The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton (1913)

Ralph Marvell: You know nothing of this society you’re in; of its antecedents, its rules, its conventions; and it’s my affair to look after you, and warn you when you’re on the wrong track.

Undine: I don’t believe an American woman needs to know such a lot about their old rules. They can see I mean to follow my own, and if they don’t like it they needn’t go with me.

 

customcountryUndine Spragg, the main character in Edith Wharton’s, The Custom of the Country, must surely be ranked in the top ten of the most disliked protagonists of literary history. Narcissist, taker, Queen of the Most-Selfish do not describe fully the ruin she wreaks as she pursues life in high society.

I have now read most of Edith Wharton’s major novels and novellas as I continue this year of reading specific writers. Her main characters have this in common: they dream of a better life than the one they find themselves in, they make plans for it and plot through the roadblocks that may be in the way, the goal seems just within reach and then the outcome is thwarted in some way and they are stuck where they have always been. And in each of these stories I have cheered for the protagonist to reach that goal, to fulfill the dream he or she has worked so hard for. But in Undine Spragg I found the exception. Her shockingly malicious behavior had me wondering who or when her reign of ruin would be put to an end.

The Narrative

Set in early 20th century New York City, Paris and Italy, The Custom of the Country concerns Undine Spragg, a startling beauty with grand ambitions beyond her small midwestern town of Apex. After her father has some business success, she begs her parents to move to New York City where she hopes to establish herself in the higher echelons of society. Armed with Town Talk and Boudoir Chat she devours the articles describing the fashionable trends for women, the best places to be seen and the names of those she hopes to meet. After two years of many false and humiliated starts where the difference between old and new money is important, but never apparent to the newcomer, Undine marries Ralph Marvell, whom she believes is the answer to her dreams of upper class life.

But it becomes clear on their honeymoon to Italy that old-monied Ralph iflorences not as rich as Undine had hoped. What also becomes apparent to the cultured, would-be novelist is his wife is not suited to his own visions of married life. The solitude of the remote places Ralph thought perfect for a honeymoon Undine finds boring and craves the excitement of people and parties. She has no desire for new experiences or to broaden her mind:

An imagination like his peopled with such varied images and associates…could hardly picture the bareness of the small half lit place in which his wife’s spirit fluttered. Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she has been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it….

As they try to settle into life in his ancestral home in Washington Square, both become miserable. He, because he has to put his dreams as a writer on hold to work at a job he hates in order to pay for her enormous appetite for fashion and socializing and she, because once married she never expected to have to pay attention to how much things cost or to budget. When Undine becomes pregnant, which is a joyous occasion for Ralph he is shocked to see how devastated she is over what a pregnancy will do her physical beauty and mopes about until a son is born, whom she soon neglects.

edwardianThe recurring theme for Undine is outlined above and follows her through subsequent marriages and affairs. She believes her beauty should be showcased by the best fashions Paris has to offer and to be seen with the best people at the best places her duty; having a successful effect on those of society reflects on her family. And though custom forces husbands and fathers to provide for their wives and daughters, she refuses to be fitted with anything less than the finest whether there is enough money or not. And when there is not she manipulates, cajoles, pouts and generally makes it impossible for “the best” not to be delivered and laid out the next day.

Leaving her infant son with Ralph, Undine flees to her friends in Europe. The flirtation she’s had with wealthy Peter Van Degen, the husband of Ralph’s cousin Clare and his best friend, becomes a full-blown affair. Undine obtains a divorce giving her custody of Paul, but has made no contact with him since leaving. She is certain Peter will divorce his wife for her and continues to press him, because she knows without a marriage contract she is vulnerable. But when Peter cools to her, she is once more with little money and is unable to keep up with her friends.

