«The Return of the Repressed»: Uncovering Family Secrets in Zola’s Fiction

An Interpretation of Selected Novels

by Rita Oghia-Codsi (Author)
Monographs VI, 325 Pages


This book analyses one of the many levels of complexity not readily apparent to the reader of Zola’s fiction: the question of the author’s family secrets. The novels addressed here present a variety of sub-textual issues highlighting Zola’s sexual insecurity and anxiety. Their analysis reveals a mystery related to female sexuality that pervades the narratives of Thérèse Raquin and La Fortune des Rougon, and that is silently transmitted in Madeleine Férat, La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret, La Bête humaine, La Curée, Nana, Le Docteur Pascal and Vérité.
The novels are explored from the standpoint of psychoanalytical criticism, a tool particularly appropriate for examining Zola’s language and illuminating the recurrent theme of «the Return of the repressed». Four psychoanalytical theories are adopted: Nicolas Abraham’s and Maria Toroks’ theories of psychic development (presenting the concept of the phantom) and Sigmund Freud’s and Jacques Lacan’s theories of infantile sexuality.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1: The Function of the Unconscious in the Selected Novels of Emile Zola
  • Chapter 2: The Death-Drive and the Return of the Repressed in La Fortune des Rougon, Thérèse Raquin and Madeleine Férat
  • Chapter 3: The Function of Dreams in La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret and La Bête humaine
  • Chapter 4: Prostitution and Nineteenth-Century ‘Female Discourse’ in La Curée and Nana
  • Chapter 5: The Connection between Gestation and Heredity in Le Docteur Pascal, or the Secret Exposed
  • Chapter 6: The Nature of Truth in Vérité
  • Chapter 7: Conclusion of Arguments Presented on Zola’s Language
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

← vi | vii →


I wish to thank the French Department at Royal Holloway University of London for its kind help and understanding during seven years of research. I would also like to show my special appreciation to my supervisors Dr Hannah Thompson and Professor Colin Davis for their help and support throughout my academic years and for believing in my theory on Zola.

This project is dedicated to my late parents, Irma and Maurice Oghia, without whom I would not have achieved all that I have thus far.

Not least, I would like to thank my husband Alexander, and my children, Claudia, Stephanie and Nathalie for putting up with me during those years and for supporting me throughout. ← vii | viii →

← viii | ix →


La Bête humaineBH[The Beast Within]
La Conquête de PlassansConquête[The Conquest of Plassans]
Le Docteur PascalDP[Doctor Pascal]
La Fortune des RougonFR[The Fortune of the Rougons]
La CuréeLC[The Kill]
La Faute de l’Abbé MouretLF[Abbé Mouret’s Transgression]
Madeleine FératMF
L’OeuvreOE[The Masterpiece]
Une Page d’amourPA[The Love Episode]
Thérèse RaquinTR

← ix | x →

← x | 1 →


The Function of the Unconscious in the Selected Novels of Emile Zola

This book explores selected novels from Emile Zola’s fiction and suggests that their creation is mediated by a repressed sexuality. This theme constitutes the subject matter of these works, because it relates to the unconscious and thus influences the ways the novels under examination operate. This book examines how the repressed functions in the texts under consideration and proposes that a mystery related to female sexuality pervades the narratives of La Fortune des Rougon and Thérèse Raquin. It argues that this is silently transmitted in Madeleine Férat, La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret, La Curée, Nana and La Bête humaine, and is exposed in Le Docteur Pascal and in Vérité.1

La Fortune des Rougon contains a mystery that is transmitted to the rest of the novels under consideration in this book. Marie’s tombstone and its origin, in La Fortune des Rougon, are fundamental to the choice of arguments presented here: her death highlights a secret lying in the catacombs of the Saint-Mittre cemetery and is connected to Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s theory of the crypt (discussed later in this chapter).

