Émile Zola: Thérèse Raquin

Emile Zola was, frankly, not a writer I ever had the urge to read. I think I always confused him with Honoré de Balzac, whom I also never had the urge to read. I was reluctant to reveal to myself the level of my ignorance – or even worse, reduce it – by actually reading them. Until a trusted friend recommended Thérèse Raquin to me and it then became a book group read, and so you see I had really no choice.

Anyone – like me – approaching this book with a dreaded expectation of difficult 19th century literature in translation will be disappointed – and relieved. It is, for the first half anyway, a compelling and vivid tale of adultery and murder (the blurb goes this far, so I don’t think it counts as a spoiler) with a nicely mean line in narrative. We know what we’re in for from the start, which places the action mostly above a shop in an alleyway in Paris, under a “glass roof black with grime,” all “sticky flags” and “vile and murky darkness.”

Thérèse herself is a child at the beginning of the story, orphaned and left to live with her aunt Madame Raquin and her cousin Camille. Madame Raquin decides that Thérèse will be the perfect wife for her sickly son Camille, clearly never having taken on the Wuthering Heights warning of the dangers of relationships between people brought up together. Thérèse, inured to boredom already, does not complain but

living amidst the damp and gloom in an oppressive, dismal silence, saw life stretching out pointlessly ahead of her, with every evening bringing the same cold bed and every morning the same empty day ahead.

Cue Laurent, a “handsome, full blooded” regular visitor to the Raquin family home, whose “well developed, bulging muscles, and the firm, solid flesh of his body” make Thérèse feel that “she had never seen a real man before.” When Laurent looks upon her, his gaze makes her feel “almost unwell.” But not quite: she is well enough to get to know that Laurent has a taste for “brutish pleasures” which “had left him with compelling needs of the flesh,” all of which makes her husband Camille, “this weakling, whose soft and puny body had never once felt a tremor of desire” look like a right drip.

And so. You can guess the next step (clue: “When [Laurent] left her he was tottering like a drunkard”), but the tale goes deeper than that. Zola’s self-stated wish is to show his characters as ‘animals’ who are subject to their brutish urges. There follows a striking reenactment of elements of Macbeth, though oddly it is at this most intense and dramatic point where the story grinds down in speed and begins to disappoint, and ends up feeling much longer than its 200 pages.

For all Zola’s claims to “Naturalism” and “an exact and meticulous copying of real life,” there are implausibilities aplenty, not least in the course which Madame Raquin’s life takes toward the end of the book.  Although the central characters are considered by Zola ‘brutish’ and like animals, in fact there is a tiresome amount of introspection and angst between them, particularly after the central act-which-I-cannot-reveal.  It is true though that Zola treats his characters as less than human, with a positively misanthropic glee as miscarriages are induced and cats are tortured.  Often it seems that the characters, rather than real people, are precast types which Zola has picked off the shelf to suit his purpose.

Nonetheless Zola’s story has a gripping grittiness for the first half, and his depiction of frank sexuality was sufficiently ahead of its time to be the source of scandal on publication.  Zola provides a preface about this for the second edition, railing against the book’s “hostile and indignant reception” from those who lacked the “little intelligence” needed to appreciate his novel.  We’ll allow him this little Partridgean self-indulgence: after all, he was only 28.


  1. Therese Raquin is one of my favourite books, I’ve read it several times and I think the way Zola depicts the growing sense of evil and horror and people getting their come-uppance for foul deeds is masterly. I don’t think it flags at all, for me the suspense and deepening creepiness is maintained right to the end. I suppose what happens to Madame R is a bit implausible but it still adds to the accumulating horror. And it had a much greater impact on me than Crime and Punishment.

  2. Since you are brave enough to reveal your ignorance I feel I can say I felt EXACTLY the same about both those authors. Now I believe I shall be able to relieve my ignorance of one at least. Thanks.


    Nothing like a healthy disagreement, eh Nick! As I said, the book came recommended by a trusted source, so I was surprised not to like the whole of it as much as I did the half of it. I think the whole descent of Therese and Laurent from shock to coldness to hatred to borderline insanity was just too protracted for me, and I didn’t really believe that they would have the same nightmares as one another, or indeed that either would never feel any relief from the guilt of their act, but that it would continue indefinitely, which supported the road to the ending but not Zola’s claim to Naturalism.

    Nonetheless as I said earlier it was a lot livelier than I expected for a 150-year-old novel in translation, and I did enjoy the misanthropy to begin with (being a big fan of bleak-lit in general, from Yates to Heller’s Something Happened). I’ve eyed a couple of his later books, like Germinal, Nana and La Bete Humaine, which seem to be the big ones that come up again and again. Any recommendations?

    Candy, your secret is safe with me – and the other readers of this blog!

