Title Page

About the Book

About the Author


A Note on the Translation


Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Chapter VI

Chapter VII

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX

Chapter X

Chapter XI

Chapter XII

Chapter XIII

Chapter XIV

Chapter XV

Chapter XVI

Chapter XVII

Chapter XVIII

Chapter XIX

Chapter XX

Chapter XXI

Chapter XXII

Chapter XXIII

Chapter XXIV

Chapter XXV

Chapter XXVI

Chapter XXVII

Chapter XXVIII

Chapter XXIX

Chapter XXX

Chapter XXXI

Chapter XXXII




Thérèse Raquin

Émile Zola

Translated, Annotated and Introduced
Adam Thorpe

About the Book

When Thérèse Raquin is forced to marry the sickly Camille, she sees a bare life stretching out before her, leading every evening to the same cold bed and every morning to the same empty day. Escape comes in the form of her husband’s friend, Laurent, and Thérèse throws herself headlong into an affair. There seems only one obstacle to their happiness: Camille. They plot to be rid of him. But in destroying Camille they kill the very desire that connects them...

First published in 1867, Thérèse Raquin has lost none of its power to enthral. Adam Thorpe’s unflinching translation brings Zola’s dark and shocking masterwork to life.

About the Author

Émile Zola (1840-1902) is the author of Les Rougon-Macquart, a cycle of 20 novels written over a period of 22 years including Nana (1880), Germinal (1885) and The Drinking Den (1877), which provides a panoramic view of life under Napoleon III. He was the leading figure in the French school of naturalistic fiction. Zola campaigned for justice over the Dreyfus affair – ‘it is up to us poets to nail the guilty to the eternal pillory’ – and his open letter to the president, ‘J’accuse’, landed him a prison sentence that he evaded only through exile in England. He is buried in the Panthéon alongside Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.

Adam Thorpe was born in Paris in 1956. His first novel, Ulverton, was published in 1992, and he has written nine others, two collections of stories and six books of poetry – most recently Voluntary. Thorpe’s translation of Madame Bovary, ‘stunning and heartily recommended’ (Scotsman), is available in Vintage Classics. Thorpe lives in France with his wife and family.

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This contains elements of the plot.

Émile Zola was born in Paris on 2 April 1840, but was brought up from the age of three in Aix-en-Provence, the southern French town for which his father, Francesco, had been commissioned to build a canal and dam to supply water. A brilliant engineer, adventurer and businessman from Venice, Francesco died of pneumonia when Émile was seven; although his son would later claim that ‘my father passes like a shadow across the far-off memories of my childhood’, the shadow was monumental.

The family were left impoverished, and Zola’s embittered mother was to spend much of the rest of her life attempting to retrieve her husband’s share in the canal company through endlessly failing lawsuits.

Aix was to become Plassans – the lifeless, stratified, claustrophobic setting for several of the twenty novels of Zola’s great ‘Rougon-Macquart’ cycle, as well as the place of origin for the Rougon family; the blood-taint of insanity in the latter comes almost apocalyptically to the surface in the series’ fourth novel, The Conquest of Plassans (1874), where provincial scheming in the context of politics under Emperor Napoleon III drives two of the family into the local asylum. ‘A strange period of madness and shame’ was Zola’s summary of the Second Empire’s eighteen-year span. As he put it in his plan for the project in 1868 (just two years before the Prussians brought the Empire to its ignominious end) the series would ‘study’ this period, along with ‘questions of blood and environment’.

Madness, shame, blood and environment are key themes in Thérèse Raquin, too, but the drama is the opposite of the great social sweep of the later cycle. Although this early novel is steeped in a mid-century Paris being rapidly transformed by a demolition-happy Baron Haussmann (‘Alas,’ wrote Balzac in 1855, ‘old Paris is disappearing at terrifying speed’), the capital is mostly a subdued roar and bustle disconnected from the characters’ inner lives. This is the choice of the Raquin family – or, at least, of the matriarch: having lived all her life in rural Vernon, where her son Camille and his cousin Thérèse are brought up, she is appalled by the city’s din. She likes the haberdashery in its gloomy passageway only because ‘she could imagine she was still in the country, she could breathe, and she thought how happy her dear children would be in this forgotten corner.’

Madame Raquin’s inability to see beyond her own possessiveness provides both comic relief and, of course, the cruellest notes in a novel that never flinches from life’s emotional pain. She is part of the book’s deep claustrophobia; breath and its lack (Thérèse is ‘choked by sobs’ on arrival in her new home, Camille’s hard-won lungs will be filled with water) vie with each other throughout. Apart from the ever-present Seine – picturesque in Vernon, gliding in its immensity through the city centre, beautiful but sinister in the summer twilight when Camille is drowned in a ‘dark and narrow’ backwater – the novel’s setting is a few gloomy rooms, a grim passageway, and the Morgue.