Several years pass with a miserable Undine living with her parents. She convinces her father to send her to Europe where she hopes to once again climb the ladder of success. When the French count Raymond de Chelles falls in love with her and they plan to marry, she tells Ralph she wants Paul to join her in France, though her long-time absence is disturbing to both father and son. Distraught at the thought of losing his son Ralph makes a business deal with Elmer Moffatt, with whom he has done business in the past. Hoping to raise a hundred thousand dollars as a sort of buy off, he is confident that for Undine there is a price for everything, including her son. But the deal goes bad and what is worse, he discovers Moffatt and Undine were once married when they were teenagers, but her father forced an annulment. In shock at this, coupled with the loss of his son, he commits suicide. Undine is now free to marry the Count.

However, the Count’s family are traditionalists and though as lovers Undine and frenchRaymond had a vibrant social life, as his wife there are different expectations. He wants no more of that life for her and sequesters her and Paul to an out of the way old family residence where she, of course, is not happy. This time it is she who cools to a relationship and divorces Raymond. When at a chance meeting with Elmer Moffatt she realizes how rich he is, she marries him and thinks the days of “how much does this cost” are over. Does she finally have everything she wants?

That can never be true for Undine Spragg. There is never enough and always some new bright and shiny object to chase.

Rich beyond imagination Moffatt is satisfied with his life, but he is not as ambitious as Undine would like. When giving a dinner party she hears about an Ambassadorship to England granted to an old nemesis from her small town in Apex and she is intrigued. She wants that for her husband, too.

She had a great vague vision of the splendors they were going to—all the banquets and ceremonies and precedences….Turning to her husband goading him for his lack of ambition saying he could have that easily, he delivers to her the most devastating piece of news she could hear: no amount of money, connections or titles could allow him such a position, because he is married to a divorced woman and “They won’t have divorced Ambassadresses.” This she could never get. And as she advanced to welcome her guests she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.

Conclusion

This novel is a challenging read; it is complex and rich in commentary on the American expat experience of which Wharton’s writing is superb.

Wharton is a bold critic on the type of wealthy semi-resident traveler who has come to be known as the ‘ugly American.’ Though Undine is a fictional character within a fictional landscape, she is nonetheless a symbol for this type of narcissistic, rich destroyer of tradition that Wharton, herself an expat American living on and off in Paris, rails against. Wharton has Raymond deliver a speech to Undine that brilliantly decries this kind of superficial American sensibility. They are at the end of their marriage when Raymond discovers Undine tried to sell his family’s centuries-old wall tapestries, because she wanted money.

That’s all you feel when you lay hands on things that are sacred to us! And you’re all alike, every one of you. You come among us from a country we don’t know, and can’t imagine, a country you care for so little that before you’ve been a day in ours you’ve forgotten the very house you were born in—if it wasn’t torn down before you knew it! You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean; wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them; aping our weaknesses, exaggerating our follies, ignoring or ridiculing all we care about—you come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven’t had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they’re dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding to what we have—and we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pickup up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honorable for us.

If this had any effect on Undine, one would never know it. Empathy, recognition of her faults, growth into adult behavior was not part of her make up. She threatened to leave Raymond for “speaking to me this way,” and soon she did.

I have to admit it: Although Edith Wharton has become one of my favorite writers it was a bit of a relief to turn the last page on this one!

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Title: The Custom of the Country
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Signet Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1913
Pages: 370

Challenges: The Classics Club, my 2019 Author Reads

Book Notes #2: The Chronicles of Narnia, Books 3-5

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Prince Caspian

The Pevensie children are called back to Narnia a year after they come back through the wardrobe. This time they are at a train station on their way to boarding school when suddenly they feel a familiar physical pull and find themselves on a deserted island they soon realize is Cair Paravel where they ruled Narnia as kings and queens. They have been summoned to help Prince Caspian regain his rightful place as King of Narnia.

There is a lot of magic in this one and some beautiful passages that describe the reawakening of the talking animals and trees of Old Narnia who were silenced when Prince Caspian’s ancestors, the Telmars, conquered the land.

