At the time that Emile Zola wrote Therese Raquin, there was prejudice about illegitimate children. It was believed that children conceived in lust and irresponsibility would grow into lustful, powerful, passionate and sensual adults. Almost animals that cannot control their impulses. Whether Zola agreed with this is debatable but by looking at Therese’s character, there are obviously elements of her personality that can be compared to the idea people had about illegitimate children. However, it is important to mention that Therese has african blood running through her veins which could also contribute greatly to her intense personality.
Throughout the beginning of the novel, Therese appears to be a calm, polite and caring person. None of her relatives are aware of the passionate fire burning inside of her. When the family moves to Paris, Therese feels as though she is being thrown into a big damp hole as she walks into the shop. Almost like her own grave. From then on, she learns to completely disappear inside herself and constantly wears a mask that hides all the hate and bubbling of lust within her. Her desires grow even stronger when she meets Laurent and they will keep on growing by the day. When Therese and Laurent finally become lovers, it is like an explosion. The girl’s true personality is released, she becomes a completely different person resembling an animal. Laurent is frightened at first but quickly becomes addicted, like a love heroin. He will continue to take this drug for eight months but instead of satisfying Therese’s sexual needs, it only makes them more intense.
Therese Raquin is known to be Zola’s first naturalist novel. Naturalism was all about studying the human nature in a very scientifical way. As Zola said, ” j’ai choisi des personnages souverainement domines par leurs nerfs et leur sang, depourvus de libre arbitre, entraines a chaque acte de leur vie par les fatalites de leur chair.” By this, he explains that he chose characters who could not control their impulses, who were driven by lust, nerves and blood to an extent where they had no free will anymore. Zola even admits that Laurent and Therese have no soul and that is the way he wanted it. Perhaps, in his study of human nature, he tried to show humans at their harshest and most animal like. Maybe Therese’s character is the way he sees human behaviour, but portraying it in an illegitimate partly african woman was a socially more acceptable way to put his views across.
The novel almost gives this impression of a chemistry experiment. Take a confined, almost suffocating house and place inside an illegitimate woman who’s desires are about to explode and a brutal, violent lustful man who’s goal is to enjoy the pleasures of life. Let it sit and watch the reaction bubble until it destroys itself. Anything that stands in the way of this reaction occuring will be destroyed. It feels like scientific research done by literature. Which is, by definition what naturalism is.
Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin was written as a revolutionary naturalistic piece. I do not know wether Zola agreed with all the prejudice that surrounded illegitimacy. However, the fact that Therese is an illegitimate child contributes greatly to her character in terms of how people would expect her to behave while reading the book and what they would consider acceptable. The novel was very criticised. Considered pornographic and shocking.
Making the main character a social outcast was perhaps a way to explain the outcome of the book in the public’s eyes. It becomes more believable, almost expected. If Therese had been a countess with a good reputation, the story might have simply become ridiculous. Her illegitimacy also contributes as it complements her character, it is one of her traits, part of who she is. Her african origins and illegitimacy allow her to become such a fascinating character that is isolated from society in order to be forgotten about.