Who is Colonel Chabert?

Much like Lily, I am finding it very difficult to avoid applying topics we discussed in The Odyssey to this new novella, Colonel Chabert. One of our biggest talking points concerning The Odyssey was the role of disguise and deception, especially on the part of Odysseus. He was always taking on various disguises and spinning all sorts of tall tales to get his way. Luckily for him, he ends up being able to revert to his true form practically at will, as when he initiates the slaughter of the suitors. However, in Colonel Chabert, the protagonist is in a different situation. He, supposedly once a great colonel, has been turned into a beggar, and his goal is to shed that unwanted appearance. However, in dwelling on this difference between the two characters, I developed some serious doubts about who the person behind this beggar persona really is.

In other words, I’ve been wondering if the protagonist really is stuck with an unwanted appearance.  What if he isn’t who he says he is? It may seem crazy to propose such an idea, but if you read the first 40 pages carefully, there is no definitive evidence that this man is indeed Chabert. For all we know, this man could be a lunatic, just as every other character in the work (except, with serious reservations, Derville) believes him to be. His entire story, though quite elaborate, could be completely made up – we have no proof that it wasn’t. I also get the sense that the narrator hints at this idea. He doesn’t refer to “Chabert” as anything but variations of “old man,” “poor man,” and “the client” until page 20, and doesn’t explicitly call him “Colonel Chabert” until page 34, over a third of the way into the story. Even then, this title comes in this line: “’Compromise?’ repeated Colonel Chabert. ‘Am I dead or am I alive?’” The first time “Chabert” gets to be known as “Colonel Chabert” to the audience, he is questioning whether he himself actually exists or not. Again, it may seem far-fetched, but at this point we have no definitive reason (other than our normal expectations of how a story should work) to completely trust that this old man is Chabert.


This idea caused me to dwell on how much faith we, as readers, have to take in different narrators. For the most part, we have to take their word unhesitatingly. If we can’t trust this narrator when he says, “The dirty windowpanes omitted little light,” then reading the book becomes impossible (5). Nevertheless, this is much tougher to do in light of this identity crisis with “Chabert.” In this situation, the narrator does not give us enough definite information to prove or disprove the identity of this character. This old man could be the real Colonel Chabert, or he could be some insane drifter. In The Odyssey, we had Athena to prove to us that Odysseus was the real Odysseus. We could easily trust that she, as a goddess, knew who the real Odysseus was.  In Colonel Chabert, we do not have such a strong foundation on which to base claims of the identity of the old man.


Just to be clear, I am fully aware that this idea is quite far-fetched. Nevertheless, I found exploring it to be an interesting mental exercise. Even if we aren’t supposed to doubt that this main character is Chabert, who says we can’t? I know I personally will read the rest of the novella through both the lens in which the old man is telling the truth and my newly proposed lens in which he is not. It will be interesting to see if the latter view is supportable throughout the entire work. If it is, great! If not, I say it was worth a shot. It may not be the prevailing view, but at least I’ll have the opportunity to explore this character in a different light that raises some different questions. What is this imposter’s motivation? Does he truly believe that he is Chabert, or is he a criminal imposter? Can we expect the world presented to us in a fiction to lead us unfailingly to the truth about those who live in it? Should we expect the same from the narrator? How are we expected to view certain characters, and what can we gain from viewing them differently?

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7 Responses to Who is Colonel Chabert?

  1. Clare Welch says:

    I agree with Kevin about the narrator’s point of view. I think it is rather obvious that our narrator is rather cynical, especially in the way he describes the law office and the clerks who work there. Because of the way in which the narrator describes his characters, it is only logical to also assume that he would treat the protagonist in the same way as well, right? If he did, then we would have no reason at all to believe that what the narrator is true. I do not think the narrator would be that cruel. First of all, the narrator’s motive is to get the reader engaged in the story, a suspension of disbelief. However, if the narrator mocks every singe personage and institution that appears within the story, the reader would become so wary of every little detail that the story would lose meaning. The art of storytelling would be lost and the tale would become an annoyance because the reader would not be able to be absorbed into such a world. Therefore, I think that while Kevin’s point is really interesting, I believe that we have to have some sort of trust in the narrator. We have to have something within the story to believe in, and since the law clerks have already been made into mere stereotypes, the only personage left to trust is “Colonel Chabert”. I think he is actually telling the truth because the narrator describes his mannerisms as being very simple and honest, which contrasts drastically with Derville and the others in the law office. I choose to trust the Colonel’s story because he has not been shown to possess the same manipulative qualities of the law clerks.

