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French Ecocriticism

From the Early Modern Period to the Twenty-First Century

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Edited By Daniel A. Finch-Race and Stephanie Posthumus

This book expounds fruitful ways of analysing matters of ecology, environments, nature, and the non-human world in a broad spectrum of material in French. Scholars from Canada, France, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States examine the work of writers and thinkers including Michel de Montaigne, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Arthur Rimbaud, Marguerite Yourcenar, Gilbert Simondon, Michel Serres, Michel Houellebecq, and Éric Chevillard. The diverse approaches in the volume signal a common desire to bring together form and content, politics and aesthetics, theory and practice, under the aegis of the environmental humanities.

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Fauves in the Faubourg: Animal Aesthetics in Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (Claire Nettleton)

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Claire Nettleton

Fauves in the Faubourg: Animal Aesthetics in Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin

Abstract: In the second preface to Thérèse Raquin (1867), Émile Zola expresses his novelistic mission to observe the ‘beastly’ characters of Thérèse and Laurent, and to ‘chercher en eux la bête’. While this section of the preface is traditionally read as a degradation of the characters as subhuman, I inquire whether presenting Thérèse and Laurent as animals could be the basis of an empowering and revolutionary non-anthropocentric aesthetic. On one hand, Zola’s deterministic and singular view of animals reduces behaviour to the primal drives of bestial lust and bloodthirsty wrath. On the other, this set of supposedly negative characteristics shocks traditional artistic sensibilities and humanist claims to superiority over other creatures. In this regard, Zola’s Naturalism, which considers characters’ milieu, heredity and animal instincts, brings together contemporary scholarly concerns that redirect our focus beyond a uniquely human experience. In my analysis of Thérèse Raquin, I integrate the work of Michel Serres, who expands our approach to literary criticism by shifting our attention beyond human-centred readings of texts, and the work of Gilles Deleuze, who affirms animals as a creative rupture from the status quo. I argue that Zola creates a radical aesthetic that erodes the thin façade of civilisation by focussing on non-human forces lingering alongside and within mankind, yet the limitations of the time period mean that such non-human forces are very much a humanist construction. Taking account of negative depictions of animals and nature in the novel, I assert that an examination of Thérèse Raquin in its own eco-historical context allows us to discover the seeds of an artistic revolution that is, in many ways, non-anthropocentric.

Beyond factory smokestacks, past the ramparts of the bustling capital, a woman and two men lie on the banks of the Seine basking in the sun. What could be a tranquil scene akin to Gustave Courbet’s Les Demoiselles des bords de la Seine (1857) or Édouard Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863) erupts in deadly violence as one man, overcome with passion, drowns the other. Such is the story of Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867), in which Thérèse and her lover Laurent, a brutish artist, conspire to kill Camille, a pale bureaucrat who fears the natural world, and who comes to haunt the adulterers. This early tale of murder and desire, Zola’s third novel, and a precursor to his twenty-part Rougon-Macquart series, is a classic that has inspired numerous critiques. According to John Lapp, the Seine is a ← 81 | 82 → theatrical backdrop and a symbol of death.1 Could the river actually be read as a river, though, an essential part of the ecosystem, which becomes tainted once it flows into the city? Zola presents the outskirts of Saint-Ouen, annexed to Paris in 1860, as a space of untrammelled nature that unleashes supposedly ‘animal instincts’.

In the second preface to Thérese Raquin, which addresses outraged critics, Zola declares that his mission as a novelist was to examine the loutish characters of Thérèse and Laurent; to ‘chercher en eux la bête, ne voir même que la bête, les jeter dans un drame violent et noter scrupuleusement les sensations et les actes de ces êtres [seek within them the animal, even to see in them only the animal, to plunge them together in a violent drama and then take scrupulous note of their sensations and actions]’.2 Zola explains that the lovers are ‘des brutes humaines, rien de plus [Thérèse and Laurent are human animals, nothing more]’ (Z 8; R 1–2) because they are guided by their passions and instincts. This section of the preface is traditionally read as a degradation of the characters into a subhuman, and thus inferior, condition. My chapter, by contrast, poses the question of whether presenting Thérèse and Laurent as animals could be empowering and the basis of a radical, non-anthropocentric aesthetic. Zola’s impressionistic novel undermines human emotions, values and achievements, and underscores animal functioning. In this regard, Zola’s writing mirrors the concerns of contemporary animal studies, which destabilise humanist claims to superiority over other creatures. I argue that Zola creates a revolutionary aesthetic, which erodes the thin façade of civilisation, by focussing on non-human forces that linger alongside and within mankind – such forces nonetheless remain a human construction due to the limitations of the period.

