Women Like Sex, and Other Shockers
This scintillating tale of sex, murder, and revenge made author Émile Zola pretty famous. Why, you ask? Well, when Thérèse commits adultery with her lover, Laurent, their affair leads to the murder of Thérèse's husband, Camille. These paramours-turned-murderers then spend the rest of the novel struggling to hide their secret.
But isn't every daytime soap pulling that plotline out at least once a year? What's the big deal?
The big deal is this novel was first serialized in 1867. Which means that it was published in a series of segments in a French journal called L'Artiste, and way back then, this kind of writing was sure to cause an immediate public scandal.
Adultery, pornography, violence, "immoral" behavior… Thérèse Raquin's got it all. Its critics denounced the work as "putrid literature." Some even declared that Zola had no literary talent whatsoever. Ouch.
As you've probably guessed by now, the novel was immediately banned in France. Luckily for us, the ban was lifted. Besides, banned books rule—haven't you heard?
Oh, and it wouldn't be fair to Zola if we didn't tell you what his response was to all this harsh criticism. Zola defended himself by writing a Preface to Thérèse Raquin that has now become famous. Or infamous, you might say.
The Scientific Novel
This Preface was published in the second printing of the novel in April 1868. In it, Zola writes that critics are wrong to accuse the novel of being obsessed with sex and violence. He argues that his characters shouldn't be judged in moral terms. He says his goal was simply to present his characters as a scientist would....
A what? Yes, you read that correctly: Zola wanted to equate the role of the novelist with that of the scientist. A scientist studies his subjects from an objective and detached position. He isn't concerned with questions of right and wrong, good or bad.
He only describes what he observes in a neutral and straightforward way. And this scientific objectivity is what Zola wanted to bring to Thérèse Raquin. At least, that's what he claimed.
If that novel-cum-science move sounds kind of wacky to you, we should mention that Zola was living in a century when empiricism was just getting really popular. Charles Darwin had recently published his famous On the Origin of Species—he's the guy who came up with the whole "survival of the fittest" idea.
And Zola spent a lot of time studying the philosophy of figures like Auguste Comte, who argued that the only way to understand how the world works is by using scientific observation. So, he was surrounded by new, shiny science-stuff that clearly influenced his approach to literature.
Basically, we think Zola was trying to say that Thérèse Raquin is his attempt at what us writers might call a character study—a close investigation of human behavior. You know, all the zany things that people do when they get together, from having sex to killing each other.
Yep, Zola's empirical eye for what makes people tick makes this book one delicious drama.
Why Should I Care?
"Look at me, look at me, I'm only interested in science, not morality," said Zola. And no one believed him, ever. Why?
Thérèse Raquin raises many questions of morality—the work forces us to ask ourselves what's right and wrong. So while Zola insisted that he only wanted to examine his characters as objectively as possible, the way a scientist studies lab rats or guinea pigs, we think dude had it all wrong.
Or at least mostly wrong. About his own writing, and the work the novel does on us.
See, science can't ever really exist outside of ethical concerns. Come on, haven't you ever heard debates over cloning or stem cell research? Stem cell research is used to treat diseases, but what makes it controversial is that it sometimes involves the creation, use, and destruction of human embryos.
And not everyone agrees with that.
The bottom line here is that it's actually impossible to talk about science without asking ourselves what is good or bad for our shared society. And we think that, just as scientists don't do their experiments in moral vacuums, authors also don't write their lifeworks in morality-free bubbles.
While Zola claims that his novel is a purely scientific document, no writer can be completely objective when it comes to portraying human beings. (Even if that should be a goal of literature… which we think is a questionable proposition, in and of itself.)
Plus, as readers, it's pretty hard to stick with a group of characters for hundreds of pages and not make any moral judgments about them. Do you sit around watching Bad Girls and think, oh man, what an interesting study of human life—and never make any judgey-judgey comments about what they're doing to your friends?
We didn't think so. And personally, we're glad that Zola's novel raises important questions about the relationship between science, literature, and morality that remain relevant today.