Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1867)

Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1867)

It seems that everything about the life of Émile Zola was something of a hassle. Certainly, there must have been a great many good times, but along the way to becoming one of the pillars of 19th century French literature, the author and journalist encountered more than a few simple bumps in the road.

Born in 1840 in Paris and growing up in Aix-en-Provence afforded Zola with access to some cultural expositions that most could only dream of. This was muted by the fact that his father died when Zola was 7 years old. The family ideal is something that would be visited in his writings, but this early loss should be construed as a marker in Zola’s development as a man and a writer.

In 1867, Zola would issue what’s considered his first major work, although the novels that followed would comprise a series called Les Rougon Macquart, that focused on the a single family. Thérèse Raquin, separate from that lineage, though, was able to impact French culture as deeply as his later work.

Upon its release, the novel was referred to as smut and as something of a pornographic screed. Some folks relate a sort of ‘ahead of its time’ notion in regards to what all transpired in this book, but that’s patently ridiculous. No one can be ahead of its time. The best an artist in any medium can hope for is to aptly represent a singular moment in history – that of his or her own.

Regardless of all that, Thérèse Raquin does sport some of the steamier material that would have been available anywhere during the decade that it was printed.

The namesake of the book, an orphan taken in by her aunt and cousin, is a rather withdrawn child. Repeatedly throughout the book, readers are ostensibly told that her demeanor comes as a result of growing up in such close quarters with her sickly, male cousin. Thérèse isn’t a tom-boy, per se. But she does come off as perpetually aloof.

Growing up in the country and moving to Paris – much like Zola himself – Thérèse is eventually engaged and married to her cousin Camille. Continuing on in much the same manner after the marriage as before, Thérèse does her daily chores in the shop that her aunt has procured for the family in some half run down part of town.

The incessant work with no reward should endear Thérèse’s character and her book to any one seeking to insert some feminist reading into the novel. And considering that post-marriage to Camille, Thérèse is engaged in an escalating series of problematic behavior to get what she pleases, some folks might think the character as a feminist herself. Sadly, her plans basically all fail. The main character is remarried, unhappily, and spends the better portion of the book suffering while trying to conjure some way out of the situation.

Thérèse Raquin has a bit of it all: sex, betrayal, murder, conspiring. Despite its relatively slow opening, the middle portion of the book purports some startling scenes even as it leads to a lackluster ending.