This book is one of Émile Zola’s seminal works and it’s easy to see why, if you read it prepare to be transfixed in horror. It is a tragedy but a dark tragedy where love is reduced to base desire. Apart from the maternal love of Mme Raquin love makes not one appearance in it’s pure, virtuous forms and even that is perverted by the end of the book. The reduction of human emotions to the ‘animal’ occurs across the board and the result is a cruel light shone on the darkness of the human heart. Thérèse is married to her cousin, Camille; together they reside in the Passage du Pont-Neuf in Paris with Mme Raquin. The marriage is loveless and passion less and the life of the family Raquin is one of all-enveloping tedium. One Thursday evening however Camille brings Laurent to the regular dinnertime social and Thérèse’s world is changed forever. His charm and sheer manliness compare favourably with the sickliness of Camille. Inevitably a torrid affair begins; here Zola’s talent for oblique but direct descriptiveness comes into its own. Just as inevitably as the affair begins it ends. However, neither Thérèse nor Laurent are willing to let there new found love go; everything would be so simple with Camille out of the way. Thus they contrive the demise of Camille, drowned by ‘accident’ in the Seine. Both of the adulterers now become murderers and although they manage to arouse no suspicion they quickly descend into madness. Visions of Camille haunt them both separately as their assignations cease. They drift apart and the bonds that bound them collapse under the weight of guilt. However, Laurent is determined that his efforts have not been in vein and eventually they contrive that a wedding is proposed.
Convinced that marriage will heal their wounds and that finally they will enter the paradise of their dreams they proceed with little enthusiasm. Marriage does not heal their wounds; they enter a new level of tormented hell. Camille’s ghost haunts their nights and their days are spent as far apart as possible. Laurent’s painting is even haunted by the shadow of Camille. The pace of the novel increases as delirium wreaks havoc on the Raquin’s while they maintain a façade of tranquillity and happiness. The newly weds turn on each other, Laurent savagely beating Thérèse and anything that agitates him. Mme Raquin falls ill and is paralysed. She is then tortured as her ‘children’ confess their crime to her and re-enact the crime in front of her conscious but hopelessly paralysed form. Consumed by bitterness and pain her paternal love becomes the bitterest hatred. Unable to enact vengeance herself she watches with sadistic glee as the couple destroy each other. Her one wish becomes to see the end, to see Laurent and Thérèse punished. Consumed by the darkness of their deed the pair soon grants Mme Raquin her wish. Unable to find solace in the arms of others they each decide separately to murder the other. However, each realises the others intentions and they decide to end each other. Thérèse drinks poison and she is followed by Laurent; they die in each others arms in front of Mme Raquin.