Is Therese Raquin a Naturalist Novel?
Is Therese Raquin a Naturalist novel? Emile Zola is often considered the chief literary theorist of the Naturalist movement and so one would assume that his creative offspring, including the novel Therese Raquin, would display the traits of the genre. Zola may be responsible for many of the conventions that one would associate with Naturalism and so naturally you could extend this logic to argue that his work defines the genre.
To the modern reader, Therese Raquin appears anything but naturalistic with a dramatic, fast moving plot that boasts murder, adultery and revenge that almost becomes synthetic in places.
However, for the sake of this essay, I must decide upon a firm definition for Naturalism, in its correct historical context, in order to debate and speculate as to whether Therese Raquin can be read or interpreted as a Naturalist novel.
Naturalism may be defined as a scientifically accurate extension of realism characterized by a magnified perspective through which the author displays the primitive nature of humans (using characters with strong animal drives who are “victims both of glandular secretions within and of sociological pressures”) and adopts an objective and emotionally detached approach to the characters in order to demonstrate the weaknesses and tragedies of 19th Century society, particularly amongst the lower classes.
Zola’s prefaces to his novels at as essays on Naturalism and much of the deterministic and scientific philosophy behind the movement may be found, for example in the preface to Therese Raquin, Zola writes that he sees himself as a “mere analyst, who may have turned his attention to human corruption, but in the same way as a doctor becomes absorbed in an operating theatre” and comments that “the return to nature, the naturalistic evolution which marks the century, drives little by little all the manifestation of human intelligence to the same path”.
Firstly I will explore the common conventions of Naturalism that are present in Therese Raquin. For example is the typical Naturalistic characterisation through the use of the four temperaments (stemming from Galen’s four humours) that the author regards in higher importance than the actual characterisation as he states that he proposed to “study temperaments and not characters”. Zola assigns certain temperaments to his characters to establish inter-character relations in the plot and demonstrate the animalistic nature of humans.
Laurent may be associated with sanguine (“handsome, full blooded”), Therese with melancholy and Camille with phlegmatic qualities. By using this device, Zola adds a certain amount of reality and human nature to the pot which is, of course, an essential aspect to the genre of Naturalism. Also by using these temperaments to define the psychology of his characters, Zola incorporates scientific elements, as if he is conducting a sociological study of background in relation to the milieu and subsequently the psychological study of individual characters in particular circumstances.
Naturalism, as a movement, is in debt to the scientific enlightenment with scientists, such as Darwin, who popularised new ways of thinking that evolved around the concept of biological determinism and the author adopted these views in response, stating that Naturalists are “men of science”. Biological determinism may be thought of as a melting pot of biology and philosophy, suggesting that humans merely respond to the surrounding environmental forces and internal drives, none of which they can control or understand, in essence we are little more than a “human brute”.
In essence we are driven by the very primitive urges and instincts of hunger, sex and fear. Within Therese Raquin we see these attributes materialise throughout the book and become particularly prevalent in the sexual undertones of Therese’s affair with Laurent, something that disgusted many of Zola’s critics. However it is more obvious to the modern reader that Zola, through his dramatic plot, is demonstrating a level of determinism in the sense that life makes its conclusions, and the Naturalistic novelist’s task is to represent those conclusions, rather than contribute his own.
Controversy may be viewed as another defining characteristic of the Naturalistic genre and if we are to consider Therese Raquin in its correct historical context (1867), it is not difficult to understand why it caused much scandal due to Zola’s honest and uncompromising exploration of the darkest aspects of human existence. One critic, Louis Ulbach, wrote in Le Figaro in January 1868 that the novel was “a pool of mud and blood” and was a perfect example of “the utter filth that is contemporary literature”.
It is the disposition of the Naturalist writer that assumes an amoral attitude to the plot and acts somewhat as a voyeur rather than a judge. Personally I view Francois, the same cat over which many critics and scholars speculate as to whether it is the cat in Manet’s portrait Olympia, as somewhat of a metaphor for the Naturalist author. Francois is present in many of the most climatic and socking scenes, most notably the passionate scene of Camille’s murder, and remains detached but also demands some sort of presence so much so that Laurent becomes frightened and wants to “kill the beast” as he remarks how “human” it looks.
The fact that Laurent almost personifies the cat may suggest that animal and man are alike in the very basic sense of instinct. I think that the Naturalist author assumes a similar stance to this cat as he remains a quiet and unbiased third party, recording the events without judgment, acting as a journalistic voyeur, which is relevant to this novel as Zola discloses that he is “simply an observer, who states the facts”.
