Madame Raquin, a widowed haberdasher, lives with her son, Camille, who has a history of poor health and is weak and uneducated, and her niece, Thérèse, conceived in Algeria by Madame’s soldier brother and a “native woman,” both of whom are now dead. Raised by her aunt as companion to the invalid Camille, Thérèse is a model of repression. When Thérèse turns twenty-one, she and Camille marry, and the three move from the country to Paris. One day Camille brings home an old friend, Laurent. He and Thérèse become lovers and decide to murder Camille so they can marry. On an outing they go boating and Laurent drowns Camille.

The murder replaces their mutual passion with guilt, remorse, and evenutally, hatred. The two must wait before they can marry without arousing suspicion; they are both increasingly haunted by memories of Camille and visions of his corpse. When the aging and still-bereft Madame Raquin actually helps arrange for them to marry (to ensure that they will take care of her), they torture each other with their proximity, and they torture Madame Raquin, now immobilized and silenced by a stroke, by allowing her to learn that her trusted caregivers killed her son. The three live in torment until, finally, Thérèse and Laurent kill each other.


What makes this seemingly melodramatic plot fascinating is Zola’s stated intentions in writing it. The novel is the first of Zola’s experimental novels of Naturalism, a movement of Realism that attempted not only to represent the natural and social world as it really was, but to place human characters into situations of conflict and then observe and describe the inevitable actions that would result from the interaction between organism and environment. Strongly influenced by his reading of the physiologist Claude Bernard’s work on experimental medicine, Zola says in his defensive preface to the novel’s second edition that he has simply applied “to two living bodies the analytical method that surgeons apply to corpses.”

The work itself, however, verges on the gothic, the sexual passion of its anti-heroes quickly replaced by their violent remorse, which is visualized both in the vivid accounts of Laurent’s visits to the morgue to find Camille’s decomposed body and in the bite that Camille inflicts on Laurent during the drowning. This wound, in something reminiscent of Poe, does not heal, leaving a painful scar that becomes a bodily sign of the couple’s guilt and of their inevitable destruction.

In his efforts to use fictional characters as lab rats, Zola reveals both the concerns and methods of the science of his time and the ways in which fiction both fails and exceeds the dictates of science.


First published in 1867. Translated from the French by Leonard Tancock.

Primary Source

Therese Raquin


Penguin Classics

Place Published

Harmondsworth, England



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