Zola and his mother moved to Paris in 1858. While relieved not to be ‘rotting’ any more in ‘boring’ Aix, he was clearly missing his friends, and found solace by bathing in the Seine’s public pools or writing hesitant poems of love to an unknown Aixoise. In fact, the move ushered in a disastrous period: while his mother was pursuing her husband’s lost legacy, Émile fell gravely ill with a typhoid-like illness which may have been psychosomatic.

As he himself acknowledged, this illness made him a writer, scotching his chances to follow in his father’s footsteps and giving him, as measles is said to do, a heightened clarity of thought and perception. He failed his Baccalauréat, however, and resigned himself to what he most dreaded – the office – to work briefly as a customs clerk for the Docks. The winter preceding this employment was, in the words of his biographer Henri Mitterand, ‘a forced sabbatical’ in which, despite his misery, his fragility, his confused wanderings through the muddy streets of a particularly cold and grey Paris, the artist was forming and deepening within the jejune and rather timid young man.

Like Laurent in Thérèse Raquin, Zola was not the most zealous employee, and soon left the Customs House, not necessarily by his own volition. He lived hand to mouth in various rooms and attics in the seedy Latin quarter, where this novel is mostly set. Zola’s greatest masterpiece, L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den, 1877)fn1, would describe the alcohol-fuelled misery of the area’s labourers and be dismissed as ‘pornography’. Even a generation later, just before the Great War, the area around the Raquin family’s shop in the Passage du Pont-Neuf (now the Rue Jacques Callot, its shopping arcade long demolished, the high black wall now a creamy white) was not for the faint-hearted:

Anarchists, prowlers, students, oddballs, tarts, down-and-outs, regaling themselves on the cheap . . . If there are places in the world, quarters reserved for human perversity, that surpass in ignominy these bordering on the Seine and stretching around the Rue Mazarine, where are they?fn2

He read, wrote, walked, saw exhibitions and approvingly noted the first stirrings of Impressionism, went on outings to the surrounding countryside, and finally lost his virginity to a mysterious woman known only as ‘Berthe’ – almost certainly a prostitute whom he briefly took as his mistress. Determined not to be dependent on his widowed mother, he experienced the deep unhappiness of urban poverty, while at the same time tasting the bohemian excitements of a city rapidly becoming the capital of the artistic avant-garde.

His first novel, the epistolary La Confession de Claude (1865), undoubtedly draws on these years; it features a young bohemian who falls for a dissolute, diseased prostitute and tries to save her, returning to a more innocent Provence after he finds her sleeping with his student friend Jacques. As Henri Mitterand points out, the theme of the ‘baleful seductress’ will remain a common thread through Zola’s fiction, as will that of the potent, cynical and frequently brutal rival – compellingly embodied in Thérèse Raquin by the would-be painter Laurent.

Much later, Zola claimed that his sympathy for the poor and oppressed and his rage against a system ‘built on superstition and tyranny’ were the direct fruit of this difficult period, just as Dickens’s parallel insights and anger date from his childhood sojourn in the blacking factory. Both authors understood the oppressive nature of poverty, the way in which society seems to sit like layers of immovable slabs on the impoverished. Dickens’s taste for the grotesque, for wild personifying excess, serves to relieve this weight, but the equivalent in Zola is a veering towards the apocalyptic, a kind of hysterics of emotional or actual violence. This is perhaps the obverse of his famously obsessive documentation, the careful fieldwork necessary to his panoramic fictional analysis. Zola was fully aware, given France’s recent history, of how violence breeds violence – most spectacularly in the fatal riots that end the miners’ strike in Germinal. His understanding (and fear) of crowds, their psychology’s potential ferocity, is every bit as astute as that of the Dickens of Barnaby Rudge or A Tale of Two Cities. But even in the closed, concentrated, rather lonely world of Thérèse Raquin, extreme violence can have only one issue: the destruction of the entire family – including the cat, François.

Thwarted ambition, stifled potential: this favourite theme of Dickens is also central to Zola. Shorn in the latter’s work of any latent comic or sentimental interest, it becomes a kind of suffocation. Our first glimpse of Thérèse is as a dim, mute portrait entombed in the dark shop, the world clattering past beyond the window; Laurent’s first appearance is more positive, but this bull-necked, confident being soon dwindles to the sprawled figure sweating amidst his own voluptuous dreams in a miserable garret. Only Camille, emasculated by chronic ill-health and his mother’s anxiously possessive attentions, seems content with what he has (or what he is) between bouts of peevishness and petulance.