Another intriguing aspect of this book is that air and breath take on magical properties. The air makes the children appear to be older, says the narrator, “I think I have explained before how Narnia was altering them. Even Lucy was by now…only one third of a little girl going to boarding school the first time, and two-thirds of Queen Lucy of Narnia.” And Aslan breathes into Edmund before he is sent into enemy territory and “a kind of greatness hung about him.” This reminds me of Genesis when God brought Adam to life through His breath.

While I liked many passages in this book and I liked the book overall compared to The Horse and his Boy, the thought occurred to me after I finished it if all the Narnia books have this same basic theme: a threatened Narnia and someone(s) to the rescue? That sounds tedious.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

But I am pressing on and in the middle of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which happily has a different theme. Prince Caspian sets out on a sea voyage (add to your ‘sea cruise’ series, Lizzie?!!) to discover the fate and where possible, avenge the seven lords that were banished from Narnia by the Prince’s evil uncle with the help of King Edmund and Queen Lucy and their tiresome cousin Eustace. During a sequence of events though, Eustace becomes a dragon and that section right there completely captured my imagination! But what is that about? Is there an explanation further along? I hope so.

So far, I am finding that these books alternate between the childish and the profound; sometimes I feel like I am reading passages my 10 year-old self would have loved and then come upon a section with images so deep I want to pause and reflect.

The Horse and His Boy

Just a note on The Horse and his Boy. I am not sure this book has aged well. I found much of the writing uncomfortably racist in its portrayal of the Calormen, who are easily seen as Middle Eastern, because Lewis has portrayed them through a very stereotyped lens. I am purposely not reading any reviews or criticism of the Narnia books until after I finish the series, so I don’t know if this reaction is an obvious one for others and whether Lewis has been criticized for it.

Having said that, I feel very strongly, in general, about historical context when it comes to criticizing points of view that are no longer acceptable. While the racism (homophobia, sexism, etc.) should be called out that does not mean the author, the book—or whatever medium—should be banned or thrown out only because during the time it was written people held these points of view; unless, of course, the whole premise or tone of the book is destructive, which is another matter.

At this time in human history, we are sensitive to the way our words heal or destroy and that is a good thing. But it makes our relationship with the past a bit tricky.

Reading Chronologically vs. by Publication Date

As an aside, when I reviewed The Magician and his Nephew, I did not like it very much; I don’t think I quite understood it. I should not have read it first, but in my series of books published by HarperCollins all the books are published chronologically and not by original publishing date. I keep thinking about this book and realize I like it more and more. I think it will make more sense in the context of publication, so I am going to reread when it’s ‘turn’ comes up.

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BookNotes are short reviews of books that have made an impression, but time constraints do not allow a full record of the titles.

Night and Day, Virginia Woolf (1919)

You come and see me among flowers and pictures, and think me mysterious, romantic, and all the rest of it. Being yourself very inexperienced and very emotional, you go home and invent a story about me, and now you can’t separate me from the person you’ve imagined me to be. You call that, I suppose, being in love; as a matter of fact it’s being in delusion…I won’t have you do it about me.

 

nightday

If I were to sum up Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day I could easily do it in one sentence: It is about a group of young men and women contemplating marriage, but illusions about love are a stumbling block: if true love does not come is compatibility the better alternative? But the book clocks in at 450 pages, so there must be more to it than that. The difficulty with this review is that though there is a narrative, so much of it is contained in the thoughts and conversations of the characters. And as shall be explained below, they followed a multi-lane winding road.

