By Philip Jose Farmer
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This aspect of Zola’s discussion of murder is a response to his reading of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-80). The French translation of Crime and Punishment had appeared in 1885 and that of The Brothers Karamazov in 1888. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov argues that certain ‘superior’ human beings have a right to kill ‘inferior’ human beings who stand in their way. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov suggests that, if there is no God, there is no justification for the idea of a moral conscience.
Thérèse Raquin appeared in 1867 and caused a scandal, to which he responded with his famous Preface to the novel’s second edition in 1868 in which he laid claim to being a ‘Naturalist’. That same year he began to work on a series of novels intended to trace scientifically the effects of heredity and environment in one family: Les Rougon-Macquart. This great cycle eventually contained twenty novels, which appeared between 1870 and 1893. In 1877 the seventh of these, L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den), a study of alcoholism in working-class Paris, brought him abiding wealth and fame.
La Bête humaine contributes to this family history and continues Zola’s exploration of heredity and social conditioning, but it can be perfectly well read as a novel in its own right. Indeed it is as powerful and dramatic a narrative as any of the other novels in the series. It tells a story of sexual abuse, adultery, murder and suicide. This sombre catalogue of crime and misfortune is set against a background of deeply embedded political corruption which ensures that the voice of justice is silenced, that wickedness goes undetected and that violence is allowed to breed violence.