Experimenting on difference: women, violence, and narrative in Zola's naturalism
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This dissertation examines the role of women in four of Émile Zola's novels, in particular their privileged position as the conduits through which he exerted his "experimental" literary method. Zola has long been recognized as subjecting his female characters to extreme violence, but scholars have not yet thoroughly explored how the ways in which he represents this violence provide insight into the nature of his narrative practice. For Zola, literary fiction offers access to a scientific truth, and the female body and its capacity for procreation is the source material for his investigation. By subjecting his female characters to analysis and ultimately dissection, Zola violently exploits the creative potential of their bodies and builds a literary empire upon them. In La Curée, Zola presents one of his first experimental heroines, a bored and pampered wife whose identity is constructed through reflections and refractions via a series of mirrors, both visually and narratively. This multiplicity of interferences effaces the female voice and subjectivity while exploiting the visual appeal of the female body. Nana offers a counterpoint on the same theme, featuring a woman who, through the desirability of her body, reverses the paradigm and exerts control over those around her with masterful manipulation of optics and language. Nana's body inscrutably defies analysis and playfully disrupts gender constructs by assuming contradictory sexual characteristics that are only indirectly observable. Zola shifts his narrative focus from the women themselves to the broader notion of sexual difference in La Bête humaine, in which the female body signifies the difference that drives male desire and destabilizes civilized society. The representability of sex becomes increasingly problematic as female speech, filtered through the body, puts the reliability of language into question. The problematics of the legible body that Zola develops in these texts can be traced all the way back to Thérèse Raquin, in which he conducts a literary investigation into the relationship between bodies and texts. This short novel, Zola's first of the genre, is particularly interested in the different (pro)creative capacities of male and female bodies and the representational possibilities inherent in them.
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