Zola’s determinist argument essentialises animal nature as a fixed set of primitive drives. Such a reductionist perspective neither encapsulates the infinite variety of a multitude of species and individual beings (as famously theorised by Jacques Derrida),3 nor does it suggest the harmonious possibilities of cross-species companionship (as suggested by Susan McHugh).4 Zola’s view – that beyond the ← 82 | 83 → surface of refined humans dwells an ‘inner animal’ waiting to claw itself free – arose, in part, from physiological theory that was circulating at the time.5 Zola had read Clémence Royer’s translation of Darwin’s The Origin of Species,6 and it can be argued, as Ross Shideler does, that Zola’s particularly Darwinian view of animal nature, which ‘narrativized humans within a physically determined universe’, is biocentric because he ‘was the first modern novelist to treat his characters as and not like animals’.7

Animals in French ecocriticism

How can our examination of theriomorphs in Zola’s œuvre enrich our understanding of French ecocriticism? The interest in animals during the nineteenth century in scientific and literary texts did not appear in a vacuum; rather, it occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The loss of wildlife, coupled with the advent of theories of evolution, caused nineteenth-century citizens to re-evaluate their connection with other species of life. Lawrence Buell has highlighted the lack of attention given to animals in ecocritical discourse,8 yet the two disciplines should be considered synergic due to their focus on a shared life amongst a multitude of species. The battle between Laurent and Camille mirrors the conflict between wildlife and civilisation in Haussmannian Paris. The men’s struggle brings to mind Michel Serres’s analysis of Goya’s Men Fighting with Sticks (1823), in which two men fight in quicksand. Although we concentrate on the two opponents, the focus should be the marsh into which they are plunging. Serres’s notion, when applied to literary theory, shifts the emphasis away from human-centred readings of texts – allowing us to take notice of characters’ interactions with each other and the earth. ‘Quicksand is swallowing the duelists, the river is threatening the fighter: earth, waters, and climate, the mute world, the voiceless things once placed as a décor ← 83 | 84 → surrounding the usual spectacles, all those things that never interested anyone, from now on thrust themselves brutally and without warning into our schemes and maneuvers’.9 The forces of nature are more than a mere setting of a plot; they are an integral part of the story.

In Haussmannian Paris, however, wilderness was difficult to find. In Zola’s story, the characters are confined to move between the city and its outskirts. Jennifer Forrest has noted that, in Decadent fiction, the suburbs – or what she calls ‘faux-bourgs’, wooded ramparts that are not quite dense forests – were marginal spaces between city and country that gave the illusion of nature.10 Given that Thérèse Raquin takes place in Parisian environs, and it presents the human animal as deadly, carnal and base, should the novel be considered within the framework of animal studies and, more broadly, the discipline of ecocriticism? Daniel Finch-Race and Julian Weber argue that the nineteenth century produced particularly fruitful works of literature due to the newfound awareness of environmental encroachment.11 This crisis regarding humans’ relationship to their ecological milieu is the source of a revolutionary aesthetic that sought to unveil the human animal. Zola writes in the preface to the second edition that Thérèse Raquin is ‘l’étude du tempérament et des modifications profondes de l’organisme sous la pression des milieux et des circonstances [the study of the temperaments and the profound modifications brought about in the human organism by the pressure of surroundings and circumstances]’ (Z 12; R 5). Zola’s view parallels the perspective of German biologist Ernst Haeckel, who in 1866 introduced the term ‘ecology’ to mean ‘the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment, including, in the broad sense, all the conditions of existence’.12 Zola’s naturalism, which considers characters’ milieu, heredity and animal instincts brings together contemporary scholarly concerns, which redirect our focus beyond a uniquely human experience.

Zola’s literary aesthetic attempted to bridge the chasm between man and nature by examining humans within a complex web of life, and by revealing animal instincts within man. Zola claims to apply an experimental methodology to ← 84 | 85 → literature, just as Claude Bernard did with medicine,13 recording the supposedly observable and objective physical functioning of a subject in relation to its ‘intra-organic’ milieu.14 Influenced by Hippolyte Taine, Darwin and Honoré de Balzac’s concept that humans are animals shaped by environmental conditioning, Zola claims that Man is ‘une bête pensante, qui fait partie de la grande nature qui est soumise aux multiples influences du sol où elle vit [a thinking animal that takes part in the great nature that is subject to the multiple influences of the ground where one lives]’.15 I will elucidate the ways in which Zola’s work reveals the point of intersection between animal and man.

