Critical Evaluation

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François Mauriac’s literary career was launched in 1909 when he submitted his first volume of poems, Les Mains jointes, to Maurice Barrés, who was so impressed that he predicted a glorious future for the young writer. It was, however, in the writing of novels that Mauriac’s talents flourished. In his first novels he dealt with those themes that preoccupied him throughout his life: the opposition between the flesh and the spirit, between sin and grace, and between godliness and godlessness. In addition to his many novels, Mauriac also wrote philosophical essays, a few biographies, and some plays. In 1952, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in 1970 at the age of eighty-four.

The story and meaning of the life of Thérèse Desqueyroux preoccupied Mauriac’s mind over a long period. The book is not a novel in the conventional sense; rather, it is a series of four stories connected by the mind of the major character rather than by incident. Nevertheless, it is a powerful and dramatic revelation of the human condition and its relation to sin. Although Mauriac did at one time rebel against the religious practices of his family and did ultimately reject Jansenism, he never rejected the Catholic faith. Such is the primacy that he gave to his religious beliefs that he wished to be considered a Catholic who wrote novels rather than a Catholic novelist. In Thérèse, Mauriac catches the complex movement of guilt as it exists in everyone.

Most of Mauriac’s novels take place in Bordeaux and its surrounding countryside, with Paris appearing only incidentally. The estate of the writer’s grandmother, for example, becomes the home of Thérèse Desqueyroux, which he locates in a village he names Argelouse. Beyond the very important fact that he was deeply attached to his native region, the pastoral setting is featured prominently in his novels because, for Mauriac, the contrast between the physical world and the world of the spirit is more intense in the country, where nature bombards people with sensual stimuli that draw them into a preoccupation with physical things, with pleasures of the eye and ear, and ultimately with pleasures of the flesh. There the allure of physical things is much greater than in the city. In Thérèse, the descriptions of natural scenes are suffused with an almost erotic atmosphere.

Throughout the novel, Thérèse is strongly identified with elemental things. She thrives on the odors, colors, and shapes of nature. She yearns, in fact, to become one with nature. She says at one point that she has the pine trees in her blood. During her confrontation with Bernard, she wants to ask him to let her disappear into the night, into the forest, for she is not afraid of the trees—they know her, and she knows them. The illusory character of this union with nature is exposed a few paragraphs later, when Bernard tells Thérèse that she will be confined in Argelouse for the rest of her life. Suddenly, the beloved pine trees become the bars of Thérèse’s prison. For Mauriac, the human tragedy is that while individuals are of this world, they can never be really united with it. It is no coincidence that the key generic symbols used by Mauriac are earth, fire, and water. Whatever their immediate significance might be—and they are used in a variety of ways—the underlying sense is the dichotomy between human beings and nature.

All the characters in Thérèse , as in most of Mauriac’s novels, are identifiable types from the social milieu of traditional provincial life. Bernard Desqueyroux, Madame de la Trave, Monsieur...

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Larroque, Anne de la Trave, and Aunt Clara are all representative of the various shades of bourgeois aspirations, ideals, opinions, and standards. The servants have the values of their employers. When he was criticized for making literary use of friends and acquaintances as characters, Mauriac retorted that it is impossible to create something that does not already exist.

As a young man, Mauriac had witnessed the trial of a woman accused of poisoning her husband. The image of that woman, “pale and biting her lip” (as Mauriac describes Thérèse in the prologue), was the source of inspiration for the novel. All the rest is Mauriac’s invention. The real woman’s motivation for murder was her desire to be with another man; Thérèse’s motive is not nearly so simple. The probing analysis of motivation in the novel comes, according to Mauriac, from the uncovering of the potential for evil found in his own nature. He could say, as Gustave Flaubert did of Madame Bovary, “Thérèse Desqueyroux, c’est moi.”

Influenced, like most other writers of the twentieth century, by Sigmund Freud’s studies of the human unconscious, Mauriac’s great contribution to French letters is the integration of psychological insights with the teachings of Christianity. As a novelist writing after Marcel Proust’s great probing of the inner life, Mauriac felt it was his duty to give these investigations a dimension lacking in Proust’s works.

Thérèse is the study of a tormented woman’s soul. Endowed with great emotional depth and intellectual curiosity, the heroine is from the beginning set apart from others. Her great affection for Anne de la Trave is, for example, tempered by Thérèse’s awareness of the incongruities between them. Anne’s simplicity and naïveté form a contrast to Thérèse’s intelligence and subtle sensitivity. Thérèse feels superior to Anne, but this superiority is part of the reason for her alienation, and at times she almost seems to regret it.

Thérèse’s marriage represents an unconscious attempt by the heroine to overcome her differentness. To be sure, the marriage is prearranged on the basis of all the proper bourgeois concerns: status, wealth, family name. Without ever questioning the marriage or examining her own feelings, she behaves according to what is expected of her and plays the role of the enamored fiancé. In retrospect, however, she realizes that she married Bernard out of a desperate hope that he would save her from a vague danger that haunts her. Although this danger is never named, it is in fact alienation itself.

During her engagement, she feels for the first time in her life that she belongs, that she is integrated into her milieu, that she fits in. She hopes that by doing what all other young women do, she will become more like them. As it turns out, however, the marriage intensifies her alienation to an unbearable degree and sets in motion the chain of events that brings about her final downfall.

As Azévédo points out in one of his conversations with Thérèse, the penalty for differentness in her society is annihilation. Either one behaves as everyone else does or one is destroyed. Thérèse’s grandmother, Julie Bellade, serves as an example of this rule, for she was totally obliterated by the family in reaction to an undisclosed scandal.

There is an implication that Thérèse may be cursed by this past, a possibility of inherited evil that recurs throughout the novel, and Thérèse herself is preoccupied with the legacy of shame she will bequeath to her daughter. Mauriac’s concern with the inheritance of evil can be interpreted as a holdover from his Jansenist beliefs, which emphasize predestination. Thérèse can never determine at which point her crime had its inception; it was always there. Mauriac reinforces this impression by, for example, describing Thérèse’s peace at the time of her engagement as the temporary “quietness of the serpent in her bosom.”

Thérèse’s differentness is not in itself sinful, but it is apparently what causes her to sin. Mauriac sympathizes with her refusal to conform to the hypocrisy and mediocrity around her, but as a Christian he can only denounce the final turn her refusal takes. If Thérèse has a basic flaw, it is her lack of self-awareness. She never consciously decides to murder Bernard; circumstances suggest it, and she slips into it. The narrator points out that Thérèse has never thought anything out, never premeditated anything, in her entire life. She has no positive goals, only a retrospective awareness of what she has sought to escape. She never knows what she wants, only what she does not want. The crime with which she is charged seems totally alien to her, and she cannot satisfactorily explain, even to herself or to Bernard, why she did it.

Once freed from her marriage, she attempts to give meaning to her life by engaging in a series of love affairs. That she fails should not be surprising in view of Mauriac’s concept of human love: that it is destined to failure, being physical and therefore prey to time, corruption, and decay. The only way to transcend one’s mortality and finitude is through union with God. Thérèse is dimly aware that human love is not something on which to base one’s hope. In the farewell scene at the Café de la Paix, she considers for a moment going back to Argelouse, there to embark on the only meaningful quest, the search for God. A few moments later, however, she reaffirms her intention to look for fulfillment among men.

Thérèse’s lack of awareness is compounded, if not generated, by intense self-involvement and self-indulgence. Anne’s pain never evokes any sympathy in Thérèse, only self-pity. Thérèse is indignant that Anne, unlike herself, has been given the joy of knowing love. She always absolves herself of responsibility in shaping her own destiny. To be sure, this may be a flaw in Mauriac, not Thérèse; according to Jean-Paul Sartre, Thérèse is doomed beforehand by a flaw in her character on one hand and a divine malediction on the other. Many other critics have denounced what they consider the lack of free will in Mauriac’s characters. The line separating free will from predestination is at best nebulous in Mauriac’s vision of human behavior. Regardless of whether the novel is flawed by this predisposition, it is unquestionably a profound, moving study of a woman lost in the contradictions between her own psychology and the realities of her society.