Julian Barnes Short Fiction Analysis
Julian Barnes’s collection of short stories, Cross Channel, contains ten stories appearing previously in The New Yorker, Granta, and elsewhere. Despite Barnes’s small output, Cross Channel has received a great deal of positive attention partially because of critical admiration of his novels, particularly Flaubert’s Parrot and England, England, and partially because of his narrative experiments with the short-story form.
The collection is thematically of a piece, all the stories focusing on the British in France, from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century. The stories also share the common characteristic of being grounded as much on historical fact and cultural values as they are on individual characters. As a result, his stories sometimes lean as much toward the essayistic as they do toward the fictional. Although this creates a strong factual context for the stories, giving them a sense of historical reality, it tends to make them focus more on social abstractions than on individual characters.
“Dragons” focuses on the occupation of a Protestant village in southern France in the seventeenth century by mercenaries working for Louis XIV. Three soldiers, or “dragonnades,” from the north are placed in the household of Pierre, a French carpenter, ostensibly because he has not paid a tax but actually because he is Protestant and thus considered an enemy of the king’s religion. The soldiers burn his furniture and his fine wood and sell his tools for bargain prices.
One by one, the members of Pierre’s family are forced to recant their religion and return to the Church. His child Daniel is taken to a Jesuit college; another son abjures when his sister is raped by the dragons, but when they continue to treat her as a whore, he spits out the holy wafer and wine and is condemned to death by burning. To force the girl to abjure, the dragons tell her that she will get pregnant and that they will testify that her father used her as a whore, which will result in her and her father’s deaths.
The climax of the story comes when the reader learns that the dragons are Irish Catholics, who have become mercenaries for the French Catholics out of revenge for Oliver Cromwell’s Protestant atrocities against them many years earlier. When the heretics are reduced in number from 176 to 8, the dragons move farther south and start work in another area. However, Pierre still goes into the forest to join his secret religious sect.
“Dragons” is an ironic story about persecution and social intolerance, told in the formal language and tones of the folktale. However, as the story progresses, it moves slowly from an anonymous folktale country to a precise historical context. The fact that the dragons are from Ireland seems a kind of poetic justice, as they have also been victims of religious persecution. Thus, the story begins to resonate with cultural meaning after the reader learns the historical context.
The movement in this story of an aging and egotistical English composer, who lives in a French village in the 1930’s with his...
(The entire section is 1315 words.)