The narrator is out of sight in a window seat at a ball. As he contemplates the garden he hears bits and pieces of various conversations as the speakers move past his location.
The owner of the mansion, Monsieur de Lanty, purchased it ten years ago from the Marechal de Carigliano. No one knows the history of the Lanty family but they are accepted into Society because of their great wealth. All are fluent in five languages. The Count is described as short, thin, ugly and boring but his wife and children are described as beautiful and intelligent.
There is an old man living in the house who gives many visitors the creeps and causes much speculation as to his identity. One of the persons upset by the old man is a young woman brought to the ball by the narrator. She gasps, “He smells of the cemetery!” The young woman dares to touch the old man on the arm causing him to make a cry like a rattle which brings glares from the Lantys down on her.
The young woman drags the narrator with her to an adjoining boudoir where she throws herself down on a couch as the narrator tells her she is mad. She remarks on the decor and especially notices a painting of Adonis stretched out on a lion’s skin. When she says that he is too beautiful to be a man, the narrator experiences a pang of jealousy and tells her that the artist worked from a statue of a woman and that he believes it represents a relative of Madame de Lanty.
As they sit unnoticed, the sixteen year old daughter of the house, Marianina, passes through leading the old man. As she turns him over to a tall, thin, man she kisses him and beautifully murmurs, “Addio, addio!” The spectre removes the most beautiful of his many rings and Marianina places it on one of her fingers over her glove. She blushes upon seeing the two spectators as she is leaving.
The young woman wonders what this means, “Is he her husband? I believe I am dreaming. Where am I?” and the narrator chides her ironically. He says that since she likes to hear stories of the fierce passions, kindled in our heart by the enchanting women of the South that he will come to her house the next evening and enlighten her as to the mystery.
The narrator begins to tell his audience of one the story of Ernest-Jean Sarrasine, the only son of a successful attorney. Sarrasine had been sent to the Jesuits to be educated but was so unruly and trouble-some that he was finally expelled. He went to Paris to avoid his father’s wrath and entered Bourchardon’s studio.
The praise received from the famous sculptor was a source of pride to his father and Bourchardon was able to keep Sarrasine’s tendency toward violent passions in check. For six years Sarrasine worked hard, only going to the Comedie Francaise when forced to accompany Bourchardon. He was bored with Society and his only mistress, Clotilde an opera celebrity, soon gave up on him.
This hard-working life ended after Sarrasine won the prize for sculpture and left for Italy in 1758. After only two weeks in Italy he saw a crowd outside the Argentina theatre and entered to see the show. He was enraptured by his first sight of the prima donna La Zambinella. He saw her as the ideal beauty in all her parts and decided to win her love or die! That night he sketched La Zambinella from memory and the next day hired a box at the opera for the remainder of the season. He spent the next week modeling La Zambinella with clay during the day and watching her in the opera each evening.
Unlike Parisians, the Italians attend the opera for the music so Sarrasine’s nightly attendance does not cause gossip in the town but the performers notice and one evening an old duenna comes to his box and tells him to disguise himself and be at a certain place at a certain time. From there he is led to a brilliantly lit salon but is disappointed to find it crowded with performers and others when he was hoping for a tete-a-tete. He is told by one of the celebrated singers, “Go on, you have no rival here to fear.” The guests are smiling, but unnoticed by Sarrasine the smiles seem to be smiles of malice.
Sarrasine sits beside La Zambinella at supper and finds her timid and modest toward him. She doesn’t drink wine but eats a bit too much. The others become drunk and Vitagliani makes sure Sarrasine’s glass is always full. Around three a.m. Sarrasine bravely carries La Zambinella to a private boudoir. She pulls out a dagger saying, “If you come near me, I shall be compelled to plunge this blade into your heart.” She then runs back into the salon. Sarrasine follows her and is greeted by a roar of infernal laughter.
At dawn the party decides to go to Frascati and Sarrasine feels lucky to drive La Zambinella. As she seems out of sorts he asks if she is ill and she replies that she is not strong enough to stand all the dissipation. Sarrasine is charmed by her delicacy.
Finally able to talk to La Zambinella in private, Sarrasine speaks of love. She replies that she abhors vulgar passion and also men and women. But she wants and desires friendship. She says she is an accursed creature and asks, “Suppose I were not a woman?” Sarrasine calls this a merry jest. She advises him not to speak thusly of her and to cease coming to the theatre. She returns to Paris with others leaving Sarrasine alone in the phaeton.
That evening a fellow artist brings Sarrasine an invitation to a private concert and tells him La Zambinella will be performing. Sarrasine recruits some friends for a coup de main after the entertainment.
When Sarrasine reaches the salon where La Zambinella is singing, he notes she is dressed as a man. An old nobleman near him asks, “She! what she?”
“‘La Zambinella!’ echoed the Roman prince. ‘Are you jesting? Whence have you come? Did a woman ever appear in a Roman theatre? And do you not know what sort of creatures play female parts within the domains of the Pope? It was I, monsieur, who endowed Zambinella with his voice. . . . .’
As Prince Chigi continues speaking of La Zambinella and calling him ungrateful, a ghastly truth dawned on Sarrasine and he was stricken as if by a thunderbolt. As the singer looks at Sarrasine his voice falters and he trembles. Cardinal Cicognara, who had been watching this scene, gives orders to an abbé who then disappears.
Zambinella recovers enough to finish the aria but refuses to sing anything else. Sarrasine thinks Zambinella is a woman and this is a secret intrigue. He leaves and waits with his friends outside the palace. Zambinella is kidnapped as he passes out of the palace gates. At the studio, Sarrasine demands the truth.
Zambinella begs not to be killed, saying that he only agreed to deceive Sarrasine because his friends wanted a laugh. This further incenses Sarrasine who draws his sword. Then, in disgust:
‘ . . . You are nothing! If you were a man or a woman, I would kill you, but–’
Sarrasine bitterly accuses Zambinella of bringing him down to his level and making love a meaningless word. He raises his sword to kill Zambinella whose screams bring three armed men into the studio who stab Sarrasine. One of them says to the dying man, ‘From Cardinal Cicognara.’ They tell Zambinella that his patron was worried and is waiting outside in a closed carriage.
Madame de Rochefide asks the narrator the connection between this story and the little old man she saw at the Lantys’ and is told that Zambinella is Marianina’s maternal great uncle and the source of Madame de Lanty’s fortune.
The narrator’s companion did not appreciate hearing the story, saying that she was disgusted with life and passion for a long time to come. He replies:
“By finishing this story, which is well known in Italy, I can give you an excellent idea of the progress made by the civilization of the present day. There are none of those wretched creatures now.”
Summary by Dagny, March 2008