Jump to navigation Jump to search This article is about the novel. The story has been adapted for the cinema on several occasions. The main characters are Roubaud, the deputy station master at Le La Curee PDF, his wife Séverine, and Jacques Lantier. Lantier is an engine driver on the line and the family link with the rest of Les Rougon-Macquart series.
Lecture accompagnée par Catherine Dessi-Woelflinger
Lantier, the « human beast » of the title, has a hereditary madness and has several times in his life wanted to murder women. At the beginning of the story he is an engine driver, in control of his engine « La Lison ». His relationship with « La Lison » is almost sexual and provides some degree of control over his mania. As a result of a chance remark, Roubaud suspects that Séverine has had an affair some years earlier, with Grandmorin one of the directors of the railway company, who had acted as her patron and who had helped Roubaud get his job.
He forces a confession out of her and makes her write a letter to Grandmorin telling him to take a particular train that evening, the same train Roubaud and Séverine are taking back to Le Havre. Meanwhile, Lantier who is not working while his engine is being repaired goes to visit his Aunt Phasie who lives in an isolated house by the railway. On leaving he meets his cousin Flore, with whom he has had a longstanding mutual attraction. After a brief conversation with her his passions become inflamed and he is on the verge of raping her but this in turn brings on his homicidal mania.
He has a desire to stab her but just about controls himself and rushes away. An investigation is launched and Roubaud and Séverine are prime suspects as they were on the train at the time and were due to inherit some property from Grandmorin. The authorities never suspect their true motive. Lantier sees Roubaud while waiting to be interviewed and identifies him as the murderer on the train, but when questioned says he cannot be sure. The investigating magistrate — believing the killer was Cabuche, a carter who lived nearby — dismisses Roubaud and Séverine. Despite being cleared of suspicion, the marriage of Roubaud and Séverine declines. Zola casually tosses in a remark that the money and watch stolen from Grandmorin was hidden behind the skirting board in their apartment, thus confirming the reader’s suspicion that Roubaud was the murderer all along.
Séverine and Lantier begin an affair, at first clandestinely but then more blatantly until they are caught in flagrante delicto by Roubaud. Séverine admits to Lantier that Roubaud committed the murder and that together they disposed of the body. Lantier feels the return of his desire to kill and one morning leaves the apartment to kill the first woman he meets. After having picked a victim he is seen by someone he knows and so abandons the idea.