In his unapologetic “Preface”, Zola clarifies his aims in writing Thérèse Raquin and takes issue with the many criticisms that were directed at the book when it was first published in 1867. Zola had assumed that his novel was self-explanatory and apparently inoffensive; instead, Thérèse Raquin was regarded as borderline-pornographic “filth” and “depravity” by a number of its readers (3). It also irritates Zola that these same readers made no effort to understand his ideas about the art of the novel, which he proceeds to explain.
The purpose of Thérèse Raquin was, as Zola states, to study two very different protagonists under different forms of duress. The novel poses a woman with an anxious and passionate temperament (the nervous Thérèse) against a man with a hearty and robust personality (the sanguine Laurent). Though these two characters descend into adultery, murder, vice, and eventual suicide, Zola tried to keep his novel free of moral questions. As stated in the preface, the author’s aim was to create a “minute reproduction of life,” something much closer to a well-constructed scientific experiment than to a grand moral (or immoral) statement (5).
Zola does not assert that his book is to be well-regarded. He does, however, wish that the newspapers and critics of his day had considered Thérèse Raquin from an intellectual and analytic perspective, rather than stirring up scandal and dismissing his work as a disgusting piece of writing. However, in his response to this criticism, Zola asserts that only a handful of men in contemporary France are equipped to serve as real, effective literary critics. And these critics would comprehend Zola’s quasi-scientific ambitions and accept his right to pick disturbing subjects. After all, experimenters in other fields like medicine - deal regularly with sexuality, violence, and death.
But these more hospitable critics, whom Zola dubs “Naturalists,” might also have a few objections to Thérèse Raquin. They would fault Zola for picking an uncommon or freakish subject, and they would also take him to task for writing in an embellished style. A broad perspective and a simple, analytic style would be better.
Zola concludes the “Preface” by returning to his critics, accusing them of bad faith, and reasserting that only this kind of widespread distortion and misunderstanding could make the writing of a preface necessary. For Zola, the ideal is a kind of writing that is self-explanatory, that requires no prefaces, and this is the kind of writing that he and his intelligent, Naturalist colleagues hope to promote.
Published when Zola was still testing out and firming up his artistic principles, Thérèse Raquin is an expansion of another 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. (In "A Love Match", Thérèse is called Suzanne, Camille called Michel, and Laurent called Jacques.) Thérèse Raquin was construed by Zola as an important bridge to his later endeavors as a Naturalist novelist.
The Naturalism 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, 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.”
Zola’s major writing endeavor of the coming decades would be the Rougon-Macquart Cycle, a 20-novel cycle tracing virtually every aspect of life in mid 19th-century Paris. Zola already had the general plan for this series formulated by 1868, and even speaks in the “Preface” of how a Naturalist novelist must “see society from a broader perspective, paint it in its many and various guises” (7). Thérèse Raquin doesn’t seem like a broad work, yet it was a fine warm-up exercise for the psychological and quasi-medical investigations of the Rougon-Macquart novels.
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.