Book reviews

The Style of Forbidden Games, and Its Effect

Now, a few notes about the narrative style of Boyer’s Forbidden Games (1947). 

The story is told by a seemingly bodyless third-person narrator who is not explicitly characterized, who appears to stand outside of the narrative (“disembodied”, cf. Klarer 2004: 20; “heterodiegetic”, “hidden”, cf. Booth 1974). While much of the story is told from the perspectives of the children (via third-person, limited, internal point of view), every once in a while, the narrator also adds information the children cannot know or perceive (zero focalization, omniscient narrator). The narrative voice switches between these two modes. 

The parts told through the eyes of the children are sometimes unreliable (although not always). This is the case, for example, when the children use their imagination to create not only a world separate from the adults’ and shaped by their own rules, but elaborate images of alternative realities, while the reader only notices the discrepancy between the children’s version of events and reality after the fact. 

Consider, for example, Paulette’s observation of the intelligent and ruthless animals who flee from the bombings and take shelter in the ditches in the first chapter. They abandon the people, who keep running about chaotically on the road and end up getting killed. A few pages after this description, the reader learns that it was actually the other way around: people took shelter and left their animals on the road to be killed, “carelessly” kicking their dead and dying bodies out of the way (cf. Boyer 1947/1968: 2f, 6). Paulette’s gaze has exchanged humans’ and animals’ positions, urging the reader to ponder the meaning of concepts of “humanity”, “animality”, “brutality” and “vulnerability” in the face of the dangers of war. 

Next to an emphasis on children’s physical perspective from “below” (e.g. as illustrated by Paulette watching feet, not faces when she is looking for her parents in chapter 1), which also entails a closeness to animals (see Querverlinkung), this “childish” imagination and play with reality and illusions is the main means by which the author constructs a specifically child-like point of view. This point of view, which creates an estrangement effect and frequently leaves the reader puzzled as to what really happened, is used as a means of formulating and driving home criticism of adults, their behavior, and the world they create for both children and animals.

In contrast to this focalized narration, the appearance of the ominiscient narrator is mostly marked by the somewhat “neutral” tone of the reporting historian. The narrator also never directly addresses the reader. The story being told to a large extent via character dialogue and descriptions of characters’ actions, coupled with camera lense-like, sweeping, scenic presentations of the surroundings, the narrator as a (fictional, implied) person seems to be mostly absent. This creates the impression that nobody is mediating or manipulating the presentation of events, which makes it appear as if the reader could directly partake in the lives and perspectives of the children without being directed or influenced by another adult’s point of view. This technique, which emerged with the development of the modern novel, is used by Boyer to create an illusion of objectivity and invites the readers to make up their own minds about the meaning of what they are reading. 

However, upon closer inspection, there are some exceptions that reveal the narrator’s character. These also point to the narrative framing of depicted events and its influence on the reader’s perception. Every once in a while, the narrator does indeed offer his personal opinion and evaluation of situations, e.g. describing the village’s “strange” little chapel, or telling of his “assumption” that the village has a long and “remarkable” history, judging by the size of its cemetery (cf. Boyer 1947/1990: 15f.). More importantly, his judgment also appears via the use of sarcasm as well as derogatory adjectives and verbs when he describes and criticizes adults, their actions and moral shortcomings (e.g. Boyer 1947/1990: 16). 

What the reader can learn about the narrator, giving the latter a closer look informed by gender theory, is that we are most likely receiving our information from a grown-up, human, middle-class, able-bodied man who is from and possesses knowledge about the larger culture he describes (looking down on the “primitive” farmers in the novel) and who is educated in history. He presents events and people from an informed, comfortable, privileged and distanced, non-working-class vantage point that appears to be close to Boyer’s own (authorial narrator).

Now, what does this narrative structure of the text do or mean? What kind of dialogue with the reader is created by it? I think, for one, it clearly reveals where Boyer’s own sympathies lie, and who he wants readers to identify with: the children and their experiences in a world shaped by adults’ destructive actions. He tries to pull his readers into the children’s point of view, asking the former to identify with the latter’s plight; at the same time, he uses the narrative techniques outlined above, especially the techniques of sarcasm and humor, to de-throne and criticize adults and especially males. His targets are their lack of understanding and empathy for children, but also their ruthlessness, egoism, militarism and violence. 

Via an opposition of children and adults, as well as a child-centered perspective on the world, Boyer formulates societal criticism and asks readers to ponder not only concepts of “humanity” and “animality” in relation to “brutality” in the context of the Second World War. He also poses the question of what a better society, respectful of children and their needs, could look like in its aftermath. 

This (once again) illustrates the close connection between the narrative techniques used in a text and the communication of its (main) messages – a point that is also very relevant when it comes to discussing critics’ initial reactions to Boyer’s work.


Booth, Wayne C. Die Rhetorik der Erzählkunst. Heidelberg: UTB Quelle & Meyer, 1974.

Boyer, Francois. Jeux interdits. Paris: Editions Denoël, 1968 (1947).

Boyer, François. Verbotene Spiele. Frankfurt: Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 1990 (1947).

Klarer, Mario. An Introduction to Literary Studies. London/New York: Routledge, 2004.

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