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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 266

Sarrasine is a novella by the French novelist Honore de Balzac. It was part four of a continuing series he had called Comedie Humaine . In order to understand the general summary of the plot while you’re writing your assignment, it helps to note that the story was written in...

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Sarrasine is a novella by the French novelist Honore de Balzac. It was part four of a continuing series he had called Comedie Humaine. In order to understand the general summary of the plot while you’re writing your assignment, it helps to note that the story was written in 1830, so it’s not a modern tale.

The basic plot of the story is told by a narrator who is also in the story himself. He is telling the story to a character named Madame Rochefide, in order to get in her good graces. The story opens up with a man coming into a room where the narrator and Madame Rochefide are currently sitting during a ball. The Madame wants to know about the man, and so the narrator obliges.

The story the narrator tells is focused on an artistic boy named Ernest-Jean Sarrasine, who falls in love with a character he sees at a Roman opera named Zambinella. He starts thinking of her as the ideal woman and even plans to kidnap her until Zambinella finally admits to being a castrato, or a man who has had his manhood removed as a child in order to sing better.

Sarrasine is enraged and tries to kill Zambinella but is stopped by men sent to protect the opera singer. The old man from the beginning turns out to be Zambinella at the end. There’s certainly a lot to cover in Sarrasine, so it helps to hit the major plot points about Sarrasine pursuing Zambinella and then fill in extra details based on what else you need.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 673

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 her that things are rarely what they seem to be at the Lanty residence. When the girl praises an exquisite portrait representing Adonis, he informs her that the model for this painting was a woman and not a man. The young dancer is mystified, but she does not ask him to explain this apparent contradiction. Only at the end of Sarrasine does she discover that the model was Zambinella, an Italian opera singer. The dancer entreats the narrator, whom she loves, to tell her and her friend Mme de Rochefide the story of the elderly man whom the four Lantys fear.

The name of this gentleman is Ernest-Jean Sarrasine. During his adolescence, Sarrasine studied sculpture. Bouchardon, his teacher, strove both to cultivate Sarrasine’s artistic talents and to control the tendency toward violence in his pupil’s character. For six years, under Bouchardon’s direction, Sarrasine learned much about art, but, unfortunately, his personality never changed. During a visit to Rome, the young Sarrasine attended an operatic performance at which the celebrated Zambinella was singing. He so admired her ideal and classical beauty that he wanted to rush onto the stage in order to embrace her. His sole desire became to “possess” Zambinella, as he explained it to himself. While listening to the narrator’s tale, the young dancer quickly realizes that Sarrasine’s concept of love is both violent and dangerous.

The narrator’s tale takes center stage in the novella, as events of sixty years before are “replayed”: When Sarrasine finally meets Zambinella at a dinner party, he praises her physical beauty, but he remains indifferent to her feelings. At the party, she tries repeatedly to discourage Sarrasine, then becomes convinced that he will kill her if she rejects his love. Sarrasine learns from another dinner guest that Zambinella is not really a woman but rather a castrato, one who dresses as a woman and sings female roles in Italian operas. Sarrasine does not accept this explanation, and he hires criminals to abduct Zambinella. Zambinella, afraid of being beaten or raped by Sarrasine, finally admits the truth to the young sculptor. The egotistical and cruel Sarrasine spares Zambinella’s life and then announces his decision to renounce all pleasures and human emotions for the rest of his life. At the end of this novella, the narrator states that Zambinella was the granduncle of Marianina and Filippo. The Lantys’ fear of Sarrasine is thus perfectly understandable.

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