How Mauriac Succeeds in Making Us Feel Pity Towards Therese at the Start of the Novel
Francois Mauriac presents Therese Desqueroux in a somewhat ambivalent, ambiguous way. She is a woman who has committed a crime against her husband, Bernard, but cannot fathom what compelled her to do so. In this light, the reader is presented with a complex case where you have to grapple with moments where we are supposed to condemn her crime, and moments where we feel intense pity and empathy for this troubled woman. In a society that was very much founded on the principals that the family profile must be upheld and men had control over the women and their choices, we are meant to sympathise with the women in the novel to an extent, and thus Therese.
Mauriac initially expresses his own pity and empathy for what Therese is suffering or struggling to deal with, by saying in the introduction “Therese, beaucoup diront que tu n’existe pas. Mais je sais que tu existe” (“Therese, many will say that you do not exist. But I know that you exist”). By expressing an understanding of who she is and how she is feeling when others cannot comprehend what she is going through, it is a powerful way for Mauriac to link him to his protagonist, evoking a pity from the reader as the author, who is constructing this image, is sympathetic of her. The introduction is a means of Mauriac to directly speak to the reader about Therese, and thus we are encouraged by him to pity her; to accept and understand her complexity and not to make quick judgement like the rest of her family does when they are incredulous as to why she committed this crime when they have given her ‘everything’. The irony here is that they have far from done this- leaving her emotionally isolated, misunderstood and trapped in the “barreaux vivants d’une famille” (“the living bars of a family”). Indeed, the epigraph, taken from a Charles Baudelaire poem about a woman with a certain peculiarity, says that we should accept people for what they are, since they are made in the eyes of God and therefore are natural “Seigneur, ayez pitie, ayez pitie des fous et des folles! O createur!” (“Lord, have pity, have pity on the mad people! Oh Creator!”)
Mauriac does not try to justify Therese’s crimes and realises what she has done is wrong, but he believes that redemption is possible as she is not an inherently bad person- admitting her faults, and the decisions she made in the past. Mauriac ends the introduction by saying “Du moins, sur ce trottoir ou je t’abandonne, j’ai l’espérance que tu n’es pas seule” (“At least, on the sidewalk where I abandon you, I hope you’re not alone”) which sounds like a more positive outlook on her fate. Therese in chapter two says ‘’moi je ne connais pas mes crimes” (“Me, I did not understand my crimes”) which makes us feel pity since she is presented as vulnerable and confused almost with a turbulent mind. The way in which the book is written almost feels as if Therese is narrating it and thus we get moments of Therese’s great intimate inner emotion: how she describes her family, how she is treated by them, and how she feels trapped by her surroundings and societal expectation. Indeed, in chapter one after the end of the course case, the men leave the court in front of Therese leaving her isolated behind, to fend for herself almost down the “marches mouillees” (“wet steps”) and her father insensitively only cares about whether this scandal will affect his political career, dissociating himself from sympathy for Therese- “ce qu’il appelle l’honneur du nom est sauf; d’ici les elections senatoriales…” (“What he calls the honour of the name is safe; by the senatorial elections…”). Furthermore, we feel pity for her when Bernard regards her and her pregnancy as merely a business progression so that the lineage of the Desquerouxs will continue and that the pines will be cared for: “il contemplait avec respect la femme qui portait dans ses flancs le maitre de pins” (“he contemplated with respect the woman who carried in her flanks the master of the pines”) which feels like she is being objectified for her womanhood and thus we are invited to pity her.
As well as family, the setting in which Therese lives acts as source of pity for her. It is isolated, small with very little going on, and is inhabited by few wealthy families obsessed with societal expectation- “Argelouse est reellement une extremite de la terre” (“Argelouse really is an extremity of the earth”). She finds it all so insular, and the people who live there so antiquated, parochial and uncultured. The swathes of pines for the locals are images of heritage, wealth and prosperity, but for her are he prison. She says she feels ensnared by the pines and wants to replace all the pines with people, and it is perhaps this desire for animation and contact with people different people, rather than having to conform a colloquial, secluded way of living, that drives facilitates her madness. Since she inhabits a place against her will, we are encouraged to pity her for where she is forced to live.
Therese’s childhood friend, Anne, is depicted as another source of reason to pity Therese. Anne is presented to us as an amiable but naïve girl. Educated in a convent, she appears ignorant and slightly unworldly, and the more intelligent Therese is privy to her narrow-minded outlook on life. As a result, Anne falls wildly in love with a Jean Azavedo, who merely regards her as a ‘fling’. Yet, it appears that Therese is desperately jealous of Anne’s happiness: “Pourquoi aurait-elle eu pitie? Qu’il doit etre doux de repeter un nom, un prenom qui designe un certain etre auquel on est lie par le coeur respire!” (“Why would she have pity? It must be sweet to repeat a name, a name that designates a certain being to whom we are bound by the breathing heart!”) It is often perceived that Therese does not show a lot of emotion, yet here we see she is a sentimental human being and does want to feel cared for and experience happiness like Anne does. Her melancholy and desire for love is epitomised through the quote “Elle ne se ressemblait pas, c’etait une autre personne…” (“she did not resemble herself, it was a different person”) which evokes pity from us as she evidently feels disregarded and as a result is different.
Therese, despite her crimes, is portrayed as a pitiable character due to the way she is isolated. She is alienated not simply by her setting but by the people around her, and disregarded by her husband. Ultimately, this combination of factors leaves her as an emotionally lost, love-bereft woman, jealous of even her closest friends and their happiness.
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Francois Mauriac presents Therese Desqueroux in a somewhat ambivalent, ambiguous way. She is a woman who has committed a crime against her husband, Bernard, but cannot fathom what compelled her […]