Characters

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In some respects the title character, Ernest-Jean Sarrasine, is the protagonist, but his story is framed as a tale that the unnamed narrator tells to Madame Beatrix de Rochefide. She is a greatly admired beauty, and the narrator is intent on seducing her. The narrator, although he frequents the Paris...

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In some respects the title character, Ernest-Jean Sarrasine, is the protagonist, but his story is framed as a tale that the unnamed narrator tells to Madame Beatrix de Rochefide. She is a greatly admired beauty, and the narrator is intent on seducing her. The narrator, although he frequents the Paris salons, is interested in truth as well as beauty. The story he tells is concerned with the model for a painting of Adonis on view at the party they are attending.

The ideal woman, whom Sarrasine loves, is an opera star with the stage name La Zambinella. Sarrasine is misled, however, as she is actually a castrato. Sarrasine is described as passionate and artistic, and sees the singer in Rome where he is pursuing sculpture. He runs afoul of the singer’s patron, a powerful cardinal. The plot strands are tied up when it is revealed that La Zambinella is not only the painting’s model and a guest at the party but also the Countess de Lanty’s uncle.

The action takes place at a ball in the home of the Count de Lanty, who is wealthy man but physically unattractive and dull in temperament. Other characters are his wife and two children, all very good looking. The teenage daughter, Marianina, is an ideal of purity and beauty with a lovely voice. The son, Filippo, is much in demand as a potential husband.

Characters Discussed

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The narrator

The narrator, a young Parisian who frequents the Parisian salons, where powerful, ambitious men and beautiful, desirable women entertain themselves at lavish soirées. He is set apart from the other guests by his awareness of the superficiality of his life and by his desire to discover the forms of beauty that will lead to truth. Each of the other characters possesses a type of beauty, on which he reflects. He tells his companion, the Marquise de Rochefide, the story of one of the guests, Zambinella.

Madame de Rochefide

Madame de Rochefide (rohsh-FEED), a beautiful marquise who possesses pure, transparent beauty. She has accompanied the narrator to a soirée at the Paris townhouse of the Lanty family. She is fascinated by a painting she sees there, and the narrator agrees to tell her the story of the model for the nude Adonis of the painting. After hearing the story, she decides that she will become the most chaste woman of her generation and will keep her ravishing beauty only for herself, thus closing the door on the possibility of an erotic experience with the narrator.

Ernest-Jean Sarrasine

Ernest-Jean Sarrasine (ehr-NEHST-zhah[n] sah-rah-SEEN), a young sculptor with an impetuous nature and wild genius. He is rather ugly and always badly dressed, and he has had little experience with women. He began his career in poverty but became famous when he won a major sculpture prize. His prize money took him to Italy, where he attended an operatic performance in Rome and fell in love with a singer, Zambinella. His love for her is obsessive and as impetuous and wild as his general behavior. Again and again he returns to the opera to wonder at her perfection. He spends the intervening hours composing one drawing after another of her in every conceivable form. He sees her as absolute female beauty embodied. When he discovers that she is a castrato, he tries to kill her and is himself killed instead. His obsession for Zambinella thus leads to insanity and death.

La Zambinella

La Zambinella (zahm-bee-NEHL-lah), a castrato who sings soprano roles at the opera in Rome. She is exquisitely beautiful, with an expressive mouth; heavy, voluptuous eyelids framed by dark curved lashes; a perfect oval face; and a dazzling white complexion. She is protected by Cardinal Cigognara, who was responsible for having transformed a beautiful young man, a member of the Lanty family, into this beautiful woman. Zambinella is at the Lanty party and is now a grotesque old man whose decrepitude is concealed beneath a blond wig and a mask of carefully applied makeup; he is bedecked with sparkling jewels. This bizarre figure is the subject of the story that the narrator tells to Madame de Rochefide—Zambinella was the model for the Adonis of the painting. The character is a constantly changing figure in the novella, a beautiful young Italian boy who is castrated and transformed into Zambinella, who creates the illusion of a beautiful female singer. The singer is the model for a statue created by the sculptor Sarrasine, who was madly in love with Zambinella; finally, the statue becomes the model for the painting of a perfectly beautiful Adonis.

The Count de Lanty

The Count de Lanty (lahn-TEE), a wealthy resident of Paris at whose home the narrator and his companion see Zambinella, a relative of the Countess de Lanty. The source of the Lanty fortune is a mystery.

