Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The themes of Honoré de Balzac’s surface-level narrative are obvious enough: an adulterous woman, a husband’s jealous rage, and his horrible act of revenge on his wife and her lover. Though Balzac’s story “La Grande Bretèche” is engaging on its own terms, one might uncover a deeper level of cultural meaning in it by interpreting it allegorically. The catastrophic rupture of the union between Mr. and Mrs. de Merret, for example, can be interpreted as an allegory of the catastrophic rupture in the union between France’s people and the absolute monarchy of its Old Regime brought on by the French Revolution in 1789 and reinforced in 1830. The ruined condition of La Grande Bretèche visually symbolizes the cultural disintegration that resulted from France’s chaotic and often violent process of replacing a society grounded in Christian metaphysics with a society grounded in secular law.

The idea that the estate is associated with an ideal, prelapsarian existence before its catastrophic fall is found in Bianchon’s idealization of its “garden”—an obvious archetypal reference to the biblical garden of Eden—to which he is unusually attracted but from which he is excluded by Régnault and the power of law. Moreover, the narrator asks himself a series of questions about the estate’s ruined condition that suggest a more universal and allegorical catastrophic event: “What celestial fire swept through here? Did somebody insult God there?...

(The entire section is 498 words.)