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.

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