Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526

The plot of The Satin Slipper is so exceedingly complicated that John O’Connor felt the need to include a ten-page summary with his English translation, on which Paul Claudel himself collaborated. Fortunately, readers can appreciate the basic themes of this play even if they do not remember all of its intricate subplots.

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Love, spiritual growth, and the search for happiness through religion are the major themes of The Satin Slipper. Claudel reminds his readers that God often works in unexpected ways. Published versions of this play open with a Portuguese proverb, “God writes straight with crooked lines,” followed by Saint Augustine’s remark that “even sins” play a role in Divine Providence.

The complex evolution of Prouheze and Rodrigo is quite extraordinary. In the very first scene of this play, Rodrigo’s brother, a dying Jesuit, laments that his brother “has turned his back” on God in order “to conquer and possess” Prouheze. The Jesuit priest senses that God will somehow transform the physical desires of Prouheze and Rodrigo into a longing for spiritual values “in the deprivation of each other’s presence through the daily play of circumstance.” Spectators may attribute these fortuitous circumstances either to mere chance or to Divine Providence.

Several images of love and spiritual belief are presented in The Satin Slipper. These include the basic amorality of Camillo, who associates love with domination and frequently beats his wife, Prouheze. Camillo converts from Roman Catholicism to Islam, for reasons that are never explained. His abuse of Prouheze demonstrates that Camillo learned no moral lessons from either the Bible or the Koran.

Prouheze and Rodrigo respond to love and God in more complicated ways. At first, Claudel describes Prouheze as a frustrated wife in an arranged marriage. Her physical attraction to the younger Rodrigo and not to Pelagio, an elderly judge, seems very understandable. Rodrigo’s desire to sleep with his beloved Prouheze seems perfectly normal. Their physical desire for each other will gradually evolve into a more spiritual longing. During the third day of this play, Prouheze’s Guardian Angel compares Prouheze and Rodrigo to souls in Purgatory who are “going up to Heaven.” Only Prouheze, whose life has been enriched by the spiritual values she discovers in her solitude and suffering in Mogador, can lead Rodrigo to salvation. She alone can persuade Rodrigo to renounce wealth and political power in order to grow spiritually and thus to attain salvation. Shortly before she dies, Prouheze tells her beloved Rodrigo: “Be generous in thy turn, as I have done canst not thou do likewise? Strip thyself! Cast off everything, give all to get all!”

When he traveled to Mogador in the third day of this play, Rodrigo hoped that Prouheze would satisfy him both physically and emotionally. Prouheze’s final remarks to him, and especially her courageous acceptance of death, transform the egotistical Rodrigo into a sympathetic and altruistic individual. Rodrigo’s insistence that the teachings of Christ require Christians to end their colonial domination of other people offends the king of Spain and his counselors. Rodrigo, however, must end his political career in order to remain faithful to his religious beliefs.

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Characters