Thérèse Raquin is another version of the age-old story of love, lust, adultery, and murder. Yet, Émile Zola’s presentation of the story of this theme stands apart from the ordinary stories that have touched the same theme. The reason is that Zola’s rendition exceeds the characteristics of a story and makes it a study. Zola’s own words make it clear: “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”.
Zola’s study presents to us the psychological and physiological trauma of two people who have committed a heinous crime. Instead of reaping the fruit of happiness and tranquility which they hoped to gain, they are tormented constantly by the thought of their crime and haunted by the images of their victim which drive them to the point of madness. With their cunning and through play-acting they evade the law, but nothing can alleviate the mental and physical agonies that are set in motion by their crime. Zola stresses that his story is only a physiological and psychological study exempting the conscience. “The love between my two heroes is the satisfaction of a need; the murder that they commit is the outcome of their adultery, an outcome that they accept as wolves accept the killing of a sheep; and finally, what I have been compelled to call their ‘remorse’, consists in a simple organic disruption, a revolt of the nervous system when it has been stretched to breaking point.”. When Zola describes the state of the male counterpart of the crime he says that “His remorse was purely physical. His conscience played no part in his terror”. This is what makes this work unique. The remorse of the criminals doesn’t arise from any guilty conscience, nor from repentance. It only arises from a selfish feeling of having being deprived of their happiness and tranquility. Until Thérèse Raquin, I cannot recall reading a book which talks of remorse devoid of conscience. It was fascinating as well as disturbing.
Zola’s writing is the key feature here. There are only a few characters, and the story is focused on the two protagonists. So, Zola needed to score through his writing. And he has done it superbly. His writing is powerful, intense, and suspenseful. Notwithstanding the grotesque picture the story paints, it urges on the reader towards the end, to learn what retribution is in store for the criminals.
The story is a little far-fetched and at times, unrealistic. But this was done deliberately, for, a fantastic story was necessary for Zola to stress his point. This was a scientific study for him. His naturalistic style produced only a detached and factual observation devoid of any emotion. The overall effect of this combination is to create a darker ambiance and disturbing content. However, as a study, Zola has excelled in bringing out the physiological and psychological changes of two people who have set the course of their own destruction.
Despite the excellence of Zola’s writing and the thematic novelty, reading it wasn’t a pleasing experience. I was drawn into the story through the power of Zola’s writing but at the same time, I couldn’t ignore the fluttering of my stomach. Some of the passages were so grotesque and horrifying that I had to go through them with an effort. It’s a great work, no doubt, but one suitable for stronger constitutions than me. 🙂