Zola’s Use of Setting in Therese Raquin

Emile Zola uses the setting within the novel Therese Raquin in order to deepen the meaning in the text, specifically focusing on the reoccurring imprisonment versus freedom theme. Interestingly, Zola often uses his freedom with choice of setting to display Therese’s imprisonment within her life. 

Zola starts the novel with the description of the Passage du Pont-Neuf in order to emphasize Therese’s imprisonment. The sky is described as “black and coarsely rendered, as if covered with leprous sores and zigzagged with scars” (7), negative connotations that symbolizes Therese’s unhappy life, marked by her oppressive childhood and arranged marriage.The description of the sky as “covered with leprous sores and zigzagged with scars” is an allusion to the decay of Therese’s spirit and passion, and the emphasis on the sky’s darkness suggests Therese’s inability to escape her situation. The light that does appear is “only a pale glow [which] falls on the pavement below in dim, flickering pools which sometimes disappear almost completely” (8), suggesting again the gloom that overwhelms any life or passion for Therese, who cannot live freely in her native Algeria. Just as the light is pale and flickering, Therese’s liveliness is repressed. Zola goes on to describe the Passage du Pont-Neuf as “like some underground gallery dimly lit by three funeral lamps,” another allusion to Therese’s virtual imprisonment.

Zola continues to portray Therese’s imprisonment as he describes the haberdashery within the Passage du Pont-Neuf: as she “walked into the shop which was to be her home from now on, she felt as if she were dropping into the clinging earth of a grave” and as she looks over the rooms “the loneliness and dilapidation of this bare, unfurnished apartment was terrifying” (19). Entrapment in a grave, a seeming prison of solitude – the setting conveys and emphasizes Therese’s feelings about her life and illustrate her pitiful situation: “Living amidst the damp and gloom, in an oppressive, dismal silence, [she] saw life stretching out pointlessly ahead of her” (21). By describing Therese’s physical setting as oppressive, he is alluding to her whole life as an oppressed woman.

These two examples demonstrate Zola’s effective use of description and setting to emphasize the imprisonment of his unfortunate protagonist, a tactic he uses successfully throughout the novel.

Zola’s “Scientific” Method in the Presentation of Thérèse

Throughout the novel Thérèse Raquin, it is apparent that Zola has chosen a particular light in which he wants the reader to view each of his characters. He did so with the theme and idea of naturalism with the focal points being temperaments and bestiality through a third person narration. In the preface to the novel, Zola states ‘my aim has been above all scientific’ (Preface to the Second Edition 1868, page 4). Thérèse in particular is portrayed to have gone through the most adversity and is set with the biggest of challenges in the novel. It is her response that the reader is most accustomed to in how she deals with these obstacles being the environment, influences and having a lack of control over herself, as subsequently, she is at the pinnacle of all that takes place.

In consideration of this basis of his study, he created four characters based on four elements (of temperaments) that doctors in the time of the 19th century believed made up the human body: Thérèse who is nervous; Laurent who is sanguine; Camille who is lymphatic; Mme Raquin who is bilious. The constructions of these characters influenced Zola and so he ‘chose to set [himself] certain problems and to solve them’ with the instance of experimenting and discovering certain outcomes if these temperaments were to be paired up and, when or if facing adversity, how the lack of balance of the tempers would affect each character.

Zola uses a range of adjectives that are associated with negative connotations and imagery to set the scene in the beginning of the novel. He describes the Passage du Pont-Neuf to be ‘‘black with grime’’ and ‘‘full of darkness’’ with windows that ‘‘cast strange, greenish reflections on the goods inside’’(1). The use of visual imagery here as well as adjectives such as ‘strange’, immediately creates an environment of tension deprived of ‘living’ souls. These descriptions possess gothic elements. The reader feels sympathy for Thérèse knowing that these are her living conditions. It is clear that the environment has oppressed Thérèse. It seems that society and her environment have shaped her repressed nature by offering no motivation for exploration and later, when having met Laurent, inflamed her desires for freedom.

