The Death of Napoleon

by Simon Leys

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What is the meaning of The Death of Napoleon?

The multiple meanings of The Death of Napoleon include the literal death of the title character, his defeat and removal from his position as emperor, and the declining importance of monarchy as a system of government. By emphasizing Napoleon’s human vulnerability, author Simon Leys draws the reader into his interpretation of history. Leys also shows Napoleon as a symbolic of an archaic way of life that inevitably yielded to democratic principles.

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In referring to Napoleon's "death," author Simon Leys suggests several possible meanings at different levels of analysis. As a fictionalized biographical treatment of French history, Leys's novel focuses on the character of Napoleon Bonaparte and follows him to the end of his life. Leys re-imagines Napoleon as an all-too-human, vulnerable character who can arouse the reader's sympathy. The Death of Napoleon also refers to the end of his rule, when he was removed from the position of emperor and sentenced to exile. By connecting the experiences of one individual to the fate of his country, Leys also shows how monarchy drastically declined as a system of government.

Leys conveys these multiple meanings by twisting the historical record. His presentation of Napoleon as addicted to power is consistent with the portrayal of a man who goes to any length to avoid exile and try to regain his former grandeur. His emphasis on Napoleon's decline conveys that being fallible and vulnerable is not always a disadvantage. Leys also stays true to history in the broader sense of "death," referring to the royalist vision he embraced and tried to perpetuate. The ordinary populace whose kindness helps the fallen emperor in his final years represents those who support the growth of a republic at which Napoleon once sneered.

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