How does the setting affect the events and characters in Thérèse Desqueyroux

May 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Mauriac uses setting as a vital component to constructing the proceedings and mood of the novel. The prevalent comparison we are easily able to see and make, which concern the concept of setting and how it influences the readers perception of the novel, are Argelouse and Paris. Argelouse which comes to stand for Therese’s prison and her entrapment, and the illusionary dream of Paris, which conversely represents her liberty and autonomy. The fact they are so geographically distant from one another, helps to create the sense of considerable separation in what they mean for Therese, and it is this dichotomy that these places make, which makes the characters, in particular Therese, act the way they do.

Therese is presented with living in Argelouse which “est réellement une extrémité de la terre” (“is really an extremity of the earth”) in an area of France which values the pines as almost sacred or essentially institutional to the community. This provincial district is antiquated, isolated and rigid in sticking to traditional conformity. For Therese, not only does what the community stand for disagree with her liberal-minded, progressive, individualistic outlook of life, but also the physical nature of the area does not agree with her. The town has very little to occupy her, with its residents not very intellectually stimulated, like Anne who, once Therese’s best childhood friend, did not attend the same school as Therese, and thus does not read or do any of the things Therese enjoys doing. Thus, the different settings in which Therese and Anne were educated, comes to precipitate and escalate the sense of divide between the characters’ previous intimate relationship. The fact that Argelouse is so isolated and with little going on, it helps to heighten the feeling of peculiarity when something unusual of different happens, like the Priest who comes to Argelouse and conducts the services different to how the people would usually expect them: “Ce n’est pas le genre qu’il faut ici … », « il est très exact … mais il manque d’onction …“ (“he is not the type of person needed here….”, “he is very exact…but he lacks unction”). Thus, in presenting Argelouse as a parochial, backward village, Mauriac ironically emphasises the differences between the normal world and Argelouse, and indeed, Therese seems to be the only person drawn by the Priest and who likes him, highlighting the antithetical nature of her character to the setting around her. Everyone knows her business in Argelouse and she wishes to escape that to a place where “la loi eût été de “devenir soi-même” (« the law would have been to “become oneself”) – she feels she can never be free from judgement there.

The effect of the pines is a considerable one in terms of pathetic fallacy. In some ways, the pines is one of the reasons Therese marries Bernard, so that her wealth could expand. Yet ironically, like her marriage which prevents her from escaping all that she hates, the pines come to stand for her ensnarement, as if in this marital act, she has caught herself. Indeed, her frustration with being made to feel claustrophobic by the surrounding trees climaxes when she imagines vividly setting all the pines alight, burning everything the community stands for and in doing so, removing what is preventing her from escaping. It is no coincidence that the point at which Therese begins the poisoning of Bernard is when there is a fire in the pines, subtly hinting at rising tension. But this obsession Bernard has when fretting over the welfare of his pines, provokes Therese to poisoning him since she realises he cares more for the community, for societal conformity, that her as his wife. Argelouse thus heightens Therese’s suffering and her anguished feelings, so much so even the weather presents her with images of entrapment : ”la pluie ininterrompue multipliait autour de la sombre maison ses millions de barreaux mouvants “ (“the uninterrupted rain multiplied around the dark house its millions of moving bars”)


Paris is portrayed by Mauriac as everything Therese has been wanting through her life in Argelouse. It represents her individuality, liberty and escape, as well as an opportunity to reinvent herself as her own person, with the benefit of having her past concealed by the nature community separation. It is evident that this dream heightens her anguish at her situation, particularly when Jean, somebody who lives this freedom and embodies all it stands for, appears right in front of her, but then fleetingly drifts away, like the reality of her dream does. In fact, ever since she meets Jean, there is a certain increased suffering she experiences at the concept that she feels so far away from the life she wants to lead – she has to imagine, fantasise at the life she can invent for herself. She is constantly comparing her life in Paris at the end of the novel to that she experienced in Argelouse: how people are not fearful of her anymore, how one woman even smiled at her. What Therese missed in Argelouse is people, and what Paris offers her is the company of being surrounded by “la foret vivante” (“the living forest”) which she says she would happily watch for days on end because it is people who interest her. As we see here, she compares animate humans with the static pines in Argelouse, like when she says she cannot wait to see the “la foule des gens apres la foule des arbres” (“the crowd of people after the crowd of trees”) in Paris. This constant comparison helps to emphasise how much Therese despised Argelouse and how much she appreciates her liberty, yet it might also suggest that the pines are an intrinsic part of her. This is supported by the fact that when she gets up to go out in Paris, she looks at herself in the mirror and sees that she is looking pretty, but that Argelouse has left its mark on her through the fact she looks like she has aged. It is as if there will always be a part of Argelouse embedded in her.

In conclusion, it is evident that setting plays a huge role in not only developing the characters and the events in the novel, but also in directing the reader how to feel towards a situation or a character, what emotions to apply to them. Whether it be explicitly emphasising emotion or implicitly revealing the differences between place and protagonist, it is so important in contributing to the reading of the novel and the eventual outcome.

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