  4. The only other one I’ve read is Germinal which I also liked, but that was a while ago and I can’t remember the details now. But I recall it was a brilliant book about political idealism and the way it’s savagely repressed by frightened governments. It was based on first-hand research including witnessing a real-life miners’ strike. I must read it again.

    Re TR – I once had the same dream as a girl friend, so anything’s possible! And I’m sure it’s very common for guilt to be a life-long curse, the same as grief.

  5. My friend and I read L’Assommoir about 6 months ago and got hooked on Zola. We’re reading our 8th book of his now and are still going strong. L’Assommoir remains our favorite but The Ladies Paradise and Germinal were also excellent.

    Zola’s not a difficult read, but he has a tendency to give detailed lists of things that can be interesting but can also be easily skimmed. I suggest the Oxford World Classics editions, which have excellent introductions and notes.

    Not too many people talk about Zola these days, but the situations and characters in his novels remain relevant.

  6. Thank you Daniel; I will make sure that when I return to Zola, L’Assommoir is the first one I try! Oxford World’s Classics are getting a redesign later this year, so that will be all the more reason for me to go for that edition…

  7. I am currently working my way through Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart series and just this morning turned the last page in number 11–The Ladies’ Paradise.

    L’Assommoir is a masterpiece, but The Kill is also wonderful. For sheer fun, it’s Pot Luck.

    My book’s intro to Therese Raquin mentions that Zola wanted to write the novel as a “scientific” demonstration (these behaviours lead to these sorts of results). I think this shows in the scenes between Therese and Laurent towards the end of the novel. The nervous collapse and hysteria between the guilty pair seemed a bit too Edgar-Allen-Poeish. But after I saw the BBC version with Kate Nelligan, somehow those eerie scenes made more sense.

    The same sort of elements appear in Abbe Mouret’s Transgression–although that novel is much weaker overall.

  8. I enjoyed the first half greatly, after that for me it descended into sub-Poe gothic horror (I wrote that before noticing Guy had made a similar reference), and much as I have a soft spot for gothic horror for me it just became too incredible and the fate of Madame R so implausible and terrible as to almost cross the line into comedy.

    Guy, how many of the series are translated, do you know? Any comments on the different translations?

    I have a fondness for 19th Century French literature, I wrote up Huysman’s Marthe over on my own blog (as well as Notre Dame de Paris) and I’m keen to read more by Zola, would L’Assommoir be the best one to try next then?

  9. Guy, one of my favourite bloggers Steerforth embarked upon the same plan a couple of years ago – you can read of his progress here, though he seems to have stalled temporarily at volume six (or just stopped writing about them). I can’t comment, as my undertaking to read all twenty of Brian Moore’s novels hasn’t got past the eighth book yet – but it will, oh dear me yes, it will.

    1. Thanks, I just finished number 11 and I am taking a break for a book or two and then back to the plan…

  10. Max:
    When I started Therese Raquin, as you said, for the first half, well I was ready to line it up along with Madame Bovary. But then came the later elements. To me, what’s so interesting about the gothic/horror/Poe elements is that Zola stresses that it’s not guilt, and that would be at least my normal conclusion about such developments.

    The novel brings up the point that Laurent basically pats himself on the back that he’s managed to get away with his crime.

    One thing I did wonder–I just finished reading The Crimes of Paris by Dorothy and Thomas Hobbler–a non-fiction book that focuses on a few of the crimes that took place in Paris during the late 19C and early 20C. One of the things the authors mention is how Poe was a big hit, so I couldn’t help but wonder if the Poe-ness I sniffed was part of a real influence.

    Most people seem to complain about the Vizetelly translations and it’s true a couple that I’ve read so far have been a bit bumpy. They are also edited but I couldn’t say to what extent. This seems to be a large reason why people avoid the books like the plague. Many have been out of print for years, but then Mondial Press began publishing them.

    This year, Modern Library is coming out with a new translation of The Belly of Paris (The Fat & the Thin) by Mark Kurlansky (historian and food writer). The publisher’s pre-publication notices are a bit peculiar as they promote the “glorious culinary bounty.” That’s a funny way of putting it. There’s a long section in the novel that describes the making of blood sausage. And then there’s an underground slaughter house. All fairly gruesome reading and hardly something to promote as the glories of food.

    But I’m not a publicist so what do I know?

    The excellent thing about the translation (which I haven’t read yet) is that it is a move away from Vizetelly and perhaps indicates a new interest.

    I read the Brian Nelson translations of The Ladies’ Paradise and Pot-Luck. L’Assommoir was a Margaret Mauldon translation. The Kill was translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Nana was translated by George Holden.

