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Thérèse Raquin: A deep dive into the misery hole

In 1867, Émile Zola decided it would be a spanking great idea to write a novella about man as an animal, purely motivated by animal instincts. He was 27 years old. Think about 27 year old guys. Yeah. Pretty terrible, right? Now make them a French author who's decided man is a series of impulses. Ugh. I know. The WORST.


This beret's pretty on point, though

Thus was born the novel Thérèse Raquin. I'm gonna spoil the hell out of it for you, because I don't think you should read it, but the story's kinda fun. It's about a bourgeois woman in a marriage of convenience (convenient to everyone but her) who has an affair, and she and the guy she's affairing with kill her husband, and then it just kinda goes downhill from there.

While other French literary luminaries like Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo felt and expressed sympathy with all of humanity, albeit in their different ways (Balzac with realism and Hugo with romanticism), Zola's just a pessimistic, critical sonuvabitch. He was born 40 years after these two, so he was well aware of their work, but like most young people, he said "fuck it" and was all about Darwinism in the worst way (or "Naturalism," as his school of thought is normally known). I am all for laying out the ugliness of humanity, but when that's all that is shown, it ceases to be about humanity.

The reason I wanted to read Thérèse in the first place is that I saw the opera version by Tobias Picker and it. is. the shit. Tobias Picker's vision of Zola's book is "This woman is in an awful situation. She finds something that makes her feel alive. She does something terrible to try to hold onto that. She is overcome by remorse LIKE HUMANS ARE."

By contrast, Zola paints this hideous portrait of mankind as selfish, unthinking beasts whose only interests are self-protection and maintaining their routine. WELL YOU KNOW WHAT, ZOLA.




His intro to the book's pretty great, because it's essentially "I mean, I guess I didn't think I'd have to defend my book against idiots, but here we are." He'd probably include me here, because he specifically says (I read this in French, so these are my own rough translations): "I chose characters supremely dominated by their nerves and their blood, deprived of free will, led to each act in their life by the fatality of the flesh." And I get that he wanted to explore that, but...by taking away free will, how the hell are they humans, Zola. And it's not just your main two characters, Thérèse and Laurent. Every character in your book sucks. None of them are sympathetic in the least or seem like real people. And why? Because you said "The soul is perfectly absent."

...why. You're trying to write a scientific novel? Ok, but again, if your characters don't act like damn humans because you're trying to write them as animals, your novel accomplishes jackshit.

I love the opera. Love. Thérèse and her husband's friend that she gets involved with, Laurent, had a ridiculous amount of chemistry, which is what you needed to make the murder of Thérèse's husband make sense.


So great.
This is right before they push her husband
off the boat, but who wants to see him, so I cropped him out

The opera shows the slow breakdown effect guilt can have on people. Thérèse and Laurent's relationship deteriorates more and more, and they find themselves repeating the habits of life they were originally trying to escape from. Finally they both commit suicide, with Thérèse saying the murder is "too much not to be punished."

That is EXCELLENT. Can't you see yourself having that thought? And you would, because you are a human with an interior life and conflicting ideas and you do good and bad things, but the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, damnit.


Ugh, so great.

I'm overly hating on this book. It has some good parts. But it overall made me so upset about Zola's view of mankind that I can't really see the good things anymore. BUT. The word "cliquetis" (pronounced "clickety") is the best, and the early descriptions of Thérèse being trapped in the small shop where she lives and works are excellent -- seeing her husband and his friends through the yellow fog that comes off the living room lamp. Everything feels dirty and dingy and that's the atmosphere in which she lives. That's set up extremely well. It just then....doesn't really say anything real after that. I didn't want to spend any time with Thérèse or Laurent, and they're pretty much the only people you do spend time with.

If someone wants to explain why this is Literarily Important and how it paved the way for future, unterrible literature (much like The Well of Loneliness helped Tipping the Velvet come into being), I'm all for hearing it. For now, I'm stuck in a well of anger towards Zola and his miserable view of humanity.

See the opera. See the movie. Which is on Netflix! And has Jessica Lange! And is called In Secret. Any adaptation is going to have more real human feeling than Zola's book, because any adaptation is going to involve real humans. The story is good. The way it's written is terrible.

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