A Passion in the Desert by Honoré de Balzac

Une Passion dans le désert
A Passion in the Desert

Une Passion dans le Dèsert is a story within a story.

The narrator and a woman have been to see a show put on by a M. Martin in which he works with animals. The woman wonders how he could have tamed the animals so much that he trusted them. The narrator says it is quite natural as beasts also have passions. He adds that the first time he saw one of M. Martin’s performances he thought the same as she does now. At that performance he was sitting next to an old soldier who did not seem surprised. They talked and then went out to dine. The old soldier told of an episode in his life which the narrator agreed to pass on to the woman. She received it the following day.

* * * * * * *

In Egypt a soldier from Provence was captured by Arabs called Maugrabins. One night while camping at an oasis they did not watch the soldier and he took the chance to escape, not thinking about where he would go or how he would survive. Stealing a horse and a few supplies, he rode with the hope of finding the French army. He failed and when the exhausted horse died, he was alone and in despair, almost wishing to be back with the Maugrabins.

Balzac gives us wonderful descriptive passages throughout this story. One of the desert descriptions is of an ocean without limit. But to be lost and alone here and only twenty-two years of age was so depressing to the soldier that he loaded the rifle which would be his deliverance. He decides there is plenty of time and remembers France, the smell of the gutters of Paris and all the towns through which he had passed. He might be able to survive until some other Maugrabins pass that way or he might even hear the sound of a cannon of Napoleon’s army.

He has stopped at a small spring with a nearby cave in which he falls asleep. He is awakened in the night by breathing, the savage energy of which denotes it is not a human. He sees two yellow points of light. As the moon slowly lights up the cave he is able to make out a spotted panther, a lion of Egypt. The animal is quite still now, dozing and seemingly content. He plans how he could kill it but fears he would not be able to kill it fast enough to keep from being killed himself.

At dawn he sees blood on the panther’s muzzle and knows she must be full. She is a beautiful female with a coat like burnished gold. She awakens and performs a toilette as he watches, dagger in hand. Finished she walks over to the soldier. He begins to scratch her back from head to tail. After three times the panther begins to purr! When the soldier gets up and leaves the cave she follows him. He plays with her ears, strokes her belly and tickles her head, all the while thinking of the best way to kill her, but always delaying the attempt. He realizes he must stab her in the throat.

Later, as the soldier is walking about, he discovers that the panther has eaten her fill from his dead horse. When he returns the panther actually seems happy to see him. He keeps his dagger at hand but feels remorse at having to kill a beautiful creature that has done nothing to harm him. He calls her Mignonne, the nickname of his first sweetheart who was a jealous girl and always threatened him with a knife. Soon the panther answers to that name.

That night he anxiously waits for the panther to go to sleep. He then sets out rapidly in the direction of the Nile. But, ah, Mignonne has followed him. Just then he gets stuck in a patch of quicksand. As he gives a scream of alarm Mignonne pulls him back by his collar. Henceforward he treats Mignonne as if she were a pet and she responds as a dog would.

The next few days pass very pleasantly. The soldier continues to watch for any passers-by while entertaining himself with the panther. He has placed his shirt like a flag atop one of the palm trees. When he directs his attention to an eagle, Mignonne growls. The soldier says she is jealous. As they look at each other the soldier declares that she has a soul.

* * * * * * *

The woman tells the narrator she has read the plea in favor of beasts and wants to know how the adventure ended. The narrator replies that it ended as all great passions do end–by a misunderstanding.

One day the soldier thinks he might have hurt Mignonne for she grabbed his leg with her sharp teeth, gently though. For a moment he feared for his life and stabbed her in the neck with his dagger. She cried and looked at him without anger and he would have given anything to have brought her back to life. The soldiers who had seen his flag find him in tears.

The soldier ended by telling the narrator that he had later fought in many countries but there was never anything like the desert.


Read it:
Ernest Dowson translation
George Burnham Ives translation

Summary by Dagny, December 2006


2 comments on “A Passion in the Desert by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This is one of Balzac’s better short stories, in spite of the fact that Balzac never saw a desert in his life. A French soldier escapes from captivity in the Sahara, almost dies, and suddenly finds himself next to a panther – who has fortunately just feasted on his dead horse and thus is not inclined to eat him. In spite of wariness on both sides, a relationship develops between the panther and the soldier with the panther actually rescuing the soldier at one time from quicksand. When in a playful moment the panther bites his leg (“though gently”) the soldier panics and kills his new best friend.

    Saintsbury says the story is vivid and told with much terseness and effect, displaying Balzac’s power of visualization. Balzac makes you feel you are there in the desolation of the desert with this magnificent but potentially dangerous animal. Dangerous animal meets dangerous man – both are survivors, and both suffered from tragically misinterpreted motives brought on by the urge for survival. Do animals feel, bond, have some characteristics of humans? Yes.


  2. Tarnmoor says:

    It appears that the post answers your question.


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