    The Fortunes of the Rougons, The Conquests of Plassans, The Fat and The Thin, the Transgressions of Abbe Mouret, A Love Episode, His Excellency, Dr Pascal (haven’t read that one yet) are/were all Vitzetelly. Anyway, this are the versions I read and I don’t think there are any other translations.

    The Debacle, my version which I haven’t got to yet, is by Leonard Tancock–as is La Bete Humaine. My version of Germinal is translated by Peter Collier, and The Masterpiece is translated by Thomas Walton. Again I haven’t read these yet as I am working through chronologically and I just finished number 11 (The Ladies’ Paradise)

    L’Assommoir is one of the best–no arguments there, but I also have to say that I loved the Kill and His Excellency and the Fat and The Thin (the latter two were Vizetelly translations). The Transgressions of Abbe Mouret and A Page of Love are ok–not great. But I don’t think it’s the translations as much as the novels themselves.

  11. PS I don’t agree with the assessment of His Excellency on the other blog . I loved it.

  12. Thanks for the info Guy.

    Kurlansky is a food writer in part as you note, I’ve read his Basque history which was fairly good though (or perhaps because) idiosyncratic. He’s also written a book on Cod as I recall, if I were promoting a Kurlansky translation I’d probably play up the food angle too in hope of appealing to his existing fans.

    Besides, literary food porn is very in. For that though, the description of a pot-au-feu in Huysmans’ La-Bas is hard to beat. Have you read his Marthe? Flawed still, but I thought more fun than TR in the end.

    I’d be surprised if Poe wasn’t an influence on Therese Raquin, to me it felt like it drew strongly from the gothic horror tradition, and while I know it’s no longer seen in that light I do think there are connections.

    I’ll check out L’Assommoir or The Kill, those sound like good ones to approach next. Is chronology important with the series? Should one read them in order?

  13. This exchange reminds me that I had a similar experience to Guy’s with Therese Raquin. A couple of years back we had tickets to Nicholas Wright’s stage adaptation that was being premiered at the National Theatre. I had never read the novel before, so I did in preparation for the play — found the first half intriguing and then it went downhill. The NT production, on the other hand, went in the other direction — particularly an amazing effect when they did the “horror” bits with a kind of slow strobe lighting that resulted in about 10 minutes of a series of tableaux that told that part of the story. It worked very, very well — far better than the novel. For me, a rare example of a novel being made better by being performed.

  14. Max: No, I haven’t read Marthe–although I have read a couple of Huysmans and loved them. I will buy a copy.

    Most people say the chronology isn’t important, but I’m a bit of a nutter about that sort of thing, so I am reading them from 1-up.

    Someone on Amazon wrote a rotten review of The Kill and gave it two stars, so there’s no accounting for taste. I read The Kill and wondered where the book had been my adult life. Of the two though, I’d probably read L’Assommoir. The protagonist is a laundress named Gervaise, and her daughter is NANA (she’s in the book of the same name.)

  15. Kevin: The book made the point that Therese and Laurent halt their affair for about a year–that point was also made in the television version. The book, however, goes on to detail Laurent’s other affairs and Therese’s reading of romantic novels. All this helped explain their estrangement, but I think the visuals of the BBC version really helped the latter part of the novel.

  16. On Amazon reviews, they do vary a great deal in quality. I suspect I’m one of the few here who play computer games, but the reviews for those on Amazon consist about 50% of people with hardware incompatibilities and 50% people reviewing products they don’t yet own on the basis they expect it to be awesome and so award it five stars in advance.

    Books I think suffer slightly from people not always quite knowing what they’re buying, so they perhaps pick up a work of literary fiction and are disappointed by weak plotting or pacing, that leading to a two star review which essentially criticises an apple for its lack of citrus freshness.

  17. Guy, one last question, did you read the Vizetelly translation of The Fortunes of the Rougon? If so, how did you personally find it? Also, whose imprint was it? I’ve heard the Mondial has lots of typos and layout errors which on top of a slightly old fashioned translation could be a huge barrier to enjoying the book.

  18. Yes, I did read the Vizetelly translation of The Fortunes of The Rougons. I wasn’t crazy about the book. I wouldn’t put in the “great books” stack.

    But anyway, book one was a bit of a chore. I’d heard such great things about some of the books in the series so was determined to persevere. At this point, I was already determined to read all 20 and was secretly appalled at myself that I hadn’t done so already.

    But it’s the book that lays the foundation and also introduces many themes and characters, so I think that was all part of the experience. I think if anyone wants to read all 20, that’s the place to start because it is the foundation for events, family traits, etc.

    I drew up a family tree to help me keep track of everyone, and I also bought a book that details all the characters in the series, who they are and which books they appear in.

