Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola

Thérèse is a young woman trapped in an unhappy marriage to her sickly cousin, Camille Raquin. On the surface she appears quiet and passive, never voicing an opinion of her own. But underneath Thérèse is a passionate person who longs to break away from her boring, oppressive existence. When Camille introduces her to an old friend, Laurent, the two begin an affair. Desperate to find a way in which they can be together, Thérèse and Laurent are driven to commit a terrible crime – a crime that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

If you think I’ve given too much away then I can tell you that this crime takes place quite early in the story and is not the climax of the book. The point of the story is what happens afterwards when Zola begins to explore the psychological effects this action has on the characters.

Thérèse Raquin, as you will have guessed, is a very dark book which becomes increasingly feverish and claustrophobic with scenes of violence and cruelty. I haven’t read much 19th century French literature, apart from a few books by Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, and one thing that struck me about Zola’s writing was how much more daring and graphic this book is than British novels from the same period. The reader becomes locked inside the tormented minds of Thérèse and Laurent, sharing their fear and terror, their nightmares and sleepless nights, their inability to enjoy being together because the horror of what they have done stands between them. If you’ve read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, there are some similarities here.

This book could be enjoyed just for the dramatic plot (it’s as tense and gripping as any modern thriller) but I also thought the four main characters – Thérèse, Laurent, Camille and Madame Raquin – were fascinating and very vividly drawn. Zola apparently said that his aim was to create characters with different temperaments and see how each of them reacted to the situation they were in.

As the first book I’ve read by Zola, I wasn’t sure what I could expect from Thérèse Raquin but I thought it was excellent and I’ll certainly be reading more of his books.

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12 thoughts on “Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola”

  1. Could be a SPOILER ahead for anyone who hasn’t yet read the book.

    Edward Vizetelly, who translated this book in 1901, wrote:
    ‘The idea of the plot of “Therese Raquin,” according to M. Paul Alexis, Zola’s biographer, came from a novel called “La Venus de Gordes” contributed to the “Figaro” by Adolphe Belot and Ernest Daudet–the brother of Alphonse Daudet–in collaboration. In this story the authors dealt with the murder of a man by his wife and her paramour, followed by the trial of the murderers at the assizes. Zola, in noticing the book in the “Figaro,” when it arrived for review, pointed out that a much more powerful story might be written on the same subject by invoking divine instead of human justice. For instance, showing the two murderers safe from earthly consequences, yet separated by the pool of blood between them, haunted by their crime, and detesting one another for the deed done together.’

    1. Thanks for posting that quote from Vizetelly, Madame Vauquer. I suppose it’s true that crime rarely goes unpunished, even if the punishment is of the psychological kind.

    1. I’ve noticed a lot of positive reviews of his work recently too, so I knew I would have to give him a try. Now I just need to decide which of his books to read next.

  2. Your review has reminded me why I liked this book so much. It was some years ago that I read it but I can still remember how dark and dingy and claustrophobic Zola made that house and town feel. I have also read Crime and Punishment and I agree about the similarities between the being unable to leave behind what they did.

    Great review, Helen, and it has reminded me that I need to read more Zola.

  3. At first I was about to say that this book sounds too violent/dark for me, but now I think I should give it a try after you rate it excellent.

  4. I’m totally obsessed with Zola right now, he’s my latest favorite author. I discovered him last year after he was the featured author on a blog tour called The Classics Circuit (lots of great reviews about his works if you’re interested). I’ve now read four of his novels and loved all of them.

    If you’re going to read more Zola, I’d avoid Vizitelly’s translations because they very un-faithful to the originals — apparently Vizitelly’s father (it was a family publishing business) was jailed for publishing porn after one of the first Zola translations. Afterwards his son took over and had to clean up all the books so he ended up changing every third sentence or so.

    But lots of the books have new translations — Brian Nelson’s translations are very good and there’s a great translation of The Belly of Paris by Mark Kurlansky. It’s not as dark as some of the other books like Germinal which is even more intense than Therese. It’s so worth reading though!

    1. Thanks for the advice. I’ll look for the translations you recommended and try to avoid the Vizitelly ones. Obviously I’ve only read one Zola book so far, but I have a feeling he could become a favourite author of mine too.

  5. I read this book a few months ago and liked it a lot-as you said it is a very dark book-you might enjoy his The Belly of Paris set in the great Paris food markets–not a real dark book- I have also read Nana about the life of a prostitute and her world-a pretty dark book also-I want to read more Zola-I enjoyed your post a lot

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