Thérèse Raquin  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
liebestod, Preface to the second edition of Thérèse Raquin

Thérèse Raquin is the title of a novel (first published in 1867) and a play (first performed in 1873) by the French writer Émile Zola. The novel was originally published in serial format in the journal L'Artiste and in book format in December of the same year. Internal evidence of Degas's Interior Scene (The Rape) suggests that it may be based on a scene from Thérèse Raquin. The novel is an early instance of the classic adultery-murder plot, treated also in The Postman Always Rings Twice.


Plot summary

Thérèse Raquin is the daughter of a French captain and an Algerian mother. After the death of her mother, her father brings her to live with her aunt, Madame Raquin, and her sickly son, Camille. Because her son is so ill, Madame Raquin dotes on Camille to the point where he is selfish and spoiled. Camille and Thérèse grow up side-by-side, and Madame Raquin marries them together when Thérèse is 21. Shortly thereafter, Camille decides that the family should move to Paris so he can pursue a career.

Thérèse and Madame Raquin set up shop in the Passage du Pont Neuf to support Camille while he searches for a job. Camille eventually begins working for the Orléans Railroad Company, where he meets up with a childhood friend, Laurent. Laurent visits the Raquins and decides to take up an affair with the lonely Thérèse, mostly because he cannot afford prostitutes anymore. However, this soon turns into a torrid love affair.

They secretly meet up regularly in Thérèse's room. After some time, Laurent's boss no longer allows him to leave early and so the two lovers have to think of something new. Thérèse comes up with the idea to kill Camille. They eventually succeed in doing so by drowning Camille during a boat trip. Defending himself, Camille bites Laurent in the throat. Madame Raquin is in shock after hearing the disappearance of her son and everybody believes the fake story of an accident. But Laurent is still uncertain about the death of Camille and frequently visits the mortuary, where he finally finds the dead Camille. Still, Thérèse has nightmares and doesn't talk, so Michaud - one of the regular visitors of the family - comes up with the idea, that Thérèse should marry again and the ideal husband would be Laurent. But even after their marriage, the murder doesn't let go of them. They have imaginations of seeing the dead Camille in their bedroom every night, preventing them from touching each other and quickly driving them insane. Laurent, who is an artist, can no longer paint a picture (even a landscape) which does not in some way resemble the dead man. They also have to look after Madame Raquin, who suffered a stroke after Camille's death. Madame Raquin suffers a second stroke and becomes completely paralyzed except for her eyes (as in locked-in syndrome), after which Therese and Laurent reveal the murder in her presence during an argument.

During an evening's game of dominoes with friends, Madame Raquin manages to move her finger with an extreme effort of will to trace words on the table: "Thérèse et Laurent ont t...". The complete sentence was intended to be "Thérèse et Laurent ont tué Camille" (Thérèse and Laurent killed Camille). At this point her strength gives out, and the words are interpreted as "Thérèse and Laurent look after me very well".

Eventually, Thérèse and Laurent find life together intolerable and plot to kill each other. At the climax of the novel, the two are about to kill one another when each of them realizes the plans of the other. They each then break down sobbing and reflect upon their miserable lives. After having embraced passionately one last time, they each commit suicide by taking poison in a liebestod scene, all in front of the watchful gaze of Madame Raquin, who enjoys the late vengeance of her son:

"The corpses lay all night, spread out contorted, on the dining-room floor, lit up by the yellow gleams from the lamp, which the shade cast upon them. And for nearly twelve hours, in fact until the following day at about noon, Madame Raquin, rigid and mute, contemplated them at her feet, overwhelming them with her heavy gaze, and unable to sufficiently gorge her eyes with the hideous sight."

Major themes


Through out the book there are constant references to chains, cages, tombs, and pits. These motifs contribute to the fact that Laurent and Therese are always in a state of remorse and they are plagued by their guilt for killing Camille. The book mentions how Therese and Laurent are always clawing at the chains that bound them together trying to break free. Also, the store that Therese owns is compared to a tomb, where Therese watches the corpses walk by in the day, and she feels that she will never leave her tomb.


In his preface to the second edition, Zola writes that he intended to "study temperaments and not characters." To his main characters, he assigns various humors according to Galen's Four Temperaments: Thérèse is choleric, Laurent is sanguine, and Camille is phlegmatic. For Zola, the interactions of these types of personalities could only have the result that plays out in his plot.

Human beast

Also in his preface, Zola calls both Thérèse and Laurent "human brutes," and the characters are often given animalistic tendencies. Zola would take up this idea again in his La Bête humaine of 1890.

Mechanical man

Similar to the human beast who acts based on instinct, the mechanical man acts like an "unthinking machine."

Characters in "Thérèse Raquin"

  • Thérèse Raquin - the eponymous heroine, she is the orphaned daughter of Madame Raquin's brother and an unknown African woman
  • Camille Raquin - Thérèse's husband and first cousin.
  • Madame Raquin - Camille's mother and Thérèse's aunt. She works as a shopkeeper to support her family.
  • Laurent - a childhood friend and coworker of Camille who seduces Therese
  • Michaud - the police commissioner and friend of Madame Raquin
  • Olivier - Michaud's son who works at the police prefecture
  • Suzanne - Olivier's wife
  • Grivet - an elderly employee of the Orléans Railroad Company, where Camille works
  • François - the Raquins' cat

Literary significance and reception

Thérèse Raquin is generally considered to be Zola's first major work.

Upon its release in 1867, Thérèse Raquin was a commercial and artistic success for Zola; enough so that it was reprinted in book form in 1868. It gained additional publicity when critic Louis Ulbach (pen name: Ferragus) called Thérèse Raquin "putrid" in a long diatribe (Ferragus. "La littérature putride." Le Figaro. 23 January 1868), upon which Zola capitalized for publicity and to which he referred in his preface to the second edition.

Film, TV, radio or theatrical adaptations

Zola adapted the novel into a play which was first staged in 1873. The play did not receive its London première until 1891, under the auspices of the Independent Theatre Society—as the Lord Chamberlain's Office refused to licence the play.

Recent stage productions include:

The novel was made into several films, including:

An opera based on the novel has been written by the composer Michael Finnissy. Another opera Thérèse Raquin by Tobias Picker opened in 2000.

The novel was also made into a Broadway musical entitled Thou Shalt Not, with music composition by Harry Connick, Jr..

The novel (rewritten in the style of James M. Cain) was the basis of the play "The Artificial Jungle" by Charles Ludlam.

Neal Bell adapted the novel into a play under the same title. The following represents a short production history of Bell's play. It was first produced at New York University by Playwrights Horizons Theatre School on December 3, 1991, directed by Edward Elefterion, with Katie Bainbridge as the title role. Its first professional production was at the Williamstown Theatre Festival on June 30, 1993, directed by Michael Greif, with Lynn Hawley as Thérèse. On July 10, 1994, Michael Greif, in conjunction with La Jolla Playhouse in California, put up the West Coast premiere with Paul Giamatti in the role of Camille. Its professional New York premiere was on October 27, 1997, at the Classic Stage Company, directed by David Esbjornson, with Elizabeth Marvel as Thérèse Raquin.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Thérèse Raquin" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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