Thursday, June 24, 2010

362. Therese Raquin – Emile Zola

History: The title of a novel (first published in 1867) and a play (first performed in 1873) by the French writer Émile Zola. The novel was originally published in serial format in the journal L'Artiste and in book format in December of the same year.
Plot: Thérèse Raquin is the daughter of a French captain and an Algerian mother. After the death of her mother, her father brings her to live with her aunt, Madame Raquin, and her sickly son, Camille. Because her son is so ill, Madame Raquin dotes on Camille to the point where he is selfish and spoiled. Camille and Thérèse grow up side-by-side, and Madame Raquin marries them together when Thérèse is 21. Shortly thereafter, Camille decides that the family should move to Paris so he can pursue a career.
Thérèse and Madame Raquin set up shop in the Passage du Pont Neuf to support Camille while he searches for a job. Camille eventually begins working for the Orléans Railroad Company, where he meets up with a childhood friend, Laurent. Laurent visits the Raquins and decides to take up an affair with the lonely Thérèse, mostly because he cannot afford prostitutes anymore. However, this soon turns into a torrid love affair.
Thérèse and Laurent conspire to drown Camille while out on a boat trip. This enables them to marry, but their guilt comes between them. They imagine they see the dead man in their bedroom every night, preventing them from touching each other and quickly driving them insane. Laurent, who is an artist, cannot paint a picture (even a landscape) which does not in some way resemble the dead man. They also have to look after Madame Raquin, who suffered a stroke after Camille's death. Madame Raquin suffers a second stroke and becomes completely paralyzed except for her eyes (as in locked-in syndrome).
During an evening's game of dominoes with friends (an attempt to keep up a facade of normality) she manages to move her finger with an extreme effort of will to trace words on the table: "Thérèse et Laurent ont t..." The complete sentence was intended to be "Thérèse et Laurent ont tué Camille" (Thérèse and Laurent killed Camille). At this point her strength gives out, and the words are interpreted as "Thérèse and Laurent look after me very well".
Eventually, Thérèse and Laurent find life together intolerable and plot to kill each other. At the climax of the novel, the two are about to kill one another when each of them realizes the plans of the other. They each then break down sobbing and reflect upon their miserable lives. After having embraced one last time, they each commit suicide by taking the poison, all in front of the watchful gaze of Madame Raquin.
Review: The story contains quite a bit of symbolism most of which relates to animals. It is also quite scary but at the same time very gripping and interesting. Most of the symbolism is lost in the English translations and so reading the original French is much better.
This novel was described by Zola as an attempt to "forensically examine" the symptoms, physiological and psychological effects and consequences of the exercise of forbidden, adulterous passions on the part of the main protagonists, Therese Raquin and her lover, the feckless, would be artist, Laurent. The background histories of both are presented, as well as their current circumstances (the symptoms), enabling us to understand the motivations for their later actions: namely, adultery and murder, and their consequences: madness and suicide. Although Zola's attempt to portray the situation in a purely scientific, detached manner is unsuccessful (as any such experiment done through the medium of literature must be) the story of the two lovers and their ill-fated affair is a highly engaging one and Zola's considerable skills as a writer are effectively employed in this novel
Opening Line: “At the end of the Rue Guenegaud, coming from the quays, you find the
Arcade of the Pont Neuf, a sort of narrow, dark corridor running from
the Rue Mazarine to the Rue de Seine.”
Closing Line: “And for nearly twelve hours, in fact until the following day
at about noon, Madame Raquin, rigid and mute, contemplated them at her
feet, overwhelming them with her heavy gaze, and unable to sufficiently
gorge her eyes with the hideous sight.”
Quotes: "And Thérèse could not see a single human, not a living creature, among these grotesque and sinister beings with whom she was shut up. At times she would suffer hallucinations, thinking that she was buried in a vault together with mechanical bodies whose heads moved and whose arms and legs waved when their strings were pulled."
Rating: Okay.

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