In Thérèse Raquin, while the main ‘secret’ in the plot is related to Camille’s murder and Thérèse’s betrayal, there is also another hidden below the surface of the text and arguably linked to the mystery of Thérèse’s origin. ← 1 | 2 → Indeed, in this novel the narrator does not offer precise details about Thérèse through the words of the fleeting character, Capitaine Degans, Thérèse’s father, the narrator simply tells the reader that she was brought from Algeria after her mother died. The narrator does not elaborate on the circumstances of why Thérèse is brought to her aunt for adoption, although it could be argued that as a single parent Capitaine Degans could not look after her and so favoured his sister as his daughter’s adoptive parent. Nevertheless, the tone of voice of Capitaine Degans is short, sharp, distant and austere in presenting his daughter to his sister: ‘Voici une enfant dont tu es la tante […]. Sa mère est morte […]. Moi je ne sais qu’en faire. Je te la donne’ (TR, p. 39) [‘Here is a child, and you are her aunt […]. Her mother is dead and I don’t know what to do with her. You can have her.’]. Capitaine Degans’s tone of voice, his brief and furtive appearance in the narrative and his hasty action in disposing of his daughter suggest that he is keeping a secret which he does not wish to reveal. This is supported by the subsequent actions of Madame Raquin, who tacitly takes the child, hardly questioning her brother about her niece’s origin, given only a vague answer by the narrator: ‘Elle [Madame Raquin] sut vaguement que la chère petite était née à Oran’ (p. 40) [‘She vaguely understood that the dear little creature was born in Oran.’].

I suggest that the mystery of Marie which pervades La Fortune des Rougon and that of Thérèse in Thérèse Raquin are silently transmitted in the rest of the texts under consideration (even if the latter novel does not belong to the same Rougon-Macquart series as the others), because the texts respond to the causes and effects which originate from the dramas of Marie and Thérèse. Gérard Genette defines this in novel writing as ‘transtextualité’ [‘transtextuality’], or ‘tout ce qui met un texte en relation, manifeste ou secrète, avec un autre’ [‘anything that establishes a connection, visible or secret, between two different texts’].2 Genette’s definition reinforces Zola’s Rougon-Macquart hereditary theme, one which is arguably related to female sexuality and is transmitted from novel to novel in the selected texts. I discuss Roy Jay Nelson’s theory of causal concept in narratives in a ← 2 | 3 → later section of this chapter, because it interrelates with the novels’ ‘transtextualité’ [‘transtextuality’], since it is due to a specific cause related to sexuality and to trauma that the series hereditary theme functions.3

The specific novels that I have chosen to study in this book are not the only ones among Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series that exhibit repressed sexuality and unsatisfied desire, but they are the texts that most strongly exemplify the issues of female sexuality, trauma and mystery that are central to my argument. Nonetheless, Zola’s repressed sexuality in general is arguably apparent in most of his fiction, including the other major novels that could not be included within the bounds of this project. Examples of outlying works that would likewise benefit from a psychoanalytical approach include Une Page d’amour, in which the Oedipal complex is apparent, reflected in the jealousy that Jeanne harbours towards her mother Helene Grandjean’s relationship with Dr Deberle. In Son Excellence Eugene Rougon, sexual frustrations, as well as sadism and masochism, are highlighted, especially in relation to Eugene’s failure to sexually possess Clorinde, his much younger female friend and ward. Zola’s novel Germinal also manifests sexual frustrations and an interest in paedophilia, which, I would argue, the narrator exhibits towards Catherine, his fifteen-year-old main female character. Le Ventre de Paris, La Terre, Pot-Bouille and L’Oeuvre all likewise highlight a repressed sexuality on the part of the characters. In L’Oeuvre, the reader senses that the protagonist Claude is jealous of women’s power to conceive, and makes use of his own artistic creativity to subdue his frustrations, with unsuccessful and deadly results. A psychoanalytical argument would investigate the reasons for Claude’s jealousy, possibly linking it to a lack of maternal nurture. In Le Ventre de Paris, sexual repression is primarily represented in the smell and taste of food outlets and fish markets, which, in my view, have a strong connection to female sexuality and to the narrator’s sexual desire. Finally, incest is an issue manifested in both La Terre and Pot-Bouille, and in the latter, moreover, female sexuality is represented as filth, and yet paradoxically portrayed as desirable. All of these additional ← 3 | 4 → instances of Zola’s repressed sexuality might warrant further study in relation to questions of psychoanalytical theory and the hidden aspects of literary texts, although they are not included in this work.

