Review: ‘Thérèse Raquin’ by Émile Zola

‘Thérèse was lithe and strong; she grasped him, throwing her head back while burning lights and passionate smiles flickered across her face…’

It’s no secret that the 19th century wasn’t the greatest time to be a woman – especially not a woman abandoned by her father, left to the whims of her well-meaning but overbearing aunt, and pressured into marriage with her cousin like the titular heroine of ‘Thérèse Raquin’. Having no means to start a life of her own, Thérèse spends her days looking after her sickly husband (slash cousin) Camille in a grimy, dull corner of Paris. Change arrives in the form of Camilles childhood friend Laurent, a warm-blooded farmer’s son who is the opposite of Camille in every way. Thérèse and Laurent embark on a passionate and all-consuming love affair, but their obsession with each other drives them to commit a terrible crime – the consequences of which will haunt them until their dying day.

I’ve seen people call ‘Thérèse Raquin’ a gothic horror, and I can see where they’re coming from (the chapter where Laurent visits the Paris morgue is particularly horrid in its descriptions) – but since the only ghosts in this novel are a product of the characters’ imagination, I personally think it comes closer to what we today would call a psychological thriller. Unfortunately the author’s grasp on psychology and human nature is very much influenced by the century he was born in. If I have to read one more thing about nervous humors and sanguine temperaments I might have to conjure up Zola’s ghost and punch him in the nose. But this doesn’t mean that ‘Thérèse Raquin’ can’t be enjoyed by the 21st century reader.

Zola considered his characters to be mere ‘human beasts’, and it shows. Thérèse and Laurent, as well as a small array of supporting characters, are almost painfully believable in their unpleasantness. They are driven by lust, laziness, fear, malevolence and not much else. Their every decision is made with only their own well-being in mind; they are monstrous in their sheer human-ness. It would have been easy to root for Thérèse had she merely been a victim of her circumstances, but she’s far more complicated a character that that. Zola gives her claws, and even though she uses them to dig her own grave, she’s not going down without a fight.

‘Thérèse Raquin’ is a cruel story about cruel people, infused with a sense of dread that clings to the reader like a cobweb. I finished its last chapter with a shiver running down my spine.

4/5 stars

ps. the image is of Keira Knightley as Thérèse and Matt Ryan as Laurent in the 2015 theatre adaption of the novel.

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