Friday, February 2, 2018

Solange by Alexandre Dumas

The horror of the guillotine
Alexandre Dumas
Alexandre Dumas is famous for his epic historical novels, which often unveil their intricate and grandiose narratives over the course of exceptionally lengthy books, as in The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers trilogy. Though not known as a writer of short stories, Dumas did publish a few over the course of his prolific career. With his short story “Solange,” this master storyteller proves that he can pack that same feeling of epic drama and powerful emotion into a small package.

The story takes place during The Terror, the period of violent turmoil that occurred during and immediately following the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. With the establishment of the First French Republic, the lower classes rose up to persecute the nobility, aristocracy, and the wealthy and propertied classes. Suspected aristocrats were being hunted down and executed at the guillotine. As the story of “Solange” opens, Dr. Ledru, the narrator, is accosted on the street by a beautiful young woman who is about to be arrested. Seeing Ledru pass by, this woman, named Solange, asks him to vouch for her, as an old acquaintance, and explain to the Republican soldiers that she is the daughter of a local laundress. Ledru obliges, confirms her story, and asks his friends high in the Republican administration to drop any charges against her. The truth, however, is that Ledru has never met this woman before. He places his reputation and his life on the line for her out of a sense of gentlemanly chivalry and a feeling of compassionate humanity. Solange is not who she pretends to be, and, despite having survived this one incident, her life is still in danger. Having inextricably entwined his fate with Solange from that moment forward, Ledru plots her escape to England.

Thus “Solange” starts out as a kind of Revolutionary espionage or prison break story. Not surprisingly, a romance also develops between the two leads. Eventually, however, it morphs into a horror tale worthy of Edgar Allen Poe. The ending is rather predictable, but even though you see it coming it is still shocking and powerfully moving. “Solange” calls to mind another great story about this period of the Revolution, Honoré de Balzac’s “An Episode Under the Terror.” Both are darkly romantic tales of life under violent times, when unsung heroes are called upon to risk peril in order to help others. “Solange” is the darker of the two, and neither could really be described as hopeful, but they both reaffirm humanity’s striving for the moral good in the face of the inevitability of fate. With an emotional impact disproportionate to its brevity, “Solange” is an engaging and memorable read.
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