Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The most unusual stylistic aspect of this tale is its narrative structure—the fact that the principal narrator does not pretend to be in control of his story before he tells it but allows the reader to discover it as he himself discovers it through partial stories told by a series of secondary narrators. A common criticism of Balzac’s fiction is that his narrators are implausibly omniscient and highly manipulative. By contrast, what arouses the reader’s desire to read and interpret this tale is his narrator’s very lack of knowledge and his desire to correct this lack.

The narrator’s ignorance is, in a sense, ultimately feigned because the reader knows that he has learned the end of his story before he puts the totality down on paper. Because one does not realize this until finishing the story, the enticing archaeological secret successfully encourages one actively to participate in the narrator’s conceit of reconstructing a lost story as one reads it.

That is not all; one detects a further twist of narrative sophistication when one learns that the surface-level narrative the narrator offers to unravel the archaeological mystery does not fully unravel it. It is at this point that one confirms one’s suspicion that the tale is allegorical—a fact that forces the curious reader to reread and actively look for the solution to the mystery. This ultimately leads the reader beyond a simple understanding of the local, historical events of the decaying estate to an understanding of the broader cultural and historical events of early nineteenth century France.