‘A Passion In The Desert’ by Honoré de Balzac

A Passion In The Desert by Honoré de Balzac, 1830

The magic trick:

A frame device that grounds a fantastic tale in the real world

We’re back to France this week, beginning with a remarkable story from long ago.

Often, you find a framing device serves to simply introduce the story. It’s the author’s way in to starting the plot. And that’s great. But the framing device that kicks off “A Passion In The Desert” is a bit more complicated than that.

A man relates a story he heard from a former French soldier in Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. So what we then get is the story of this soldier. It’s a strange story; very dramatic and almost other worldly in its extreme circumstances.

So the framing device is extraordinarily effective in grounding it. What could have been almost like a fable or Disney-esque fairy tale instead takes on the air of real-world tragedy.

And that’s quite a trick on Balzac’s part.

The selection:

If she had been like that in a cage, the Provencal would doubtless have admired the grace of the animal, and the vigorous contrasts of vivid color which gave her robe an imperial splendor; but just then his sight was troubled by her sinister appearance.

The presence of the panther, even asleep, could not fail to produce the effect which the magnetic eyes of the serpent are said to have on the nightingale.

For a moment the courage of the soldier began to fail before this danger, though no doubt it would have risen at the mouth of a cannon charged with shell. Nevertheless, a bold thought brought daylight to his soul and sealed up the source of the cold sweat which sprang forth on his brow. Like men driven to bay, who defy death and offer their body to the smiter, so he, seeing in this merely a tragic episode, resolved to play his part with honor to the last.

“The day before yesterday the Arabs would have killed me, perhaps,” he said; so considering himself as good as dead already, he waited bravely, with excited curiosity, the awakening of his enemy.


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