It's the day after the murder. The murderer was injured while committing the crime. We're at the beginning of Chapter XIII.
Against the white of the neck, the bite stood out a deep and powerful brown; it was on the right, below the ear. Laurent stooped forward and stretched his neck out to see, and the greenish mirror distorted his expression into an atrocious grimace.
I love that Laurent keeps a funhouse mirror in his room. That's not my point. My point is, the sentence just before this one contains a vivid, detailed, and disgusting description of the wound. My method today is to not quote the relevant parts of Thérèse Raquin, on the grounds that some of it is too repellent. I am charmed to observe that my readers have the sensitive nerves of young girls, and I want to protect them.
Because Chapter XIII is really completely disgusting, I mean physically. Don't read it over lunch, I say from experience. The chapter is short, surprisingly short, only six pages. But we spend five of them with Laurent in the Paris Morgue. "Although it made him feel sick with repugnance and occasionally sent shivers down his spine, he went there regularly..." - and he has the advantage of being fictional. My stomach is real!
In this chapter we get the smell of the morgue, the feel of the air dampness, and, mostly, the corpses, one after another, laid out on slabs, naked, "in patches of colour, green and yellow, white and red." Laurent at first sees only the colors, but soon not only can see the bodies, but begins to revel in their deformity and decay. Two bodies are presented in particularly graphic detail. The one with the water running over it - okay, that's enough of that.
How about a list of words? How disgusting can that be: softened, mushy, greenish, grim, shuddering, entertaining, buxom, muddy, disgusting, disgusting, disgusting. Did you detect a hint of sex in that list? "Laurent looked at her for a long time, running his eyes all over her body, absorbed in a kind of fearful lust."
The Paris Morgue was open to the public attracted spectators, so we spend some time with them. They joke, whistle, and weep, and "go away well satisfied, declaring that the Morgue has certainly put on a good show that day." Laborers with iron stomachs come in with "their tools and a loaf of bread under their arm." Schoolboys come in to ogle the young female suicides. I'm on pp. 76-7 of the Oxford World's Classics, the single most blatantly satirical page in the book, and a relief from the rotting corpses.
The funny thing is that I visited the Paris Morgue just last year, on the arm of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, in a story in his 1883 Cruel Tales. The narrator wanders about Paris, observing the gray, death-like people, and when he stops in at the Morgue, there they all are. Villiers, seventeen years later, seems merely quaint compared to Zola.
Evening All Afternoon Emily recently wrote about the literary use of disgust - please take a look. The body-centered, animalistic literary tradition is prominent in French literature. Rabelais sometimes seems to view us as little more than jolly ambulatory digestive tracts. Voltaire delights in cutting pieces off of his characters. I don't even want to know what goes on in the grisliest of the Marquis de Sade's books. The Spanish tradition, back in the Golden Age, is similar. In English, I can find plenty of memento mori, poor Yorick's skull among them, and Swift can revel in excrement and bodily decay. The closest equivalent to what Zola is doing that I can think of is Francisco Goya's horrifying The Disasters of War (1810-20) prints, which protest the destruction of his country by emphasizing the physicality of death - the decay, the flesh, the wounds, the bones.
The Morgue chapter is the conceptually purest piece of the book. No plot, minimal psychology, little story. Just the human animal, up close and well lit, in a form we rarely see, lucky for us.
A curiosity: I believe eight bloggers are reading Thérèse Raquin as part of the Classics Circuit (because, who are we kidding, it's short). They've not all posted yet, and I may have missed one or two. No one mentioned this chapter. No one hinted at it. I wonder why. The novel contains cruelty to an animal, too (as well as cruelty to humans). Fair warning.