Thursday, April 22, 2010

Putrid Zola - don't read this post over lunch

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.


  1. Gosh - I was having a cereal bar after yoga and thought that the lunch disclaimer probably didn't apply to me... all sounds very powerful stuff!

  2. Oh, quit shuddering all over the place. It's just the (granted, dead and squashy) human animal. Dead people don't hurt anybody. It's the living you have to watch out for. Ask Camille.

    Now, if I *were* reviewing the Marquis de Sade (which perish forfend I ever crack the spine of one of his books again)... *then* I'd warn readers.

  3. Dead people don't hurt anybody.

    Not true. Our disgust is an evolutionary response to disease-carrying corpses. Humans who lacked the disgust gene wouldn't get away from the rotting corpses, caught horrible diseases, and died before they could reproduce. Eventually, only the disgusted remained.

    Having said that, yes, excellent point! I'm doing just what Zola wants me to do, making his book look daring and shocking and whatnot. I should pretend that I'm jaded and deny him the pleasure.

  4. Jenny, it slipped my mind. You teach this book, right? What do you do with this chapter? What do your students do with it?

  5. Your posts this week have taken me back and forth from wanting and not wanting to read this, and/or Zola, about four times now. (I'm currently on the wanting side.)

    And it's made for such a great exploration of the experimental/conceptual issues.

  6. Well, now, technically that's a disgust response to the smell of overenthusiastic bacteria (also found in spoiled food, which was already dead.) But I take your point. Dead people are still more peaceful to be around than many living people I know, however. It is clear I am destined to be culled from the herd, evolutionarily speaking.

    I do teach this book. My students are generally more focused on a) the sex b) the violence and c) the gender issues than on this chapter. They've all seen CSI and Bones; this kind of thing doesn't seem so unusual to them.

  7. Brooke, yes, ick, yes. This is the chapter where Zola pushes a boundary of taste. And it all fits perfectly with the story and with the theme of the novel. Zola uses the imagery throughout the rest of the book. He knows just what he's doing with this material. And at the same time, ick!

    nicole, as Zola 101, this book seemed to work well, and it's so short and zingy that the investment is minimal.

    And I definitely want to read more Zola, although he's not someone I'd want to choke down in large quantities, one book after the other.

  8. Jenny - I'm just playing along with Zola, bringing him up to date with evolutionary psychology. And you're safe now, since medicine and sanitation have removed the original evolutionary pressure.

    I've seen my share of CSI. But this post was based on a true story. I was eating lunch and reading this chapter, basically fine, until I got to the bit about the drowned body with the water running over it. I had to put the book down and, what, recenter. Then I was able to keep reading.

    Zola wants the disgust to be physical. In that list of words from the chapter, the repetition of "disgusting" is Zola's, not mine.

  9. I reviewed Therese Raquin last year and did quote a sentence from the morgue chapter. I've never read ANYTHING that even comes close to that - it literally turned my stomach! Anyway, I loved the book and vowed to read more Zola. Recently reviewed The Ladies' Paradise for this tour.... and I'm still not done with Zola.

    If you're interested, my review of Therese Raquin -

  10. JoAnn, thanks for pointing out your post. First I thought, I must not have been looking at your blog back then. Then I realized, I didn't know about your blog at all. So thanks for that, too. You have lots of good stuff there.

    This chapter does stand out, doesn't it?

  11. I must make this my second Zola-in Nana as I reflect on it after reading your post-you are kind of made to feel shame at your interested in Nana-to feel a kind of self disgust-I think disgust can in some cases be seen as a cathartic experience though I do not think this is what Zola intends-

  12. mel - that's a promising idea. Zola wants to make you complicit with the characters in his world. "I'm not an animal like them," I think. But then Zola tries to get me to feel disgust, lust, fear, or whatever, just like the characters.

  13. For some really grotesque human illnesses and more detailed description than you ever wanted about what each one does to the human body, I suggest reading Zola's "Lourdes." This is the book I read for the Classics Circuit(my first Zola book). For a brief introduction to the work (if you havent' already read it), feel free to visit

  14. I knew nothing about Lourdes. Thanks for the writeup. I don't think that one is much read; from what you wrote, I don't see why - it seems as interesting and well-written as many fo Zola's other books.

  15. Yuck. I don't think Zola, or at least this book, is for me. Really. Nothing you've written about this book has made me want to read it in the least.

    I also can't stomach CSI for many reasons -- I get quite paranoid.

  16. Rebecca - that's just what I meant by fair warning. I understand completely.

  17. Zola's morgue chapter, which you've done great justice to in your post, reminded me of that similarly-riveting chapter in Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables where the author mocked that one recently expired character at great length. Wonderful writing in both books w/all caution thrown to the wind. It is a wonder that this part of Thérèse Raquin gets so little play in blog reviews relatively-speaking. It's all but impossible to ignore!

  18. It really popped out, and it has an originality that, say, the inset Poe-like story about the painter does not really have.