Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The sixth and final chapter of “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” begins with the observation that the banquets, orgies, and other assorted delights of the modern world are meager by comparison with the world of antiquity. This is probably untrue, but it is an essential element in the gaudy image of antiquity that Frenchmen of Théophile Gautier’s generation had. It was fashionable for them to lament the “decadence” of their own world and to contrast the drab materialism of modern civilization with the supposed color and virility of more primitive ways of life. To the French Romantics it seemed that the world of antiquity must have been infinitely brighter, grander, and more lavishly decorated than their own—at least for the likes of Cleopatra—and that was the way they saw it in their mind’s eye.

The reader of this story is expected to know what happened afterward, at least in outline. Mark Antony is also destined to die, ostensibly for love of Cleopatra. History suggests, however, that in spite of the fact that his marriage to her caused him a great deal of trouble in Rome, he married her in 37 b.c.e. as much for her money—which financed his Parthian campaign—as for her beauty. Antony’s defeat by Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus, the brother of the Roman woman Antony was pledged to marry) at the battle of Actium in 31 b.c.e. formed a prelude to the peak of the Roman Empire’s achievements, which were soon superseded by decadence and decline.

Given all this, it is understandable that Gautier can assure the reader that Cleopatra will not be shedding any tears for Mark Antony. He feels fully entitled to take the view that Cleopatra’s single night with Meïamoun—which takes place when she is in her early thirties—provides a climax for her rich and varied career as a lover, just as it provides a climax for Meïamoun’s far narrower erotic experience.

It is significant that Meïamoun, like Cleopatra herself and the city of Alexandria, is a relic of the empire of Alexander the Great, on whose ruins the Romans built their own empire. Cleopatra and he are “made...

(The entire section is 889 words.)