Study Guide

A Passion in the Desert

by Honoré Balzac

A Passion in the Desert Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narrator and his woman friend are leaving a wild animal show. The woman wonders aloud how Mr. Martin, the animal tamer, is able to perform tricks with dangerous wild animals. The narrator, who has learned of Mr. Martin’s secrets from a soldier, suggests that he can explain the mystery, but hesitates to do so verbally. He finally concedes, after much begging and solicitation, to write the solution out for her. The next day, he sends her a strange story about a soldier from Napoleon’s invading army, who is fleeing from his Egyptian captors, searching for his regiment in the Egyptian desert. He stumbles into a cave to take refuge for the night. When a female panther returns to this cave after hunting, she snuggles up next to the sleeping soldier and prevents him from leaving as he had planned. Afraid that the panther will eventually kill him, the soldier thinks only of preempting its attack or of escaping.

After spending several days together, the soldier and the panther develop a mutual, erotically charged, affection. The soldier, for example, shows his amorous feelings by referring to the panther as his mistress and by calling her “Darling”—the nickname of his first lover. The soldier also caresses the panther, at one point causing her tail to stand voluptuously erect. Quickly understanding the positive effect of these caresses on the panther’s temperament, the soldier redoubles his efforts until he is sure that her passions are completely sated, leaving him safe in her presence. The soldier can be assured of his success because as he finishes his caressing, the panther returns her affection and lets loose an orgasmic sound described as one of those purrs by which cats express pleasure.

Eventually, this imaginary love affair ends violently. The soldier plunges his dagger into the panther’s neck when he suspects that she is about to devour him. The mortally wounded animal rolls on the ground, crying plaintively to the soldier; curiously, she shows no sign of hostility or vengeance. The soldier realizes he must have misinterpreted the panther’s intentions, and he expresses his most profound sorrow.