The Countess de Lanty

The Countess de Lanty, the wife of the Count de Lanty. She is thirty-six years old and possesses a vibrant beauty. Her face is marked by an extraordinarily intelligent expression; she is a coquette and a powerful siren at the same time. Her beauty has been inherited by her children and is the type that fires Sarrasine’s irrational passion for Zambinella.

Marianina de Lanty

Marianina de Lanty (mahr-yah-NEE-nah), a sixteen-year-old girl whose beauty is like that of a sultan’s daughter in an Eastern tale. She has her mother’s beauty, which is also shared by her mother’s relative, Zambinella. She shares a beautiful singing voice as well with Zambinella, a voice that embodies secret poetry. Marianina sings in the room where the guests are gathered at the Lantys’ party, and her voice draws the grotesque old man who fascinates the narrator and his companion.

Filippo de Lanty

Filippo de Lanty (fee-LEE-poh), Marianina’s brother, who shares his sister’s marvelous beauty. He resembles Antinous, the paragon of youthful beauty, but is even more slender. His primary role in the novella is to represent the mother and sister’s beauty in male form.

The Characters

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The four members of the Lanty family do not differ appreciably from the numerous other wealthy men and women who people La Comedie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1895-1896), the integrated series of novels and short stories in which Honore de Balzac sought to describe all levels of French society in the years immediately following the restoration of the monarchy in 1815. The four lovers in Sarrasine, however, are all fully developed characters with individual personalities. In this novella, Balzac contrasts very effectively these two sets of lovers. Sarrasine and Zambinella are both egotistical and superficial, whereas the urbane narrator and the young dancer by their wit and moral sensitivity create a favorable impression on Balzac’s readers.

Unlike Sarrasine, the narrator never tries to dominate his beloved. Instead, he fully respects her freedom of choice. The narrator also has a very refined sense of humor. Tongue in cheek, he promises to tell her the story of Sarrasine if she will agree to sleep with him. The dancer understands that this is not a serious proposal, and she responds with a witty double entendre. She assures the narrator that she has “an ardent desire to know this secret.” Her ambiguous rejoinder may refer either to the very private act of love or to the secret of Sarrasine. After answering the narrator, she leaves him and waltzes with others at the party. The following day, the narrator, with whom she has not slept, willingly tells her the story of Sarrasine. The narrator and the young dancer are morally responsible characters with whom the reader can identify. At the end of Sarrasine, both sympathetic lovers rejoice that moral progress has occurred since the singing days of Zambinella. Young men are no longer deformed so that they can interpret the operatic roles once sung by castrati.

The other lovers, however, are quite unsympathetic. Zambinella expresses general hatred for both men and women, and he views the world as “a desert” for him. From others Zambinella seeks nothing more than superficial companionship and conversation. Indeed, he frequently attends dinner parties primarily so that he will not have to think about his profound unhappiness. When Sarrasine asks him why he deceived him for so long, Zambinella explains that he did so only in order “to please his friends who wanted to laugh.” It is only near the end of Sarrasine that the reader discovers why such a sensitive and gifted singer has become so cynical and superficial. Although Zambinella is a victim of physical deformation, his extreme bitterness makes it difficult for others, including the narrator and the young dancer, to comprehend fully the depth of his suffering.

Zambinella’s pessimistic view of life is, at least, understandable. Sarrasine, however, is a totally cruel and irrational character. During his years of study with Bouchardon, Sarrasine developed no social graces and never learned how to treat others with respect. Upon hearing Zambinella sing for the first time, he decides “to be loved by her or to die,” an extreme reaction with which no sensible reader can identify. Once Sarrasine has Zambinella abducted, he considers neither the severe legal consequences for his crime nor the terror which the victim will certainly feel. When he finally learns that Zambinella is a castrato, Sarrasine is so self-centered that he expresses no compassion. Indeed, Sarrasine thinks about only his own offended vanity. Sarrasine is an extraordinary grotesque whose cruelty has caused much suffering for three generations of the Lanty family.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30

Barthes, Roland. S/Z, 1974.

Bertault, Philippe. Balzac and “The Human Comedy,” 1963.

Festa-McCormick, Diana. Honore de Balzac, 1979.

Hunt, Herbert J. Balzac’s “Comedie humaine,” 1959.

Pritchett, V.S. Balzac, 1973.

Zweig, Stefan. Balzac, 1946.

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