The Executioner by Honoré de Balzac

El Verdugo
The Executioner

The story is set during the time of the French army’s occupation of Spain under Napoleon and begins with an idyllic moonlit scene in the castle gardens of the coastal town of Menda. Here the local French commandant, Victor Marchand, stands lost in thought, meditating on the beautiful Clara, the daughter of the local grandee. However, thoughts of romance are dissipated as he becomes uneasily aware that something is not quite right in the town and that, indeed, a fleet of ships is bearing down on the coast through the gloom! These bad vibes are confirmed when a French sentry is shot down in front of him and the town erupts in a rebellion and massacre of the French troops. He is only saved by a warning from the beautiful Clara and runs away to the headquarters of General G to whom he tells his doleful tale of the massacre.

As the English fleet fail to make their rendezvous with the rebels, General G marches to the town and takes a terrible revenge: summarily shooting two hundred of the insurgents on the castle terrace and ordering the hangman to deal with the old grandee, the Marquee de Leganes, his family (including the beautiful Clara) and dependants, now held captive in the ballroom of the castle. Victor tries to get terms for the noble family of Leganes, requesting that they suffer the more noble death of beheading and that the General spare the heir of the family. The General agrees, but only on the condition that the heir act as executioner of the rest of the family.

The family of the Marquee de Leganes receives the news of the General’s devil’s bargain from Victor and agrees that son Juanito should be deputed to execute them, and thus preseve the family name with his own life. The reluctant Juanito eventually agrees to the pleas of his family, including his beautiful sister Clara, that he should chop off the heads of his mother, father, brothers and sisters.

The gruesome tragedy begins as the French officers watch while having a jolly time with music, dancing and drinking in the ballroom. First to the block is Clara, whose execution is halted for a while, however, as a frantic Victor comes running toward the scene shouting that the General has granted her life spared if she marries him (Victor). Clara, however, disdainfully rejects his offer, and puts her head on the block, where it is chopped off and lands at Victor’s feet. The rest of the family are despatched, apart from the mother, who throws herself off the cliff.

The news of this appalling atrocity puts a damper on the party in the ballroom as the General G defends his action and the French soldiers cannot bring themselves to finish their drinks.

The story ends with a coda concerning Juanito, the new Marquee de Leganes who is granted the title of El Verdugo, (the executioner) by the King of Spain. However, despite this dubious honour, Juanito leads a retired life and waits impatiently for death to relieve him of his cares and that he might join the Shades that never cease to haunt him.

Read it here

Summary by Colin, April 2007

4 comments on “The Executioner by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Grace says:

    Thank you so much! I have to read this book for my literature class and none of it made sense until I found this.
    You’re my hero!


  2. Glad we were able to help. It is rather a horrifying story–the poor son.


  3. Lisa Hill says:

    Perhaps, Grace, we can convert you to being a fan of Balzac LOL?


  4. Pamela thomas says:

    This is quite a gruesome little story supposedly based on a true story – Golda says at the first publication the publisher intimated the story was true, but I found no other references as to the source of the story. Saintsbury thought this story quite the best of Balzac’s anecdotes. It was quite a statement on the importance at this time of preserving the family name. Poor son Juanito executes his family to live and preserve the name, but he shows a true heart in that he never feels released from the torment of having done so. Who would do this in the current time – what would be the use of the family name in such a circumstance!


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