Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story is unfolded in a prose style of exquisite delicacy. In the child’s world of imagination, the senses are blended with one another; objects transform themselves into different shapes and textures; fantasy merges with reality. The images take on an even greater plasticity in the nightmare of high fever and in the child’s gradual, fluctuating return to consciousness.

The free-ranging, protean dynamic of the fantasy passages contrasts with the more formal style used to describe the actual events in the sickroom and the exchanges between the sick child and Madame Mamma (names are seldom used). Although the narrative is developed mainly through the child’s subjective vision, the structure of the story, in which the adult reality of the sickroom keeps entering his consciousness in a blurred and distorted form, enables the reader to understand the progress of the illness much more clearly than Jean himself does, and to visualize the comings and goings in the sickroom. At the same time as being deeply involved in the child’s private experiences, one must inevitably identify with the adults’ desperate hope for his recovery, a hope that has been made fragile by repeated references to Jean as “the child who was going to die” or “the child promised to death.”

By establishing this shifting center of sympathy, Colette is able, at the end, to swing the reader from one reaction to its opposite—first relief that the boy has unexpectedly recovered, then dismay and shock at the finality of the word “disappointed.” This unstressed and rather gentle word at the very end of the story commands a reinterpretation of all that has gone before.