Enfants Terribles

by Jean Cocteau

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Paul and Elisabeth live with their paralyzed mother in an old quarter of Paris. They exist in a private, instinctual world, dissociated from adults by passivity, imagination, and secret, mysterious rites. One night, when the quarter is transformed by snow, Paul wanders among the snowballing groups in search of the school hero Dargelos, whom he worships. Dargelos, who possesses great charm, is both vicious and beautiful. As Paul moves toward him, Dargelos, perhaps accidentally, knocks him down with a stone-packed snowball. Although he injures Paul, he escapes immediate punishment but is later expelled from the school. Paul is taken home by Gérard, who loves Paul as much for his weakness as Paul loves Dargelos for his strength. Elisabeth is extremely angry with them when they reach Paul’s home. Sixteen years old, two years older than Paul, she is utterly absorbed in her brother She is frequently transported by fury when he appears to be leaving her sphere of influence.

The three children go into the Room where Paul and Elisabeth eat, sleep, read, fight, and play the Game. The Room is the central fixture in their lives; the Game is their inner world. The Room exists in a chaos of boxes, clothes, papers, and books. Paul leaves it only for school and Elisabeth only to look after their mother or to buy magazines. Essentially the Game is daydreaming, a willed withdrawal to an imaginary world of submerged consciousness. After Elisabeth sends Gérard away, she undresses Paul and puts him to bed. Their doctor decides that Paul is unfit to return to school, a decision that plunges Paul into despair until he learns of Dargelos’s expulsion. After that, school holds no interest for him.

The Room has hidden treasures, the artifacts of their unconscious minds—keys, marbles, aspirin bottles—and when Gérard tells Paul that Dargelos disappeared, a photograph of him dressed as Athalie is added to the collection. The mother dies suddenly. When Paul and Elisabeth see her, rigid and transfixed in her chair, staring forward, the image haunts them; it is the one they retain. The mother’s nurse, Mariette, remains in the household, content to care for and love Paul and Elisabeth without altering them.

Now an accepted visitor in the Room, Gérard is aware of the almost tangible tension, expressed in fights, recriminations, and reconciliations, between the two siblings. When Paul is well enough, Elisabeth, surprisingly, accepts an invitation from Gérard’s uncle to take a holiday by the sea. On the journey she watches Paul while he is sleeping and is disgusted by the air of weakness that his illness accentuates. She decides to remold him according to her own plans.

Once by the sea, they establish a Room as much like their own as possible. Paul gains strength under Elisabeth’s tutelage, in part through stealing useless objects from local shops while on raids that she plans. Their booty forms a treasure imitating that in the Paris Room.

When they return to Paris, Elisabeth is suddenly aware that Paul outstripped her and that she is the subordinate party in their relationship. Paul spends his evenings wandering around Montmartre, watching girls, drinking, and finally meeting Gérard and bringing him home for the night. On these occasions, Elisabeth would use him as a means of tormenting Paul. The first time she succeeds in rousing her brother comes when she declares that she, too, will go into the world. Her position, she feels, is untenable, and she subsequently obtains work as a mannequin. This act enrages Paul, who declares that she is prostituting herself; she thinks the same about his nightly excursions.


(This entire section contains 1200 words.)

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the dressmaker’s establishment where she works, Elisabeth meets Agatha, an orphan whose drug-addicted parents committed suicide. For Agatha she feels, for the first time, warm affection, but Agatha’s introduction to the Room precipitates the destruction of Paul and Elisabeth when Agatha becomes devoted to Paul. The photograph reveals a startling likeness between Dargelos and Agatha, and Paul enthralls her as he was in thrall to Dargelos. Agatha feels at home in the Room, but at the same time she recognizes the strange, dreamlike existence her friends lead.

As they mature, the Game fails to absorb Paul and Elisabeth completely. This situation so distresses Elisabeth that when she meets Michael, an American friend of Gérard, she transfers her dream life to him. Paul is excluded from this friendship with Michael, but his anger at learning of it evaporates when he discovers that Michael wants to marry Elisabeth and not, as he subconsciously feared, Agatha. Elisabeth does marry Michael, but true to Gérard’s vision of her, the marriage is never consummated: Michael is killed while driving alone in his sports car a few hours after the wedding.

Elisabeth inherits his fortune and his Paris house, into which the four move. Lonely and disoriented in separate rooms, they gravitate to the Room that Paul finally establishes in the dining hall. Their lives move slowly to a climax from the moment that Paul realizes he is in love with Agatha. Afraid to tell each other of their love, they each tell Elisabeth. Terrified that Paul might leave her, Elisabeth moves tirelessly between them all one night to dissuade them from marrying. Lying, she tells Paul that it is Gérard whom Agatha loves, and she tells Agatha that Paul is too selfish ever to love anyone. She also convinces Gérard that by friendship he won Agatha’s love and that it is his duty to marry her. Elisabeth is so dedicated to the idea of possessing Paul and so trusted by the others that she succeeds completely in her scheme.

A short time after his marriage to Agatha, Gérard meets Dargelos. The former schoolmate sends Paul a gift, part of his collection of poisons. Paul and Elisabeth were delighted with the present which, to Agatha’s horror, is added to the treasure.

Weeks later, when Paris is again covered in snow, Elisabeth dreams that Paul is dead. She awakens to find Agatha at the door. Agatha is convinced that Paul killed himself; she received a letter from him threatening suicide. They run to the Room and find Paul choking on poison fumes that fill the screened-in corner where he lies. Although he can barely speak, with Agatha he reconstructs Elisabeth’s scheme. When he curses her, she feels that her heart dies. After admitting her guilt and jealousy, she snatches a revolver; by that violent act, she is able to regain their attention and thus to captivate Paul once more. Elisabeth works to charm him back into their world of the Room and the Game, far from Agatha, who seems less real to him than the snowstorm outside. The two women watch each other until Paul falls back exhausted. Thinking him dead, Elisabeth shoots herself. Crashing against the screens, she destroys the Room and lets in the enemy world. Paul sees visions of people playing with snowballs crowding the windows, watching as he dies. Theirs is the tragedy of outcasts who, unaware that they live on borrowed time, die fighting for their private existence.


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