Zola’s texts have a level of complexity that is not readily apparent to the reader. The novels under consideration present the reader with greater sub-textual issues than they appear to indicate, because secrets are skilfully concealed in their narratives. Large parts of this research are devoted to investigating and analysing these elements. Indeed, I argue that Marie’s mystery, in La Fortune des Rougon, and her origin are related to a secret which is symbolized, in this novel, by the figure of Adelaïde Foucque’s ‘fêlure’ [‘flaw’]: Adelaïde is described by the narrator as having ‘un cerveau fêlé comme son père’ [‘an insanity like her father’s’] and, according to him, she committed ‘certaines actions que les plus fortes têtes du faubourg ne purent raisonnablement expliquer’ [‘certain acts that the well-to-do townspeople would not discuss’] (FR, p. 41). In this passage the narrator presents Adelaïde’s actions as ‘un mystère quelconque’ [‘some kind of mystery’] but does not reveal what the mystery is related to (p. 41). Although the narrator implies that Adelaïde’s mystery appears to be insignificant, or unimportant, as the adjective ‘quelconque’ [‘some’] suggests, he remains unwilling to reveal its nature to the reader.

Admittedly, Zola’s interest in hereditary degeneracy is linked to Adelaïde’s madness and to the period’s interest in psychiatry. Matt Reed quotes Robert Nye, who identifies the theory as ‘a medical model of cultural crisis’.4 According to Reed, ‘the power of heredity theory after 1850 and the popularity of degeneration as a scientific, medical and cultural metaphor at the fin de siècle must be understood as part of a more general preoccupation with progress and social change in nineteenth-century France’.5 Reed also remarks in the same work, ‘the criminal, the madman and the hysteric […] were considered as hereditary degenerates’ (p. 79). ← 4 | 5 → He refers to Robert Nye’s work on madness in nineteenth-century France, which demonstrates how the role of degenerative heredity contributed to the discovery of (sexual) perversion.6

Zola’s degenerative theory in the Rougon-Macquart highlights a preoccupation with a decadent Second Empire, with mental illness, prostitution, social change and attempts to present a ‘medico-moral narrative’.7 Yet, the narrator’s refusal to disclose the origin of Adelaïde’s mystery (and that of Marie as we will see in the following chapter) indicates that there is a secret which is hidden in the narratives of the chosen texts; it also points to the narrator’s unreliability or his complicity with Adelaïde in keeping a secret, since, once again, as he does with Thérèse’s origin, he is vague about the nature of Adelaïde’s madness and that of Marie’s death. Zola’s ‘scientific’ language in this novel does not show or tell the true origin of Adelaïde’s ‘fêlure’ [‘flaw’], as his naturalist project dictates.8 For Zola, however, the term ‘fêlure’ [‘flaw’], when applied to women, is arguably related to the mystery that permeates these novels and has a negative connotation as it is linked to feminine sexual transgression and, in turn, is connected to death.

Zola’s language deals with ‘secrets’, as Hannah Thompson also maintains.9 In her analysis of realist novels, Thompson argues that ‘literature has many guilty secrets which are hidden below the surface of the texts’.10 She maintains that secrets are ‘represented in literature of the nineteenth century as taboo’.11 She shows how this is appropriate in realist novels, and is particular to Zola, Georges Sand, Rachilde and Victor Hugo’s fiction.12 Thompson focuses on the ‘silenced’ sexuality of Sand and Rachilde, on Zola’s topic of ‘illness’ and diseased bodies in Lourdes, and on cruelty, torture and ← 5 | 6 → sadism in Savage’s poetry. She reads Zola’s novels, as well as those mentioned in her work, through ‘the prism of trauma’, which she maintains is hidden below the surface of the texts.13 Her argument revolves around potential secrets which the novels under her examination hold; she argues that they hide ‘a secret whilst revealing an act of censorship’.14 Thompson uses the reflexive potential of the figure of the taboo to ‘plot an alternative model of author–reader relation in Zola’s own writing practices [in order] to expose the taboo or the unspeakable that sits below the surface of the texts’,15 and focuses on what is hidden, rather than what is shown in the texts.

Whilst Thompson interprets how taboo is used as a means to represent the body in realist fiction, her work compares to some degree to mine, insofar as it relates to secrets which are hidden below the surface of Zola’s texts. However, unlike Thompson’s work, this book proposes that secrets, also functioning as taboo in this work, are linked to depraved female sexuality, which affects both male protagonists and the narrator. Although Zola’s purpose was to attack a corrupt Second Empire by paralleling its decadent behaviour with female sexuality, as Nana and La Curée highlight, I propose that these texts conceal secrets which are buried in the language and are cryptically encoded through a system of signs and signifiers which are in turn rhetorically and semantically inscribed in the language of the texts.

