Classic Book Review: Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

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*contains epic spoilz*

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola (Penguin Classics  2010, RRP £7.99, pp.208) Reader, picture the scene….you’re in nineteenth century France, you’re married to your sickly cousin, and you’re depressed. As with most vague, existential depression, all you need to cure it is sex with a hot man. That friend of your husband will do the trick nicely. But oh no, alas, your lover’s boss has got in the way of your meetings. What’s a girl to do…?

I like to think that what happened to Therese Raquin could happen to ANY one of us. Recently, on holiday in Iceland, I found myself in the middle of nowhere, standing by a series of raging waterfalls, accessible only by an inadequate looking bridge. Nature scares me, so I was standing well back, watching my boyfriend contort himself around rocks perilously near the edge, all in pursuit of the perfect photograph. And suddenly, Therese Raquin popped into my head, and I thought ‘If I just gave him a shove, he’d fall in. It would be the perfect murder.’ Obviously I didn’t, because I’m quite attached to him really, and he had the car keys, but what I’m trying to say is if you wanted to kill someone, and the perfect opportunity arose, it would be a split second decision. And from my experience of split second decisions, the brain tends to favour the ‘DO IT!’ approach over ‘Whoa there, tiger.’ So, Therese and Laurent do kill Camille, and it is very much born of opportunity. However, the deed that takes a moment to accomplish, results in a lifetime of regret.

By the end of this incredibly short novel, I could hardly bear to continue reading. The sheer weight of Zola’s imagery, the claustrophobic drapers shop, the dingy alley, the burning hatred in Madame Raquin’s eyes, combined with the seemly endless cycle of Therese and Laurent’s torment is almost too much to bear, and the last fifty pages are a continual cycle of pain, as they fall deeper and deeper. Their eventual suicide comes as a relief to the reader, as much as to the murderers. I’m a squeamish person, and this book got right under my skin. For a story about a murder, there’s a distinct lack of blood, but the horrible, almost living scar that Camille gives Laurent when he bites him in his death throes, and Laurent’s obsessive daily visits to the morgue made me come over all wiggly (fellow squeamish people will know what I mean). I’m pretty sure that Zola was the kind of guy who would be very happy to know that he made me so uncomfortable.

It was that partly that discomfort that made this book, despite its shortness, so difficult to finish. However, my main focus was with Therese’s culpability. Obviously she was guilty of starting an affair with her husband’s best friend, but in all honesty, her husband was lame. So, I don’t begrudge Therese the sex (though, really girl, Laurent? Ugh). Zola is pretty transparent in his aims to present Therese and Laurent as animals, driven only by their passion for each other into committing a horrible deed. However, in reality, what other choice does Therese have?

In fact, none of Zola’s characters come off too well. Madame Raquin, Camille’s mother, orchestrates the marriage between her son and Therese, in order to promote her own domestic comfort. Camille himself, although he maybe does not deserve a watery death, is lazy and unpleasant. In his slightly angry preface to the second edition (apparently no one got what he was trying to do first time around), Zola reveals that he always meant to study temperaments, rather than characters. Therese, Camille and Laurent are all assigned humours in keeping with Galen’s theory of four temperaments. Apparently the results of the novel, the infidelity and murder, could only have occurred through the interaction of these temperaments. It all seems a little difficult to grasp, without in-depth knowledge of psychology and humorism. Also, as a modern reader, who is aware of the infinite complexity of the human brain, and also the fact that the theory of the four humours is completely wrong, all this seems fatally flawed. I’m not convinced that this novel, which Zola compared to a scientific study, has anything to offer the modern reader, beyond a mildly diverting plot and an excellent example of Naturalism. Maybe I read it wrong. Can you do a feminist reading of a Zola? I’m not sure, but I did invest a lot of thought in Therese’s position.

Finally, I have a confession to make about this review. It’s been sitting in my drafts folder for the best part of a month, because I’ve been unable to finish it. It’s usually so easy to write funny nonsense about the books I love, but something about Therese Raquin got to me, and left me feeling bruised. I’ve put some distance between me and her now though, and it kind of feels good that although I’ve invested most of my adult life to studying it, Literature still has the upper hand.

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