The Torture Garden  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Torture Garden ([fr: Le Jardin des supplices) is a novel written by the French journalist, novelist and playwright Octave Mirbeau and was first published in 1899, during the Dreyfus Affair. The novel is ironically dedicated : "To the priests, the soldiers, the judges, to those people who educate, instruct and govern men, I dedicate these pages of Murder and Blood."


Plot summary

Published at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, Mirbeau’s novel is a loosely assembled reworking of texts composed at different eras, featuring different styles, and showcasing different characters. Beginning with material stemming from articles on the 'Law of Murder' discussed in the "Frontispice" ("The Manuscript"), the novel continues with a farcical critique of French politics as seen in "En Mission" ("The Mission") and then moves on to an account of a visit to a Cantonese prison by a narrator accompanied by the sadist/hysteric Clara, who delights in witnessing flayings, crucifixions and explaining the beauty of torture to her companion ("Le Jardin des supplices", "The Garden").


There is an allegory about the hypocrisy of European 'civilisation' and about the 'Law of Murder'. There is also a denunciation of bloody French and English colonialism and a ferocious attack on what Mirbeau saw as the corrupt morality of bourgeois capitalist society and the state, which are based on murder.

But Mirbeau’s multiple transgressions of the rules of verisimilitude, his disregard for novelistic convention problematize the issue of the novel’s genre affiliation and leave open the question of the author’s moral message, leaving the readers of today in a state of wonderment, perplexity, and shock.


  • "So what good are all these fruitless discussions; for in the eternal battle of the sexes, we are always conquered - and we can do nothing about it - and none of us as yet, be he misogynist or feminist, has found a more perfect instrument of pleasure, or any other means of reproduction, than woman." ("The Manuscript")
  • "Woman possesses the cosmic force of an element, an invincible force of destruction, like nature's. She is, in herself alone, all nature! Being the matrix of life, she is by that very fact the matrix of death - since it is from death that life is perpetually reborn, and since to annihilate death would be to kill life at its only fertile source." ("The Manuscript")
  • "To take something from a person and keep it for oneself: that is robbery. To take something from one person and then turn it over to another in exchange for as much money as you can get: that is business. Robbery is so much more stupid, since it is satisfied with a single, frequently dangerous profit; whereas in business it can be doubled without danger." ("The Mission", Chapter 2)
  • "Perhaps beneath the scoundrel that I am, there lies a misled poet? Perhaps a mystifier who enjoys mystifying himself?" ("The Mission", Chapter 2)
  • "Sometimes, in the grip of a sudden poetic mood, I buried myself in a God-forsaken corner of the country, and in the presence of nature aspired to purity, silence and moral rehabilitation which, alas! never lasted very long." ("The Mission", Chapter 2)
  • "I had burned my candle at both ends, and I was weary of these perilous and precarious adventures which had led me - whither? I was experiencing mental fatigue, a paralysis of my energies, and all my faculties were diminishing while still in their prime, sapped by neurasthenia. Ah, how I regretted not having followed the straight roads of life!" ("The Mission", Chapter 3)
  • "There is only one trait which is irreparable in a statesman: honesty! Honesty is negative and sterile; it is ignorant of the correct evaluation of appetite and ambition - the only powers through which you can found anything durable. ("The Mission", Chapter 3)
  • "For several moments both of us were the unconscious and cosmic toys of our own deception." ("The Mission", Chapter 4)
  • "Not savages? and what else are we, I ask you? We are worse savages than the Australian bushmen, since possessing the knowledge of our savagery, we persist in it. ("The Mission", Chapter 6)
  • Madness! This love was a part of me, like my own flesh; it had taken the place of my blood and marrow; it possessed me entirely; it was I!" ("The Mission", Chapter 8)
  • "You're obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn, and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That's the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world." ("The Mission", Chapter 8)
  • "What a sink of madness is man's mind!" ("The Mission", Chapter 8)
  • "Once more the demon of perversity, that stupid demon to whom I owed all my unhappiness - because I had so stupidly obeyed him - intervened again and advised me hypocritically to resist an unhoped-for adventure, a fairy-tale come to life which would never be encountered again and which I ardently desired from the bottom of my heart, and which had actually materialized. No... no! It was too stupid, after all!" ("The Mission", Chapter 8)
  • "Being perfect artists and ingenuous poets, the Chinese have piously preserved the love and holy cult of flowers; one of the very rare and most ancient traditions which has survived their decadence. And since flowers had to be distinguished from each other, they have attributed graceful analogies to them, dreamy images, pure and passionate names which perpetuate and harmonize in our minds the sensations of gentle charm and violent intoxication with which they inspire us. So it is that certain peonies, their favorite flower, are saluted by the Chinese, according to their form or color, by these delicious names, each an entire poem and an entire novel: The Young Girl Who Offers Her Breasts, or: The Water That Sleeps Beneath the Moon, or: The Sunlight in the Forest, or: The First Desire of the Reclining Virgin, or: My Gown Is No Longer All White Because in Tearing It the Son of Heaven Left a Little Rosy Stain; or, even better, this one: I Possessed My Lover in the Garden." ("The Garden", Chapter 5)
  • "And I irritably reflected that you can't take a step from the equator to the poles without running into that suspicious face, those rapacious eyes, those clawlike hands and that vile mouth, which goes breathing the frightful verses of the Bible, in an odor of stale gin, over the charming divinities and adorable myths of naïve religions." ("The Garden", Chapter 5)
  • "The Occidental snobbery which is invading us, the gunboats, rapid-fire guns, long-range rifles, explosives... what else? Everything which makes death collective, administrative and bureaucratic - all the filth of your progress, in fact - is destroying, little by little, our beautiful traditions of the past." ("The Garden", Chapter 6)
  • "Come now, don't make such a funeral face. It isn't dying that's sad; it's living when you're not happy." ("The Garden", Chapter 6)
  • "I was undoubtedly at the end of my strength. A flood of tears gushed from my eyes. I wouldn't have been able to tell the reason for these tears, which were not tears of distress, and which, to the contrary, gave me relief and relaxation.... It was for myself I was weeping, perhaps, for my presence in this garden, for this cursed love in which I felt that everything which then remained to me - every generous impulse, every lost desire, and every noble ambition was profaned by the impure breath of these kisses, of which I was ashamed and for which I was also thirsty. Well, no! Why should I lie to myself? Physical tears... tears of weakness, fatigue and fever, tears of enervation before sights too cruel for my debilitated senses, before odors too strong for my sense of smell, before the continual oscillation of my carnal desires from impotence to frenzy... the tears of a woman... tears for nothing at all! ("The Garden", Chapter 6)
  • "I feel something like a powerful oppression, like an immense fatigue after marching and marching across fever-laden jungles, or by the shores of deadly lakes... and I am flooded by discouragement, so that it seems I shall never be able to escape from myself again." ("The Garden", Chapter 9)
  • "Alas, the gates of life never swing open except upon death, never open except upon the palaces and gardens of death. And the universe appears to me like an immense, inexorable torture-garden. Blood everywhere and, where there is most life, horrible tormentors who dig your flesh, saw your bones, and retract your skin with sinister, joyful faces." ("The Garden", Chapter 9)
  • "Ah, yes! the Torture Garden! Passions, appetites, greed, hatred, and lies; law, social institutions, justice, love, glory, heroism, and religion: these are its monstrous flowers and its hideous instruments of eternal human suffering. What I saw today, and what I heard, is no more than a symbol to me of the entire earth. I have vainly sought a respite in quietude and repose in death, and I can find them nowhere. ("The Garden", Chapter 9)

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Torture Garden" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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