Since the aim of this study is to adopt a psycho-critical reading in conjunction with a deconstructive one, during the course of this examination of Zola’s language I shall identify the narrator’s voice in these novels with Sigmund Freud’s theory of ‘the return of the repressed’. In order to avoid any misunderstanding about the role that the narrator of the novels under consideration holds in relation to the author, I give later in this chapter a summary of what I believe is the function of the narrator in the selected texts, and highlight to what extent the narrator’s voice is related to that of the author; in other words, I show how the narrator’s voice is mediated by the author in placing both narrator and author at the same level, since I go ← 6 | 7 → beyond the fiction in presenting a psychoanalytical interpretation of the novels. Roland Barthes argues that once the author releases his work, he forfeits all claims to it. Barthes also believes that interpreting texts belongs purely to the interpretation of the linguistic rhetoric of the novels.16 He argues that ‘[a]s soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than […] the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin’.17 Barthes is correct in his distinction between author and narrator. According to him, the narrator is a fictive creation of the author whose figure in the text is no longer viable. Barthes replaces the author’s figure with that of ‘the scriptor who is born with the text’.18 Since I analyse the language in relation to the narrator’s discourse, I connect this discourse to the ‘return of the repressed’. In so doing, I account for the author’s influence over his narrator’s discourse because it arguably relates to the secret and fits in with the psychoanalytical interpretation of the selected novels (see below for further detail on the role of the narrator).

In respect to the secrets which I propose permeate Zola’s language, Jurate Kaminskas regards Zola’s realism as ‘un réalisme symbolique’ [‘symbolic realism’].19 Kaminskas cites Claude Seassau, who remarks that in Zola ‘il n’y a pas de réalisme que l’apparence; il [Zola] dissimule une vérité plus profonde’ [‘this realism is only a veneer; it conceals a deeply hidden truth’].20 Kaminskas stresses that Zola is holding secrets; she relates author to character in her examination of La Joie de vivre, La Terre and Pot-Bouille. In the same analysis, Kaminskas also refers to Jean Borie, who observes ← 7 | 8 → that Zola’s language projects ‘une logorrhée libératrice’ [‘a liberating logorrhea’] achieved through writing. Kaminskas shows how phrases which reflect a process of catharsis are present in Zola’s language. For example, the verbs ‘couler’ [‘seep’], ‘soulager’ [soothe’] and ‘lâcher’ [‘let go’] reinforce Borie’s argument for the beneficial process of catharsis in writing.21 Yet, in Le Roman expérimental [The Experimental Novel] Zola abnegates authorial involvement and sentimentality as this goes against his naturalist principles: he argues for the importance of the impartiality of the author, who should not judge and draw conclusions about his characters’ actions (p. 15). Hannah Thompson also highlights Zola’s ambivalence in his fiction. She remarks that ‘realism’s claim to objectivity and transparency is undermined by what is hidden in the body of the texts, focusing on the illegible body representation by realist writers’.22 In Chapter 2, I show that Zola fails to observe his own precepts in presenting Marie’s death as a mystery, since for him it is essential that the novelist’s objective is: ‘tout dire, tout voir, tout montrer’ [‘say all, see all, show all’].23 In La Joie de vivre [The Joys of Life], and in the novels under examination, Zola goes against his own precepts since he hides, as Seassau remarks ‘une vérité plus profonde’ [‘a deeply hidden truth’].24 My project follows this statement because the novels under examination reflect Zola’s control of his authorship as the omniscient narrator, given the ways he manipulates the narratives in order to conceal what is hidden and to control the lives of his female characters whilst hiding sexual anxieties.

