Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

by Emile Zola
Penguin Classics, 2004
194 pages
translated from French by Robin Buss
(originally published in 1867)

From the back cover:

"In a dingy apartment on the Passage du Pont-Neuf in Paris, Therese Raquin is trapped in a loveless marriage to her sickly cousin, Camille. The numbing tedium of her life is suddenly shattered when she embarks on a turbulent affair with her husband's earthy friend Laurent, but their animal passion for each other soon compels the lovers to commit a crime that will haunt them forever....Zola's novel is not only an uninhibited portrayal of adultery, madness and ghostly revenge, but also a devastating exploration of the darkest aspects of human existence."

My Thoughts:

I loved this book! Emile Zola is an author I have been meaning to read for years, and I'm glad that my reading challenges provided the motivation to finally pick up one of his books.

Two things that stood out for me in Therese Raquin were Zola's descriptive passages and the psychological development of the characters. From the very beginning, Therese Raquin is teeming with atmosphere. The Parisian street that houses Mme Raquin's shop is brought to life. The reader actually feels the weight of its oppression upon Therese:

"Therese, living in this dank darkness, in this dreary depressing silence, would see life stretching in front of her quite empty, bringing her each evening to the same cold bed and each morning to the same featureless day." (pg.22)

Zola's description of the morgue and the bodies housed within is positively gruesome:
"Often the flesh was peeling off their faces in shreds, the bones had broken through the drenched skin and the face seemed to have been boiled and boned." (pg. 71-72)

The psychological development of the characters is stunning. We see them begin to change as the affair progresses. For Laurent, "a new corner of his unconscious being has come to light. In the passion of adultery, he had begun to dream about killing." (pg.50)

After the crime is committed, the novel becomes even more focused on the psychological state of the characters. Therese"became aware of goodness and gentleness..., and she knew that she could not kill her husband and be happy. As a result, she could no longer clearly see inside herself and she lived in a state of cruel uncertainty." (pg.83)

We are taken on a on a journey with Therese and Laurent through rationalization, denial, guilt and, possibly, remorse and acceptance. The couple becomes nearly mad from sleep-deprivation, as they are haunted by the dead man's ghost. Zola even treats us to the thoughts of Camille's mother, Mme Raquin, who has been rendered mute by a stroke! The psychological drama ends with a very startling conclusion.

Therese Raquin is a book I can heartily recommend to just about anyone. It would also be a good choice for a book club looking for an accessible, exciting, and short classic. I will definitely be reading more Zola and would welcome any recommendations.
My rating: 4.5/5


  1. I have never read Zola - but after reading your review I know that I must!

  2. I have always been meaning to read something by Zola too. Maybe I'll start with this one!

  3. Molly - I really think you'd like Zola. I can't wait to read more!

    Shelley - Isn't it funny how we all have that list of authors we keep meaning to read? I don't think you'd be disappointed if you started with this one.

  4. I've read a couple of good reviews of this lately. And lucky me! It's sitting on my shelf right now. Maybe someday I'll get to read it. :-)


  5. Lezlie -
    Lisa's review (at Booknotes by Lisa) late last year prompted me to finally buy the book. I'm so glad I did! At least you've got it handy for whenever the mood strikes.

  6. Oh, I'm so glad you loved this book as much I did. This was my first Zola, but it certainly won't be my last. Great review!

  7. Lisa,
    Have you decided what to read next?
    I'm going to look throught the bio and introduction again to see if that gives me any ideas.

  8. I have read in commentaries that this book is parallel to Crime and Punishment in terms of the psychological affairs of the murder. Now I'll have to read it. :)

  9. mattviews - Then I'll have to read Crime and's another book that has been on my tbr list forever!

  10. JoAnn ~ I can second the recommendation of Crime and Punishment. It's a great book!


  11. Lezlie,
    Now I'm thinking about changing my classics challenge list to include C&P! Thanks for the recommendation.

  12. I'm always intimidated by classic literature but this does sound really compelling!! I may have to read it!

  13. Staci - This is a very approachable book. It doesn't move quickly (don't think any Zola does), but it is fascinating.


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