Contemporary animal theorists have argued that theriomorphic imagery is not a mere metaphor for human existence.16 Although critics tend to focus on contemporary anglophone literature, I wish to examine animal concerns within a nineteenth-century French literary context. In the introduction to French Thinking about Animals, Stephanie Posthumus and Louisa Mackenzie dispel the belief that French intellectuals have been disinterested in animals due to post-Cartesian biases.17 Since the nineteenth century, animals have played a central role in French art by destabilising dominant perspectives: Courbet placed an angora cat at the heart of his masterpiece L’Atelier du peintre (1855), which reflects the unpredictable spirit of the avant-garde.

I propose that we look to the ways in which French vanguard aesthetic theories blur the divide between human and non-human life. The parallels between the novel and paintings of the nineteenth century avant-garde have been noted by scholars such as Lapp, who proposes that Laurent is an amalgam of Claude Monet and Zola’s childhood friend Paul Cézanne. I expand upon Susan Harrow’s interpretation of Thérèse Raquin as a ‘conflict between cultural norms and instinctual behaviour’18 by proposing a reading that focusses on dichotomies between ← 85 | 86 → urban/rural environments and human/animal subjects, and their relationship to the creative process.

Thérèse Raquin can be read alongside works by Deleuze and Guattari that affirm animals as a creative rupture from the status quo. It is useful to discuss the similarities and differences between Zola’s avant-garde aesthetic, manifested in Laurent’s works of art, and the notion of ‘becoming-animal’19 within the context of Francis Bacon’s paintings from the mid-twentieth century. According to Deleuze, the painter’s violent images of cuts of meat are examples of a painting of sensation that induce horror and pity. Deleuze also notes that Bacon’s work operates a system that encloses a figure in a particular space. The relationship between figure and field is not metaphorical; it illustrates the subject’s interdependence with its environment. ‘If the fields function as a background, they do so by virtue of their strict correlation with the Figures. It is the correlation of two sectors on a single plane, equally close’.20 I assert that Zola creates a literary ‘painting of sensation’ that shocks bourgeois sensibilities and undermines aesthetic principles. It is difficult to designate the fictional character of Laurent as a vanguard radical whose art overturns traditional human(ist) values. I nonetheless assert that by examining Thérèse Raquin with its own eco-historical context in mind, we will discover the seeds of an artistic revolution that is, in many ways, non-anthropocentric.

Urban Paris

The year of 1867, four years after Manet’s Olympia and five years after the French translation of The Origin of Species, witnessed a wealth of societal and cultural transitions: Haussmann’s urban reconfigurations were redefining the concept of nature as something distant and removed from daily life; the city doubled in size, devouring fields in its wake; urbanites experienced a longing to reconnect with wildlife because they felt detached from nature; jaunts to the outskirts of Paris for picnicking and play became a popular literary and artistic subject.21 Zola’s texts, and their visual counterpart in Realist and proto-Impressionist paintings, sought to reveal a primal communion with the environment that was lost in daily life. ← 86 | 87 →

Thérèse Raquin transitions from a bucolic tale to a horrific gothic novel after Madame Raquin, Camille and Thérèse move from quaint Vernon to the centre of Paris. The story’s dark and sinister backdrop is rooted in historical accounts of pollution: by 1845, over three hundred French industries were categorised as unsanitary, inconvenient or dangerous facilities; pollution from steam engines and factories was causing paint to chip, and materials to fade.22 The Raquins’ boutique apotheosises this urban hell: ‘par les beaux jours d’été, quand un lourd soleil brûle les rues, une clarté blanchâtre tombe des vitres très sales et traine misérablement dans le passage [on fine summer days when the sun beats oppressively down on the streets outside, a pallid light filters in through the filthy panes and lingers miserably in the passage]’ (Z 9; R 7). The shop is a battleground between lightness and darkness; sunshine struggles to penetrate the sullied interior. This contrast is not merely a symbolic war between good and evil, or a well-crafted chiaroscuro for purely aesthetic reasons. I propose that the darkness illustrates the genuine threat of pollution and urban filth (‘sales’).

