Jan 19 2015

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

I don’t know how I feel about this book. On the one hand, the depictions of violence and its physical aftermath were gripping and convincing, but something about the internal lives of Therese and Laurent felt off. I don’t know if Emile Zola was intending to moralize, or to present their guilt as the inevitable result of their actions, but it all felt a little self-conscious and stiff, less novel than homily (though, surprisingly to me, entirely devoid of the influence of the church. Were the French not religious in that era?) I don’t know if this impression is due to something being lost in the mores of our differing times, or if I’m just expecting a greater level of sophistication than can be expected of the degraded characters depicted here.

Oh, just checked Wiki: apparently, Zola did mean for each of the four main characters to represent one of Galen’s humors, and for the novel to show the inevitable results of their conflict, to which blah. I find most novels that were written to prove a philosophical point to be rather poor as novels, and this was no different.

Another problem I had with this book is the way guilt was apportioned to Laurent and Therese. It seems incredibly sexist to say that she was just as guilty as the man who actually conceived and executed the murder, because obviously she was a witch who could control Laurent with her, how shall I put this, feminine wiles. Poor Laurent, who’s just a big overgrown boy incapable of agency without some wicked woman to set him down the path to ruin. I’m not denying her culpability, but in terms of guilt, I think he’s got a lot more to answer for than she does.

But that is, I believe, an unpopular opinion in circles which believe that the woman who wanted her husband dead deserves a harsher punishment than the person who actually pulled the trigger (as was the result of a recent court case in Virginia. Look it up.) Dunno if that’s even as much about misogyny as an instinctive fear of intelligentsia, but it just seems like another shitty iteration of the Nuremberg defense, only for lesser stakes on the part of the doers. Eh, whatever: I was raised to believe that merely thinking or feeling something wicked is no sin, but that acting wickedly is. Morals eh?

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