The Red Inn by Honoré de Balzac

L’Auberge Rouge
The Red Inn

The narrator, whose name we are not given, tells us of a dinner party he once attended, given by a Parisian banker in honour of a German businessman called Hermann. Over dessert, Fanny, the banker’s daughter, asks Hermann to tell a frightening story.

1. The Thought and the Deed

Hermann’s story is that, in October 1799, two young French medical students were travelling to join their regiment in Germany. The name of one was Prosper Magnan, the other’s he cannot remember, so, for convenience, he calls him Wilhem. The two young men are delighted by everything they see on their travels through Germany.

One evening, they arrive, at sunset, at the town where the French army is stationed, Andernach, on the bank of the Rhine. As it is too late to report to their commanding officer, they stay at the Red Inn, next to the river, so-called because it is entirely painted red. The inn is already full, so the innkeeper offers them his own room. Just then another latecomer, a German factory owner called Walhenfer, arrives by boat and the two young Frenchmen offer to share their food and accommodation with him.

The layout of the inn consists of a public room, where the three travellers eat, the innkeeper’s bedroom, where they will sleep and the kitchen, where the innkeeper and his wife will sleep. From the public room there are two doors, one to a courtyard, on the other side of which is the rest of the inn, where all the other guests are sleeping and the other leads directly outside, to the road that runs along the bank of the river. Dogs are kept in the courtyard. All the windows and doors are carefully bolted from the inside.

During discussion over dinner, Prosper talks with emotion about his mother and how she would like to buy a particular piece of land, where he used to play as a child. Before the travellers go to bed, Walhenfer tells them that he has 100,000 francs in gold and diamonds in his case and that he is nervous of the boatmen who brought him there. The two Frenchmen reassure him and all three go to bed, Walhenfer and Wilhem in the two beds, Prosper on a spare mattress on the floor.

While the other two go straight to sleep, Prosper lies awake. First he thinks about the money in Walhenfer’s case and what he could do if he had it. Then he plans how he could get the money by killing Walhenfer with one of his surgical instruments. He gets up and goes into the public room, opens the window without making any noise, then goes back and takes a surgical instrument out of his case. However, when he raises his hand to strike, he seems to hear a voice and see a light. Horrified by his own actions, he drops the surgical instrument on his mattress and jumps out of the window in the adjoining room. For a long time he walks up and down along the bank of the river. When he has calmed down and feels able to trust himself, he returns to the inn, closes the window again and goes back to bed where, although he notices a strange kind of moisture in the air and a sound like water dripping, he soon falls asleep.

2. The Two Crimes

In the morning, Prosper Magnan finds Walhenfer’s decapitated body lying on the bed, along with his own surgical instrument. The German’s head is lying in a pool of blood on the floor next to the mattress where Prosper had been sleeping. He faints, falling into the blood, at the same time thinking that this is a punishment for his thoughts of murder the night before. He is found to be unfit for questioning and taken to prison.

It is in prison that Prosper meets Hermann, the guest at the dinner party who is telling the story. Hermann had been fighting as part of the resistance to Napoleon’s invasion of Germany and had been captured by the French. He says that he could have been shot, but his father managed to obtain a pardon for him.

Hermann instinctively believes in Prosper’s innocence as soon as he sees him. Prosper tells Hermann that he feels both innocent and guilty, but that he is sure that his friend Wilhem, who has since disappeared, could not have committed murder. At his trial, he makes little defence of himself, still feeling confused about his own motives and even wondering if he might have committed the crime while sleepwalking. At this point, Hermann recalls that the true name of Prosper’s companion was Frederic.

Before the story even began, the Narrator’s attention had been caught by the expression on the face of the man sitting opposite him. He learns from the lady sitting next to him that this man, Taillefer, is very wealthy. He used to be a contractor for Napoleon’s army and also married well, but has suffered the death of his only son. His daughter, whom he previously rejected, is now his sole heir. While Hermann is telling his story, the narrator watches his reactions and discusses them with the lady next to him.

The dinner party now comes to an end. Fanny asks Hermann not to say any more that night – clearly the story has been too much for her!

3. The Two Kinds of Justice

However, before leaving, Hermann briefly finishes the story in conversation with the Narrator and the lady who sat next to him. Prosper was executed by firing squad. After the war, Hermann went to see his mother, as Prosper had requested, but she was already dead. The Narrator and the lady discuss whether Taillefer could be Wilhem/Frederic. During a game of cards, the Narrator asks him directly if he is Frederic Taillefer from Beauvais. Taillefer says he is and hurriedly leaves the room.

The Narrator tells the lady that he is in love with a girl who just then enters the room, but whose name he does not know. She tells him it is Victorine Taillefer, the contractor’s daughter and heiress to his fortune.

Meanwhile, they hear shouts and groans from outside. It seems that Taillefer has had some kind of fit, something he has suffered from for many years, but especially in late autumn.

4. The Case of Conscience

The Narrator describes how his love for Victorine grew, despite his horror at the thought of being related to a murderer. He tried, but failed, to avoid her company. Then he travelled to Germany, even going to Andernach, but when he returned he still loved her and he knew that she loved him too.

He therefore invites to dinner a group of seventeen men, who between them represent all the professions with a claim to moral and ethical authority, as well as some young men his own age. At the end of the meal, he tells them about his dilemma. Although reluctant to express any opinion, most present see no problem in someone marrying the daughter of a murderer and profiting from the crime. The priest suggests giving the tainted money to the poor, but then has to accept that it is impossible to distinguish between the money obtained by murder and the rest of his wealth. A vote is taken. There is a majority against marrying, but the Narrator realises that this is because of the number of young men present. It seems that they would all be quite happy to marry her themselves. At this point, the Narrator reveals that Taillefer has just died.

The Decision

Again the Narrator appeals to his friends. He lists all the moral and practical problems of his situation, pointing out the disadvantages of every course of action, and begs them for their advice. An Englishman, described as a puritan and an honest man, now speaks for the first time, asking why the Narrator asked if Taillefer came from Beauvais.

Read it here

Summary by Josephine, December 2006

3 comments on “The Red Inn by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    Saintsbury saw “The Red Inn” as a failed attempt to write in the style of the time of 1830, a combination of humor and terror. I was intrigued by the story but found it a bit confusing, perhaps unnecessarily intricate, and saw no humor at all. It’s a tale within a tale, dinner conversation about the narrator being imprisoned with a innocent man who was later executed for the crime of murder and theft, quite gory with surgical tools and a beheading. At the dinner table there’s a wealthy Frenchman named Frederic, which is the name of the man thought to have committed the crime. After confirming that his name is Frederic, he excuses himself from the table and dies shortly afterwards. There’s also a bit of a puzzler at the end when an Englishmen asks the narrator why he asked Frederic if he was “Frederic from Beauvais”. I don’t understand that at all.

    Tacked on to this tale is the narrator’s trying to decide whether to marry Frederic’s daughter – an unnecessary addition to an already twisted tale, I think. Overall the story seems to be to have had potential but needed polishing and streamlining.

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    • I think the remark at the end: “Idiot! why did you ask him if he came from Beauvais?” was because now the narrator knew for certain that Taillefer, the father of the girl he wanted to marry (Victorine), was the murderer who let his friend be executed for the crime. Before, there could have been some doubt.

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