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.
The 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?!
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!
Title: Thérèse Raquin
Author: Émile Zola