A Seaside Tragedy by Honoré de Balzac

Un Drame au bord de la Mer
A Seaside Tragedy
Also translated as A Drama on the Seashore

The narrator is Louis Lambert. He writes of when he was standing on a cliff at Croisic-point daydreaming about his future and watching Pauline swimming.

Pauline calls to Louis and he descends to join her. They meet a truly wretched-looking fisherman and have a generous bidding war for his catch.

The fisherman is thirty-seven and never married because he cannot support both his blind father and a wife and family. Shore fishing is very hard but the man says he isn’t strong enough to work in the salt pits. The fisherman has never been far from home, only to Guerande and Savenay.

Louis and Pauline tell the fisherman they would like to hire him to show them the way along the shore to Batz. (The reader may wonder why Louis and Pauline need a guide to take them to see a tower which is visible from where they are. In Beatrix, Balzac tells us that there are quicksands between Le Croisic and Guerande and it is very difficult to find one’s way safely.)

The fisherman points them the way and says he will catch up with them after dropping off his fishing gear. Pauline and Louis pass the town and as they near the burning sand, stop in some rare shade. As they talk, the fisherman returns, wearning his best clothes.

At noon they have reached halfway and Louis points to some high rocks saying they will rest there. The guide informs them that the locals always avoid the place as there is someone there, “A man!” After determining that he will not harm them or even stir from his place, Louis and Pauline continue. Their guide will not pass the man and hurries away to meet them on the other side by a round-about way.

As they pass, the man glances at them and returns his gaze to the sea. Louis writes a very picturesque and moving portrait of the man.

When they rejoin their guide and question him about the man, he says he is called “man under a vow” and tells them the story of the man who never speaks and lives on bread and water brought to him by his niece.

The story as related to Pauline and Louis by their fisherman guide.

Pierre Cambremer was a successful commercial fisherman with a wife and one very spoiled child. The boy, Jacques, was always misbehaving but Pierre never reined him in. Instead he laughed away the misdeeds. Jacques even stole money from his parents. Finally when the boy got in serious trouble in Nantes, Pierre brought him home and told him he had to work with him for two years–or else.

One night they were awakened. Jacquette had been stabbed on the arm and Jacques was nowhere to be found. Jacquette had sewn a Spanish doubloon wrapped in a piece of paper marked “For Perotte” (their niece) into her mattress. Cambremer found this scrap of paper and his wife fainted when he showed it to her.

In Croisic, Cambremer determined for certain that it was Jacques who stole the doubloon. When Jacques returned, his father, holding a gun, said he had sinned and his parents would be his judges.

Jacques lied and when his mother tried to get him to repent, he insulted her, further infuriating his father who told him a priest was coming to hear his confession. In the end, Cambremer gagged and tied his son and took him out in his boat where, tied to a stone, he threw him overboard as his wife watched from the shore.

Jacquette died within a week. She asked her husband to burn the boat and he complied. After vanishing for ten days, Cambremer went to his current station on the rocks from which he has not moved or said a word.

Back to Pauline and Louis.

Pauline no longer wishes to go to Batz and the fisherman guides them back to Croisic through the salt marshes. This time Pauline and Louis do not look toward the rocks where the old man sits. They turn their heads away later when they see the island in the lagoon where the Cambremers once lived.

Back at the inn, Louis and Pauline plan to leave the next morning. Pauline is depressed and Louis, poor Louis:

So I have written you this narrative, dear uncle; but the shock of such an event has made me lose the calmness I was beginning to gain from sea-bathing and our stay in this place.


Read it:
Katharine Prescott Wormeley translation
George Burnham Ives translation

Summary by Dagny, March 2009

One comment on “A Seaside Tragedy by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This is the kind of story one can envision an old man telling sitting at night around a fire. As Saintsbury says, it is more an anecdote than a story. Its issues are still current: what to do about savage people, especially when they are your own kin. If they are irredeemable, do you have a duty to remove them – or is it a sin. Or perhaps both.


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