Thérèse’s nature

For Zola, the non-human is a space of temporary liberation from societal and creative constraints. Thérèse embodies the frustrated condition of the nineteenth-century citizen who yearns to return to nature, but cannot escape the stifling confines of the social order. The product of an affair between Madame Raquin’s brother and the beautiful daughter of an Algerian tribal chieftain, Thérèse emblematises the stereotype of being wild and close to nature. This description of Thérèse reveals naturalism’s problematic determinism. Zola suggests that the native Algerian possesses a singular and fixed ‘natural essence’, largely repressed by the conventions of Western civilisation, but occasionally resurfacing. For Deleuze and Guattari, ‘becoming-animal’ is never a ‘natural state’ but rather a continual process of transformation that has no origin.23 Zola’s novel, by contrast, idealises a so-called ‘primitive’ state akin to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s bon sauvage [good savage]: ‘j’avais des besoins de grand air; toute petite, je rêvais de courir les chemins, les pieds nus dans la poussière, demandant l’aumône, ← 87 | 88 → vivant en bohémienne [I had a desperate need for wide-open spaces; as a little girl, I dreamt of roaming barefoot along dusty roads, begging alms and living the life of a gypsy]’ (Z 59; R 37). Thérèse expresses nostalgia for a pre-industrial era that manifests itself as memories of Algeria or the town of Vernon.

Thérèse also experiences a kinship with Saint-Ouen: ‘Saint-Ouen, avec ces îles vertes, lui rappelait Vernon; elle y sentait se réveiller toutes les amitiés sauvages qu’elle avait eues pour la Seine, étant jeune fille [Saint-Ouen and its green islands reminded her of Vernon; when she was there, all the wild affection she had felt for the Seine as a young girl was reawakened within her]’ (Z 86; R 57–8). Zola presents a fantasy of the outskirts as wild forests, in which a non-Parisian may feel in harmony with the pulse of life. The Seine is wild in Vernon, vicious in Saint-Ouen, and tame in Paris, where it flows by the Raquins’ boutique. Thérèse, like the river, is tamed in Paris, and ordered to be silent and docile:

Je ne pouvais bouger, ma tante grondait que je fais trop de bruit… plus tard, j’ai goûté des joies profondes dans la petite maison du bord de l’eau; mais j’étais déjà abêtie, je ne savais à peine marcher, je tombais lorsque je courais. Puis, on m’a enterrée toute vive dans cette ignoble boutique.

[I couldn’t even move around; my aunt used to scold me whenever I made a noise… Later on, I did have a taste of real joy, in the little house by the river, but by then I had already been too much repressed; I could hardly walk and I fell whenever I tried to run. Then they buried me alive in this awful shop.] (Z 59; R 38)

Thérèse is like a caged animal that, if briefly freed, no longer has the skills or the bodily strength to function in the wild, and is rendered non-functional by being deprived of her environment.

Zola’s scalpel-pen supposedly unveils Thérèse’s ‘natural instincts’, temporarily suppressed by Madame Raquin’s conditioning, when Thérèse experiences the garden at Vernon:

Quand elle était seule, dans l’herbe, au bord de l’eau, elle se couchait à plat ventre comme une bête, les yeux noirs et agrandis, le corps tordu, près de bondir. Et elle restait là, pendant des heures, ne pensant à rien, mordue par le soleil, heureuse d’enfoncer ses doigts dans la terre.

[When she was down by the water’s edge on her own she would lie full-length in the grass like an animal, her black eyes wide open, her body twisted in readiness to pounce. And there she would stay for hours, thinking about nothing in particular, feeling the bite of the sun’s rays on her body, happy just to dig her fingers into the earth.] (Z 33; R 14)

Sprinkling a series of prepositions alongside natural elements (‘Dans l’herbe’; ‘au bord de l’eau’; ‘par le soleil’; ‘dans la terre’), Zola emphasises the importance of the character’s environment to her physical being (‘les yeux noirs et grandis, le corps ← 88 | 89 → tordu’; ‘enfoncer ses doigts’). By interacting with the river, the grass, the earth and the sun, Thérèse returns to a so-called ‘animal’ state.

It can be argued that Thérèse and Laurent temporarily experience freedom from cultural constraints in their animal-like metamorphoses. When Camille provokes Thérèse, ‘la jeune fille se releva d’un bond avec une sauvagerie de bête, et la face ardente, les yeux rouges, elle se précipita sur lui, les deux bras levés [she leapt up at once like a wild animal, with her cheeks red and eyes blazing with anger, and threw herself on him with both fists raised]’ (Z 27; R 16). The novel portrays Thérèse as a foreign creature, whose instinct to hunt is never fully sublimated. Darwin writes in The Origin of Species that ‘all wolves, foxes, jackals and species of the cat genus, when kept tame, are most eager to attack poultry, sheep and pigs; and this tendency has been found incurable in dogs which have been brought home as puppies from countries such as Tierra del Fuego and Australia’.24 Zola depicts Thérèse as a species of feline whose lethal impulses resist domestication.

