This is the first work of fiction by Zola I have read which is not part of the Rougon-Macquart cycle. Lisa and Jonathan have already commented on the why and the wherefore of this early novel, as well as Zola’s interesting defense of it in his 1868 Preface.
I read a Penguin Classics edition with a 2004 translation and Introduction by Robin Buss. The translation read smoothy, with none of the Laticisms which Jonathan quotes from the Vizetelly translation. Still, I wonder about the repetition of certain words, two words especially, “fevered” and “animal” used in a variety of senses. Both criminals are fevered, have fevered blood and fevered cheeks. Sometimes they seem to be measurably ill and sometimes only deeply agitated, with racing heart perhaps. If I had access to the original French I would like to know whether this is a consistent literal translation. Animal sometimes means satisfied like an animal, as Laurent lazes about and takes his pleasure before the affair with Thérèse. At other times it is pejorative when their lust is described as animal like. It seems to be a signifier for not thinking, for reacting only to the imperatives of the body. This is the point of Zola’s Preface where he speaks of temperament (not defined) which seems to be the over whelming demands which come from within a person. Thus Thérèse’s years of living a suppressed life lead to her bursting forth into a demand for sexual satisfaction. And yet, Zola says, temperament can change. For example, the lazy Laurent develops a need for Thérèse in response to his liaison with her.
This novel reminded of two better-known works from this same time period. Russ says that Zola read the 1857 Madame Bovary and was very impressed by it. Both novels depict an adulteress affair. Whereas Emma Bovary was seeking romance, Thérèse was seeking sexual engagement without any need for romance or love. Zola even dares to use the word pleasure in describing Thérèse’s feelings about her affair with Laurent. In my experience, this term is rarely used in 19th century novels when referring to female experience of sex, whether within marriage or not. Romance, duty, mutual regard, intimate delight are all mentioned, but pleasure is not.
The other novel, the 1866 Crime and Punishment, Zola could not have known, because it has not yet been published in English. Raskolnikov is a single actor. He has social connections, some of them very important, but he plans alone, he acts alone, and feels guilty alone. Laurent and Thérèse, on the other hand, suffer together. Zola emphasizes that having participated together in the murder, they are bound together and cannot escape from those bonds.
This is a short novel, but even so it seems too long. It does not have the structure of such satisfying works as The Belly of Paris and The Masterpiece, with their multiple threads and characters. Thérèse Raquìn could have been a short story, the plot is so simple. Zola stretches it out so as to depict the prolonged suffering of the murderers after their crime. Also, I suspect, he wanted to write a novel (not more short stories) at this time and knew that this one would get everyone’s attention.