A Passion in the Desert

by Honoré Balzac

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Student Question

What symbolism is used in "A Passion in the Desert" to represent animal-human friendship?

Quick answer:

Honoré Balzac's story “A Passion in the Desert” uses the relationship between the soldier and the panther to symbolize the development, trials, and end of a love relationship between a man and a woman.

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Honoré Balzac uses quite a bit of symbolism in his story “A Passion in the Desert.” Most notably, the relationship between the soldier and the panther is actually symbolic of the relationship of two lovers and the stages they go through in their love.

The soldier finds himself alone and hopeless in the desert after his escape from a group of his enemies. He wakes up one night to discover a panther sleeping nearby. He is terrified, of course, yet he cannot bring himself to kill the animal. She is clearly not hungry, and she is beautiful. This encounter symbolizes the beginnings of a love relationship, which are often unexpected and sometimes even rather threatening.

As the days go by, the soldier and the panther get to know one another and even become friends. The panther allows the soldier to pet her and play with her, and she responds with purrs. He gets to know the meanings of her sounds, and she never threatens him. In fact, she finds food elsewhere, even though she could have devoured him in an instant. The soldier even begins calling her “Mignonne” (French for petite, cute, and charming), his nickname for an old girlfriend. Like a man and woman, the relationship between the soldier and the panther becomes more intimate, and we can see how the author uses the interactions between man and animal to point to the interactions between man and woman.

The panther even gets jealous at one point when the soldier pays attention to an eagle. The soldier himself grows “passionately fond” of the panther, and she takes up much of his days. Yet in the end, the two do not understand each other well enough. The panther grabs hold of the soldier's leg. She does not hurt him, yet the soldier's fear returns in an instant, and he lashes out with his dagger, killing her. He grieves as if he “had murdered a real person,” and he has never forgotten the panther. This, too, is symbolic of the trials couples find in a relationship. The jealousy, the misunderstandings, and the lashing out in fear and anger can all kill a relationship just like the soldier killed the panther.

In the end, then, this story is less about the interactions between humans and animals (although that is interesting) and more about the relationships between people, how such develop and how people and relationships can die in an instant.

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