When Thérèse and Laurent engage in a sexual liaison in front of the Raquins’ tabby François, Thérèse imagines the cat’s account of the event:

‘Monsieur et Madame s’embrassent très-fort dans la chambre; ils ne sont pas méfiés de moi, mais comme leurs amours criminels me dégoûtent, je vous prie de les faire mettre en prison tous les deux; ils ne troubleront plus ma sieste.’

Thérèse plaisantait comme un enfant, elle mimait le chat, elle allongeait les mains en façon de griffes, elle donnait à ses épaules des ondulations félines.

[‘Monsieur and Madame get up to all sorts of naughty things together in the bedroom; they take no notice of me, but since their illicit affair makes me sick, please put them both in prison so they won’t disturb my nap in the future.’

Thérèse joked about like a child, imitating the cat by stretching out her fingers into claws and rolling her shoulders in feline undulations.] (Z 53; R 41)

Lethbridge argues that a contemporaneous reader of the novel would have associated François with the black cat in Olympia, a symbol of sexual perversity and vanguard rebellion, as the Raquins’ feline ‘assumes the status of a character in his own right’.25 In his 1866 study of Olympia, Zola comments on the cat’s subversive presence: ‘un chat, vous imaginiez-vous cela? [a cat, can you imagine that?]’.26 The ← 89 | 90 → Raquins’ cat – the namesake of François I, who standardised the French language – undermines the supposedly rigid distinction between humans and animals that is based on the ability to speak. Thérèse imagines the cat to be the spokesperson of morality and institutional preservation, in contrast to the bodily desires that drive the behaviour of Thérèse and Laurent. Just as Thérèse’s hands slide into a claw-like pose, Laurent slips into the animal realm.

Artist of the earth

By placing animals at the very centre of his aesthetic process, Zola denies the traditional association between art and human exceptionalism. Anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake proposes that art, which she calls ‘making special’, ‘refers to the fact that humans, unlike other animals, intentionally shape, embellish, and otherwise fashion aspects of their world to make these more than ordinary’.27 By contrast, art historian Giovanni Aloi critiques the notion that animals cannot produce art, and disavows the received idea that animals’ abilities – programmed and unconscious – are inferior to those of humans, which are supposedly conscious and inspired.28 When Thérèse encounters Laurent, the artist’s bull-like physique inspires a visceral reaction in the young woman:

On sentait sous ses vêtements des muscles ronds et développés, tout un corps avec une chair épaisse et ferme. Et Thérèse l’examinait avec curiosité, allant de ses poings à sa face, éprouvant de petit frissons lorsque ses yeux rencontraient son cou de taureau.

[Beneath his clothes, one could make out the well-developed and bulging muscles and the firm, solid flesh of his body. Thérèse looked him up and down with great curiosity, from his fists to his face, and a little shiver ran through her when her glance settled on his bull’s neck.] (Z 42–3; R 26).

Laurent, who produces crudely modern art, possesses an ‘animal-like’ constitution that is symbolised by the abandonment of the fields of his father’s farm in pursuit of an artistic lifestyle supposedly leading to food, women and leisure (44). Lethbridge argues that Laurent’s character is a parody of scathing portrayals of modern painters such as Manet,29 and Matthew Josephson’s description of Zola’s childhood friend Paul Cézanne is reminiscent of Laurent: ‘he was a “bear”, ← 90 | 91 → a character, with a rude crust’.30 Similarly, as an animal-artist, Laurent paints only to satisfy his basic needs of eating, sleeping and copulating. To what extent, then, does he represent Zola’s revolutionarily naturalist aesthetic?

Ses premiers essais étaient restés au-dessous de la médiocrité; son œil de paysan voyait gauchement et salement la nature; ses toiles, boueuse, mal bâties, grimaçantes, défiaient toute critique.

[His first attempts had never even reached the level of mediocrity; with his farmer’s eye, he had a clumsy and messy view of nature, and his canvases, muddy-looking, ill-composed, and grimacing, defied all critical appreciation.] (Z 45; R 28).

