In this passage from his novel Therese Raquin, through the form of a flashback, Emile Zola presents images of a young and ill Camille being taken care of by Mme Raquin, which in turn in translates to Mme Raquin’s overprotective relationship with Therese. In this flashback, the reader is presented with a glance at Therese’s childhood growing up alongside her ill cousin, Camille. This passage originates at the beginning of the novel, after the narrator describes the great lengths Mme Raquin has taken to keep Camille alive during his youth. Camille increasing illness parallels Mme Raquin’s love by growing progressively stronger. The passage has connotations of a desperate tone, as Mme Raquin’s undying love for Camille has transcended into her domineering treatment of Therese. Due to the control that Mme Raquin places over her, Therese has become confined to hiding her inner self but seeks to live freely. In this passage from Therese Raquin, Zola uses naturalism, symbolism and imagery to reveal the effect of society in confining her freedom of expression. The dominant effect is that society’s conformities often mold an individual’s self rather than granting the individual the freedom to shape his or her own self. Because of this, individuals are pushed into conforming to societal standards that causes them to make an identity that is accepted by society rather than their own personal desires and beliefs.
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Although confinement can lead to a change in physical, emotional and mental characteristics, individuals rarely lose their inner naturalistic qualities. Zola is well-known for his use of naturalism in his literature, and portrays this theme through animalistic qualities within Therese. In lines 10-12 of this passage, Zola writes, “Yet, when she did raise an arm or take a step, there was a feline suppleness in her, a mass of energy and passion dormant within her torpid frame.” This description of Therese illustrates her actions when she is able to act freely without the constraints of Mme Raquin. Here, Therese is described with the animalistic qualities of a feline, exhibiting a lively and passionate personality that is contrary to the stoic behavior that she radiates throughout much of the novel. Moreover, her energy and passion is said to be “dormant within her torpid frame”, suggesting that without any constraints, Therese is passionate and energetic. This representation of Therese as a feline can be seen as symbolism, connecting her to an animal known for inner vitality. The idea of naturalism may also be seen in line 5, “She stayed for hours crouching in front of the fire.” Here, Therese imitates a common habit in feline animals, which strengthens the idea of the qualities “dormant within her torpid flame” due to the restriction of Mme Raquin. Through these illustrations, Zola is able to emphasize the naturalistic qualities within humans and suggest that the true self can be uncovered when one is set free to express him or herself.
The influence of society may often result in negative outcomes. In lines 15-19, Zola writes, “The cloistered life that she led and the debilitating regime imposed on her could not weaken her sturdy, slender body, but her face did assume a pale, slightly yellowish tint, and she became almost ugly through being kept from daylight.” Here, Zola uses the literary technique of visual imagery to portray the negative influence society has on Therese. Zola describes her as becoming “almost ugly through being kept from daylight” (lines 17-18), meaning that she has grown ugly due to her inability to see the daylight, to express herself freely. Therese’s face is also said to have grown “yellowish”, a symbol of deterioration which reinforces the imagery of her premature aging due to her restraints. Societal influence is also evident in lines 8-10, “She became accustomed to speaking in a low voice, walking along quietly, and staying silent and motionless on a chair, looking blankly with wide-open eyes.” In this passage, Therese is described to have grown quiet and motionless; characteristics contrary to the parallel between Therese and an energetic and passionate feline. At this time, society’s perception molded women to become accustomed to living a dull, stoic life. From this, it is evident that a negative connection between society and its effect on Therese’s lifestyle strongly exists.
The desire to live freely is often apparent in those held confined. In Therese Raquin, Therese frequently expresses the need to escape the overbearing treatment from
Mme Raquin. In lines 2-3, where Zola writes, “She had an iron constitution and was treated like a sickly child (lines 2-3)”, Zola uses a metaphor of “an iron constitution” to emphasize the pompous treatment of Therese by her aunt, versus the minimal attention that she actually required. Though having an “iron constitution” (lines 2-3) implies strong physical and psychological characteristics, Therese was treated “like a sickly child”; the same treatment that Camille received when he was growing ill. This metaphor allows the reader to understand some of Therese’s bold actions that may appear out of character for her in order to free herself from the sickly child treatment, such as when she carried Camille home after he had fainted. In addition, the idea of the desire to live freely is also evident in lines 5-6, “She stayed for hours crouching in front of the fire, lost in thought, staring straight into the flames without blinking.” In these lines, Zola uses the literary
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technique of symbolism. Fire is often figurative for desire, and the descriptions of Therese are images of passion and energy. Therese gazes at the fire, symbolizing her passion to live freely without any constraints from society. She stares at the flames without blinking, which shows the passion dormant inside of her concentration. Through the literary techniques of metaphor and symbolism evident in the opening lines of this passage, Zola is able to set the mood of the scene and convey the message that individuals who are restrained by society seek to live freely.
In summary, this key passage written by Emile Zola shows Therese’s true character and justifies the indifferent persona she emits throughout the rest of the novel. Bound by societal restrictions under the care of Mme Raquin, Therese in Therese Raquin defends the dominant effect that society often causes individuals to mask their true self. Zola parallels descriptive language with various literary techniques in order to emphasize the negative impact society has inflicted upon Therese. Through naturalism, and the universal theme of the destruction that society may cause an individual, Emile Zola is able to portray Therese’s inner self and explain her outward behavior.
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