Having said all of this, Zola has taken the approach that your surroundings can be responsible for a lack of drive. He makes an attempt to show the reader that Thérèse is one who is easily influenced by her environment in her journey of self-discovery. Much of this journey takes place literally and symbolically on the river Seine. We are told that the river Seine is an area that has brought Thérèse happiness as well as anguish, as we know that when she was younger, this was the place she would escape to where she was able to run wild without any restrictions and, as it were, ‘be free’. Her journey of adversity literally takes place on the river, as this is where her biggest obstacle of all (the murder of Camille) takes place. However, The Seine is also symbolic in the sense that it takes on the journey of her life in representing her feelings, as Thérèse ‘‘fantasizes that the river is about to rise up and engulf her’’(xviii), much like her inability to cope with the pressure she is under which overwhelms her after Camille’s death and her then current situation with Laurent. In addition Zola states that the Seine is a ‘’mythical place… for dark desires’’ and ‘’terrors of the mind’’(xviii). This represents Thérèse’s urges to be savage, for example, like her incentive to commit adultery. This reinforces the idea that being closer to nature has the ability to bring out your ‘inner animal’. Her obsession with the River unfortunately has come to betray her and instead bring her even more despair.

Zola presents Thérèse through the means of using desire as a theme in the novel to expose an element of bestiality in her. This is apparent in the novel at the point where Thérèse first meets Laurent. Zola says she looked at him and ”his rectangular features with their sanguine beauty.’’(26). We already establish the fact that Laurent apparently fascinates Thérèse through the use of adjectives and descriptive writing. It is as if Laurent has unleashed the ‘passionate existence’(16) that lurked inside her but was hidden for so long. He points out his ‘rectangular features’ in particular suggesting that he is quite broad stating his suggested offering of protection he potentially has for Thérèse.

Here, Zola is addressing the idea that opposites attract, as Thérèse’s character is nervous whilst Laurent’s character is sanguine. This opposition ignites her repressed emotions which, in some instances, can be compared to the desires of animals: for example, females desiring a strong male partner. The same can also be said for the human race with the idea of ‘evolution’ and the scientific exploration of this. He then goes on to say her gaze paused on his “short neck, thick and powerful’’. Again, he specifically points out Laurent’s broad body parts, emphasizing the attraction that is drawn from the features of this single man by use of describing these very animalistic qualities. The reader is obliged to think that now that Laurent has stepped in with his potential for protection, Thérèse is able to act out in whatever way she pleases, as she now sees somebody who appears to be dominant and possess control. It is clear that her wanting of this type of male figure in her life has presented a significant change in how she goes about herself as well as the actions she decides to carry out as it is apparent she was prevailed upon by her desire for Laurent and disgust for Camille to commit to his murder. Having contact with this sanguine sensibility had also caused her to acquire a state of equilibrium between her need for expression and her concealment, giving her more control.

Zola stresses that temperaments, when unbalanced, can be dangerous and cause disruption to a person’s well-being. Zola addresses this idea with the use of Thérèse when, after they had killed Camille and Thérèse was ill, Zola says she was in a state of ‘‘listless and nervous pain’’ and that she had ‘‘retreated into herself’’, much like an animal with ‘’silent feelings of despair’’(99). We establish that Thérèse no longer has control over her well-being. Zola uses her choice of actions, which were to help kill Camille as a means of selfishness, causing her much confusion and ultimately draining her desire to have a future with Laurent. This imbalance which Thérèse experiences brings us to the realization that ”She had only loved with her blood and her nerves”(82) and her ineffective decision to go with her mind rather than her instincts has brought much disruption to her temperament. Therefore, her lack of control leaves her in a state of angst, putting her back in a position where she started. Zola also writes that ”She was still the unmanageable creature who wanted to wrestle with The Seine”(83). This implies Thérèse’s still present incapability to possess control over herself has left her lost in her thoughts of having a future with Laurent, as Zola states, the result of this combination is the ”profound disturbance of a sanguine nature when it comes into contact with a nervous one” (Preface to the Second Edition, page 4). We can see that throughput the novel, he makes an example out of Thérèse’s choice of actions.

Thérèse is a character that is quite easily influenced and it is clear that certain restrictions in life that she has faced have groomed her in this way. We establish this from the nature of her upbringing and her developed thirst for adventure, as she has clearly been deprived of excitement in her years of living with Mme Raquin. It is no coincidence that this lack of exploration has taught Thérèse to conceal her instincts and emotions (naturalistic qualities), and so for the whole in her earlier life, Zola has presented her to be a woman ‘unleashed’, having a ‘passionate existence’(16) and the need to thrive with someone who is compatible with her temperament, which is safe to argue, may not have been hers if she was not so secluded in this way from constraint in her upbringing. This is comparable to the likes of an animal, which Zola depicts this (and other) character(s) to be through his ‘scientific’ method on Thérèse in the novel.

