(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

As the action of this short but intricately plotted novella begins, the narrator is attending an evening reception given by Count and Countess de Lanty. The narrator has a very pessimistic if not fatalistic view of life. For example, he sees many trees partially covered by snow in front of the Lantys’ house. This tranquil winter scene, however, reminds him of nothing less than a “dance of the dead.” He then describes the refined elegance of this party as a “dance of the living.” The narrator affirms that such opposing realities as life and death, love and violence, and happiness and bitter frustration always exist side by side. He also states that one should not confuse appearance with reality. The story of Sarrasine and Zambinella will, in fact, demonstrate the tragic consequences of mistaking appearance for reality.

Many mysteries surround the members of the Lanty family, which is composed of the Count, the Countess, and their children, Marianina and Filippo. All four speak five languages fluently, and no one knows their country of origin or even the source of their immense wealth. They seem to be very happy, although each becomes extremely disturbed whenever an unidentified elderly gentleman, always dressed in black, comes unexpectedly to their parties. At this particular reception, the mysterious man appears while Marianina is singing an Italian concert aria. The Lantys all turn pale. The partygoers soon realize that this person holds extraordinary power over the Lantys, who fear him for reasons that others do not understand.

A young dancer and the narrator then begin to discuss this secretive family. He tells...

(The entire section is 673 words.)