The Naturalistic Ghost Story

In 1880, Émile Zola wrote a book called Le Roman Expérimental (The Experimental Novel), in which he outlined the concept known as naturalism. He subsequently has been given the appellation “Father of Naturalism” based on his theories.  It was rather amusing to me, therefore, to read his play Thérèse Raquin, and find that it reads more like Edgar Alan Poe than a “realist” playwright like Ibsen. [I haven’t read Zola’s original novel, he stripped it down significantly and modified it for the stage.]

Given that naturalism is a follow-on to realism you’d expect naturalism to be very true-to-life. In fact, Zola’s definition was a bit different. He wanted to treat theatre (and the novel) as a laboratory in which the newly discovered forces of Darwinian evolution, sociology, and psychology acted upon the human subjects.

He didn’t really follow his own rules, though, and Thérèse Raquin comes across more like a Romantic melodrama. It’s sort of odd, because early in the play one of the characters talk about people who get off scot-free with murder, but then Zola doesn’t let his murderers off. The plot is quite similar to Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart. A murder is committed, and the perpetrator goes mad from guilt. Unlike Poe’s relatively innocent victim, however, Zola gives us a character (Camille) who is such a nincompoop that the audience is practically ready to kill him off, too. Zola uses so much ironic foreshadowing that most of the plot is obvious, and we start wondering why it took Zola 100 pages to tell this story when Poe did it in 10.

What saves Thérèse Raquin is the humor. The fact that the murderers frequently dine with the police commissioner, and an old friend of the victim who’s more interested in playing dominos than anything that happens around him. When it was first produced, it was scandalous, dealing as it does, with extra-marital affairs and murder. The text doesn’t hold up quite so well today, especially given that Zola’s “experimental psychology” was more based on the ancient Greek concept of humors (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic) than what we’d recognized today in the post-Freudian world.

Recent film adaptations have gone back to the original novel rather than using Zola’s play as their basis.

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