Thérèse Raquin (1867) is a conceptual novel, or an experimental novel. Two questions, then: what do those words mean; what is the concept?
Here's what I mean. Genuine scienticians may have their own, correct, ideas.
Experimentation is a method. The method leads to results and discoveries. Sometimes the results are proof or disproof of a hypothesis. Sometimes the discovery is a new concept, a new hypothesis. Concepts are not necessarily the result of experimentation, though. They can emerge full-fledged from the old brainpan, so to speak.
Writers, artists, continually experiment, and continually invent or discover new concepts. The exact process varies enormously from artist to artist. This is why I am always interested in how creativity works. Sometimes, we can actually watch an artist experiment. The Pickwick Papers (1836-7) began with a concept, a trivial one, frankly, but as Dickens wrote and published the serialized pieces, he began to discover a new way of writing a novel. By somewhere around the middle of the serialization, the nature of the book had completely changed. We can see some of the steps, some of the combinations of elements that did not work (failed experiments) and the combinations that did.
Émile Zola, in Thérèse Raquin, is not experimenting. He is demonstrating a concept. He is the chemistry teacher blowing something up for the entertainment of his students. No, that's not right. The chemistry teacher knows that combining X, Y, and Z always gives a harmless flash and puff of smoke. Zola himself is responsible for the intensity of the light and the color and quantity of smoke. It's all a trick, a trick called fiction. He's cloaking his fiction in science and psychology, which I guess Zola also identifies as science.
The concept is that humans are merely animals, bipedal ferrets. The sub-concept is that even if humans are not merely animals, novelists have ignored our animalistic side - this fiction is a provocative response to other fictions. What would happen if the author stripped away culture, morality, religion, and ethics? Say the protagonists of the novel are a lazy hedonist and a "wild animal," governed by appetites and primitive psychology, driven to passionate extremes by pheromones and repression. Here's what happens:
It was inevitable that it would come to hatred in the end. They had loved each other like animals, with the hot passions of the blood; then in the nervous upheaval following their crime, love had turned to fear and they had felt a physical horror at the thought of their embraces... (Ch. XXVIII)
Inevitable! Except in a different story, governed by a different concept. But this is the language of Thérèse Raquin: animal, passion, blood, savage, green, horror, irrational.
Of all earth’s meteors, here at least is the most strange and consoling: that this ennobled lemur, this hair-crowned bubble of the dust, this inheritor of a few years and sorrows, should yet deny himself his rare delights, and add to his frequent pains, and live for an ideal, however misconceived.
Now I am averting my gaze from the unpleasant Zola. This passage is from the essay "Pulvis et Umbra" (1888) by Robert Louis Stevenson. The author is somehow able to incorporate scientific ideas about evolution and the size of the universe, about the unimportance of humanity, while still maintaning that humanity is, in fact, important, that the poor fools have rare delights and live for ideals.
Zola claims, in the preface to the novel, to be writing in the service of "truth." "Sincere study, like fire, purifies all," he writes, absurdly. Fortunately I have no obligation to believe an author. More on that tomorrow.