Laurent’s upbringing in the countryside causes his eye to be physiologically different from that of artists trained in the city, producing awkward and defiant landscapes. Zola’s portrayal of Laurent echoes the author’s description of the writing process, which outraged critics for being ‘obscene’:

L’humanité des modèles disparaissait comme elle disparaît aux yeux de l’artiste qui a une femme nue vautrée devant lui, et qui songe uniquement à mettre cette femme sur sa toile dans la vérité de ses formes et de ses colorations. Aussi ma surprise a-t-elle été grande quand j’ai entendu traiter mon œuvre de flaque de boue et de sang, d’égout, d’immondice, que sais-je?

[The humanity of the models disappeared for me as it does for the artist who has a naked women stretched before him, and whose only thought is to put down on his canvas the truth of her form and coloration. Great, therefore, was my surprise when I heard my work called a cesspit of blood and filth, a stinking sewer, an abomination, and I forget what else.] (Z 9; R 3)

The references to mud and filth in Laurent’s and Zola’s depictions create an aesthetic that is rooted in the earth. For Zola, writing is a process of dissolving a subject’s humanity: he observes characters in the same way that a painter intensely focusses on the detailed lines and shades of his model’s physique; he abandons sentimental narrative or identity as a human subject. In that sense, the Naturalist is similar to Bacon, whose project is ‘to dismantle the face’,31 the traits that make up an individual human being. Deleuze writes that the abandonment of figuration is a fundamental characteristic of modern painting: in Bacon’s case,

It is the confrontation of the Figure and the field, their solitary wrestling in a shallow depth, that rips the painting away from all narrative but also from all symbolization. When ← 91 | 92 → narrative or symbolic, figuration obtains only the bogus violence of the represented or the signified; it expresses nothing of the violence of sensation.32

For Deleuze, the painting of sensation is a violent explosion that occurs on a physical level; it undermines artistic convention, and creates the possibility of new forms and dimensions. Bacon creates a ‘zone of objective indecision between man and animal’,33 and ‘this objective zone of indiscernibility is the entire body, but the body insofar as it is flesh or meat’.34 In Zola’s work, there is little indecision about human nature as ‘beast-like’. Instead of unsettling the notion of the animal and the human, Zola solidifies a notion of the human animal, constructed in terms of lust or horror. On one hand, Zola’s deterministic and singular view of animals reduces all behaviour to a set of primal drives; on the other, this set of supposedly negative characteristics shocks conventional aesthetic sensibilities and value systems. Laurent foreshadows Camille’s drowning by painting him as a cadaver in a portrait: ‘il avait, malgré lui, exagéré les teintes blafardes de son modèle, et le visage de Camille ressemblait à la face verdâtre d’un noyé [he had unwittingly exaggerated the pallid skin-tones of his model, and Camille’s face had the greenish hue of drowned man]’ (Z 53; R 34). By depicting this civil servant as a puddle of ghastly colours and unwieldy lines, Laurent slays Camille’s elite standing, and reduces him to flesh. In a similar fashion, the morgue becomes a modern museum, in which nudes decompose into multicoloured blotches.

Impressionistic slaughter

Chapter eleven, the murder scene, can be read as a series of textual tableaux that strip away the thin veil of humanity. During the year in which Thérèse Raquin was written, Zola used to fish by boat at Bennecourt, a village on the right bank of the Seine, seventy kilometres west of Saint-Ouen; his friends Cézanne, Manet and Camille Pissarro often used to join him. Zola’s eleventh chapter is often compared to Courbet’s Les Demoiselles des bords de la Seine and Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. This raises the question of whether the conflict between urban society and the animal world lies at the very heart of those proto-Impressionist paintings. T. J. Clark writes that the Parisian environs were an important mode of escape from the urban centre for nineteenth-century life; they created the illusion that ← 92 | 93 → the city was distant.35 In Zola’s novel, Saint-Ouen is portrayed as a gateway to a primal forest, in which the rules of civilisation are temporarily suspended, and the aesthetic landscape is completely transformed. Thérèse, Laurent and Camille leave their coach at the fortifications, and complete the journey on foot. The dusty road, burned by the blinding sun leads to the shaded shelter of Saint-Ouen, where the trio rests under a bouquet of trees upon a blanket of shaded grass (89). An uncountable number of trees, which appear like gothic columns, surround the group: ‘les branches descendaient jusque sur le front des promeneurs, qui avaient ainsi pour tout horizon la voûte cuivrée des feuillages mourants […]. Tout autour d’eux, ils entendaient la Seine gronder [the branches came down to head-height, so that the strollers’ horizon was hemmed in by a copper-coloured vault of dying leaves […] All around them they could hear the rumbling of the Seine]’ (Z 90; R 59). The tree-trunks and foliage create a frame enclosing the characters in a melancholic tableau that foreshadows the untamed nature of the organic world. The flora of Saint-Ouen, along with the sound of its moaning river, completely dominates this scene, and envelops all traces of human existence. The three protagonists are cloistered and isolated in their specific milieu. For outcasts like Thérèse and Laurent, whose passions have no place in an urban centre, their animal instincts are nurtured by the outskirts.

