A Passion in the Desert

by Honoré Balzac

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Themes and Meanings

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In a second reading of “A Passion in the Desert,” the love story between the man and the panther appears perhaps less exotic and more complex than on first reading. As is the case with many of Honoré de Balzac’s tales, “A Passion in the Desert” is allegorical; clues of the narrative’s deeper significance must be found in indirect, symbolic evidence, such as clusters of interrelated images or metaphors. When the narrative is reevaluated in light of its symbols, and when this symbolic evidence is situated within the broader historical and cultural context of early nineteenth century France, common themes emerge that readers familiar with both French history and Balzac’s other writings can readily identify. Chief among these is the impact of the collapse of France’s traditional Christian, monarchical, and patriarchal ideals on the human psyche. With the challenge to Old Regime ideals in 1789, and with their formal obliteration in 1830 (two years before the story was published), the French people suddenly had to sever their emotional ties to the old paternalistic, phallocentric social order and learn to adapt themselves to the secular, legalistic, and mercantile ideals promoted by the new post-revolutionary Napoleonic order.

This shift in emotional allegiance from the old to the new order is precisely the psychological drama that the reader sees the soldier undergoing while stranded alone in the desert with the panther. One can detect this drama in Balzac’s use of phallic, monarchical, religious, and cutting imagery to portray the soldier’s hallucinatory observations. One set of hallucinations is associated with a clump of date palms that the soldier observes standing in sharp contrast with the unmerciful immensity of the Egyptian desert. These date palms, which immediately become the focal point of the soldier’s dream thoughts, are described, variously, as the columns of a cathedral, the king of the desert, and a dead parent’s body, perhaps his father’s—obvious symbols of the lost monarchical, phallocentric order. Even more significant is the soldier’s desperate effort to cling to one of the phallic palms, which the reader later learns was infertile, as if he were attempting to hold onto a fleeting mirage of traditional, patriarchal France’s foundational symbol: The soldier “wrapped his arms tightly around the date-palm as if it were a close friend’s body. . . . Then he sat down and cried, contemplating with a profound sadness the implacable scene before him.”

A second set of hallucinations is associated with the panther. The panther is the caretaker of a second clump of date palms, this time fertile, on which the soldier finds sumptuous dates to nourish his body. This symbolically demonstrates a reconfiguring of the soldier’s emotional ties. One can detect this in the soldier’s newfound love for the panther, who is described, like Napoleon, as imperial and royal. Eating the panther’s dates causes the soldier’s spirits to shift suddenly from somber desperation to an almost insane joy. Inspired by the panther’s physical and spiritual nourishment, the soldier runs back to the infertile palms, knocks down the one referred to as a king, and strips it of its leaves “like an inheritor who does not grieve long over the death of a parent.” This knocking down of the paternal, monarchical phallus symbolizes the soldier’s willful renouncement of his past ideals and opens the way for the transferral of his allegiance to the new ideals.

The soldier’s newly found faith is extremely precarious because it depends on his absolute devotion to satisfying the panther’s every whim. One knows, at the thematic level, that the soldier risks being bitten if he fails to satisfy the panther’s desires. At...

(This entire section contains 722 words.)

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the symbolic level, one can also see that he risks a spiritual wound: The panther reminds the soldier of his first lover, who often threatened him with a knife; the panther’s voice resembles the sound of a saw; and the panther’s habitat in the desert glitters like a steel blade. These symbols of cutting associated with the panther indicate that the soldier’s new faith is an all-or-nothing proposition. The soldier eventually renounces his new object of faith because he winds up destroying its external symbol, the panther. When the narrator asks for an explanation, the soldier responds: “It is God without men.”