Zola’s chance of air came in 1862 when he landed a job with the publisher Hachette, in something newfangled called a publicity department. Abruptly, he was an insider, able to study from close quarters the basket of crabs that was (and of course remains) the world of letters: as he wrote to his friend Antony Valabrègue, another hopeful in Aix, in 1865:

If you knew how few talents manage to succeed, you would leave pen and paper aside, and start to study the countless little dirty tricks that open doors, the art of making use of others’ credit, the cruelty needed to ride roughshod over your colleagues.

Here we see Zola’s ability to draw accurate and honest conclusions from his analyses and act upon them: after all, shocking the establishment to get noticed was one ‘dirty trick’ he was to use in his earliest fiction, albeit more out of passion than cynical calculation.

The statement’s anger, its subdued rage at injustice, runs right through Zola’s career and was to explode most dramatically with his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair, when his open letter to the President (‘J’accuse’) in 1898 forced the government to reopen the case but exposed the author to the full enmity of the nationalist and anti-Semitic press, to a trial for defamation, and real physical violence from rioting nationalists. After his conviction, he fled into exile in England. Many see his sudden death at the age of sixty-two – by asphyxiation from a blocked chimney – as the vengeance of the nationalist right. He had received many threats, and an anti-Dreyfusard stove-fitting contractor apparently confessed on his deathbed years later to blocking the chimney and then dismantling it the following day. As Anatole France said at Zola’s funeral (attended by some 50,000 people), ‘he was a moment in the history of human conscience’.fn3

Social conscience is almost absent from Thérèse Raquin, however: what we have instead is the gritty, tonally tight depiction of a certain petit-bourgeois milieu at the heart of a casually ruthless city. This gives it, paradoxically, a more modern feel than his later, more panoptic and Positivist work: the miniature world of a single family and attendant friends is here encircled by a teeming indifference. Selfishness and hypocrisy rule. At the heart of it all is the Paris Morgue, efficiently factory-like and correctly chilled, but a sinister perversion of Eros and Thanatos: entertainment for the dangerous masses, a kind of ultimate reality show in which the stars are naked corpses.

Zola must have visited the Morgue, taken notes: his eye is partly that of a journalist, to which rude metier he increasingly turned in the 1860s as an outspoken arts critic; despite heavy censorship, an expanding press needed material. Controversial ‘new’ painters like the friend from his Aix schooldays, Paul Cézanne, and the reviled Realist Édouard Manet attracted his enthusiasm, and he defended them vigorously in articles that, taking their cue from Flaubert, assert his aesthetics as anti-Romantic – equating freedom with truth, however brutal or ugly, and setting that truth ‘against banality and routine’, as he put it in a letter of 1865. Of Manet’s Street Singer, for instance, he wrote, at roughly the same time as he was writing Thérèse Raquin:

A young woman, well known on the heights of the Panthéon, leaves a brasserie eating cherries that she is holding in a sheet of paper . . . You feel the search for truth, the conscientious toil of a man who above all wants to speak, straight out, about what he sees.fn4

And ‘what he sees’ is above all an unvarnished, startling contemporaneity. The painting reminds us of Thérèse on her way to the bohemian café in her second life as a street-walker, as refracted through the pursuing Laurent’s eyes:

He noticed for the first time that she was done up like a street-girl in a dress that trailed at the back; she traipsed along the pavement in a provocative fashion, eyeing the men, and lifting up the front of her dress so high, gripping it in handfuls, that she exposed the whole of the front of her legs, her little laced boots and her white stockings.

When Zola came to write Thérèse Raquin over a few months in 1866, he had been happily settled for a year with Alexandrine Meley, or ‘Gabrielle’. He had published a book of short stories and two uneven novels, and hundreds of articles. He had the young writer’s requisite faith in future success. And in many ways Thérèse Raquin is a young man’s book. There are various advantages to being a young writer, one of which is the absence of any record by which others – mainly the critical establishment – might judge you; the other is a blitheness, an innocence, which, when combined with a desire to stir or to shock, occasionally produces something new and extraordinary.

The least one can say about Thérèse Raquin is that it is not ordinary. The gloomy, obsessive work was not without antecedents in Gothic fiction; elements such as the looming portrait of a drowned man or the ‘diabolic’ cat remind us of the eerie, macabre tales of Edgar Allan Poe (more admired by the French than by his fellow Americans, even now), while the sinister settings conjure the ‘sensation’ novels of Eugène Sue and their seamy depictions of urban life, such as the hugely successful Les Mystères de Paris (1842). When Camille sinks his teeth into his murderer’s neck and ends up haunting him, we are not far from popular vampire fiction such as Paul Féval’s Le Chevalier ténèbre (1860); in the domino players’ conversation about unsolved crimes and in the murderer’s gathering paranoia, we feel the chilly draught of detective fiction such as Féval’s 1844 Les Mystères de Londres (Zola’s first novel unashamedly picked up on both Sue and Féval in its title: Les Mystères de Marseille).

