The Holy Terrors - Jean Cocteau, Rosamond Lehmann

A Bizarre Story-


In 'Les Enfants Terribles', Cocteau gives the reader a melodramatic view of adolescence, void of innocence and filled with darkness; a peculiar relationship between brother and sister of excessive indulgence, petulance, childish pettiness and selfishness. Paul and Elisabeth contrive and control their fantasy games in the 'Room' that cocoons them from the world, a place where they feel most alive - a comfort zone. Their individual existences are simultaneously symbiotic and parasitic - a constant 'give and take' revolves around them, matched in strength by the innate need of one to feed off the other.


Their games are initially mischievous, innocuous, anywhere from benign tricks and silly fights to squabbling and name-calling, making faces at strangers and petty thievery, one-upping the other with ever-increasing risk. The ridiculous behaviors don't cease into their adulthood but rather become more frenzied, more sadomasochistic, more psychotic.


The story's strange interplays have the resemblance of drug-induced hallucinations, which might well have been intentional on the author's part. For example, one might recognize an allegorical suggestion at the beginning of the story, in the snow scene where Dargelos, whom Paul admires, injures him with a snowball blow to the chest, leaving him permanently and morbidly ill. His days are spent in bed, wasting away. He would suffer trance-like states and sleepwalk at night. The end is also tragic partly due to a 'poisonous substance', again, provided by Dargelos.

"Paul's voice was loud, aggressive. "Glorious stuff, poison! I was always dying to get hold of some when I was at school." ( It would have been more accurate to say that Dargelos was obsessed by poisons and that he, Paul, had copied Dargelos.)"

Paul and Elisabeth's unity and possessiveness goes undeniably beyond the boundaries of sibling love or rivalry. When one tries to leave the 'cocoon', the other must invariably follow. For instance, when Elisabeth marries her wealthy fiancé and moves into his mansion, she must make a room for Paul, who would fashion it to duplicate the old 'Room'. Later on, as Agatha confesses her love of Paul, Elisabeth vengefully retaliates like a jealous lover.


There is an unmistakably apparent 'forbidden' sexual element to the characters' relationships, starting with the Paul -Dargelos connection in the opening scene.

"He was looking for Dargelos, whom he loved. It was the worse for him because he was condemned to love without forewarning of love's nature. His sickness was unremitting and incurable-a state of desire, chaste, innocent of aim or name."


With Paul and Elisabeth, an incestuous undertone is strongly present.

"...Elisabeth and Paul took possession of the bedroom, leaving the bathroom to Gérard. By nightfall, the situation had deteriorated; Elisabeth wanted a bath and so did Paul. They sulked, raged, turned on one another, flung doors open, slammed them again at random, and ended finally at opposite ends of the same boiling bath, with Paul in fits of laughter."

Freud is so present in this novel. The book comes to a suspenseful conclusion, still leaving the reader a little perplexed about its purpose.


Cocteau's strange tale may portray some very dark and self-serving human behaviors, some of which, for an adolescent, might be misdemeanors easily overlooked; the adult, however, might be sent to Purgatory, a more permanent tragic end.


In an alternate view, 'Les Enfants Terribles' may possibly be the author's psychological comparison of destructive behaviors from childhood to adulthood - that an adult is the malignant version of its younger self; the behaviors don't really change over time, just that their outcomes become lethal.