Katharine Hilbery lives with her parents in the Chelsea area of London where she spends her days assisting her mother with the biography of her grandfather, the well-known poet Richard Alardyce. Katharine is bored with her life, and her impending marriage to William Rodney, himself a writer and poet, does not give her peace. She is not in love with him, but has consented to the marriage and it is understood by all they are a couple, which adds to her discomfort. William has been invited to the apartment of Mary Datchet a suffragette who opens her apartment to young writers to showcase their work. Katharine accompanies William on this particular evening and it is here she sees Ralph Denham, a young lawyer who writes for her father and whom she met recently at a tea given by her mother. Katharine feigns interest in him, but Ralph’s feelings are strong. Mary has known Ralph through her job and is in love with him, but he sees her only as a friend. When Cassandra, Katharine’s younger cousin comes to visit, she and William find themselves in love with each other.

These attachments and attractions to and for each character form the ebb and flow of the narrative. Their inner lives are melodramatic as their thoughts twist and turn. And when they converse they are never honest, speaking of marriage when they are not in love or declaring friendship when they really mean they are in love. They are both false and brutally honest with each other forcing confusion and turmoil into their relationships.

I did say I would marry you, but it was wrong, for I don’t love you William; you’ve noticed it, every one’s noticed it; why should we go on pretending? When I told you I loved you, I was wrong. I said what I knew to be untrue.

Indecision impairs each with an uncertainty as to their future. Do you marry for love or friendship? For romance or compatibility? Can Katharine Hilbery marry William Rodney because she loves, but is not in love with him? Should Ralph Denham ask Mary Datchet to marry him because he only likes her very much and should she say yes, even though she is in love with him?

strolling2When not ruminating in their individual heads one of the great features of this novel is the quality of the conversations. In fact, there is a certain irony in the fact that the main characters speak so often to each other about their feelings, yet the words are never honest so there is a continual confusion over where each stands. And even when they have come to a decision and know what they feel, they do the opposite. This is never more startling as when Ralph, who is mad for Katharine, proposes to Mary anyway telling her his relationship with Katharine has been a fantasy he made up in his mind. Mary, however, wants a marriage based on love. Answers Ralph:

But love—don’t we talk a great deal of nonsense about it?…It’s only a story one makes up in one’s mind about another person and one knows all the time it isn’t true. Of course one knows; why, one’s always taking care not to destroy the illusion. One takes care not to see them too often, or to be alone with them for too long together. It’s a pleasant illusion, but if you’re thinking of the risks of marriage, it seems to me that the risk of marrying a person you’re in love with is something colossal.

It is easy to become exasperated with the continual indecision of the characters, but there is a certain humorous quality about a group of well-liked intelligent young people who can’t make up their minds, who are unable to tell anyone the truth of their feelings, to be gossiped about being seen alone with someone they tell people they only ‘like,’ yet everyone can see they are actually in love with them!

The characters do have rich inner worlds that Woolf plumbs and dissects. And there is a plot and a sense of the narrative, but it is wide-ranging and convoluted. If you skip a page or skim a conversation, you will miss something important, because Woolf relishes the intimate details that make up a person. Katharine’s mother, for example, floats in and out of the novel and though is often lost in the world of her father’s biography comes up with gems. Surprising Katharine, who has finally declared to her that she is in love with Ralph Denham and not William Rodney, she tells her, “Do not marry unless you are in love!…Who knows where we are bound for, or why, or who has sent us, or what we shall find—who knows anything, except that love is our faith—love.”

Or in Mary Datchet’s world love is her work. While Katharine and Ralph and William and Cassandra pair up, Mary’s partner will be her work. Mary is a character I wish Woolf gave more attention. She is put-upon by the other characters who treat her like a cross between a Mother Confessor and an ill-used personal assistant. Katharine shows up at her apartment at any time of night or day when her thoughts are too much to handle suff2alone. Ralph, too, depends on Mary to make his fears of commitment to Katharine bearable, yet Mary is in love with Ralph and they both know it. I wanted from Mary more fight, more push against this meanness and sadly Woolf uses her strength to keep her alone, but in love with her work failing, in my opinion, that she can’t have both.