There were less salubrious origins. The sensational canards or penny dreadfuls of the time were surprisingly full of sex, bloody crime and disaster, with one government report complaining rather fearfully of their emphasis on ‘violent passions in private life’fn5: one can imagine poor Suzanne’s eventual discovery crudely illustrated in Le Noir jaune or L’Omnibus. Thérèse herself perfectly conforms to the stereotypical popular view of female criminals as seductresses, their crimes usually explained in the papers as stemming from powerful sexual urges and wily manipulation: even when the husband was murdered by the lover (which was generally the case), the adulteress would be blamed, the lover having been bewitched by her sexual spell. That Zola could fashion a masterwork from such tabloid material says much for his genius.

In a letter to Valabrègue, Zola called his novel-in-progress ‘a great psychological study’, at a moment when psychology had not yet suppressed the physiological. Gothic fiction is full of what would soon be called Freudian motifs: ‘the return of the repressed, the unconscious, landscapes as dreamscapes, phallic symbolism, the oedipal spectacle’ and, of course, ‘the incest taboo’ (Thérèse and Camille are cousins, but sibling-like in their shared upbringing).fn6 What we see in Zola’s novel is a much more self-conscious, naked, even archetypal display of these elements and their effect on the principal characters than is usually the case in sensational or melodramatic fiction.

It is not so much the tale itself that compels us as the effect of the events on the participants – the gradual disintegration of the characters’ psyches is almost clinically described, analysed and evoked. It is simultaneously entered into with a startling imaginative energy; the simple striking of a match becomes a phantasmagorical terror to Laurent, and it is partly via his subjective view that we experience it. The slide from sexual desire to sexual disgust is moist with the characters’ own sweatings, fetid with what we would now call post-traumatic anxiety rather than moral corruption: there is, in one sense, no exaggeration in a waking nightmare. The banal Thursday-evening domino players become ‘grotesque and sinister’ to Thérèse, but also to the reader; Zola has understood how the porousness of the border between reality and illusion is something of which the novelist can take advantage.

All fiction is, in some sense, hallucination or, as it used to be called, ‘apparition’. In Thérèse Raquin, if not quite as much as in, say, the early Dickens of Barnaby Rudge, metaphors spill over from individual minds to embrace reality and distort it. In this example, despite being told it is hallucination – a singularly private phenomenon – we too share Thérèse’s visions, the vivid and rather theatrical setting slipped in as if objectively wrought and not the result of her near-delirium, thus solidifying what she projects:

. . . at times she was overcome by hallucinations, thinking herself buried at the bottom of a vault, surrounded by mechanical corpses waggling their heads, jiggling their legs and arms when their strings were twitched. The heavy air of the dining room choked her; the chill silence, the lamp’s yellowish glimmers thrilled her with a vague terror, an inexpressible dread.

Oliver Sacks in Hallucinations suggests that this very lack of ‘consensual validation’ – no one else seeing what you see – is what makes these neurological phenomena so disturbing to those who suffer them.fn7 They are exterior projections, involuntary and uncontrollable, and not just visual: they can be smelt, felt, heard and tasted. Zola was a careful reader of Flaubert’s recent Madame Bovary, and must have noticed how Emma’s final mental collapse after years of depression (‘the throb of her arteries . . . filled the countryside’, the ploughland turned into ‘brown billows’ and the air filled with ‘fire-coloured globes’ from which ‘Rodolphe’s face would appear’) was presented with a minimum of authorial refraction or interference, so that the reader is, in fact, consensually validating a single mind’s reconstruction of the world . . . exactly what readers do every time they pick up a novel.

Zola similarly reproduces the process of neurological breakdown – depression, anxiety, paranoia, delirium, suicidal ideation – and then introduces his masterstroke: the hallucination in the form of Camille’s corpse, triggered by his portrait in the shadows, is shared by both Thérèse and Laurent. Therefore it is not, strictly speaking, a hallucination at all but a haunting. Yet it is not just a ghost, either, but the embodiment of sexual guilt, with something of a Catholic devil about its malignity and appropriately putrid appearance. Having continued the theme of the love triangle explored in his first novel, and which would become a staple theme in his fiction, Zola gives it a bizarre twist by presenting us with a ménage à trois featuring a phantom – a phantom that surges glutinously from the sick conscience of the murderers and yet which, identical with the bloated remains that traumatised Laurent in the Morgue, is also seen as such by Thérèse, who never visited the ‘drowned man’ at all:

They were gripped by fever and delirium, and the obstacle became physical; they touched the body, saw it spread out, like a greenish, dissolving strip of flesh, and breathed in the loathsome smell of this heap of rotted humanity . . . The presence of this foul bedfellow kept them mute and motionless, distraught with anguish. At times Laurent considered taking Thérèse violently in his arms; but he dared not move, he told himself that he could not stretch his hand out without catching hold of a fistful of Camille’s pulpy flesh. Then he reckoned that the drowned man had come to lie down between them, to prevent them embracing. He finally realised that the drowned man was jealous.

