Thérèse Raquin is almost culture-free, just as it is free of politics or history or (almost) religion. The exceptions are worth examining, because they're hilarious.
Zola's first serious novel owes a great debt, conceptual and legal, to Flaubert. Madame Bovary, eleven years earlier, was corrupted by her reading, especially by novels. She became a worse person, morally, because of her reading. Not Thérèse Raquin.
Thérèse's pale, sluggish husband Camille is an uneducated idiot: "His entire learning consisted of basic sums and a very superficial grasp of grammar" (Ch. II). His mother is sure that "books will kill him," and Zola asserts that "his ignorance was just one more weakness in him."
Once Camille finds a job with as a clerk with a railroad, he begins to feel bad about his ignorance. He's like me! So he assembles a pile of obsolete books - by the 18th century naturalist Buffon, for example - and begins a course of self-study, twenty to thirty pages each night, "although he found it very boring" (Ch. III). He tries to read to his wife Thérèse (or, actually, "would force her to listen"), but concludes that "his wife was basically not very bright."
The scene is partly an elaborate joke, and a nod at Flaubert. Emma Bovary is damaged by books. Camille and Thérèse are completely immune to books. Jenny at Shelf Love calls Camille "over-educated... always with his nose in a book," a representative of civilization. That seems to me to contradict the text. He is uneducated, and untouched by civilization.
The adulterer Laurent is a better stand-in for culture - he wants, or wanted, to be a painter, not for artistic reasons but he thought it would be "an easy living." "His great body asked for no more than to do nothing but lounge about all day in idleness and contentment" (Ch. V). He is interested in nude models and sleeping late, not art or culture. So by "better," I mean "terrible."
Late in the book, Laurent again tries ties his hand at painting. He was once a hack, but is suddenly good. Why?
Some strange transformation had undoubtedly come about in the organism of Camille's murderer. It is difficult for analysis to penetrate to such depths. Perhaps Laurent had become an artist in the same way that he had become a coward, as a result of the drastic upheaval that had thrown his body and his mind off balance. In the past, he was weighed down and stifled by his sanguine temperament, and his vision was blocked by the dense vapours of good health which surrounded him; now that he was thinner and more sensitive, he had the restless vitality and keen, direct sensations of those of nervous temperament. (Ch. XXV)
The passage goes on like this for quite a while. Laurent transforms from an untalented to a talented painter because he loses weight, and dissipates the "dense vapours of good health." I hope it's easy enough to see why I don't take all of this seriously, and why I give Zola credit for not taking it too seriously himself. And that before we get to the episode's fantastic twist ending, worthy of the best thriller writers. Everything fits the theory perfectly, as long as the writer is allowed complete control over the results, which he is.
As an aside: The Classics Circuit really worked well this time, (for me, I mean). So thanks, Rebecca, and - I know there are a dozen or more other people. Was it helpful that a relatively small number of books were covered? Thérèse Raquin eight times, Germinal six times, and so on. I'm all for more of that.
I didn't really adjust my own reading list - my biases were confirmed. Germinal is obviously essential, as is Nana. The Masterpiece is based on Zola's first-hand knowledge of the world of Impressionist painters, so I want to read it for its subject, and, one would think, as a corrective to the painter in Thérèse Raquin, but it sounds a bit second-tier. I'm curious about his short fiction, and no one read L'Assommoir, which I hope to try someday. Someday is key. Zola did not write the kind of novels that I want to read one after another. I want some space between them.. I want to maintain the dense vapors of my good health.