Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The central theme of “Putois” is certainly the propensity of human beings to invent myths as a way of explaining the evils of the world they inhabit. Anatole France handles this theme in a distinctly humorous vein, naming his mythical figure “Putois,” which means a skunk. The name thus comically suggests both the inescapable pervasiveness of his presence and the disagreeable and unsavory nature of his social activity. The humor is unmistakably tinged with mockery, so that the theme of myth-making becomes a critical analysis of the way society, in a small town, will distort the reality of its political, economic, and social relationships, and even of its history, in the interests of adjusting the world to the society’s beliefs and prejudices. As a mythical figure, Putois has the essential virtues—or vices—needed for the role: He is elusive but seemingly ubiquitous, his persistent presence is undesirable because of his questionable character; yet, paradoxically, his questionable character makes him the ideal person to blame for whatever evils befall the community. The community’s subconscious need for a scapegoat gives Putois such existence as a mythical figure may possess.

Some readers interpret the process by which Putois gradually becomes a reality as a symbolic representation of how rumors spread in a community. Such readers see the story’s central theme as rumor-mongering, and Putois as a symbol for scandalous gossip or ugly rumor. Still other readers, noting that the story was first published while France was obsessed with the Alfred Dreyfus affair, have suggested that Putois symbolizes any forged or counterfeit reality, like the forged documents fabricated by the military to “prove” Dreyfus guilty, or the falsified history invented by the government to justify its claim that the spy in their midst had to be a Jewish officer of Alsatian origin. Such readers thus see “Putois” as a satirical parody of the Dreyfus affair, exposing it as a gross miscarriage of justice. However readers choose to characterize the central theme of “Putois,”—myth-making, rumor-mongering, or counterfeiting reality—they are clearly all seeing the same meaning in “Putois”: a humorous portrayal of the human need to find a scapegoat to explain away the experience of evil.