Evidence of interplay which exists between the unconscious and creativity is brought forward by Andrew Brink, who shows that ‘creativity as biologically programmed adaptation to anxiety is generated in the psychic process and is reinforced by traumatic interpersonal relations’. ← 8 | 9 →25 As discussed, this study adopts both psychoanalytic and deconstructive readings in investigating Zola’s language. This choice of critical theories originates not simply from the argument made, but also from the fact that I regard ‘literature [as] encompass[ing] all human behaviour and symbolic actions’, as Peter Brooks shows in relating psychoanalysis to the study of literature.26 ‘Brooks believes that reading literature through the lens of psychoanalytic criticism allows for a full appreciation of the power of the unconscious in relation to literary texts’. He also likens the reader and the text to the analyst and the analysand. In citing Simon Lesser on the relationship that exists between literature and psychoanalysis, Brooks agrees with Lesser that psychoanalysis ‘provides a way to “explore the deepest levels of meaning” of the greatest fiction’.27

Shoshana Felman also makes a connection between literature and psychoanalytic criticism. She remarks that literature and psychoanalysis are bodies of knowledge that ‘need to maintain an open dialogue’ in their relationship.28 The task of a literary critic, Felman argues, is to ‘engage in a real dialogue between literature and psychoanalysis, as between two different bodies of language and two different modes of knowledge’.29 Felman believes that literature’s function is to serve precisely the desire of psychoanalytical theory and insists that texts work as transference between the author and the reader, who in turn ‘occupies the place of a psychoanalyst’.30 In representing narrative truth as a linguistic phenomenon, Michael Riffaterre urges the reader ‘not to confuse the unconscious of fiction with the unconscious of the author or of the reader; the latter accessible to psychoanalysis, the ← 9 | 10 → former to semanalysis’.31 It is true that analysing the (human) unconscious belongs to the realm of clinical psychology, yet Riffaterre proposes that ‘there is an unconscious of the text that works like a human unconscious’.32 He maintains that the ‘unconscious of fiction is related to instances of presuppositions’ in that ‘if the unconscious harbors in symbolic and cryptic forms a truth that we repress at the conscious level, [the] unconscious is therefore assumed to stand in regard to appearances; consequently, whenever the texts seem to hide something, that something is supposed to be true’.33 Felman’s observation that the function of literature is to serve the desire of psychoanalysis corresponds to Riffaterre’s work on fictional truth, in that the linguistic phenomenon that is found in narratives is reflected in Zola’s language as a ‘système de connexions multiples qu’on pourrait décrire comme une structure de réseaux paragrammatiques’ [‘a system of multiple connections which we could describe as a structure of paragrammatical networks’], as Julia Kristeva observes.34 Kristeva believes that ‘[t]out texte se construit comme mosaïque de citations, tout texte est absorbation et transformation d’un autre texte’ [‘any text is a mosaic of quotations, any text only absorbs and transforms another one’].35 Substantially psychoanalytically and semantically oriented, this project refers to the signifier as a linguistic referent which, it argues, is linked to the unconscious. Indeed, by means of both critical analyses, I merge the unconscious of the texts with the human unconscious because I can extract, through this process, the signifier, which, in turn, points me to the mystery that exists in the texts, since creative writing often relies on ‘presuppositions’. ← 10 | 11 →36

There are other critics who have also explored different representations of psychic organization in relation to psychoanalytic criticism, for example ego-psychology, object relations theory, phenomenology, structuralism theory, reader-response criticism and feminist theories, as demonstrated by Elizabeth Wright in her review of different psychoanalytic approaches.37 Ruth Anthony El Saffar and Diana de Arma Wilson have linked psychoanalysis with literature.38 In their work, they offer a collection of individual essays which examine selected aspects of Cervantes’s fiction in representing a variety of psychoanalytical criticisms: Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Karl Gustave Jung and Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, as well as Jacques Derrida, form part of their examination. They argue that their work on psychic development and on the phantom in relation to Cervantes’s work ‘illustrates how psychoanalysis both helps to explain and is itself explained by the novels as a form […] [and that] psychoanalytic criticism nonetheless assumes a grounding in the unconscious. Such a grounding moors the reading in matters that […] make sense of the otherwise unchecked play of the signifier’.39 Andrew Bush’s understanding of the unconscious in this collection of essays is also relevant to this project: Bush examines how Abraham and Torok’s theory of the phantom and their allied concept of the crypt are related to their own clinical experience with melancholia.40 When relating the crypt to melancholia, Bush also makes a connection with Freud’s death-drive in The Pleasure Principle. I will also make a connection between Abraham and Torok’s theory and Freud’s work on melancholia and infantile sexuality and argue that they function as a dual unity in Zola’s fiction, especially when I relate Freud’s theory of infantile sexual ← 11 | 12 → development to the examinations of Thérèse Raquin and Madeleine Férat, as well as La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret and La Bête humaine.