If animal impulses are tied to creative breakthroughs, how should we interpret the tortured hallucinations of Camille that drive Laurent and Thérèse to suicide? The failure of the beastly lovers to ward off the bourgeois individual’s spectre indicates the impossibility of escaping the confines of the metropolis. The novel concludes with two dead bodies slumped under Madame Raquin’s paralyzed gaze: ‘les cadavres restèrent toute la nuit sur le carreau de la salle à manger, tordus, vautrés, éclairés de lueurs jaunâtres par les clartés de la lampe que l’abat-jour jetait sur eux [the two bodies remained on the dining room floor all night long, twisted and slumped in death, lit by the flickering yellow glow of the shaded lamp]’ (Z 285; R 205). The play of colours illuminates the cold reality of the physical body stripped of its humanity.

Given that we encounter such a grim view of the human condition in the environs of Paris, can Thérèse Raquin be considered within the discipline of animal studies? Moments of pastoral fantasy are fleeting, and tinged with violence; the characters briefly escape the stifling metropolis to commit murder in the neighbouring suburbs. Anne Simon observes that the French do not share the North-American tradition of environmental literature, marked by wide-open ← 93 | 94 → spaces.36 As the novel is primarily confined to the city and its outskirts, Zola’s vision of nature seems to be an aesthetic construction. Thérèse Raquin does not cast animal instincts in a positive light – they are reduced to bestial lust or bloodthirsty wrath. These ferocious impulses, these examples of ‘sensation’ are, however, a visceral revolt against societal oppression that manifests itself in a groundbreaking aesthetic. Zola’s penchant for rage and disgust can be seen as an essential component of nineteenth-century avant-garde art that resonates in the present day.

Today, along the banks of the murky Seine, Parisians bask in the sun, as pieces of rubbish float past them: bottles and cigarettes fuse in piles of brown slime, under which swim fish that are sick and inconsumable due to poisoning. The forests along the river in Saint-Ouen, the site of Camille’s murder, are surrounded by high-rise buildings.37 Perhaps the true enemy, and murderer of so many forms of life, is the false notion that we are distinct from our environment, and separated from the world of animals.

References

Aloi, Giovanni, Art & Animals (London: I. B. Tauris, 2011)

Bernard, Claude, Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (Paris: Baillière, 1865)

Bonneuil, Christophe, and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, L’Événement Anthropocène: la terre, l’histoire et nous (Paris: Seuil, 2013)

Buell, Lawrence, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005)

Clark, Timothy J., The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984)

Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species, ed. by J. Wallace (Ware: Wordsworth, 1998)

Deleuze, Gilles, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. by D. W. Smith (London: Continuum, 2003)

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. by D. Polan (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986) ← 94 | 95 →

Derrida, Jacques, L’Animal que donc je suis, ed. by M.-L. Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 2006)

Dissanayake, Ellen, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1995)

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Finch-Race, Daniel A., and Julien Weber, ‘Editorial: The Ecocritical Stakes of French Poetry from the Industrial Era’, Dix-Neuf 19.3 (2015), 159–66

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McLean, Steven, ‘“The Golden Fly”: Darwinism and Degeneration in Émile Zola’s Nana’, College Literature 39.3 (2012), 61–83

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Simon, Anne, ‘Animality and Contemporary French Literary Studies: Overview and Perspectives’, in French Thinking about Animals, ed. by L. Mackenzie and S. Posthumus (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2015), 75–88

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—, Œuvres complètes, ed. by H. Mitterand, vol. 12 (Paris: Cercle du livre précieux, 1969)

—, Thérèse Raquin, ed. by E. Fasquelle (Paris: Fasquelle, 1953)

—, Thérèse Raquin, trans. by A. Rothwell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)

Žukauskaitė, Audronė, ‘Ethics between Particularity and Universality’, in Deleuze and Ethics, ed. by N. Jun and D. W. Smith (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 188–206


1 John C. Lapp, Zola before the Rougon-Macquart (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964), 95.

2 Émile Zola, Thérèse Raquin, ed. by E. Fasquelle (Paris: Fasquelle, 1953), 9 [hereafter Z]; Thérèse Raquin, trans. by A. Rothwell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 2 [hereafter R].

