Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The central theme of Vipers’ Tangle is spiritual transformation. As Saint Teresa of Avila’s quotation at the front of the novel suggests, Louis ignorantly pursues false gods. In dealing with anger and vengeance, Louis unmasks the social values which wield such power: comeliness, inheritance (material and psychological), professional status, competition, social class, and love of money. As his hatred dies, so do these objects of the heart.

The structure of the novel reflects his struggle. Interruptions in the diary, for example, are caused not only by fatigue, illness, or poor lighting conditions, but also, more important, by his explosive emotions. As these emotions especially disorient Louis in the beginning, the past is confusingly merged with the present. In addition, Louis’ fear of further rejection from Isa and his horror at facing his own monstrosity cause him to hesitate in his narration. The narrative gradually gains more order as he dispels anger and fear and moves toward change and acceptance.

François Mauriac uses many stylistic devices to convey his theme. The"vipers’ tangle” is the central metaphor for Louis’ avarice, paranoia, and hatred. The serpent image is specifically extended to describe the money belt that Louis offers to Luc: a “boa.” The bed is an ironic symbol of “the desert” of love which characterizes his life. Dialogue provides a realistic technique for depicting conflict and conspiracy and Isa’s important revelations. The seasons are associated with Louis’ spiritual odyssey: spring rains and hail, with his detachment from the land; summer heat, with the eruption of the fury that, in spite of illness, compels him to flee to Paris; autumn, with Louis’ spiritual harvest. His agony especially surfaces during the period of Good Friday and Easter; the events surrounding Bastille Day precipitate his personal revolution and foreshadow his freedom; and his birth into the Church is scheduled for Christmas. Additional religious motifs include memories of prayer; ringing of bells; hypocritical gestures, such as Hubert’s sign of the cross; and churches, such as the one which suddenly appeared on the horizon—“like a living body”—after Isa destroyed Louis’ faith in love, and also Saint-Germain-des-Pres, in which Louis experienced both betrayal and the workings of salvation.