Feeble Camille has ended up empowered, just as his mother, suffering the ultimate powerlessness of locked-in syndrome, will be able to crush the murderers with her gaze alone.

Zola may have proclaimed himself a ‘Realist’, yet reality is deeply ambiguous throughout the novel and thoroughly dependent on the observer: on a straightforward level, the drowning of Camille is callous murder to us but an unfortunate accident to others. Laurent displays no remorse, and shows the equal ability of the psychopath to manipulate others with a perfect mastery of his own emotions, yet the delirium he suffers (and his self-warring inability to paint any likeness but Camille’s) is clearly founded on guilt. We are not what we seem, and neither are things or events. At times Zola shows us surrealism avant la lettre: Laurent feels the scar from Camille’s bite covering the whole of his body; the paralysed Madame Raquin’s eyes laugh ‘like lips in that dead face’, reminding us of the decomposing faces in the Morgue.fn8

Unsurprisingly, given his long friendship with Cézanne and his public championing of radical painters, Zola’s descriptive eye is itself painterly: reality dissolves to light falling on forms; a diffusion of confusing shadows; dabs and stains of colour. The opening description of the Passage du Pont-Neuf seems Balzacian in its thick solidity, but a closer look proves this to be illusory: the colours are blurry and almost monochromatic, the light is greenish and glimmering, there is far more secreted in gloom than openly visible. The black, scarred wall on which Thérèse will gaze from her room (and against which François the cat will be shattered) seems already symbolic, to be internalised as the ultimate prison of severe depression. There is little certainty in this Parisian scene: on the verge of disintegrating into ocular illusion, snatches of meaningless sound, it is already subterranean and ‘funerary’, announcing the miasmic psychological depths into which the novel will lead us. As for the bedroom itself, its metaphoric clues are typical of contemporary genre paintings, in which the narrative is an emotional complex to be unravelled by our detecting gaze: a mirror, roses, a blazing (or dead) fire, a dishevelled bed, a lamp, a cat . . .

The peculiar mix in Thérèse Raquin of clinical analysis and volcanic emotional overflow partly derived from Zola’s reading in the years before its composition. He claimed to be interested, not in characters, but in ‘temperaments’ – referring to the medieval notion of the four humours as well as to the more modern idea of physiological natures or constitutions. In the preface to the novel’s second edition, he famously describes his ‘scientific’ method as being similar to a surgeon carrying out an operation, analysing what happens when a ‘nervous’ nature and a ‘sanguine’ nature are thrown together and heated by passion – the novel as laboratory: ‘I have simply performed on two living bodies the analytical task that surgeons perform on corpses.’ Quite apart from the reductive nature of the preface – one critic has called it ‘post-hoc self-justification’ in the face of the moral outcry that greeted the novel,fn9 another as having a ‘total absence of any pertinent link’ to the novel itselffn10 – even Zola’s supporters were quick to point out the absurdity of suggesting that a fictional work of the imagination can be in any way ‘scientific’, which means scientifically accurate and evidence-based.fn11

Over ten years later, Zola went even further in his essay The Experimental Novel, in which he set out the fundamentals of naturalism (a development of the realist strain exemplified by Balzac in France or, in Britain, by Thomas Hardy) and proposed, as the symbolic head of this school, not a fellow writer but the physiologist Claude Bernard, whose Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine), was published two years before Thérèse Raquin. Bernard was a pioneer in the appli-cation of the scientific approach to medicine, spending a significant part of his book justifying animal vivisection (‘A surgeon, a physiologist and Nero give themselves up alike to mutilation of living beings. What differentiates them . . . if not ideas?’). In his essay, Zola, chiefly attracted by the former’s emphasis on ‘observation’, applies in a somewhat ad hoc way Bernard’s methods to the writing of literature, and particularly to his own Rougon-Macquart cycle.

Again, contemporary critics questioned Zola’s grasp of the scientific method (‘Mr Zola does not know the meaning of experimentation, because a novelist is like a poet – if he experiments, he can only experiment on himself’fn12), but in his desire to emulate or appropriate the methods of the new science, he was attempting to ensure literature’s survival by making the art more respectably serious and modern. The novel, in his view, had now to be grounded in a ‘methodical’ accuracy, reflecting the overwhelming influence of nineteenth-century Positivism as initiated by the mathematician Auguste Comte (1798–1857): according to Comte, knowledge must be empirically verified to be valid, rather than intuited, and this determining scientific principle can be universally applied to society and its evolution – indeed to any study, from political philosophy to the physical sciences (Positivism’s advocates have included Karl Marx and Stephen Hawking).