3 Jacques Derrida, L’Animal que donc je suis, ed. by M.-L. Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 2006).

4 Susan McHugh, Animal Stories: Narrating across Species Lines (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

5 Predating Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), psychiatrist Bénédict Augustin Morel’s Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles, et morales de l’espèce humaine (1857) considers the possession of atavistic traits to be an inherited pathological deviance. Bénédict A. Morel, Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l’espèce humaine et des causes qui produisent ces variétés maladives (Paris: Baillière, 1857).

6 Steven McLean, ‘“The Golden Fly”: Darwinism and Degeneration in Émile Zola’s Nana’, College Literature 39.3 (2012), 61–83 (67).

7 Ross Shideler, Questioning the Father: From Darwin to Zola, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Hardy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 9.

8 Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 7–8.

9 Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, trans. by E. MacArthur and W. Paulson (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 3.

10 Jennifer Forrest, ‘Paris à Rebours: Where Huysmans Put the Faux in Faubourg’, South Atlantic Review 62.2 (1997), 10–28 (12).

11 Daniel A. Finch-Race and Julien Weber, ‘Editorial: The Ecocritical Stakes of French Poetry from the Industrial Era’, Dix-Neuf 19.3 (2015), 159–66 (160).

12 Ernst Haeckel, translated in Robert C. Stauffer, ‘Haeckel, Darwin, and Ecology’, Quarterly Review of Biology 32.2 (1957), 138–44 (140–1).

13 Claude Bernard, Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (Paris: Baillière, 1865).

14 Émile Zola, Le Roman expérimental (Paris: Charpentier, 1880), 27.

15 Zola, Le Roman, 122 [unreferenced translations are mine].

16 McHugh, Animal Stories, 8.

17 Louisa Mackenzie and Stephanie Posthumus, ‘Introduction’, in French Thinking about Animals, ed. by L. Mackenzie and S. Posthumus (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2015), xv–xxii (xvii).

18 Susan Harrow, ‘Thérèse Raquin: Animal Passion and the Brutality of Reading,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Zola, ed. by B. Nelson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 105–20 (111).

19 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. by D. Polan (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 35.

20 Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. by D. W. Smith (London: Continuum, 2003), 5 [original emphasis].

21 Forrest, ‘Paris à Rebours’, 11.

22 Ilja Mieck, ‘Reflections on a Typology of Historical Pollution: Complementary Conceptions’, in The Silent Countdown: Essays in European Environmental History, ed. by P. Brimblecombe and C. Pfister (Berlin: Springer, 1990), 73–80 (77).

23 Audronė Žukauskaitė, ‘Ethics between Particularity and Universality’, in Deleuze and Ethics, ed. by N. Jun and D. W. Smith (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 188–206 (193).

24 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, ed. by J. Wallace (Ware: Wordsworth, 1998), 165.

25 Robert Lethbridge, ‘Zola, Manet and Thérèse Raquin’, French Studies 34.3 (1980), 278–99 (291).

26 Émile Zola, Œuvres complètes, ed. by H. Mitterand, vol. 12 (Paris: Cercle du livre précieux, 1969), 804.

27 Ellen Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1995), 30.

28 Giovanni Aloi, Art & Animals (London: I. B. Tauris, 2011), xix.

29 Lethbridge. ‘Zola’, 291.

30 Matthew Josephson, Zola and His Time (New York, NY: Macaulay, 1928), 115.

31 Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 20 [original emphasis].

32 Deleuze, Francis Bacon, xiv.

33 Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 25.

34 Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 22.

35 Timothy J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 152.

36 Anne Simon, ‘Animality and Contemporary French Literary Studies: Overview and Perspectives’, in French Thinking about Animals, ed. by L. Mackenzie and S. Posthumus (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2015), 75–88 (79).

37 Emporis, ‘High-Rise Buildings in Saint-Ouen’, Emporis Building Directory (2016), <http://www.emporis.com/city/162401/saint-ouen-france/type/high-rise-buildings> [accessed 20 May 2016].