fiction, review

Therese Raquin

Indonesian edition’s cover

Some classics are not meant to be a fairy tale. They tend to be true to life, describing the wave of a society and the mold of its people, the social problems, the discourse, and the ugly truth. They choose not to follow the usual path. And Therese Raquin, a painfully breathtaking classic work written by Émile Zola, is definitely one of them. Here, Zola chooses to picture the truth about people, the truth that is so hard to swallow. Set in the 19th century’s France, Therese Raquin tells a bitter story of a woman whose life is constricted by the general rules of the society and whose rebellion against it result in her being the guilty party. Readers may look at her with disgust, but Zola is merely revealing the weaknesses of human beings which in turn reshape themselves into the darkest sides people generally shudder at.

The beginning of the story introduces us to the young Therese, who’s being looked after by the Raquin family since the death of her father. From then on, all her life decisions are made solely by her overprotective, anxious aunt, Mme. As a result, she is deprived of all control of her own life, making her self and being restricted not only to the prison of a small apartment she lives in with her aunt and her cousin, Camille, but also to the life she despises so much. The disaster reaches its peak when the marriage between her and Camille becomes inevitable, thanks to Mme. Bored with her married life, Therese feels thickly engulfed in disdain. She may not say a word, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t scream inside. Soon, the sanctity of marriage turns into a sacrilege when Laurent, Camille’s old friend, comes to her life. They engage in a lustful secret love affair, desperate to grab the life they’ve been wanting all along, desperate to get the freedom out of the monotonous everyday routine. The strong urge to claw their way out of their secrets and to spring free from the rules of the society finally drives them into a regrettable, impulsive decision. This evil deed of theirs then, sure as rain, hunts them for the rest of their lives, allowing no room for them to live at ease.

Therese and Laurent are some kind of embodiment of the darkest sides of human beings, the evil nature which is molded by the pressure of morals and constricted life and tightly bottled up dissatisfaction. Therese, in particular, is most vulnerable to trials and soul-sucking boredom and pathetic situation. All she wants is to be free and to celebrate her passion. Her immoral, impulsive deeds are only an innocent result of her natural want and desire, however wrong they might seem. But, by the same token, it is not guaranteed that Therese would have not rebelled against anything had her life been different.

The other two characters do not seem to attract our sympathy, either. Camille, described as a boring, spoiled, sick person, should have drawn more of our compassion than of our contempt. But, as I read and absorbed his character, I felt the other way around. In fact, it is his pathetic self, more or less, that drives Therese to run directly to a secret love affair. And Mme is not blameless, too. I would say that she has a certain part in triggering the whole mess. Her overprotectiveness, her anxiety, and her vulnerable heart, which are supposed to disarm anyone, are also responsible for Therese’s doing what she doesn’t want to.

The story of Therese Raquin is told in a quite simple way, yet shrouded in an atmosphere so strong that the reader can sense the coldness, the boredom, the dark desire, and the belated regret. The storyline doesn’t have many twists nor turns, no shocking aspect except for the horrendous portrayals of each character. But, however ordinary the narrative might be, I still find it beautifully written and openly displayed. The complexity of the characters doesn’t make the story they weave seem difficult to comprehend, yet the way it is presented is so gripping and makes the book itself unputdownable. The way I see it, Therese Raquin is merely a simple story about the damage of moral principles in the society, but the fact that Zola is brave enough to bring it forth and explore it in the most brazenly real way makes it more special than it should be. What’s more, the last scene Zola chooses to put forward as the ending of the whole mess seems to me the right and best decision of his. I can say that Therese Raquin is an eye-opener, suitable for anyone of any generation despite its being a classic.

All in all, Therese Raquin is a wonderful classic work that manages to wriggle itself free out of the embrace of fairy tale. The story and the characters in it are both so real, and the emotions and feelings of those characters are also so poignant that they seem to leap out of the sentences that describe them. This book is absolutely recommended.

Rating: 4/5

4 thoughts on “Therese Raquin”

  1. I’ve yet to read Zola, but I have a copy of Therese Raquin at home. I like the way you’ve described the atmosphere of this book – the coldness and dark desire.

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