Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story is primarily one of adventure and atmosphere, made particularly fascinating by the character of the Sire de Malétroit, as memorable a grotesque as any created by Edgar Allan Poe. There is also the underlying idea that one’s ultimate destiny may be determined by unforeseen circumstances. Denis’s visit to a friend ultimately ends in his engagement to Blanche, a person whom he never met previously. An individual as strong and self-willed as Denis de Beaulieu may become a victim of fate as easily as the hapless Blanche. In another sense, however, character is fate, for if Denis and Blanche do not fall in love in the two hours allotted to them by Malétroit, Denis will be hanged, becoming another forgotten casualty of the Hundred Years’ War. In the opening paragraph, Robert Louis Stevenson writes that Denis’s decision to visit a friend was unwise and that he “would have done better to remain beside the fire or go decently to bed.” These words appear hard to reconcile with the true love that Denis develops for Blanche. Perhaps more to the point of the story’s theme are the words that Malétroit speaks to Denis: “Two hours of life are always two hours. A great many things may turn up in even as little a while as that.”