Tensions Between Culture, Social Norms and Family Expectations

In Thérèse Raquin, Zola creates bodies criss-crossed by tension through contrasting his characters’ temperaments (the “natural” self) with their outward surroundings and circumstances (social norms, family expectations). It is the stark contrast between Thérèse’s mask of indifference and inner « sang africain » that creates extreme bodily tension when faced with her familial expectations, causing her to embark on a murderous love affair with Laurent. For Laurent, his sanguine, primal nature contrasted with the social norms associated with Parisian poverty force him to satiate his fleshy desires in Thérèse’s arms, creating tension when faced with Thérèse’s ardent, desperate love-making, foreshadowing the events to come. Madame Raquin is of particular interest, as one of the few character’s that is in a position of power, and thus encounters less dissention between her choleric nature and culture, as she is the deity dictating the family expectations and norms. Finally, Camille’s bodily tension is established through his desperation to be autonomous, frantically trying to deny his natural, phlegmatic self in order to fulfill his own idea of what constitutes a cultural norm and expectation. Through characterization, Zola seeks to show us how naturalism and human instinct ultimately trump culture and surroundings, culminating in the only morbid ending that a novel with these types of personalities could have.

Thérèse is the quintessential example of a character leading a “double life”, in a constant state of tension between her act of supreme passivity and obedience, and her vicious, animalistic “natural” self. The daughter of a North African woman and a French sea captain with « le sang de sa mère », Thérèse possesses a passionate and impulsive personality but is forced to conceal her wild temperament when confined to a dull, predictable childhood alongside Camille and Madame Raquin. « Elle vécut intérieurement une existence brûlante et emportée…elle se couchait à plat ventre comme une bête, les yeux noirs et agrandis, le corps tordu, près de bondir. » Zola’s use of animalistic imagery conveys Thérèse’s natural instinct as a woman of fiery temperament, flexed and ready to pounce. The tension between this “natural self” and her desperation to free herself from the confined prison of Camille’s meagre and sickly disposition and Madame Raquin’s selfish, controlling expectations culminates in Thérèse’s lovemaking and murderous scheme with Laurent. Forced to remain « silencieuse et muette », Thérèse is expected to fulfil her familial expectations, as essentially Camille’s carer, and to follow the social norms of her surroundings, as demonstrated in the Thursday evening domino soirées, where she pretends to sit along attentively, secretly desperate for a respite from the lifeless guests and dreary conversation.

Dominated by the tension between these expectations and her natural nerves and blood, Zola shows the reader how temperament ultimately triumph’s over Thérèse’s actions, as she becomes governed by her flesh and natural instincts, leading her into the arms of Laurent, as « la nature et les circonstances…les avoir poussés l’un vers l’autre. » This idea coincides with Zola’s overarching theme of naturalism, with the characters’ behavior based on inherited traits, rather than the cultural circumstances imposed upon them. Although not as strictly dictated upon by social and familial expectations as Thérèse, Laurent also exemplifies bodily tensions between his sanguine instincts, and the culture surrounding him. A man of peasant-roots, Laurent exemplifies a man governed by sensual pleasures and primal needs. He is selfish and of simple logic, always seeking to fulfil the desires of his flesh, in spite of his father’s strict expectations of him and the social constraints of Parisian poverty. Laurent is devoted to luxury and in particular, seeks to satiate his appetites with regard to food, women, warmth and money. However, his socio-economic status after being cut off from his peasant father’s wealth forces him into the working milieu and it is this culture of poverty that tenses with his desires. This culminates into his plan to become a part of the Raquin family, where a warm meal, lively chatter and the possibility of Thérèse as his mistress lay all too easily at his disposal. Larent’s natural instincts are exemplified through Zola’s use of vocabulary when he beholds Thérèse before they make love, «des voluptés cuisantes, une brûlure, une odeur tiède, souple, forte, passionné, les lèvres humides ». Although Zola tries to remain detached as a narrator, in this particular passage the reader is very much planted in the mind of Laurent, as we are forced to identify with his natural instincts. This however, culminates into a strong mood of tension, when this brute-like passion is foreshadowed by his feeling of unease and « souffrance physique ».