Gabriele Rippl and Philipp Schweighausser have shown how traumatic events and situations that have affected some writers are present in their works. They focus on how phantoms linger and haunt some narratives and to what extent the texts discussed in their collection of works face such phantoms.41 The authors’s work intersects a variety of psychic theories, mainly Abraham and Torok’s work on transgenerational haunting and Jacques Derrida’s Spectres de Marx [Spectres of Marx].42 I argue that trauma is transmitted to Serge, who inherits Adelaïde’s ‘détraquement nerveux’ [‘nervous ailment’] and who subsequently manifests sexual anxieties in La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret, and compare these characters with Jacques in La Bête humaine. Consequently, this points to the existence of a phantom, one who permeates the language and is lodged in the unconscious, and is unspeakable, but is silently transmitted from text to text.

Kate Griffiths investigates the presence of feminine ghosts in Zola’s novels as metaphors of writing.43 She rightly argues that Zola’s writing ‘stages the return of a dispossessed femininity, in order to query the self-possession of masculinity’.44 In her work, Griffiths observes that ‘Zola’s novels come to conceive of a truth beyond “truth”, of a reality beyond the “reality” that they ostensibly represent’.45 Griffiths’s argument in relation ← 12 | 13 → to the presence of a female ghost in Zola’s novels is pertinent to my evaluation of the phantom in Zola’s fiction, because its haunting image helps me to unearth the narrator’s anxieties in relation to sexuality. Griffiths connects to Zola’s writing the ghostly feminine presence, which she argues he employs as a metaphor to describe women. Griffiths also remarks that ‘each of [Zola’s] novels contains an example of “le fantôme de la femme”’ [‘the female phantom’], a female figure trapped in the margins of scriptural existence’.46 Indeed, through this staging, Zola reflects a trauma related to femininity, since it is ‘via femininity, its ink on pages, that masculinity prints the books of its being’.47 I show how Zola re-enacts, through writing, the drama of secrets in using the indelible ‘ink’ that his female ghost leaves behind in the texts under examination. Since each novel contains ‘le fantôme de la femme’, I explain how it permeates the texts for analysis by attempting to extract the mystery which lies beyond the novels. Indeed, I demonstrate, through the narrator’s point of view, how female identity becomes the focus of the narrator’s attention, since its presence acts out the return of a ghostly femininity. This is characterized principally in the formation of a hereditary female line whose sexual malfunction haunts the novels under examination. Zola creates this type of identity in his female protagonists because female sexuality has contributed not only to trauma in terms of patriarchal construct in nineteenth-century perceptions of women, but also to personal anxieties. I discuss the link that exists between this contemporary patriarchal construct and the ‘private’ perceptions of the narrator in Chapter 4, where I examine the ways in which Renée’s sexuality is represented in La Curée and Nana’s in Nana.

When recounting ghosts in literature, Griffiths and Evans also refer to Zola’s 1892 novel La Débâcle [The Downfall] and rightly argue that Zola presents the reader in this novel with ‘ghost-like’ images in order to represent ‘[r]eality[, which] appears spectral at times’.48 Griffiths’s argument is ← 13 | 14 → appropriate to the ‘spectral’ description of Thérèse in the first part of Thérèse Raquin. I discuss this important element that exists in the text in Chapter 2, which deals with the haunting aspect of the novel. For Griffiths, however, what seems to be at first a return from beyond the grave is ‘subsequently explained and rationalized’, because ‘authors and artists, in very different areas, use the spectral as a means to evaluate their own artistic act’.49 It is true that Zola evaluates his own artistic act; in making use of the spectral, especially in La Fortune des Rougon, Thérèse Raquin and Le Docteur Pascal, he explores the ways in which he is haunted by a ghostly femininity because his artistry is connected to the repressed.

