Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In Sarrasine, Balzac primarily concerns himself with the search for happiness and love on the part of the novella’s eight principal characters. Only the narrator and the young dancer are satisfied with their existence, and they may attain true happiness in their love for each other. These sympathetic lovers, however, were not influenced in any way by Sarrasine’s cruelty or by the castration of Zambinella. Sarrasine illustrates very powerfully the long-term and unintended effects of the injustice done to Zambinella almost sixty years before this evening reception at the Lantys’ residence.

Zambinella has been scarred both physically and emotionally by his castration. Since he is so profoundly different from other men, Zambinella believes that he is “condemned to understand happiness, to sense it, to desire it, and, like so many others, to see it disappear at every moment.” He never suspects that his grandniece, Marianina, also a talented opera singer, will feel an equally keen sense of frustration. The Lantys, in turn, are ashamed of Zambinella’s castration. For this reason, they left their native Italy and spent years trying to suppress their past suffering. Feelings, however, can never be fully suppressed. Their profound and long-lasting unhappiness is revealed to others by their obsessive attempts to hide their background and family history from the public. In contrast, Sarrasine’s bitterness can be attributed to his selfish and unpleasant personality. Balzac’s readers, however, regret that Sarrasine’s cruelty toward Zambinella has prevented the Lantys from attaining happiness. Despite their repeated efforts, the Lantys cannot free themselves from the damage done six decades earlier.