Thérèse Raquin – Émile Zola

Book # 864

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


TRThérèse Raquin is the first of Émile Zola’s five entries on the 1001 Books list to be reviewed here and my first contact with his work.

As a novel it was first published in 1867 and it caused quite a scandal, which is unsurprising considering the subject matter.  It is apparently considered to be an example of naturalism, and there is plenty of detail to be had throughout my translation (the Penguin Classics edition).  I would be slightly dubious as to the true reality of the world described by Zola it has to be said, however.

The novel follows Thérèse Degans, a young woman who is brought back to France by her father Captain Degans in order to be raised by her over-bearing aunt, Mme Raquin.  She grows up in the company of her aunt and sickly cousin, Camille.

Thérèse grew up sleeping in the same bed as Camille and wrapped in the warm tenderness of her aunt.  She had an iron constitution and was treated like a sickly child, sharing her cousin’s medicine and kept in the warm atmosphere of the sick boy’s room.  She stayed for hours crouching in front of the fire, lost in thought, staring straight into the flames without blinking.  This convalescent life that was imposed on her drove her back into herself.

Mme Raquin eventually sells her small haberdashery business and retires to a little house by the water, which suits Thérèse’s nature but not Camille’s egotism.  Eventually Mme Raquin decides to marry Thérèse to Camille, feeling that her niece is the perfect person to take care of him as part sick nurse, part guardian angel.  The two children grow up with this idea as a foregone conclusion.
A week after they marry, Camille insists that they will move to Paris, thus upsetting his mother’s nicely planned out life of retirement.  But resilience wins through and Mme Raquin heads to Paris and buys a small and dingy haberdashery shop in the Passage du Pont-Neuf and the family duly move there.  Camille finds himself a place in the offices of the Orléans Railway Company and they begin their life in Paris.

The shop and apartment are where everything changes in Thérèse’s life, and this is foreshadowed in the description of it.

When Thérèse entered the shop where she was to spend her life from then on, she felt as though she were going into the clammy earth of a pit.  She shuddered with fear and a feeling of nausea rose in her throat.  She looked at the damp, dirty passageway, toured the shop, went up to the first floor and examined each room; these bare rooms, without furniture, were terrifyingly lonely and decrepit.

For three years she lives in a dank and dreary world.

Every week the family entertain old friends, and the head clerk from Camille’s office.  Then one week Camille brings with him “a tall, square-shouldered young fellow”, an old school friend from their time in Vernon.  Laurent is pretty much everything that Camille is not and catches Thérèse’s eye straight away.

Laurent amazed her: he was tall, strong and fresh-faced. She looked with a kind of awe at his low forehead with its rough black hair, at his plump cheeks, his red lips and his regular features with their sanguine beauty.

Unsurprisingly Thérèse enters into an adulterous affair with Laurent.  But that is only really the start of the story.

It was quite suspenseful and I found myself on the edge of my seat waiting for the inevitable moment of discovery.  It was a long wait.  It was a long, drawn-out wait.  There was lots of passion, hatred, madness and plenty of very evocative passages.  But it was a long, long, long piece of character description that could have done with a bit of editing down, in my opinion.

I enjoyed the translation that I read.  There were plenty of gems amongst the psychological observations of an adulterous affair gone wrong.  Especially the passages describing Laurent’s visits to the morgue.

One morning, he got a real fright.  For some minutes, he had been looking at a drowned man, short in stature and horribly disfigured.  The flesh of this body was so soft and decayed that the water running over it was taking it away bit by bit.  The stream pouring on the face was making a hole to the left of the nose.  Then, suddenly, the nose collapsed and the lips fell off, revealing white teeth.  The drowned man’s head broke into a laugh.

I hope I haven’t put you off your breakfast, lunch or dinner with that passage.  There are plenty more where that came from if I haven’t.

While I found this fairly short novel to be a bit too drawn out for my liking, it has not put me off reading more of Zola’s work.  The observations are interesting, if stretched out, and in a good translation the descriptiveness of his characters’ lives and environment are very well done.  I will definitely be seeking out the others on the list to see how they fare by comparison.  I think you would not be too disappointed if you did so too.

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