In this work on Zola’s language I apply the concept of the phantom that originates from a reading of Abraham and Torok’s work on the theory of the phantom, which emerged when they analysed the behaviour of patients in their clinical practice. In terms of their theory, which functions in relation to the unconscious, they configured this concept as designating a shameful secret silently transmitted to someone else in whom it lodges without his or her knowledge.50 For them the phantom ‘represents a radical orientation of Freudian and post-Freudian theory of psychopathology, since […] symptoms do not spring from an individual’s own life experience, but from someone else’s psychic conflicts, trauma and secrets’.51 I give further details on Abraham and Torok’s theory of the phantom later in this chapter, but also provide my own interpretation of how the phantom is transmitted in the texts. I explore the theoretical and interpretative implications that the phantom holds in Zola’s narratives, because I strongly believe that it supports both my analysis of the texts and the arguments presented herein. Although I use Abraham and Torok’s theory, I develop it outside their clinical emphasis and context. I speculate on my reading of trauma, since a communication process passes between my interpretation of the texts and the unconscious of the novels.52 Subsequently, I offer tentative arguments in ← 14 | 15 → the reading of the texts and suggest that the narrator’s discourse manifests psychic conflicts, trauma and secrets, when sexuality is involved. In other words, I show how the texts offer an opportunity to examine the narrator’s unconscious in relation to his discourse. Through this process I demonstrate that an unconscious network of affects (or transference) passes between the narrator, the author of these texts and the reader (see the section in this chapter titled ‘The Role of the Narrator’ for further detail).

This work is not scientifically based, but nevertheless insists on the relationship that exists between Zola’s texts and psychoanalysis. I maintain throughout this project an open dialogue between these two bodies of knowledge. Indeed, I concentrate on showing that secrets are encrypted in the language of the texts. I look for something left unsaid in the texts for analysis by uncovering various manifestations of the unconscious in the narrator’s discourse, since, for Lacan, the unconscious is the discourse of the other and the other is the text, or the narrative discourse. As well as Abraham and Torok’s theory of the phantom, I also adopt Freud’s and Lacan’s theories of infantile sexuality, because they relate to language, which in turn is linked to the subject. I believe their theories in relation to language and the unconscious are significant to this investigation, as I also associate Zola’s work with the Freudian Oedipal scenario, the interpretation of dreams, the primal scene, object relation theory, symptoms-formation (through symbols) and infantile sexuality, as well as Lacan’s imaginary and symbolic concepts. Although Abraham and Torok disagree with Freud’s theories of the Oedipus complex, the death drive, penis envy and the primal scene, they also oppose Lacan’s concepts of the imaginary and the symbolic.53 They accept, however, Freud’s theory about infantile sexuality, the unconscious, dream interpretations and the importance of transference in psychoanalytical situations. With regard to the theory of the phantom that ‘haunts’ the novels under consideration in this study, I also guide the reader to Derrida’s work on the phantom, especially his work Spectres de ← 15 | 16 → Marx [Spectres of Marx]. I show how Derrida responds to Abraham and Torok’s theory of the phantom, but also highlight the differences that exist between their theories (see below).

In conclusion to this section, the psychoanalytical reading of the selected novels will show that there is some evidence to suggest that Zola was haunted by secrets. I will present arguments which will be supported by the texts; any biographical details referred to are used to explain what the texts suggest, rather than to assert that this is what happened in the novelist’s life. The aim of this work is to propose, rather than to claim that some passages in the texts under consideration are comparable to events which may have taken place in the novelist’s life.

Zola’s Critics

Claude Seassau comments that ‘Zola considère le réel comme des palimpsestes qu’il faut gratter pour découvrir ce qu’il cache. Ses romans sont à l’image de cette conception, il convient de la gratter comme des palimpsestes pour découvrir ce que cache leur réalisme’ [‘Zola sees realist novels as palimpsests that must be scratched in order to unveil what their realism conceals. His novels follow that notion: they have to be scratched at like palimpsests in order to discover what their realism is hiding’].54 I ‘scratch’ the surface of the language in order to extract, as Kaminskas suggests, ‘des éléments qui se trouvent au centre de son [Zola’s] imaginaire et qui définissent sa manière particulière’ [‘elements that are central to Zola’s creative imagination and which define his art’].55 Colette Becker also remarks that ‘Le conte et la nouvelle permettent […] d’exprimer par le biais de la fiction, ce qu’on ne peut pas dire ouvertement’ [‘Zola’s short stories express through ← 16 | 17 → fiction what cannot be openly said’].56 Robert Zeigler finds a relationship between the author of La Joie de vivre and Lazare, Zola’s male protagonist in this novel.57 He argues that ‘biography and creativity should have emerged as the theme of the novel’.58 I also suggest that Zola’s creativity can be merged with some events in his life, as Chapters 2, 5, and 6 propose when I analyse Marie’s mystery in La Fortune des Rougon and that of Thérèse in Thérèse Raquin, Madeleine Férat, Le Docteur Pascal and Vérité.

