Enfants Terribles Summary
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.
At 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...
(The entire section is 1,200 words.)