This was one hell of a controversial book when it came out in 1867. Of course with reading banned books of almost 150 years past, you wonder at all the fuss. But the fact that the book has the power to move us even today, is a testimony to the power that its words must have wielded when society was much more prudish – about themselves and their own nature.
This book can be read as a tale of human psychology under circumstances of passion and crime resulting from passion and can be read by some as a morality tale which speaks of the adage “Crime does not pay”. I prefer to read it in the former category, which was the original intent of Zola.
The story is about Therese Raquin, a woman who has been deprived of fulfilling her natural instincts due to circumstances of her birth which has led her to live under the protection of her aunt who is well-meaning but stifling with her care and who is married off to her cousin Camille (the aunt’s son), a sickly complaining man who cannot match upto Therese’s expectations – physically or otherwise. She puts on a mask of dumbness to get through her monotonous life. A ripe case for adultery.
Enter Laurent – a friend of Camille into their life and the inevitable game of adultery begins but they have to remove their obstacle – Camille first. The story then picks up as the act is done but peace eludes the murderers as they grapple with their own terrors which ultimately prove to be their undoing.
The power of the story is in its simple worded passages. There is no melodrama. The horror of the situation is stated as is and as we move on in the story, the horror deepens because Zola skilfully uses words which conjure up a dreary, dark and soulless world which seems haunted by the living as well as the dead. As Therese and Laurent descend into madness, the story brings out every detail of their torment till you actually see it happening in front of your eyes. The aunt’s sudden paralysis and the consequences only serves to increase the dark terror.
In the end its a good study of how human nature is so unpredictable – in love and in crime. Its also a testimony to the fact that we know so little of ourselves and we would act and react under life changing decisions especially when one is acting under passions.
It was a landmark novel when it came out in 1867 and its surprising how much power the words still have when similar stories and indeed movies have been churned out by scores over the years. Though better psychological horror stories have been written by later authors – Stephen King for example, this work stands out for the starkness of baring how human nature works.
I ended up sympathizing with Therese by the end of the book, even though Zola tries his hardest to try and make us not to. Though she suffered for what she did and almost went out of her mind, she did something that was built in her character and could not succeed only because of some hidden repulsion in her which she was unaware of before.
All in all, its a good book to read – if for nothing else as a pioneer in the genre.