Synopses (books)

Forbidden Games – Jeux interdits, 1947

 (spoiler alert: this blog post reveals details and the end of the story!)

Boyer’s Jeux interdits, published by Editions de Minuit in 1947, is a comparatively short novel with a turbulent history. With its length of only 150 pages (1968 Denoël edition), it might even be better described as a novella.

Its protagonists are 9-year-old Paulette, a delicate and pretty girl from Paris, and 10-year-old Michel, the youngest son of a family of farmers. The story is set in 1940, in the countryside near Paris.

The first chapter begins with a German bomber attacking a large crowd of French civilians and their animals fleeing the city. Paulette, who is without orientation among the masses of “feet, feet, feet, legs, legs” (Boyer 1947/1968: 9), first loses her mother, then her father. Both of her parents end up being killed and Paulette is left to her own devices. After sitting next to her father’s body in a stupor for a while, Paulette is approached by a dog. The dog is injured; Paulette, who loves animals, tries to comfort him. When he escapes her grasp, she follows him across a field into the unknown, decidedly renouncing human company. 

The dog dies, and Paulette carries him to a stream in the woods, where she sits and plays with him. This is where she meets Michel, who is chasing a runaway cow. The children make friends and Michel takes Paulette home, the family shelters her in the barn. However, the new family situation is rough: a strict, bull-headed and rather unintelligent patriarch controls his wife and children, especially his daughters, via physical discipline and harsh punishments. Daily life is marked by quarrels with neighbors, hard work in the beet fields and herding cows, as well as meaningless prayer. Adults demonstrate an utter lack of understanding and empathy for the children. The children do not go to school but are also put to work on the farm. 

Michel helps Paulette bury the dead dog in the woods near the stream. Seeing that this gives the traumatized girl pleasure, Michel suggests a burying game. First the two children collect dead animals, then they start killing them on purpose so they can bury them next to the dog. Wanting to decorate the animal graves, Paulette and Michel together steal crosses from the local church, cemetery, and the town’s hearse. The adults, who are busy hovering over older son Georges, lethally hurt by a runaway horse, remain oblivious to the children’s activities. 

In the end Michel, at little “nymph“ Paulette’s beck and call, climbs a chapel roof to take down its large cross. He falls and dies. Paulette, devastated at the loss of her friend, buries Michel next to her beloved animals. Meanwhile, the adults have started noticing the missing crosses (but not the absence of their youngest son). Looking for them, they find the animal cemetery and destroy it. This also implies that they will probably never find Michel’s body. Deeply alienated Paulette, who watches them, again turns her back on human society: she follows a hare into the woods and disappears into the unknown, returning to the story’s starting point. 

Overall, Boyer’s story is quite dark, and marked by deep empathy for the experiences and plight of children affected by the war. However, the author also repeatedly uses comic relief, especially when it comes to criticizing adults’ behavior. The text is quite funny at times. 

It is both entertaining and unique in terms of style as well as content. In a letter to André Gide, French author and Nobel Prize laureate Roger Martin du Gard praised it as “delightful child psychology” marked by “sobriety, density, finesse, and merciless observation” (Gide and Martin du Gard, 1947; cf. Boyer 1947/1968: 3). In my personal opinion, Clément’s film is indeed very well made, but the novel is also worth a read. Especially since the film diverges from it in a few significant ways. 


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

Boyer, François. Forbidden Games (M. Legat, Trans.). London: The Bodley Head, 1950. 

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