By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Kate Winslet
Emile Zola wrote “Therese Raquin” in his late 20s. It was published in 1867 and performed as a play in 1873. It reappeared in a Jessica Lange movie in 2013.
As with all classics, Zola’s story is about more than a singular event. It is about actions taken that are like crossing the Rubicon, reaching a point of no return that affects the remainder of one’s life.
“Therese Raquin” is a melodrama about a repressed married woman who becomes an accomplice in the murder of her husband by a feckless lover. The characters in this novel are self-absorbed, lazy near-do-wells with too much leisure time on their hands. Camille is the husband and friend of Laurent. Laurent becomes Therese’s lover and Camille’s murderer.
The appeal of this book is not in its characters because none of them are likable or superior in any of the qualities one might associate with heroes or heroines. What makes the story interesting is Zola’s ability to capture human weakness and show how it turns on itself when one breaks society’s rules.
Zola’s characters are indulged by indolence rather than motivated by ambition. There is no sense of redemption in the lives of Therese and Laurent; on the other hand, there is inference in Zola’s portrayal that one crosses a Rubicon separating the superior from the average by murdering another human being.
This reminds one of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and his belief in the rights of an extraordinary person to ignore social convention by murdering a pawn broker. The difference between Raskolnikov and Zola’s characters is that Raskolnikov takes action to change the river-of-life’s direction while Therese and Laurent meander, moving only as the river’s current changes direction.
Therese and Laurent are victims of their circumstance; they let events determine their direction in life. Therese lets others decide who she is to marry; Laurent waits for a father to die to inherit his way to leisure. The only time they escape indolence is when Laurent cuckolds and then drowns Therese’s husband but even those actions are born from circumstance and idleness rather than direction and ambition.
Zola writes about the way many people live their lives; not that they murder others but that they “stand and wait” rather than act to make their lives different and hopefully better. The beginning of Therese’s extra marital love affair had little to do with a conscious act of betrayal. Her lover, Laurent, in the beginning of their relationship, is not interested in anything more than a “jelly roll”. Therese and Laurent mount their love boat out of boredom and circumstance; not conscious deliberation. Their actions in life are driven by events; not forethought or conscious reason. Laurent falls rather than chooses to be in love with Therese; Therese sits and waits as Laurent throws her husband into the Seine to die
But “crossing the Rubicon” has consequences; the same effect that one presumes many returning soldiers have. Therese and Laurent begin to suffer the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a re-living of Camille’s murder that overwhelms their lives. They cannot escape their thoughts, their circumstance, and their vision of Camille’s death mask.
Zola’s ending of the story gives one a better understanding of how “at risk” returning veterans are that have experienced the terror of war because war is always a crossing of the Rubicon.