Analysis Of Literary Devices And Figures Of Speech Used In Emile Zola’s Novel Therese Raquin

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

The 19th-century novel, ‘Therese Raquin’, was one of Emile Zola’s earliest novels to have maintained a position of merit in his canon. The Parisian writer drew on his own personal experiences to present Victorian Paris as truthfully as possible. Zola is no stranger to the social injustice in Paris, he grew up witnessing the drastic contrast between the lives of the bourgeois and aristocrats with the life of the poor. Zola’s naturalist beliefs permeate the novel in his descriptions of the environment, which he utilizes to illustrate the dark side of humanity, stripping society of its false, idealistic facade, demonstrating the discordant and tragic realities of Paris.

Zola was a firm believer in the idea that one’s heredity, environment, and milieu greatly affects one’s identity and core values, consequently, their character and morality is immensely influenced by their upbringing, and hence, that those living in poor conditions were destined for a life of crime. This essay will focus in particular on how Zola demonstrates his belief that a person’s milieu and heredity has an immense/a substantial impact on their character and identity.

Zola’s initial description of the Passage Du Pont-Neuf at the outset of the novel introduces readers to a milieu redolent with aspects of determinism. Zola uses specific and technical descriptions in order to depict the claustrophobic atmosphere of the arcade, which represents the fate of lower-middle-class Parisians, and how they are trapped in their predetermined lives. The readers are first introduced to the dire living conditions present in Paris in the opening scene, with Zola describing the arcade as merely: “thirty paces long and no more than two wide”. The specificity and highly detailed number-based phrases: “thirty paces long” and “two wide” reflects the utterly determined size of the arcade, which Zola uses to symbolise that the future of an individual too is completely determined, implicitly portraying the idea of determinism.

The restricted and claustrophobic environment conveys a physical sense of entrapment to the readers, further highlighting how individuals in Parisian society lack a sense of agency and autonomy over their own lives – they are not masters of their own destiny. The foregrounding of the environment in the opening scene of the novel gives it a sense of prominence and importance, reflecting Zola’s belief that nurture and environmental factors are crucial to the development of an individual’s character. Functionally, it is the claustrophobic Passage du Pont-Neuf with its nameless populace and melancholic air which provides the scientifically controlled environment for Zola to begin his experiment on temperaments.

Moreover, Zola uses similes which evoke images of tombs, chains, and cages, which foreshadow the deaths to come in the novel, and additionally, creates and sustains the dark and dismal atmosphere permeating the novel. An example of such a simile can be found when the writer describes the shops in the Passage du Pont-Neuf. Zola describes the shops as being: “dark, low, and cramped, from which chill draughts emerge as if from a vault”. The use of the simile “as if from a vault” illustrates the tomb-like nature of the shops inside the passage, and the simile’s connotations of death further insinuate the lifeless, subdued nature of the Raquins’ abode.

Another instance where one such simile is used is when Zola describes the appearance of the arcade at night. Zola writes that in the evening, “the whole place feels like some underground gallery dimly lit by three funeral lamps”. Once again, the author likens the alleyway to a vault through his description of the arcade at night, which further accentuates the deathly, muted mood created by the writer. Indeed, by drawing comparisons between the “gas lanterns” present in the passageway and “funeral lamps”, Zola emphasizes the sepulchral nature of Passage du Pont-Neuf, which in turn assists in the creation of a dark and gloomy atmosphere.

The recurring motif of these inanimate objects is representative and symptomatic of the claustrophobia and physical sense of entrapment the characters face in Parisian society. The use of tomb-like imagery employed by Zola symbolizes the idea that the future of all individuals in Parisian society is too completely determined, thus implicitly portraying the concept of determinism.

Environmental decay reflects the moral decay of the characters and foreshadows the act of murder

Destiny being like an early grave

Zola emphasizes the inevitable process of death through his description of the Passage de Pont-Neuf as one saturated with signs of disease and decay, painted with a palette of dark colours. His use of impressionistic descriptions embedded with elements of sickness and death establishes a bleak and morbid tone from the outset of the novel, foreshadowing the depressing tale of twisted desire and violence yet to come: “paved with yellowish flagstones, worn, uneven, permanently exuding an acrid-smelling damp”. Zola’s use of an asyndetic list when describing the flagstones delineate the shabby and decrepit nature of the passageway, which also serves to sustain the gloomy atmosphere present in this chapter. The adjectival phrase: “yellowish” has connotations of disease and old age, while the adjectives: “worn” and “uneven” insinuates that the passage was in a state of dilapidation and disrepair.

Furthermore, the adverb “permanently” encapsulates that Paris’ state of disrepair and shabbiness will remain unchanged indefinitely, mirroring Zola’s deterministic belief that the future of individuals is fixed and non-malleable in nature. Zola employs the use of olfactory imagery in the adjectival phrase: “acrid smelling damp”, which further highlights the decay, shabby and decrepit nature of the passageway, mirroring the realities of Parisian society and the dark side of humanity. The setting of the entire novel exudes a sense of decay, which Zola also uses to symbolise the moral decay of the people of Victorian Paris. Thus foreshadowing events driven by the decayed morality of the Parisians, including Therese’s and Raquin’s decision to murder Camille for self-gain.

Zola’s personification of light is representative of lower-middle-class Parisians, who are trapped under the false illusion that they have control, they lack autonomy in their livelihoods. Light traditionally has connotations of purity, enlightenment, hope, and goodness, however, Zola explains that light that travels into the Passage Du Pont-Neuf must first pass through a “glass roof black with grime”. In the passage, light is filtered through man-made creations and is distorted into something impure and lacking of goodness. Filters are an example of a man-made creation, and their function is to typically reduce the amount of the source present. In this scenario, the grimy roof serves as a filter of light, suggesting that ‘hope’ and ‘goodness’ are distorted, corrupted and lessened by humanity, barely reaching the character’s abode.

Furthermore, the negative associations with the colour: “black”, such as entrapment and uncertainty, exemplifies Zola’s belief in individuals being unable to escape their predicament under the laws of determinism.

Additionally, Zola’s description of: “ pallid light… lingers(lingering) miserably in the alleyway” contributes to the sense of helplessness and sheer lack of control the Parisians have towards their predicament. This quotation suggests that in such dire social situations, even the brightness of light seems to be controlled and limited.


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