Caroline Davidson on character and cloth in Émile Zola's sensational novel
The grisly tale that is Thérèse Raquin caused quite a stir when it was published in 1867, its vivid scenes of adultery denounced as pornographic. The outcry did the novel no harm. A year later, in a long article published in Le Figaro, the critic Louis Ulbach described Thérèse Raquin as 'littérature putride’. The mud stuck and sales of the book went further up. But for its author, the 27-year-old Émile Zola, the critical failure of Thérèse Raquin was bruising. In a superbly unguarded, uppity preface to the second edition, Zola defended his book against attacks, maintaining that the 'modest journalists who blushed' when they read Thérèse Raquin had failed to understand it.
Grim scenes of betrayal, murder, torture and suicide were, explained Zola, not prurient imaginings but scientific outcomes. In Thérèse Raquin, Zola said his aim was to act the meticulous, analytical scientist – to study temperaments and not characters; to cut through the flesh of Thérèse and her lover Laurent to expose only blood, nerves and animal instincts. 'There is a complete absence of soul, I freely admit, since that is how I meant it to be', said Zola in the famously defensive preface.
Maybe this casting aside of soul as if it is some irksome intervening variable explains why, in spite of being set in a haberdashery, Thérèse Raquin is almost entirely devoid of references to threads, fabric and clothes. Literally superficial and often regarded as trivial, clothes are nevertheless – in books and in life – a route to, if not an expression of, soul and character. But in Thérèse Raquin the body of the eponymous villainess is 'lost in shadow' while her face, 'a flat white shape pierced by one wide-open dark eye', is described as little more than a mask. Men occasionally put down a hat; once, shortly after murdering her husband Camille, we know Thérèse is in a black dress. But characters are more likely to be wrapped in 'sacred egotistical tranquility', as is poor Camille, than anything with folds in it.
Zola does on one occasion refer at relative length to clothing – when describing the hoards of women and young girls who visit the morgue to gaze at corpses. They are fresh and rosy in white linen and neat skirts; they are fashionably dressed in silk dresses. One veiled and gloved lady wearing a 'fine grey silk skirt and flowing mantle of black lace' holds a cambric handkerchief to her nose. While Laurent visits the morgue to see the body of his victim, this lady visits the corpse of a stonemason who fell from scaffolding. Perhaps these fleeting characters, dressed, innocent and smelling of violets, Zola awards clothes as a means of giving life. It is not their natures on which he scores his scalpel.
The book visits very little else than the wretched inhabitants of Madame Raquin’s dingy haberdashery and the tiny flat above it. And so, for the most part, Zola resists applying symbolic treatment in his study of temperament. Existing in an early work of Naturalism, Thérèse and Laurent are merely organisms without reason or free will. Or so the young Zola would have his critics believe.
Perhaps Thérèse Raquin, in which both character and cloth are thin on the ground, is a curious book with which to start a series exploring the representation of character through cloth. Yet could Zola’s ‘scientific’ novel be the litmus test? If where there is no character there is no material, there may be much linen, lace and leather to ponder in the vast swathe of literature whose very fabric is the study of character. That’s one hypothesis. Let’s see.