It was contradictory, however, to claim scientific respectability for the pre-scientific theory of temperaments (or ‘humours’ in medieval terminology) that prevails in Thérèse Raquin. ‘I have chosen people completely dominated by their nerves and blood,’ he states in the preface, and this the reader is never allowed to forget as the action unfolds. Even Laurent’s and Thérèse’s physical characteristics follow their humours in morphological terms (morphology being another ancient system). The rather peculiar description of Thérèse’s ‘tense little chin . . . joined to the neck by a thick and flowing line’ is the traditional profile of the nervous type, as is her volatility and accompanying depression when not appreciated; Laurent’s square-headed muscularity is as typical of the sanguine nature as his indolent acquisitiveness and present-oriented pragmatism, while the lack of close description of the ‘lymphatic’ Camille’s ‘sickly-pale, wretched little face’ conforms to the type’s jawless, babyish looks.

We might perhaps see all this as a way in which the tyro novelist could draw a kind of containing mesh over the molten forces he was unleashing: the reader may still gasp in horror or disgust, but there is a perceivable element of control. To use another metaphor more suitable to the book: contained by the banks of theoretical, physicalist calculation, there is a fierce and deadly current in Thérèse Raquin that saves it from the absurdities of melodrama. Its images – the bucolically sinister reaches of the tree-shadowed river, Madame Raquin’s hand struggling to write her accusation, Laurent’s wound becoming Camille’s mouth – loom unforgettably out of the passages where theory rumbles and authorial telling takes over from showing. However, this is also a reflection of a cultural moment: understanding of the body and mind had advanced tremendously through the mid-century, but was primarily physiological and neurological; psychology and Freud were still a couple of decades away.

The geneticist Prosper Lucas’s Traité de l’hérédité naturelle (1847–50) was another important influence on Zola. This described the positive and negative effects of hereditary influence, providing the Rougon-Macquart cycle with one of its determining influences. Thérèse is an outsider, illegitimate and mixed-race, like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights: she herself makes it clear that her locked-in passion derives from her Algerian mother – Orientalism combines with medical theory – just as Laurent is irredeemably the stock figure of a big, slow-moving and calculating paysan under his city clothes, his appetites strong and simple. We know hardly anything about the frail Camille’s father, the son’s selfishness having its roots in his mother’s ‘tender love and devotedness’. This, of course, is proto-psychology at work, otherwise known as a novelist’s intuition or imagination; equally, the sensual Thérèse’s divided nature can be seen as the result of parental abandonment, trauma and repression.fn13

Zola had also been absorbing the work of the contemporary Positivist philosopher Hippolyte Taine, whose views on the primary influence of the environment and the historical moment on any individual or work of art were vital to the Naturalist school. It was Taine’s stark reflection on vice and virtue that became the novel’s epigraph in its first two editions (reproduced for this translation). There were other novels, too; if science was busy announcing its imminent supremacy over religion (Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859), fiction was beginning its modernist, anti-romantic revolution. Two years before the writing of Thérèse Raquin, the grimly ‘Realist’ novel Germinie Lacerteux, by the brothers Jules and Edmond de Goncourt, which used documentary evidence to adapt the story of their maid’s nervous breakdown, was vigorously defended by Zola in a review; Madame Bovary (1857), another tale of marriage, boredom, adultery and breakdown, was equally important to him: he rejoiced in its lack of plot and in the apparent absence of authorial manipulation (‘no more furniture with secret drawers’, as he put it), and would have taken the absence of narrative comment or omniscient moral judgment as a breath of fresh air. But Flaubert’s startling disillusion, his conversion of meaningless reality to the beauty of style, of life’s ‘nothingness’ to intense wordcraft, was rejected by the Positivist Zola, who thought literature’s task was to burrow in, examine, expose – and so change things.

Thérèse Raquin does, however, flirt with that nothingness – with the annihilation of the self that is depression and despair; with the paralysis of will that follows the collapse of illusion (quite literal paralysis, in Madame Raquin’s case); or with the incipient futility of a modern life of shopping, office work and Sunday outings in a Darwinian universe of chance and accident. The novel’s extraordinary energy is a dark and amoral one, made more turbulent and disturbing by the third section’s Catholic images of remorse and redemption (the bedroom as a fiery hell of sexual disgust, the kneeling Thérèse’s effusions at Madame Raquin’s feet, the repeated near-confessions). The final image – a desperate kind of non-transcendent apotheosis – is bleak and horrific, its triumph entirely without hope.

