Thérèse is like a perpetual fish out of water in this book. She is introduced to us as the fiery daughter of a French Captain and a beautiful Algerian mother. But she ends up married to her sickly, self-aggrandizing cousin, Camille, and working insufferably tedious days in her aunt's clothing shop.
We first catch a glimpse of Thérèse through the window of the shop, and Zola's initial description of her really captures how Thérèse feels trapped in her marriage:
You could not see her body, which was shrouded in gloom; only the profile of the face was visible, dull white, with a wide-open, black eye pierced in it, seeming to be crushed under the weight of a thick, dark mass of hair. There it stayed for hours on end, calm and motionless. (1.12)
More like crushed under the weight of a boring, passionless life. And her suffocating marriage, work, and overbearing aunt (Madame Raquin) all drive her straight into the arms of Laurent.
Sounds a little like the title of a vampire thriller, doesn't it? Sorry, there're no fangs in this novel. But there is some "science." Zola states in his Preface to the book that it is supposed to be a "study of temperaments and not characters."
Translation: Zola's so-called experiment is to examine what happens when people with different "temperaments" (or personalities) come into contact with each other.
You may have noticed that Camille, Laurent, and Thérèse each have contrasting personalities. Thérèse is described as having a "nervous" temperament—she's, like, totally high-strung, man. But her sexuality and her otherwise sassy personality are strangled in the Raquin residence.
This conflict between Thérès's inner and outer life is a recipe for disaster. After being paired up with the sickly Camille, of course Thérèse would want to unleash her pent-up passion with Laurent—the self-indulgent, highly sexualized Laurent.
But so far this all sounds like a typical melodramatic plotline, so what's the big deal? How is Zola's characterization of Thérèse any different from hundreds of other stories about adulterous women?
What's important to keep in mind here is that this work is part of the Naturalism. Naturalist novels are characterized by:
• detailed descriptions of the characters and settings
• an emphasis on scientific determinism. This means that characters are presented as having no free will because their actions are usually "determined" by heredity and their environments.
So Thérèse is an interesting character because Zola describes her actions as being determined exclusively by her heredity and her environment. Her "nervous" energy (inherited from her mother) and her stifling environment are the two factors that directly (and inevitably) cause her to commit adultery and murder. As Zola writes:
In Thérèse Raquin I set out to study temperaments. [...] I chose protagonists who were supremely dominated by their nerves and their blood, deprived of free will and drawn into every action of their lives by the predetermined lot of their flesh. Thérèse and Laurent are human animals, nothing more. (Preface.4)
So really, Thérèse isn't just a character—she's an argument for scientific determinism. Whoa, heavy.