    Yes, I did read the Mondial book. The man who publishes the Mondial books is a real Zola enthusiast. Yes, there were typos. But then again, many of the large publishing houses are also quite sloppy these days, and I appreciated Mondial’s efforts to get the Zola’s back in print. I’ve bought some out-of-print books (from those small presses who print classics on demand) and have received basically very bad, wonky, and very dark xeroxed pages of something that looks as though it was pinched from the library by someone who then went mad at the xerox. So it all depends, I suppose, on how desperate you are….

    Personally, out of all the choices, I wanted to support Mondial’s Vizetelly for their effort. The Fortunes of the Rougons is (or was?) a slightly different layout than their other Vizetelly translations. Smaller…thicker. Their other editions are much better

    Since I read the book, however, my dog ate the cover so I have to replace the book.

    Thanks for the tip on Marthe, yes, I’ll look for that version.

    Also, I expect some of those translations I mentioned are available in OTHER translations too, I just gave you the names of the versions I have.

  19. One more thing I should add:
    When I started on the R-M project, many of the books were out of print and copies were available used at rather outrageous prices. I was grateful to Mondial for bothering where others had not.

    Since then a few more of the titles have become available (The Belly of Paris, for example). It’s odd really as I was able to acquire a complete set of Balzac a few years ago for a modest price, but Zola…well that was another matter.

  20. Very interested to read all this, Guy (and Max) – thanks for resurrecting this thread. I might have to look out The Kill, or at least L’Assommoir.

  21. Ah, well, if the chap behind Mondial is an enthusiast and he’s helped keep stuff in print, that does rather change matters. It sounds like they may have learned from some of the early errors anyway.

    Mondial and Vizetelly it is then. Though quite when I’ll find time to read this 20 volume cycle given I’m still only halfway through A Dance to the Music of Time and intend to read Proust next year, I fear to contemplate.

    1. MC: The Moncrieff translation?

      I have the DVD of The Dance to the Music of Time. Does that count as the Cliff notes?

      1. Moncrieff is the set I bought, yes. It had a liveliness that appealed to me, plus Penguin don’t have one set of translators for all the works, which could lead to issues with changes of tone.

        I understand the DVD is actually very good, but the books really are quite exceptional so still worth checking out. I’m avoiding the DVD while reading the books, there’s a pleasure to seeing how characters develop and how circumstances change, but once I’ve finished the books I’ll definitely buy the DVD set.

      2. I have the Moncrieff. I was lucky enough to be at a bookshop which had the Moncrieff–along with the newer translation. I couldn’t decide which to buy, so I decided to base my decision on picking a chapter and seeing which one I liked better.

        I came home with the Moncrieff. And here the books have sat for too many years. I think I am waiting for a bout of scarlet fever, or something bedbound-inclined, to begin reading them.

  22. JS:
    I just wanted to reiterate something about the Vizetelly translations: you know, he was a friend of Zola’s so that has to count for something. And I do think that the better novels, for the MOST part, have newer translations, so it’s only the weaker novels (again for the MOST part) that remain in the Vizetelly translations.

    One exception that leaps to mind is HIS EXCELLENCY. I know I’ve read less-than-great reviews of this one, but I loved it.

  23. Guy, Max: Since I have a) read all 12 volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time and b) owned and watched the DVD set twice, I feel qualified to comment. In one sense, the DVDs are much more than Cliff notes — particularly for the early volumes, the period costumes and settings are better than some of Powell’s rather wooden descriptions. Character development is inevitably flatter but not disgustingly so if you have read the books.

    Where the difference starts to show is in the last four books and the corresponding episodes. While I found the novels became less of a serial tour of the times and much, much more a serious work, the television is just not up to the increasing complexity (and for me, interest) of the written work. My wife, who hadn’t read the books, had much the same observation — when we watched the DVDs a second time, she had no interest in watching the last disc (she liked all the previous ones) because she said they wandered all over the place and made no sense.

    So you have to read the books, Guy, or you only get the obvious parts of the experience.

    I have read all of In Search of Lost Time in the twice-revised Moncrieff translation and (as you’ll note from my comments in the link John provided earlier) did not find it wanting at all. It does take a while to get into the rhythm of the work (that’s Proust, not the translator) but after that it moves at a rather pleasant, stately pace.

    1. It’s always interesting to see a film adaptation. Sometimes I read about the line up: great director, great actors, great novel to begin with at least, and then you wonder where on earth it all goes wrong. How do some of these great books get so screwed up when they make it to the screen?

      Rhetorical question…

      Anyway, I used to always try and read the book before watching the film, but now it is the other way around if I can manage it. Not always possible. So I expect I will watch the DVDs first and then decide whether or not to try the books.

      Thanks for the info. It does help that you’ve read the books AND watched the DVDs.

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