On its publishing, Therese Raquin was accused of immortality and if the critics were not accusing Zola of an “alleged perversion of public morality” then it would be for the novel’s “unsound philosophic and aesthetic assumptions”. Despite these accusations of immorality, Zola defends himself saying that it was, in fact, immoral to refrain from including such behaviour as the lack of obvious moral material was corrupting and that “the process of honest examination purifies everything, just as fire does. Another aspect of this novel that argues in favour of Therese Raquin being a Naturalist novel is the sense of pessimism that one feels when reading it. This negative atmosphere is created by deliberately making the novel feel claustrophobic with the author using a number of devices such as an omniscient third person narrative, a limited number of characters and settings as well as a prevalent theme of imprisonment.
For example, Zola’s displays Laurent’s captivity within his own guilt through describing his “hallucinations” of paranoia which reinforces the theme of claustrophobia and imprisonment. There is also much imagery that could be associated with hell with reference to vaults and holes, for example Therese admits she feels like she is “going down into the clammy earth of a pit” and that she is buried “in a vault”. The presentation of Laurent and Therese in relation to such pessimism and claustrophobia demonstrates their remorse and shows great burden of murder.
Zola uses the setting to suggest that any world beyond the working class community provides a sense of claustrophobia and stresses the difficulties of escaping this life, thus creating a social trap. The relevance of such pessimism in relation to a Naturalist novel is found in the absence of ideology; life is not ideal and so to create an accurate portrait humanity, the author must make the plot realistic which means that negativity is sometimes exaggerated.
Charles Child Walcutt states that Zola seizes reality through his use of the characters’ temperaments and “transforms that temperament into a work of art”. Indeed the aspect of art is important in arguing that Therese Raquin is not in fact a Naturalist novel as however fiercely the author claimed to be scientific and methodical in his approach to the composition process, he never believed that the naturalist author was solely functioning on a mechanical level any more than he considered that artists, such as Manet, were replicating reality.
It is no secret that Zola was heavily influenced by such artists who were straying from the previous Romantic Movement into a more Naturalistic style and consequently there is an innate correlation between the Movement in particularly French art and literature. In both cases the author or artist strives to symbolize the truth of nature, avoiding purely mimicking nature itself in order to obtain a certain amount of artistic individuality and a sense of poeticism to the work.
In conclusion, I believe that one must approach analysing Therese Raquin outside of its historical context with caution as it can distort a modern day reader’s opinion as to whether this is a true Naturalist work due to the fact that a modern reader has been exposed to far more scandalous materials that may strike us a more gritty than Zola’s novel.
However, from the extensive criticism and scandal that Therese Raquin stirred when it was first published, we can imagine that it was the one of most openly human and frank portrayals of life that the Victorians had been exposed to and so if we are to make a judgment in relation to its context, I believe it is a Naturalist novel. It also feels slightly awkward to debate the genre of Therese Raquin because its author was one of the most prolific and pioneering writers in Naturalism.
Therefore I think it is valid to suggest that Therese Raquin may be thought of as a defining work for the genre of Naturalism and we should, instead, speculate over other supposed Naturalist materials in relation to Zola’s novels. Rather that comparing Zola’s writing to a set of Naturalist criteria to the reinforce this novel’s validity as a member of the Naturalist genre, I am able to see the scaffolding that Zola created, allowing many Naturalist successors to build on to add more substance in order to write the more edgy literature we are familiar with today.
Therese Raquin is a Naturalist novel that is not an imitation of reality but a scientific study of humanity. The author successfully presents the primitive and uncontrolled nature of humans in relation to their setting or circumstance with uncompromising and bold attention to detail. The novel displays the simple “application of the experimental method to the study of nature and of man”, which in itself is a definition of Naturalism. Select Bibliography 1.
Emile Zola, Therese Raquin (1868) 2. Ferragus. La litterature putride , (Le Figaro. 23 January 1868) 3. Clarence R. Decker The Aesthetic Revolt against Naturalism in Victorian Criticism, p 845, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Sep. , 1938) 4. Charles Child Walcutt, American literary naturalism: a divided stream ( Minnesota, 1956) ——————————————– [ 2 ]. , M. H Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 5th Edition (published ,San Francisco, 1988) [ 3 ].
Emile Zola, Therese Raquin Preface de la deuxieme edition (1868) [ 4 ]. Emile Zola, Therese Raquin Preface de la deuxieme edition (1868). The author calls both Therese and Laurent “human brutes, [ 5 ]. Ferragus. La litterature putride , (Le Figaro. 23 January 1868) [ 6 ]. Clarence R. Decker The Aesthetic Revolt against Naturalism in Victorian Criticism, p 845, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Sep. , 1938) [ 7 ]. Charles Child Walcutt, American literary naturalism: a divided stream ( Minnesota, 1956)