Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

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The theme that introduces the bizarre events of “A Riddle” is the narrator’s ennui. He states: “I had come to a standstill; I was stuck in a morass of boredom, in the lethargic mood of a man who is no longer very young, but completely an adult, who is simply waiting for life.” This boredom explains why he changes his mind about the countess. He ignores her plea until the count offers to pay him off; then the challenge stirs him to action. That he later yearns for the romance and excitement of his trip in the Bugatti becomes clear in his ad about the lost elephant, but he is left with only his memories.

It is his dream of Miriam that prompts him to tell his story to Monsieur at the bar. He dreams of Miriam walking along an imaginary beach at Biarritz, and he realizes, “with the unsurprised amazement of a dream,” that Miriam is dead. Dreams provide us “a plausible solution,” he remarks, something that reason with its complexity cannot offer. Tomorrow, he hopes, he may dream that Miriam is alive and that they have kept their appointment. The narrator opens his boozy reminiscence with a brief monologue on dreams, and he ends it with another on the same subject: “Sometimes, when you’ve drunk a bit, reality is simplified; the gaps between one thing and another are closed, everything hangs together and you say to yourself: I’ve got it. Just like a dream.” The narrator winds down by asking the man at the bar why he wants to hear other people’s stories: “Can’t you be satisfied with your own dreams?”

The narrator dwells on the “banal” metaphor of life as a journey toward an appointment, a journey marked by “insignificant trips over the crust of this planet.” This definition of life leads him to a digression on Marcel Proust’s auto tour of the Gothic cathedrals of Normandy with his driver, Agostinelli. He rambles on to Monsieur about his days at the Sorbonne studying literature, and the paper that he wrote on “What Proust Saw from a Car,” a piece eventually published in “a third-class magazine.” The journey that he makes with the countess is irregular in many ways—in its route, in its adultery, and in its danger and mystery. Moreover, the narrator identifies the journey with real love: “Behind me the road retreated, before me it opened up, and I thought of my life and the boredom of it . . . and I felt ashamed that I’d never known love.” Therefore, the self-dubbed marquis of Carabas haunts the bars like a maudlin Ancient Mariner, telling his story of lost love to anyone who will listen.