Themes and Meanings
In a second reading of “A Passion in the Desert,” the love story between the man and the panther appears perhaps less exotic and more complex than on first reading. As is the case with many of Honoré de Balzac’s tales, “A Passion in the Desert” is allegorical; clues of the narrative’s deeper significance must be found in indirect, symbolic evidence, such as clusters of interrelated images or metaphors. When the narrative is reevaluated in light of its symbols, and when this symbolic evidence is situated within the broader historical and cultural context of early nineteenth century France, common themes emerge that readers familiar with both French history and Balzac’s other writings can readily identify. Chief among these is the impact of the collapse of France’s traditional Christian, monarchical, and patriarchal ideals on the human psyche. With the challenge to Old Regime ideals in 1789, and with their formal obliteration in 1830 (two years before the story was published), the French people suddenly had to sever their emotional ties to the old paternalistic, phallocentric social order and learn to adapt themselves to the secular, legalistic, and mercantile ideals promoted by the new post-revolutionary Napoleonic order.
This shift in emotional allegiance from the old to the new order is precisely the psychological drama that the reader sees the soldier undergoing while stranded alone in the desert with the panther. One can detect this drama in Balzac’s use of phallic, monarchical, religious, and cutting imagery to portray the soldier’s hallucinatory observations. One set of hallucinations is associated with a clump of date palms that the soldier observes standing in sharp contrast with the unmerciful immensity of the Egyptian...
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