The Sound Crack in Émile Zola’s La Bête humaine

Listening to the rumblings and screeches of trains in Émile Zola’s La Bête humaine is a means to understand how railway noise conveys mental fracture and modern alienation—what I am calling the “sound crack” playing on Gilles Deleuze’s well-known essay on the fêlure or crack-up. Although there are a range of sounds in La Bête humaine, attending to the railway soundscape in the novel as well as in the notes, journal entries, and newspaper clippings collected in the Dossier préparatoire allows for critical immersion in the ambience of sonic violence. Whistles and acoustic signaling, as well as infrasound and ground-borne vibration, however, serve not only as evidence of Zola’s documentary impulse but also use sound to express order and derailment. The repetition of sound motifs conveys the violent shock that modern technology can inflict on the land and on the human psyche. The sound of doom crackles throughout the narrative which ends with an image of sonic warfare: an out-of-control driverless train full of singing soldiers headed to war.

Aimée Boutin
Florida State University
Volume 49.1–2