Thérèse Raquin was first published as a serial (under the title A Love Story) in L’Artiste between August and October 1867, and in book form in December. It was an immediate cause célèbre, thanks to the virulent critical reception, and sold out in four months. Louis Ulbach in Le Figaro called it ‘a pool of mud and blood’ that ‘sums up all the putridness of contemporary literature’, likening it to Courbet’s infamously explicit painting The Origin of the World. Gustave Vapereau at least seized on the book’s pictorial strengths, suggesting it exhibited ‘paintings that would be worth extracting as samples of the most energetic and the most repulsive that Realism can produce’. The bewildered critic contradicts himself: despite Zola’s painterly consciousness, the idea that anything as static as a painting might be extracted from a novel that is all fluid energy and, yes, repulsion seems like yesterday’s thought.

Tomorrow, however, was to embrace the work, and not merely through fiction: the modern stage found an inspiration in the book through Zola’s friend and disciple, the actor and director André Antoine (1858–1943), who adapted Naturalist ideas to bring Realism into French theatre, both in terms of acting style and mise en scène: it was in order to stage Thérèse Raquin in Zola’s own stage version that his hugely influential and uncensored Théâtre Libre was founded in 1887. The novel has undergone numerous reincarnations since, as play, opera, film and television series.

For Thérèse Raquin heralds the modern just as much as Madame Bovary does, both novels giving – if in very different ways – an electric jolt (secousse is a favourite word in Zola’s novel) to the era’s self-blinded, materialist, hypocritical complacency. Zola went on to dissect his times in a body of work that remains unparalleled for scope, ambition and achievement – and which was revolutionary in its exploration of social class.fn14 But in this first mature work, where ‘pain and terror’ perform ‘the office of desire’, there is an obsessive narrowness of focus that forces its way uncomfortably far into the mountains and caverns of the mind. Zola claimed he ‘forgot the world’ and ‘became lost in the minute and exact copy of life’ during the writing of the book: a paradoxical admission that perhaps goes some way to explaining Thérèse Raquin’s continuing ability to disturb.

fn1 Edgar Degas’s remarkable painting L’Absinthe dates from a year earlier.

fn2 Francis Carco, De Montmartre au Quartier Latin (Paris, Albin Michel, 1927).

fn3 When Zola’s body was disinterred from Montmartre Cemetery (now one of the most atmospheric in Paris, musty-smelling and full of boggle-eyed cats) and taken to the Panthéon in 1908, Dreyfus attended – and was slightly wounded by two shots fired by Louis Gregori, a military journalist.

fn4 Émile Zola, Édouard Manet, Étude biographique et critique (Paris, E. Dentu, 1867).

fn5 See Thomas Cragin, Murder in Parisian Streets: Manufacturing Crime and Justice in the Popular Press, 1830–1900 (Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2006).

fn6 Angelica Michelis, ‘“Dirty Mamma”: Horror, Vampires and the Maternal in Late Nineteenth-Century Gothic Fiction’ (Critical Survey, Vol. 15, No. 3, 2003).

fn7 Hallucinations (London, Picador, 2012).

fn8 For a discussion of how Zola’s use of subjectivity radically modifies his images, see Philip Walker, ‘The Mirror, the Window and the Eye in Zola’s Fiction’, Yale French Studies 42, 1969.

fn9 Teresa Bridgeman, Negotiating the New in the French Novel (London, Routledge, 1998).

fn10 Robert Viti, Thérèse Raquin et ses préfaces: l’aveugle perspicacité, Cahiers Naturalistes 68, 1994.

fn11 ‘I hope’, as Zola puts it, ‘that by now it is becoming clear that my object has been first and foremost a scientific one.’

fn12 Ferdinand Brunetière, in La Revue des deux mondes, February 1880.

fn13 Lilian R. Furst expands on Zola’s use of ‘the physical [as] a cipher for the psychological’ in Idioms of Distress: Psychosomatic Disorders in Medical and Imaginative Literature (New York, State University of New York Press, 2003).

fn14 As a retired miner from Alès recently put it in conversation with the translator: ‘Zola was the first writer to try to understand how we lived and worked. We all revere him.’


AT THE END of the Rue Guénégaud, when you come up from the river, you reach the Passage du Pont-Neuf, a sort of narrow, gloomy corridor running from the Rue Mazarine to the Rue de Seine.1 Thirty paces long and no more than two wide, this passageway is paved with yellowish flagstones, loose and worn, constantly oozing an acrid damp; the glazed roof that shields it, peaked at a right-angle, is black with grime.

On fine summer days, with a torpid sun scorching the streets, a whitish brightness falls from the soiled panes and lingers miserably in the passage. On nasty winter days, on foggy mornings, the panes of glass cast nothing but darkness on the sticky flagstones – a vile, sullied darkness.

Dug into the left-hand side are some dingy shops, sordid and squat, venting the cold breath of cellars. Here there are dealers in old books, toy-sellers and pasteboard-makers, whose dust-grey displays lie dim and sleepy in the shadows; the windows, glazed in small panes, cast a strange, shimmering green light over the wares; past the displays, the gloom-laden shops are so many mournful holes2 restless with fantastical shapes.

