Hennessy on Oghia-Codsi (2016)


Oghia-Codsi, Rita. “The Return of the Repressed”: Uncovering Family Secrets in Zola’s Fiction. Peter Lang, 2016, pp. 328, ISBN 978-3-0343-1982-9

Susie Hennessy, Independent Scholar

This study invites the reader to examine the unconscious voice of the narrator in twelve of Émile Zola’s novels, with a view to a deeper appreciation of the mediation of Zola’s fiction by a repressed sexuality. For Oghia-Codsi, the return of the repressed is a secret trauma that originates with the mysterious tomb of “Marie” in La Fortune des Rougon, the inaugural novel. The spectre of this unknown girl haunts the Rougon-Macquart series, pointing to Zola’s problematic relationship with female sexuality and suggesting that a hidden crime linked to sexuality is the basis for Zola’s texts. Oghia-Codsi employs psychoanalytical and deconstructive theories to link the narratorial and authorial voices, suggesting that the return of the repressed stems from Zola’s own unconscious. She relies on the language of the novels as signifiers of the mystery that lurks within (10).

Oghia-Codsi organizes her analysis by addressing unconscious phenomena, including novels outside of the Rougon-Macquart. In the second chapter, she examines how secrets are encrypted in Thérèse Raquin, La Fortune des Rougon, and Madeleine Férat, discussing the death drive that pervades these novels and perpetuates some enigmatic event: “Arguably, Zola is sitting figuratively on his family’s crypt, whilst attempting to deal with the secret of Marie” (54). She surmises that Zola is obsessed with the death of innocent children and this obsession is connected to his view of female sexuality.

Infantile sexual development of the protagonists of La Faute de l’abbé Mouret and La Bête humaine comprises the third chapter: the author leads us through the psychoses of Serge and Jacques, which she contends is a result of maternal neglect. This fictitious neglect is in turn assumed to refer to that of Zola as a child, when his mother left him in the care of others for an extended period.

Oghia-Codsi shows how Zola punishes his female characters for stepping outside of their social or familial boundaries, a familiar notion among Zola scholars. In the chapter entitled “Prostitution and 19th-century Female Discourse in La Curée and Nana,” the author argues that the narrator’s insecurity and sexual fantasies result in sadomasochistic desires toward the female body (151). She explains how Zola uses the gaze of the observer-voyeur to gratify his own repressed desire. This topic has been examined thoroughly by eminent critics, such as Dorothy Kelly, Naomi Schor, and Micheline Van Der Beken, the last two of whom are cited in the chapter.

Having suggested in the introduction that a personal trauma is at the root of Zola’s ambiguous relationship with women, Oghia-Codsi begins to connect the dots in her chapter on Le Docteur Pascal, untangling the incestuous relationship of Clotilde and Pascal, and proposing that Clotilde is the dead Marie, reincarnated. She also posits the necessity of incest between the two because it keeps the Rougon-Macquart family intact. In her estimation, this novel represents the psychological healing of Zola, as if he had come to terms with female sexuality and was no longer threatened by it. Oghia-Codsi reminds the reader that his relationship with Jeanne Rozerot bears similarities to that of Pascal and Clotilde. Interpreting Pascal as Zola’s split ego, she states: “Zola writes about desire, the narrator evokes it through his discourse and Pascal practices it” (250).

“The Nature of Truth in Vérité” (chapter six) discusses the traumatic impact of the Drefyus Affair on Zola. It also gets to the heart of the author’s hypothesis regarding Zola’s view of sexuality, suggesting that the fictionalized rape of Zéphirin in Vérité may allude to some personal trauma that Zola experienced as a boy. In other words, the return of the repressed is Zola’s own repressed secret, one that haunted him and his writing. Oghia-Codsi admits that this is highly speculative, acknowledging the lack of evidence of Zola being victimized as a child.

The Return of the Repressed is an ambitious project: it addresses a great number of complex issues and seeks explanations for what Zola wrote and why. The psychoanalytical theories deployed by Oghia-Codsi underscore patterns found in the narratives and give credence to her thesis. However, the suggestion that these motifs mirror Zola’s unconscious and personal experience is an unfortunate oversimplification. While the author quotes Michael Riffaterre, who warns us: “not to confuse the unconscious of fiction with the unconscious of the author” (9), that seems to be what she has done. Nonetheless, this study contains well-reasoned analyses and provides insights that will be useful to Zola scholars.