Monday, March 8, 2010


THERESE RAQUIN by Emile Zola is a dark and somber tale of a woman born illegitimately of an Algerian mother and a French father, then abandoned by her father and put into the hands of his sister. Therese is thus an Africanized Frenchwoman living in a household with her aunt and her aunt's son Camille. Mme. Raquin is a haberdasher and operates a shop outside of Paris for a time. But soon Camille and Therese begin to grow up, and eventually they decide to marry, although there is no passion between them.

Camille is a sickly man and had been a sickly boy. But he got a job in civil service when Mme. Raquin, with an invested fortune of 40,000 francs, moves her shop to a dark but serviceable passageway street near the Seine. At first the marriage is workable, although Therese is by no means satisfied. Then, Camille brings home a fellow who works with him and who had come from the same village they had lived in. Laurent is a dilatory fellow who imagines himself a painter, although his work is a scribble. He visits the Raquins frequently and one day when no one is there to see them, Laurent seizes Therese and they make passionate, violent love in the rooms above the shop. Zola is impressive here because of the level of passion in their embrace and their relationship, implying subtly that Therese's African blood supplies what the cold and weak French blood cannot.

Their affair continues unabated for a while and the two of them cannot get enough of each other, although no one seems to notice what they are doing. Laurent takes afternoon strolls and sneaks in the back door of the shop and goes up to Therese's room and makes love to her day after day until they realize they cannot go on as they are. Therese is fed up with the sickly Camille, and when they are out on an afternoon picnic the three of them go out in a rickety boat on a lake. Camille is frightened to begin with but he goes along and Therese and Laurent determine to drown him. Camille fights, bites Laurent on the neck, but ultimately drowns.

Guilt begins to rise almost immediately in Laurent's heart, and for days he visits the morgue near the Seine to look at all the drowned victims, most of whom are horribly bloated, with their skin peeling from their faces. These are great scenes – his constant visitations are like scenes from a horror film. Ultimately, Camille appears on one of the slabs, and at least now Laurent knows he is dead, but instead of reassuring him, the sight of Camille unnerves him. The face of Camille is burned into his imagination. The crime that he and Therese have committed is perfect in that no one suspects them. Witnesses among the boaters at the scene back up Laurent's story that Camille stood up in the boat when he should not have done.

So the genius of the novel is that no one can implicate them in the crime except themselves. And once that is clear the novel takes on an intense psychological cast, with all the “action” taking place inside the minds of the criminals. Mme. Raquin becomes paralyzed and thinks they love her, but learns, because of the angry outbursts of the two who now hate one another because of their own guilt over the crime, that they are murderers. She is tormented beyond measure, but cannot communicate what she knows. Therese and Laurent cannot touch one another sexually because their nightmares and their growing guilt poison their relationship. What they wanted they now have – freedom to enjoy their sexual fantasies – but guilt makes all that impossible.

Eventually, Laurent beats Therese and their hatred for each other grows. She meanwhile, pretends that her aunt has forgiven her, which disgusts Laurent. Yet nothing satisfies them, and ultimately their guilt and their hatred for each other drive them to suicide with prussic acid. What makes this such a compelling novel is the intensity with which Zola explores the psychological effects first of passion, then guilt. A television series was made of this book, but the qualities that make Zola's book distinct are not those that lend themselves to visual portrayal. The plot is simple and direct, while the language is fulsome and sensual in ways that films can rarely capture. What the TV series may have revealed is the passion of the characters, and that would make it worth seeing. But the book is a 19th century artifact and, while nodding at the stage, especially in the morgue scenes, it remains a tale told rather than a tale shown.

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