Esther Rashkin also explores the possible relationship between family secrets and the psychoanalysis of narratives.59 She relies, as well, on Abraham and Torok’s theory of the phantom, of which she gives a comprehensive and noteworthy examination. She studies the haunting effect that a sealed secret may have over subsequent generations of families in literary texts, and adopts Abraham and Torok’s method of the phantom, especially their discussion of secrets. Indeed, she investigates the presence of phantoms in given literary texts. To sustain her theory, she also highlights rhetorical modes of concealment ‘previously unknown to literary criticism, such as symbols and cryptonyms’.60 Rashkin supports her theory with literary examples, but foregrounds the markedly different approaches that Abraham and Torok take in the examination of Shakespeare’s Hamlet compared to those of Ernest Jones and Jacques Lacan. It is widely believed that Hamlet reflects the Oedipus complex in relation to his mother and his jealousy towards Claudius. Nevertheless, Rashkin highlights the difference between Freud, Lacan and Jones’s interpretations of Hamlet’s reactions to the murder of his father and reflects their inclinations to follow the Oedipus complex and the imaginary and symbolic ← 17 | 18 → analyses in relation to Hamlet’s behaviour.61 Rashkin’s interest lies in the examination of how phantoms can be concealed rhetorically and linguistically within literature, but her attention is focused on how the phantoms’ concealed presence is detected and exposed as a driving force behind the actions and discourse of certain characters. She gives an in-depth analysis of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, Auguste de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s L’Intersigne, Honoré de Balzac’s Facino Cane, Henry James’s The Jolly Corner and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. In exploring these works of literature, Rashkin shows how the theory of the phantom or the secrets of the characters’ ancestors are exposed in the characters’ discourse with each other and how the secrets affect their discourse. Rashkin points out the visible elements in the characters’ narrative that indicate that a secret is present: she identifies traces in highlighting encrypted signs, signifiers which point to the latter, symptoms and codes, as well as stressing words which she believes ‘have been pressed, squeezed, inscribed and deformed’, words which she transforms and calls ‘homophony’ in order to reflect a different meaning. For example, in her analysis of L’Intersigne, Rashkin deforms the words ‘tombe’ [‘tomb’] and ‘eau’ [‘water’] into ‘tombeau’ [‘tombstone’] to uncover the ‘cryptonym’ that is hidden behind these words. In this way, she brings us to the secret which belongs to L’Intersigne, as tombe [‘tomb’], eau [‘water’] and tombeau [‘tombstone’] are, she argues, connected by a concealed sign, the homophone, or the sound of the word, which suggests something other than what it is.62 For her all these elements point to an unspeakable family drama in those novels, which is ‘cryptically’ inscribed in the characters’ discourse as well as in the homophony that some words in the narrative express. Her analysis is relevant to this study since her work explores family secrets in narratives in relation to psychoanalytic and deconstructive criticisms, but is however distinctive from mine insofar as she studies the haunting effects of a secret passed onto characters in narratives which they then expose in their discourse. The difference between my project and that of Rashkin lies in the importance that she gives to characters who expose their secrets in ← 18 | 19 → their discourse. I concentrate on showing that the secrets which permeate Zola’s texts are passed onto his characters without their knowledge: it is the narrator’s discourse that unveils them through encrypted linguistic signs.


VI, 325
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. VI, 325 pp.

Biographical notes

Rita Oghia-Codsi (Author)

Rita Oghia-Codsi obtained a doctorate in nineteenth-century French studies from Royal Holloway, University of London for a thesis on the return of the female phantom in selected novels from Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. Her main research interests are the relationship between psychoanalysis and literature, feminist literary theory, comparative literature and the history of philosophy. Her recent publications include ‘Exploring the Origins of Creativity in Zola’s La Fortune des Rougon’, for the Bulletin of the Emile Zola Society. She is currently working on Henry James, Octave Mirbeau and Emile Zola.


Title: «The Return of the Repressed»: Uncovering Family Secrets in Zola’s Fiction