Exceptional Excerpts: Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola


Thérèse Raquin was published when Zola  was twenty-seven. It was his first book to be translated and published in England by the Vizetellys.

Not for the faint of heart, the first appearance was three installments in Houssaye’s L’Artiste with the title Un mariage d’amour (August – October, 1867). Apparently the Morgue scene was omitted in the periodical publication. In the Preface to his translation in a 1902 edition, Edward Vizetelly wrote: “. . . he consented at the insistence of the Editor, who pointed out to him that the periodical was read by the Empress Eugenie, to draw his pen through certain passages, which were reinstated when the story was published in volume form. I may say here that in this translation, I have adopted the views of the late M. Arsene Houssaye; and, if I have allowed the appalling description of the Paris Morgue to stand, it is, first of all, because it constitutes a very important factor in the story; and moreover, it is so graphic, so true to life, as I have seen the place myself, times out of number, that notwithstanding its horror, it really would be a loss to pass it over.”

There are several descriptive pages of individual bodies and the horror that Laurent feels as he sees them, but I will only quote of the Morgue’s popularity as entertainment.

The Morgue is a show that anyone can afford, which poor and rich passers-by get for free The door is open, anyone can come in. There are connoisseurs who go out of their way not to miss one of these spectacles of death. When the slabs are empty, people go out disappointed, robbed, muttering under their breath. When the slabs are well filled, and when there is a fine display of human flesh, the visitors crowd in, getting a cheap thrill, horrified, joking, applauding or whistling, as in the theatre, and go away contented, announcing that the Morgue has been a success that day.

Laurent soon came to know the regulars who attended the place, a mixed, diverse group of people who came to sympathize with one another or snigger together. Some workmen would come in on their way to their jobs, with a loaf of bread and some tools under their arms; they found death amusing. . . . . Women came in great numbers: pink, young working gils with white blouses and clean skirts, who went briskly from one end of the window to the other, attentive and wide-eyed, as though looking at the display in a fashion store; there were working-class women too, haggard with doleful expressions, and well-dressed ladies, nonchalant, trailing their silk dresses.

(Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola, Penguin Classics, translated by Robin Buss, 2004, p 73)


Could this possibly be true? A sentence from Paris illustré en 1878 by Adolphe Joanne reads: “When the newspapers announce the discovery of some crime, curious people arrive in large numbers, making a queue from morning until evening that sometimes reaches the number of between 1,000 and 1,500 persons.”


The 1902 Vizetelly edition and an edition in French are available free at Project Gutenberg.


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