Even though Thérèse and Laurent complete each other in their animalistic desires, Laurent’s hesitancy hints at the peril and inevitability of being governed by one’s instincts. This inevitability is portrayed through Zola’s metaphor of Laurent as an « homme ivre », knowing that he will return to Thérèse, regardless of his misgivings. Physically, the tension is marked on Laurant’s body in the form of Camille’s bite mark, a reoccurring symbol throughout the novel, reminding him of his crime. Finally, the portrayal of Madame Raquin and Camille provides insight into this idea of tension, or in Madame Raquin’s case, lack thereof, between the natural self and family expectations.

Madame Raquin, for the first part of the novel, is one of the few character’s who’s body is not criss-crossed with tension, as she is the deity that dictates the social norms and familial expectations, which are directly linked to her natural instincts of protection and survival. In stark contrast to Thérèse, Madame Raquin perceived nature is entirely authentic, governed by her dedication to her invalid of a son. Although seemingly good-natured, Madame Raquin is undeniably selfish, rejecting anything that could bring harm to her son, and in doing so, sacrificing the needs of Thérèse. She determines the path of Thérèse’s life in marrying her to Camille, assuring that her nerves and worries are eased. Madame Raquin’s choleric, task-focused nature is exemplified in her reaction to her son’s death, in which she almost seems to be more upset at failing her life task to keep Camille alive, rather than the fact that he has died, « Elle l’avait mis au monde plus de dix fois, elle l’aimait pour tout l’amour qu’elle lui témoignait depuis trente ans. Et voilà qu’il mourait loin d’elle, tout d’un coup, dans l’eau froide et sale, comme un chien. » Here Zola’s recurring use of irony is illustrated, as Camille dies once he had finally escaped his sick bed, procuring a job and becoming reasonably self-sufficient. Camille’s insistence and desire to become self-sufficient demonstrates his bodily tension between being so phlegmatic and in a constant state of malaise, contrasted with his yearning to live up to the social and cultural norms expected of a man – to have a purpose, a wage and a certain level of intellect.

Camille’s natural instinct of sluggishness is highlighted in Zola’s use of juxtaposition to describe both his and Laurent’s physical appearance. Laurent is “grand, fort…avec son front bas, planté d’une rude chevelure noire, ses joues pleines, ses lèvres rouges, d’une beauté sanguine”, contrasted with Camille, “qui tremble toujours de fièvre…petit, chétif, d’allure languissante.” Camille possesses a certain level of self-importance, where he sees anyone mildly successful or powerful, such as Laurent, as being admirable and attractive. It is his friendship and trust in Laurent that ultimately leads to Camille’s natural self overpowering his determination to be a strong, independent member of society, as he remains weak and feeble when faced with Laurent’s brute strength on the boat ride. Regardless of Camille’s bodily desire to live up to his idea of the social norm, it is ultimately his phlegmatic instincts that fail him, culminating in the tension of Laurent’s betrayal and consequently, the betrayal of his social expectations.

In conclusion, Zola succeeds in showing how temperaments, rather than social norms and cultural, family expectations ultimately triumph over one’s actions and determine one’s fate. The bodily tensions created in denying one’s natural self in favour of fulfilling a social or familial norm, in the case of Thérèse and Camille ultimately lead to Thérèse’s fatal love affair and Camille’s gruesome death. Madame Raquin’s god-like dictatorship over the household ensures her survival in the novel, as she is able to establish a certain level of harmony between her nature and expectations. Laurent, although initially complementing his sanguine nature with his logical scheme, meets the same macabre end as Thérèse, as his extreme guilt and the bodily tension created by Camille’s bite on his neck ensures his progression into a state of insanity. In this way, the reader is left convinced of Zola’s portrayal of naturalism and the fatalistic notion of our temperaments and “natural” self ultimately determining our fate, rather than our cultural surroundings.

Works Cited

Becker, Colette, ‘1867: Thérèse Raquin’, in Les apprentissages de Zola: du poète romantique au romancier naturaliste : 1840-1867 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1993), pp. 324–65.

Becker, Colette, ‘1867: Thérèse Raquin’, in Les apprentissages de Zola: du poète romantique au romancier naturaliste : 1840-1867 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1993), pp. 324–65.

White, Nicholas, ‘Naturalism’, in The Cambridge History of French Literature, ed. by William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond, and Emma Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 522–30.

Zola, E. and Mitterand, H. (1970). Therese Raquin. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion.