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 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...
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