Is Thérèse Raquin a Naturalist novel?
Émile Zola is often considered the chief literary theorist of the Naturalist movement and so one would assume that his creative offspring, including the novel Thérèse Raquin, would display the traits of the genre. Zola may be responsible for many of the conventions that one would associate with Naturalism and so naturally you could extend this logic to argue that his work defines the genre. To the modern reader, Thérèse Raquin appears anything but naturalistic with a dramatic, fast moving plot that boasts murder, adultery and revenge that almost becomes synthetic in places. However, for the sake of this essay, I must decide upon a firm definition for Naturalism, in its correct historical context, in order to debate and speculate as to whether Thérèse Raquin can be read or interpreted as a Naturalist novel. Naturalism may be defined as a scientifically accurate extension of realism characterized by a magnified perspective through which the author displays the primitive nature of humans (using characters with strong animal drives who are “victims both of glandular secretions within and of sociological pressures”) and adopts an objective and emotionally detached approach to the characters in order to demonstrate the weaknesses and tragedies of 19th Century society, particularly amongst the lower classes. Zola’s prefaces to his novels at as essays on Naturalism and much of the deterministic and scientific philosophy behind the movement may be found, for example in the preface to Thérèse Raquin, Zola writes that he sees himself as a “mere analyst, who may have turned his attention to human corruption, but in the same way as a doctor becomes absorbed in an operating theatre” and comments that “the return to nature, the naturalistic evolution which marks the century, drives little by little all the manifestation of human intelligence to the same path”.
Firstly I will explore the common conventions of Naturalism that are present in Thérèse Raquin. For example is the typical Naturalistic characterisation through the use of the four temperaments (stemming from Galen’s four humours) that the author regards in higher importance than the actual characterisation as he states that he proposed to “study temperaments and not characters”. Zola assigns certain temperaments to his characters to establish inter-character relations in the plot and demonstrate the animalistic nature of humans. Laurent may be associated with sanguine (“handsome, full blooded”), Thérèse with melancholy and Camille with phlegmatic qualities. By using this device, Zola adds a certain amount of reality and human nature to the pot which is, of course, an essential aspect to the genre of Naturalism. Also by using these temperaments to define the psychology of his characters, Zola incorporates scientific elements, as if he is conducting a sociological study of background in relation to the milieu and subsequently the psychological study of individual characters in particular circumstances. Naturalism, as a movement, is in debt to the scientific enlightenment with scientists, such as Darwin, who popularised new ways of thinking that evolved around the concept of biological determinism and the author adopted these views in response, stating that Naturalists are “men of science”. Biological determinism may be thought of as a melting pot of biology and philosophy, suggesting that humans merely respond to the surrounding environmental forces and internal drives, none of which they can control or understand, in essence we are little more than a “human brute”. In essence we are driven by the very primitive urges and instincts of hunger, sex and fear. Within Thérèse Raquin we see these attributes materialise throughout the book and become particularly prevalent in the sexual undertones of Thérèse’s affair with Laurent, something that disgusted many of Zola’s critics. However it is more obvious to the modern reader that Zola,...
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