Book Notes: "The Beast Within" by Émile Zola

The Beast WithinThe Beast Within by Émile Zola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Zola's work is dark and the title is apt. Train enthusiasts might enjoy the historical aspects of the glory days of steam, and the notes provide useful information about the historical context of the politics and pending downfall of Napoleon III. While I have seen the movie version of Germinal, starring Gérard Depardieu, this is the only book of Zola's series I have read. While the series of twenty novels centres around the lines of the Rougon-Macquart families, providing a coherent framework for characters, this novel by itself seems to have many characters, where the protagonist passes the baton to other characters as "the beast within" transmigrates from one evil character to the next. One can only imagine how violent this novel appeared in its day - not in the graphic horror movie sense but in a dark (as opposed to Gothic) telling of human nature and the fine line between good and evil that presents itself as choices as we tread along our life trajectories. In Murder on the Orient Express, the reader experiences the twists and turns of an arguably justifiable sense of justice, whereas The Beast Within shows justice to be a human construct that frets against the bureaucracy. In many respects, the story provides an interesting counterfactual theme to Christie's masterpiece, but also Kafka's The Trial. The major differences are that Christie points to the failings of the bureaucracy to bring the guilty to justice, while Kafka points to the bureaucracy's ability to bring the innocent to non-justice. Zola, on the other hand, does the opposite of both. The evil are desiring a form of justice, but the bureaucracy won't let them, and the innocent are not condemned. Instead, the last years of France's Second Empire unfold in a tale of the worst of human nature, culminating in a runaway train that speeds to its inevitable demise amid a trail of banal evil where ultimately, everyone gets what they deserve.

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