Work…I’ve only found out myself quite lately. But it’s the thing that saves one—I’m sure of that…—Where should I be now if I hadn’t got to go to my office every day? Thousands of people would tell you the same thing—thousands of women. I tell you, work is the only thing that saved me, Ralph…It’s all turned out splendidly for me. It will for you, too. I’m sure of that. Because, after all, Katharine is worth it.

The ending was no surprise and in fact, quite a relief after all the angst and push pull of feelings, rumination and the endless talking; honesty triumphed, decisions were made and proposals accepted.

Conclusion

If I would dare criticize Woolf, I would beg for some heavy editing. But I also have to admit I enjoyed what I am criticizing, because the writing, especially the myriad conversations, are so well done. Still, the repetition…I suppose I just wanted to reach into the book to shake up Katharine and the rest and ask, “don’t you know the definition of insanity is doing (in this case, thinking) the same thing over and over again expecting a different result?” Ah well, in a few years I may do a reread after I’ve read more Woolf and maybe I will understand the point of Night and Day a little better.

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Title: Night and Day
Author: Virginia Woolf
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Device: Paperback
Year: 1919
Pages: 442

CCSpin, Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR

 

WorldsEndDistillery

Welch Ale Brewery, Kings Road, Chelsea. Absolutely irrelevant to this post and sadly, no relation 🙂 But a girl can dream!

 

 

 

 

 

First it was Called Decoration Day

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After the Civil War soldiers and other family members would go to their local cemetery and decorate the graves of their fallen comrades and relatives with flowers. After the First World War, all war dead were honored in what came to be called Memorial Day.

 

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Decoration Day Parade 1870, St. Paul, Minnesota

 

On this day we remember the fallen who gave their lives for the ideals of an America they believed in. May their ultimate sacrifice not be in vain.

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National Monument for Military Working Dogs. They are honored as fallen soldiers, too.

 

We must never forget the goals and aims of what our Founders envisioned for this ‘great experiment,’ no matter how dark the days may seem.

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Decoration Day
Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
On this Field of the Grounded Arms,
Where foes no more molest,
Nor sentry’s shot alarms!
Ye have slept on the ground before,
And started to your feet
At the cannon’s sudden roar,
Or the drum’s redoubling beat.
But in this camp of Death
No sound your slumber breaks;
Here is no fevered breath,
No wound that bleeds and aches.
All is repose and peace,
Untrampled lies the sod;
The shouts of battle cease,
It is the Truce of God!
Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.
Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.
                              — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Daisy Miller: A Study, Henry James (1878)

“What has she been doing?”
“Everything that is not done here. Flirting with any man she could pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all the evening with the same partners; receiving visits at eleven o’clock at night.”

 

Daisymiller

Published in 1878, Daisy Miller is one of Henry James’s early works. It foreshadows his reputation as a chronicler of the exploits of late 19th century American expatriates in Europe. For a novella, it is bursting with action and the detailed thought processes of his characters that distinguish his longer works. I am reading several James this year along with his friend and contemporary Edith Wharton, both of whom have given me a new appreciation of the novella.

Daisy Miller is a young American woman traveling abroad in Europe with her younger brother and mother. The first stop for the Miller family is Switzerland where one day Miss Miller, who is looking for her brother throughout their hotel, runs into the young Mr. Winterbourne. He is visiting his aunt and is immediately attracted to her unconventional manner. He finds her refreshingly honest and forthright, when for example, she speaks to him right away without being formally introduced by a third party suggesting he accompany her on an outing. Recounting this meeting with his aunt she tells him Daisy Miller is “common” and warns him to stay away.

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A Spring Evening, G. A. Sartorio. Rome, 1902

This criticism of Daisy’s behavior characterizes much of the story and leads to her estrangement from the rest of the expat community, both in Switzerland and Rome where the Millers travel next. But Winterbourne is smitten even though his association with her is a threat to his own good reputation, and though she is hot and cold to his advances which confuses him he cannot let her go.