On the right-hand side, a wall stretches the full length of the passageway, against which the shopkeepers opposite have stuck cramped cupboards; nameless objects, wares forgotten there for twenty years, flaunt themselves along thin planks coated a horrible shade of brown. A seller of imitation jewellery has set up shop in one of the cupboards; there she sells fifteen-sous rings, delicately laid on a bed of blue velvet at the bottom of a mahogany case.

Above the glazed roof rears the wall, black and coarsely plastered as if pitted with some leprous disease, and seamed all over with scars.

The Passage du Pont-Neuf is no place for a stroll. You take it as a short-cut, to save a few minutes. Those who pass through are busy people whose sole concern is to hurry straight on. You see apprentices there in their artisans’ aprons, factory girls returning with their piece-work, men and women holding parcels under their arms; you see old men, too, hauling themselves along in the dreary half-light that falls from the glass panes, and bands of small children who, when school is out, come there to make a running din, clogs clomping over the flags. The sharp, urgent clatter of footsteps rings on the stone all day long with an irritating irregularity; nobody speaks, nobody stops; everyone rushes about his business, head lowered, walking fast, without so much as a glance at the shops. The shopkeepers anxiously eye those passers-by who, by some miracle, pause before their displays.

At night, the passage is lit by three gas burners enclosed in heavy square lanterns.3 Suspended from the glazed roof on which they cast spots of tawny brilliance, the burners shed faintly glimmering circles around them that waver and at times appear to vanish. The passageway takes on the sinister look of a real cut-throat alley; long shadows stretch out over the flagstones, damp blasts blow in from the street; you would think it was a subterranean gallery lit dimly by three funerary lamps. To illuminate their wares, the tradespeople make do with the meagre rays thrown on their windows by the gas burners; inside their shop, all they light is a single lamp fitted with a shade and placed on a corner of the counter, and then passers-by can make out what lies at the bottom of these holes where night dwells during the day. From the blackish sweep of shopfronts, the glazed panes of a pasteboard-seller blaze out: two shale-oil lamps perforate the shadow with two yellow flames. Likewise, on the other side, a single candle, in a glass oil lamp, drops spangles of light into the imitation jewellery case. The tradeswoman dozes at the back of her cupboard, hands hidden beneath her shawl.

A few years ago, opposite this tradeswoman, there was a shop whose bottle-green woodwork oozed damp from every crack. The sign, fashioned from a long, narrow plank, bore the word HABERDASHERY in black letters, and on one of the door’s glass panes was inscribed a woman’s name, in red: THÉRÈSE RAQUIN. On either side were set deep showcases, lined with blue paper.

In the daytime, the eye could distinguish no more than the wares spread out for sale in a softened chiaroscuro.4

There were a few items of linen-drapery on one side: ladies’ caps of goffered tulle for two or three francs apiece, muslin sleeves and collars; then knitted goods, stockings, socks, braces. Each object, yellowed and rumpled, was suspended pitifully from a wire hook. The window display, top to bottom, was filled thus with whitish rags that assumed a drear aspect against the transparent darkness. The new caps, of a more brilliant white, made crude blots on the blue paper that lined the wooden shelves. And the coloured socks, hung along a rod, struck dark notes against the hazy, deathly-pale fadedness of the muslin.5

In a narrower display on the other side were piled large balls of green wool, black buttons sewn on white card, boxes of every colour and size, hairnets dotted with tiny steel beads spread on discs of bluish paper, bundles of knitting needles, samples of embroidery, spools of ribbon, a heap of dull and faded objects that had doubtless been lying sleepily in this place for five or six years. All the dyes had turned to a dirty grey in this cabinet rotting with dust and damp.

Around noon in summer, when the sun would scorch the squares and streets with its tawny rays, you could distinguish, past the bonnets in the other window, the pale, solemn profile of a young woman. It stood out hazily from the gloom that prevailed in the shop. A long, thin, tapering nose was fastened to the low and severe forehead; the lips were two slight streaks of pale pink, and the tense little chin was joined to the neck by a thick and flowing line. The body was not to be seen, lost in the shadows; only the profile emerged, matt-white, perforated by a black wide-open eye, and as if weighed down by a thick dark head of hair. There it was, quiet and motionless, for hours at a time, between two caps on which the damp rods had left stripes of rust.

In the evening, once the lamp was lit, you could see the interior of the shop. It was longer than it was deep; at one end, there was a little counter; at the other, a spiral staircase led up to the first-floor rooms. Against the walls were stuck glass cases, cupboards, rows of green boxes; four chairs and a table made up the furniture. The room felt bare, frigid; the merchandise was still in its packaging, jammed into corners, instead of lying about here and there in a joyous riot of colour.