Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The most important stylistic feature of this tale is Balzac’s narrative strategy. Although Balzac is commonly thought to portray human reality in a straightforward, realist fashion, he often veils his ideas behind the cloak of a narrative mystery. In this case, he hooks the reader’s imagination by making one desire to know the solution to the surface-level mystery surrounding Mr. Martin. This outer narrative frames a second narrative (the soldier’s story) that is offered as the locus for resolving the issues of the frame narrative. Balzac frustrates the reader’s desire, however, by encouraging the curious reader to reread his tale to discover a deeper mystery he has planted—the network of symbols and images used to portray the soldier’s hallucinations. As one pieces together the various parts of Balzac’s narrative puzzle, one discovers a sophisticated theory of the relationship between a cultural crisis and the psychological crisis of an individual.

What makes Balzac’s narrative strategy especially rewarding is that he never tells readers what to think. Instead, he coaxes them to discover what he thinks. Although Balzac preordains their discovery of his ideas, his genius is to give them the illusion of making the discoveries themselves.