she remains alert and conscious, and learns of her "children's" crime against Camille. Unable to communicate the deed to her Thursday night friends, Mme Raquin is forced to depend on her son's killers. A ploy to starve herself to death is abandoned in the hopes of witnessing Thérèse and Laurent's comeuppance. At the end of the novel, Mme Raquin earns a mild victory, as the lovers commit double suicide in front of her. As a crime novel without a typical ending of trial and imprisonment in jail, Thérèse Raquin succeeds as a cautionary tale for the guilty - and does not let the innocent survive unscathed.
Therese Raquin Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Therese Raquin is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.