Les Enfants Terribles

Les Enfants Terribles is a 1929 novel by Jean Cocteau, published by Editions Bernard Grasset. It concerns two siblings, Elisabeth and Paul, who isolate themselves from the world as they grow up, an isolation which is shattered by the stresses of their adolescence. It was first translated into English by Samuel Putnam in 1930 and published by Brewer & Warren Inc. A later English translation was made by Rosamond Lehmann in 1955, and published by New Directions (ISBN 0811200213) in the U.S., and Mclelland & Stewart in Canada in 1966, with the title translated as The Holy Terrors. The book is illustrated by the author's own drawings.

The Holy Terrors (Les Enfants Terribles)
US edition
AuthorJean Cocteau
Original titleLes Enfants Terribles
TranslatorRosamond Lehmann
IllustratorJean Cocteau
Cover artistJean Cocteau
PublisherNew Directions
Publication date
Published in English

It was made into a film of the same name, a collaboration between Cocteau and director Jean-Pierre Melville in 1950,[1] and inspired the opera of the same name by Philip Glass.[2][3] The ballet La Boule de Neige by the choreographer Fabrizio Monteverde with music of Pierluigi Castellano is based on this novel.[4] The story was adapted by the writer Gilbert Adair for his 1988 novel The Holy Innocents,[5] which was the basis for the 2003 film The Dreamers directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.


The story concerns the siblings Paul and Elisabeth who start this story without a father and with a bed-ridden mother, whom Elisabeth looks after. At school Paul is obsessed with the stud looking Dargelos, while Paul’s school friend Gerard is enthralled by the siblings. However, after Paul becomes ill when Dargelos throws a snowball with a stone inside at him, Elisabeth cares for both him and their mother. While Elisabeth nurses Paul it is revealed that the siblings enjoy a relationship characterised by a psychodrama known in the book as "The Game", which can only be played in their shared bedroom, elevated by the Game-play into "The Room". The game devised by Paul and Elisabeth often involves the siblings trying to annoy or irritate each other, by histrionic behaviour on the part of Elisabeth and by a taciturn refusal to be affected by Paul, where the winner is the one that leaves the contest with the last word, a sense of superiority and ideally having caused a display of angry frustration from the other. This game continues after Paul recovers and their mother has died.

Elisabeth soon takes up a job as a model, where she meets Agathe, a girl who was orphaned at a young age after her drug-addicted parents committed suicide. Agathe, characterised by her strong resemblance to Dargelos, soon moves in with Paul and Elisabeth.

Elisabeth is first to get married. She weds a wealthy young man who dies on his way to a business meeting before the married couple can even enjoy a honeymoon. As a result of his death, the siblings inherit a large house which they move into. Paul soon finds himself in love with Agathe. Elisabeth cannot stand to see her brother happy, and knows she must draw him back into their shared private world. Writing of his love to Agathe, Paul stakes his life on her reciprocation. Elisabeth intercepts the letter and prevents it from reaching Agathe. She tells her that Gerard is in love with her. Elisabeth then manages to bully Gerard, who is in love with her, into marrying Agathe and as a result helps break her brother’s heart. She feels herself condemned and pursued by the Furies thereafter, for the crime of having destroyed Paul and Agathe's happiness through deceit.

After Agathe and Gerard's marriage, Gerard meets with Dargelos, now a collector of poisons, who sends one of these poisons to Paul, also an enthusiast, as a gift. The poison is opium, which Jean Cocteau, the author of this book, was addicted to himself. Paul takes most of the opium in despair. As Paul lies dying he is attended by Agathe, who reviving Paul temporarily, confesses her love to him, and the plot is laid bare. At this moment, knowing that Paul is dying, Elisabeth senses that this is yet another twist in the game and by dying he has beaten her to the final move. She then shoots herself and by a matter of seconds beats Paul, leaving a frightened Agathe with two dead bodies.


  1. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042436/
  2. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-09-17. Retrieved 2009-04-09.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. Joshua, Rosenblum (1 August 2005). "GLASS: Les Enfants Terribles". Opera News. Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc. 70 (2): 58–59.
  4. Bentivoglio, Leonetta (8 December 1985). "Finiscono in dramma i giochi inquietanti di Elisabeth e Paul". la Repubblica (in Italian). Retrieved 23 July 2014.
  5. http://filmstore.bfi.org.uk/acatalog/info_113.html
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