Essay on Zola’s La Bête Humaine

Due date: June 6, 2000

General Instructions: The essay should be a three-page essay on a topic related to Zola’s La Bête Humaine. As for all essays, you should have a single, unified thesis that you prove logically and thoroughly. Your experience, impressions, and response to the work can guide your interpretation, but make sure that everything you claim is demonstrable. If you decide to use one of the suggested topics, keep in mind that you will need to narrow its focus considerably to make a strong thesis.

  1. The setting for this novel, the railroads of France, is both a place and a non-place, a particular, vivid location and a means of getting from one place to another. In addition, the railroad represents the fundamental changes in society created by the industrial revolution: the relocation of rural populations to urban centers, the acceleration of the pace of daily life, and the mechanization of commerce, among others. How does the novel portray the destruction of human values and institutions by these changes? What role does the industrial setting of the railroad play in the corruption and destruction of the characters?
  2. As Leonard Tancock, the translator of the Penguin edition, points out, almost everyone in the novel is a real or potential murderer. How does murder fit into the social structures of late nineteenth-century France as portrayed in the novel? How justified are the various homicides it depicts? What moral code, if any, still exists in these benighted times?
  3. The novel’s title, La Bête Humaine, can be translated as "The Human Beast." How are images and metaphors of animals and animal behavior relevant to an understanding of human action in the novel? How beastly are these people, and how does their beastliness reflect Zola’s view of human nature?
  4. The institution of marriage takes many forms in the novel, with destructive relationships greatly outnumbering happy ones. Examine how married people treat each other in the case of one or more of the couples in the novel—what are the rules of married life, and what are the consequences of breaking them? What does their portrayal in the novel say about Zola’s view of married life?
  5. How do Darwin's theories help interpret the novel? In what ways do natural selection, sexual selection, and other aspects of evolution help explain the impulses and actions of these characters? Do some additional research to see if Zola had Darwin's theories in mind as he wrote the novel.
  6. Any topic concerning the novel that will support a reasonable, arguable thesis.

Pursue any of these topics in Renoir’s film version, but make sure you clearly distinguish the film from the novel.