Their outings are unchaperoned and Daisy does not seem to understand this great faux pas. When she tells Winterbourne her mother is moving the family to Rome and demands he visit her, he gladly tells her his aunt has taken a house there, but business in Geneva will keep him awhile. When he arrives he finds Daisy the talk of the Roman expat community for similar “offenses” as in Switzerland. She not only openly goes out with several Italian men, she often goes alone with a Mr. Giovanelli in what seems to be a serious relationship.

Daisy is an interesting character because she is not particularly likable throughout most of the novel. She flirts shamelessly with her gaggle of men only to discard them all to favor one—yet, she still wants to see Winterbourne, while everyone can see she is seeing Mr. Giovanelli exclusively. Daisy’s mother is weak and unable to advise her and when her female friends try to counsel her she shuts them down. Their concern is that she is too young and naive to understand that her future in this very conventional society is at stake. Toward the end, however, I saw a young woman who is consciously bucking a system that she finds unfair. Why shouldn’t she spend time with people she likes? And what of it, if those people she likes are men?

As the weeks in Rome go by, Daisy is shunned and her reputation in tatters. The American women of the expat community are quick to point out to the vacationing European contingent who themselves are uncomfortable with her conduct, that “her behavior was not representative—was regarded by her compatriots as abnormal.”

Winterbourne is scolded by his friends for continuing to see her; though he does wrestle with his observations of her actions questioning whether she is really so innocent as to not understand how she is perceived or does she just not care? And is his willingness to excuse her behavior due to his honest attraction or is it just his “free-spun gallantry?” When he tries his own hand at counseling her what is at stake:

“I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do.”


Conclusion
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Colosseum, Ellis. Rome, 19th-century

Daisy continues to disregard any criticism her behavior, walking with ‘the Italians’ in the evenings despite being warned of the dangers of Roman fever—malaria—at that time of day. Her friend Mr. Giovanelli a native of Rome and aware of this danger for non-Romans takes her to the Colosseum one evening, because she wants “to see it in the moonlight.” Sadly, it is not long before the fever’s devastating effects do their work.

What did Daisy Miller want with her life that the conventions of the day made impossible for her? It isn’t really a girl’s actions in such a strict society that gets her in trouble, but the wagging of the matriarchs’ tongues, I think. Affected by Daisy Miller’s life and her untimely passing Winterbourne thinks of her often and one day realizes that she only wanted respect.

One day he spoke of her to his aunt—….She [Daisy] sent me a message before her death which I didn’t understand at the time. But I have understood it since. She would have appreciated one’s esteem.”

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Title: Daisy Miller: A Study
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Bantam Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1878
Pages: 52

Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola (1867), #ZolAddiction2019

This life of alternating excitement and calm went on for eight months. The lovers lived in perfect bliss. Thérèse was no longer bored, and had nothing left to wish for; Laurent sated, coddled, heavier than ever, had only one fear, that this delectable existence might come to an end.

 

raquinThe premise of Émile Zola’s, Thérèse Raquin is simple: a man and a woman fall in love, but the woman’s husband is hampering their future plans, so they kill him, guilt ensues and they don’t live happily ever after. A rather common premise. But the way Zola tells it as he gets into the minds of Laurent and Thérèse and describes what lives there results in a thrilling narrative of lies, deceit and descent into depravity.

Thérèse was brought to her aunt when she was an infant by her father after her mother died. She grew up with her cousin, Camille, the only child of Madame Raquin. She has brought him up as a weak and sickly boy who she must always have near her. She decided early on that when the two grew up they would marry. Camille fights for some autonomy from his mother at the beginning of his marriage and decides he wants to move to Paris to find a career.

