Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1418
In a poor quarter of Paris, Raphael de Valentin walks hesitantly into a gaming room. Inside are the usual raffish hoodlums. To them, the young man appears marked for mischance. Raphael plays his last coin on a turn of the wheel and loses.
Resolved to commit suicide, he wanders to the Seine. For a time, he leans over the parapet of the Pont Royal and looks at the cold water below. Only the thought of the paid rescuers keeps him from jumping. He finally seeks shelter in an antique shop, where he poses as a customer. The proprietor, a wizened old man, takes him upstairs and shows him a piece of shagreen, or untanned animal skin, on which are engraved words in Sanskrit telling the power of the skin. The possessor of the skin will get anything he or she wishes for, but, in return, the wisher’s life will belong to the talisman, and he or she will die when the skin, shrinking with each wish, dwindles to nothingness.
Despite the antique dealer’s warning, Raphael recklessly takes the piece of skin and wishes for a great banquet furnished with much wine, carousing companions, and ladies of light virtue. As he leaves the shop, he meets his friends Rastignac and Émile, two penniless adventurers. They have a great scheme in mind for him—he is to be the editor of a new periodical backed by a rich banker. To celebrate the appointment, the banker is giving a banquet in Raphael’s honor that very evening. Disquieted only a little by the prompt and complete granting of his wish, Raphael goes willingly enough to the banquet.
A rich table is laid in the banker’s apartment. After eating and drinking far too much, the company of men withdraw to another room, where a group of joyous ladies are waiting for them. In his somewhat drunken state, Raphael thinks that the women all look pure and beautiful. Settling himself with two complaisant entertainers and Émile, Raphael decides to tell them the story of how he has come to be where he is.
After his mother’s death, his rather stern father did his best to train his son for a scholarly career. The boy was destined to be a lawyer, and to that end he read law diligently. Shortly before he was to take a law degree, however, his father died. Instead of leaving the son financially secure, the estate amounted to only a few francs. Thinking to achieve a fortune, Raphael decided to shut himself up in a garret and produce literary works of genius. He found that by living strictly on cold meat, bread, and milk, he would have enough money for a while.
He found a cheap room under the eaves of a modest house and settled into his laborious routine of writing. Soon, he had begun his projects. He spent half of his time writing a comedy, and the rest of his efforts went into the composition of a discourse on the human will. The family from whom he rented his room consisted of a mother, Madame Gaudin, and her young daughter, Pauline. The father, an army captain, had been lost in Siberia; only his wife believed him still alive. Pauline was an attractive child. Raphael gave her piano lessons, and Pauline performed small household chores for him in return.
For a long time, Raphael stuck to his spartan schedule, but at last the poor diet and the effort of intense concentration proved too much for him to endure. He went out for a short walk one day and ran into Rastignac, who teased him about the way he lived. Rastignac had no money and many bills, yet he lived a life of luxury. Resourceful at finding jobs, he secured a hack writing commission for Raphael. The advance payment was enough to settle Raphael’s debts and to leave a little extra money.
After faithfully paying his account with Pauline’s mother, Raphael took his remaining capital to Rastignac, who was to gamble with it. Fortunately, Rastignac won a large sum. Raphael bought new clothes before Rastignac took him to see the Countess Foedora, who entertained lavishly. Since he was a well-educated man, Raphael was soon a favorite at Foedora’s salons, and by hook or crook he managed to keep up appearances so as to stay in her circle of close friends. He even took Foedora driving when he had the money. Pauline, ever the faithful friend, occasionally gave him small sums to see him through the times when he had little money.
Foedora was a woman of mystery. She was a young widow, wealthy and surrounded by admirers. Some dark secret in her past, however, kept her from marrying again or even taking a lover. Although she had many male friends, she had no inclination for a serious affair. She finally explained her attitude very clearly to Raphael, who was very disappointed.
Determined to win his lady, he hid behind her bed one evening and waited while Foedora prepared herself for sleep. From this close observation, Raphael romantically expected to learn how to break down her reserve. The effort, however, was in vain. Convinced at last that he could not win Foedora, Raphael gave up his social life; not even Pauline could console him. Without funds and with no prospects, he began to think of suicide.
As he finishes telling this story, Raphael notices that Émile and the women are not seriously interested; Émile even jokes about his trials and discomfiture. Soon everyone in the company falls into drunken sleep. When they all awake, Raphael is disgusted at the tawdry appearance of his fellow rioters. Going back to the banquet table, he tells of his piece of skin and, in a spirit of bravado, wishes for six million francs. Before he leaves the table, a messenger arrives to announce the death of Raphael’s mother’s brother; the dead man has bequeathed his nephew six million francs. Even though he is elated by his good fortune, Raphael is disturbed to see that the magic skin is growing smaller.
Riches bring no peace to Raphael. Although he now lives in greatest luxury, he also lives in fear. He constantly has to guard against any desires, as even inadvertent wishes shrink the magic skin.
One night at the opera, he sees Foedora again. Leaning aside so that she will not see him, he brushes against his neighbor. As he turns to apologize, he discovers that the woman beside him is Pauline Gaudin. She is now wealthy, for her father has returned with a fortune. Raphael and Pauline are soon married, and for a few weeks Raphael knows a little happiness.
Because the skin continues to shrink steadily, Raphael decides to take stern measures. He shows the skin to a zoologist, who informs him that it is a piece of skin from a rare, wild Persian ass. Then he visits a mechanic and has him try to stretch the skin in a press, but to no avail. Even in a white hot forge, the skin remains cool and pliable. A chemist tries immersing the wild ass’s skin in hydrofluoric acid, but the skin will still not stretch.
With his health failing fast, Raphael leaves his bride to seek safety in the mountains. The change of air does him no good, however, and his condition grows steadily worse. One day a braggart challenges him to a duel. Raphael accepts, knowing bitterly that his unspoken wish will make him the victor. After shooting his opponent in the heart, he flees back to Paris with his magic skin, which is now no larger than an oak leaf.
Although Raphael consults the best doctors available, they give him no comfort or help. They can scarcely believe his story of the skin, yet they can find no cause for his grave illness. At last he lies dying. Wanting to have Pauline near him but knowing that his desire will consume the last shred of the magic skin, he asks her to leave him. As he calls her name, she sees the skin growing smaller. In despair, she rushes into the next room and tries to kill herself by knotting a scarf around her neck. The dying man totters after her, and as he tears away the scarf, he tries vainly to utter a final wish, but no words will come. He dies while holding her in that last, desperate embrace.