Honoré de Balzac

A Passion in the Desert

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A Passion in the Desert Summary

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“A Passion in the Desert” (“Passion dans le desert”) is a short story by Honoré de Balzac, the 19th-century French writer best known for his collection of linked fictions titled La Comédie Humaine. Although “A Passion” first appeared in an 1830 issue of Revue de Paris, Balzac later included it in “Scenes from Military Life,” the 15thvolume of La Comédie Humaine. Structured as a frame narrative, the story begins in Paris. The unnamed narrator and a woman have just witnessed a show featuring trained wild animals. When the woman wonders if animals have feelings, the narrator relates the story of a soldier, a panther, and their deep bond.

Egypt is the setting for the narrator’s tale, which he himself heard from a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. While serving in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, a young soldier from France’s Provence region was captured by “Maugrabins,” a group of itinerant Arabs. When the Maugrabins stop at an oasis, and their attention strays, the Frenchman escapes on horseback. His flight frees him from his captors, but plunges him into a sea of sand “without limit.” Finally, after a frenetic and futile effort to track down the French army, the soldier’s horse dies of exhaustion.

The scorching desert stretches endlessly in every direction around the soldier, offering no glimpse of hope for his situation. Despair engulfs him. Resolving to end his own suffering, the soldier loads his rifle, but then pauses to reflect on his past. Uplifting memories of Paris and other French villages displace his desperate thoughts, and he sets off across a hill with renewed courage.

At the bottom of the hill, he discovers a bubbling spring outside a natural grotto shaded by fruit-filled palm trees, and “a joy that was half insane” floods him. The grotto provides welcome respite from the sun. After covering the cave’s entrance with a fallen tree to protect himself from intruding animals, the soldier falls asleep inside his refuge.

The sound of breathing wakes the soldier during the night. Seized with fear, he sits up, but darkness prevents him from identifying the source of the sound. After long minutes of terrified speculation, the soldier sees his “terrible companion” when a beam of moonlight gleams “upon the shining, spotted skin of a panther” sleeping just two feet from him. Various strategies for killing the animal race through his mind, and after dismissing each as too risky, the soldier decides to delay his strike until daylight.

At the break of dawn, the soldier can better assess his slumbering adversary. The panther is female, and her bloody muzzle suggests she has recently filled her belly. She wakes and leisurely washes her face while the soldier watches, spellbound, thinking, “She is like a dainty woman.”

When the panther rises and saunters toward him, the soldier touches his dagger but doesn’t use it against her. Her close proximity instead entices him to run “his hand along her spine from the head to the flanks.” She responds to his caresses by voluptuously curling her tail and purring. The soldier continues to stroke the panther until he lulls her into a subdued state of bliss, at which point, he quietly exits the cave.

The soldier is hardly to the top of the hill, however, when the panther bounds up to him and rubs against his legs, eager for more caresses. He obliges, this time using the point of his dagger to scratch her head while he calculates how to deliver a deadly cut. As he prepares to strike her throat, the panther gracefully slides into repose at his feet and beguiles him with what he perceives to be a kind gaze. She allows the soldier to walk a short distance away from her, where he sees the half-eaten carcass of his horse. With relief, he realizes that after this substantial meal, the panther will not be inclined to regard him as prey.

The soldier walks back to the panther and resumes stroking her. When they wrestle playfully, the sight of her lethal claws triggers his latent fear and mistrust. He reaches for his dagger, but an aversion to harming this “inoffensive creature” prevents him from using his weapon once again. Moreover, he starts to fancy her as a “friend in the limitless desert.” The soldier names the panther “Mignonne,” after his first mistress who, during fits of jealousy, would threaten to kill him.

As night falls, the soldier’s apprehensions about Mignonne and her savage nature return. He waits until she is asleep and then leaves her, hoping to make his way to the Nile. He stumbles into quicksand, but Mignonne has been shadowing the soldier and pulls him to safety. His trust in the panther restored, the soldier returns with her to the grotto.

When the soldier wakes the next morning, Mignonne is gone. She soon comes back to him with tell-tale blood on her muzzle. As he pets the panther, the soldier lightheartedly accuses her of eating a Maugrabin and then cautions, “But you are not to eat a Frenchman; remember that! If you do, I will not love you.”

Days pass, and the soldier’s affection for the panther grows. While he also gains a new appreciation for the dazzling beauty of the desert, it is nevertheless insufficient to make him content with his “weird present.” To attract would-be rescuers, he fashions his shirt into a banner and ties it to the top of a tree.

As the panther shows no desire to eat the soldier but only to receive his fond attentions, his fear of her subsides. She emits a jealous growl when he admires an eagle flying overhead, obliging him to appreciate “afresh her rounded flanks” and conclude, “She was as pretty as a woman.” Their eyes meet in a moment of mutual understanding, and he rejoices in the conviction that “[s]he has a soul!”

Despite the soldier’s passion for Mignonne and her unfaltering demonstrations of loyalty, suspicions that she might betray him linger in his mind. One day, when she harmlessly takes his leg in her teeth, he panics and stabs her with his knife. When soldiers arrive shortly thereafter, having seen his makeshift banner, they find him weeping over the lifeless panther.

Balzac’s story questions the idea that human nature is more refined than that of animals. At the beginning of the story, the woman suggests to the narrator that humans afflict animals with “all the vices arising in our own state of civilization,” and indeed, the soldier proves more savage than the panther. A film based on the story was released in 1997.