Madame Raquin uses the proceeds from the sale of her home to buy a haberdashery in what turned out to be a dark and dismal throughway in Paris, called Passage du Pont-Neuf, that she and Thérèse can work in to support the little family and to tide them over until Camille finds a job, which he does at the Orleans Railway Company. Thérèse, who at this point, does not seem to have a mind of her own accepts the fate of a life working in a dingy shop and a passionless marriage. Her outlook changes when Camille brings home his co-worker Laurent and he and Thérèse begin a fanatical love affair. In their overwhelming desire to be together, Thérèse and Laurent think murdering Camille will solve their problem.

One day while boating in the Seine Laurent strangles and pushes Camille out of the boat where it is presumed he has died. Laurent haunts the morgue for weeks hoping to find Camille’s body. When it finally shows up, Laurent realizes the sight of the bloated slimy body will always haunt him. For Thérèse, too, the murder of her husband did not have the effect she had hoped for and her nightmares and wracked nerves give her no peace.

Laurent and Thérèse finally marry, but the fervor that characterized the early weeks of their relationship is gone, because both find the presence of Camille filtering into their waking and sleeping life. In fact, they can’t even sleep together as both feel Camille between them in the bed.

The memory of Camille, his presence, his haunting their days and nights, the murder itself has the opposite effect of allowing their relationship to flourish as the shock and guilt of the crime has ruined any chance of a future together.

Laurent must work and Thérèse must tend to the shop, and neither are happy when together. When Laurent quits his job and rents a garret to further his interest in painting he finds no matter the sex or age of the figures he paints, they all take on the features of Camille; even the dogs and cats he paints reflect him. Thérèse, who is stuck in the shop with her mother-in-law can only go through the motions of serving customers.

When Madame Raquin suffers a physically paralyzing stroke Thérèse must take on her care as well as continuing the work in the shop. A second stroke renders her mute. And as the strain and toll of Camille’s murder wears on Laurent and Thérèse, they stop guarding their tongue in front of the old woman making it apparent they killed her son.

Unable to speak, Madame Raquin tries in the company of some friends to accuse the two and in a suspenseful scene struggles laboriously to lift one finger and begins to air-write the names of Laurent and Thérèse in front of her. But her friends think she means to thank them for their care of her. She is devastated that the murderers will go unpunished and that she is powerless to bring Camille justice. On top of her frustration, Thérèse has taken to making lengthy declarations of remorseful pleas of apology while she sits helplessly in her chair.

The telling of the story is riveting because of the way Zola lets the reader in on the thought processes of the characters. We are lead into the nooks and crannies of the minds of Thérèse and Laurent, but not in a heavy-handed manner. This is not a psychological study into what motivates murderers, even though Zola meticulously describes the phases of their mental state after the murder. These phases are quite damaging and wretched to Thérèse and Laurent as individuals as well as how they treat each other. But Zola describes their unfolding insanity as part of the narrative rather than discussing it as a treatise into the ‘mind of a murderer;’ the difference between a police report vs a psychiatric analysis. For me it is a chilling (and very effective) way to tell a story like this, where emotion is described, but not psychoanalyzed.

At first Thérèse is on top of the world after killing Camille. She spends more time out in the world, has an affair with a younger man, sits at cafes meeting people and starts reading novels which give her a window into adult relationships that she did not grow up with. She understands how her friend Suzanne, like the women in these novels, can accept the difficulties of living in a passionless marriage and still be kind to her husband. In other words, these novels showed her, “it was possible to be happy without killing your husband.”

Weeks and months go by proving to Thérèse and Laurent that getting rid of Camille isn’t giving them their hoped for ‘happily ever after.’ Their once demanding and insatiable drive for each other now fills them with a loathing. Murder is the bucket of cold water against desire.

The lovers made no further attempt to see each other alone. They never arranged a single meeting or even exchanged a furtive kiss. For the time being murder had cooled the voluptuous fevers of their flesh, and by killing Camille they had succeeded in slaking the wild and unquenchable desires which they had failed to satisfy even when crushed in each other’s arms. Crime seemed an acute enjoyment that made their embraces boring and sickening.

The slow deterioration of the couple makes it obvious they cannot go on together haunted as they are both mentally and physically by Camille.

As I turned the pages I could not for the life of me figure out how this was all going to end. If Madame Raquin died and the two were left alone together without her as a buffer or confessor, I couldn’t see how they could stay together without going insane. Maybe the ending is obvious to some, but it left me stunned.

Murder, which came to their minds, seemed natural and inevitable, the logical outcome of the murder of Camille. They did not even weigh the pros and cons, but accepted the idea as the only means of salvation.

But who murdered whom and who got the final vindication is yours to discover if you so choose to read the book?!

Personal Thoughts

I read this in conjunction with #ZolAddiction2019 a reading event of the life and work of Émile Zola hosted by Fanda at Klasikfanda. Thérèse Raquin was written early in his career and the matter of fact way he narrates this murder mystery really worked for me. I responded to his simplicity of describing the complicated descent into insanity, instead of creating a more complicated narrative delving into early life experiences, negative parental influences or traumatic events.

Another point I admire is the fairly self-contained space of the action which is mostly in the shop and the living quarters above it. Except for the scenes in Laurent’s garret and the river where Camille is killed, the characters are confined to these two settings. And if murder is a dirty business, Zola makes the setting fit the atmosphere. His depiction of the little shop Madame Raquin bought that Thérèse is supposed to turn into a money-maker is so viscerally descriptive as a prelude for the moral and physical decay of Thérèse’s future, that you know as a reader, things are not going to go well in any aspect of her life.

As Thérèse entered the shop that from now on was to be her home, she felt as though she were going down into a newly-dug grave. A sort of nausea seized her in the throat and she shuddered. She looked at the dingy, damp arcade, went over the shop, went upstairs, went round each room, and these bare unfurnished rooms were terrifying in their solitude and decay. She could not move or utter a word, but was chilled through and through. When her aunt and husband had gone downstairs again she sat on a trunk. Her hands were numbed and her breast was bursting with sobs but she could not cry.

Thank you to Fanda and to all the ZolAddicts for opening my eyes to a new author!

____________________

My Edition
Title: Thérèse Raquin
Author: Émile Zola
Publisher: Penguin
Device: Paperback
Year: 1867
Pages: 256

#ZolAddiction2019

Classics Club Spin #20

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The excitement of the Spin always jump starts whatever slump I might be in and hopefully this time I will succeed in both reading and AND writing up my Spin title!

If you don’t know, in order to participate, join the Classics Club–it’s the kind of club where the only membership requirement is to make up a list of 50 classic literature titles and read them! For the Spin, take 20 titles from this list and number them. On April 22nd the Spin gods choose a number. That is the title you will read.

My list this time has no rhyme or reason except these are all books I want to read and am not dreading….(for example, Moby Dick will not appear here even though it is on my CC List….dread).

ETA: The Spin Gods have spoken, #19, which means I will be reading Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day! The deadline to review is May 31st and I will do my best to comply. 🙂

Best Wishes to all Spin participants on YOUR #19!

Willa Cather
1. O Pioneers! (1913)
2. My Antonia
(1918)

George Eliot
3. Mill on the Floss (1860)
4. Middlemarch (1874)

E.M. Forster
5. Room with a View (1908)

Elizabeth Gaskell
6. Mary Barton (1848)
7. Cranford
(1851)
8. North and South (1854)

Shirley Jackson
9. We Have Always Lived in the Castle
(1962)

Henry James
10. Daisy Miller (1878)
11. Portrait of a Lady
(1881)
12. What Maisie Knew (1897)
13. The Ambassadors (1903)

Mary Shelley
14. Frankenstein (1818)

H. G. Wells
15. First Men in the Moon (1901)
16. The Invisible Man (1897)
17. Christina Alberta’s Father (1932)

Oscar Wilde
18. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

Virginia Woolf
19. Night and Day (1919)
20. To the Lighthouse (1927)