    I’m sorry if that was confusing.

  2. Lindsey says:

    I agree with Clare in the sense that I want to believe that Colonel Chabert is who he says. At the same time, I think Kevin brings up an interesting point. It’s easy to question the descriptions of supporting characters or small details in a story, but I usually find myself trusting the narrator’s protagonist. But, like Kevin says, who says we can’t doubt Chabert? It will be interesting to read the rest of this novella with Kevin’s question in mind as Colonel Chabert and Derville attempt to prove the Colonel’s existence in the courts.

  3. Megan says:

    While I originally trusted the narrator while reading this novella, I find Kevin’s point of view very interesting, and it made me think of one detail I had already read that could support the idea of Colonel Chabert being an impostor. At the very end of the second chapter, Derville gives the beggar 50 francs to support himself and help him recover his fortune, and lets him know that he will be given this same sum of money every 10 days. The beggar is obviously overcome with gratitude, but once he leaves Derville’s office, he reveals how excited he is to use the money to buy cigars, which probably was not Derville’s intended purpose for the money. The fact that the beggar’s first thought was to use the money for something other than food or clothes to help him get back on his feet makes me believe that he may not be telling the whole truth.

  4. Cristina says:

    As in previous comments, I found myself blindly trusting the narrator that Chabert was who he said he was. The disbelief of the beggar’s story creates a little bit of doubt that this could actually be Chabert. While reading, I wound up asking myself what I would do if this happened to me and I feel like that made me more sympathetic to the beggar. The thoughts of being without family, being poor, and not having anybody that believed me made me relate to the character and start to feel some sympathy. However, keeping this uncertainty in mind certainly has the potential to make this novel more suspenseful and mysterious.

    Thinking about it, I feel that as readers, we have a tendency to believe what the narrator is telling us but what if it all isn’t necessarily true?

  5. Jina says:

    As Kevin mentioned the relationship between the reader and narrator is tricky. Growing up, I never questioned the narrator’s merit. I understood the narrator to be the sole source of authority and knowledge over the text, but I am suspicious of the narrator in Colonel Chabert like Kevin. As Clare mentioned, the narrator seems extremely cynical in his perspective of reality. He/She seems partial towards the clerks, the appearance of the law office, and Colonel Chabert. I also got the feeling that the narrator doubted Chabert’s claims.
    From reading Marco Polo and the article by Kinoshita, I realized the perspective of the story can drastically alter the analysis of the text. I think it’s important to pay close attention to the nuances and subtleties of language the narrator uses to address Chabert like Kevin pointed out. With that said, I do not think the credibility of the narrator would be lessened by “Chabert” turning out to be or not be who he claims. I am not sure if the reality with Chabert alive or one with a person impersonating Chabert would be much different. If I learned anything from this course so far is that there are multiple realities or “known worlds”. All equally credible but only differ in how you view what’s given to you. I think its best to follow Kevin’s method to read Colonel Chabert with “both lenses” or a mentality open to all possibilities of who “Chabert” really is.

  6. Lily says:

    I think Jina brings up a very interesting point; there may be more than one way to understand this story. Just because something is not true for one person doesn’t mean it can’t be reality for another. So maybe as we read this story we should consider the “realities” of each character before deciding what our reality is. After all, this whole thing is in itself a work of fiction; why can’t it have its own internal levels of “subcreation,” so to speak? I suppose this also ties into a question we’ve discussed fo our other two works; that is, what is the purpose of this story? Depending on the purpose, whether Colonel Chabert is who he says is, or how true is the reality we are exposed to, may not matter that much. As Derville says, “If I’ve been robbed, I won’t miss the money, for I will have seen the most accomplished actor of our time.” (On the other hand, if everything we are told in a story is completely arbitrary, then we might as well be dreaming; stories are a reflection of reality and ought to have some kind of anchor in it). It’s early to say, but later we may have to decide whether or not Colonel Chabert’s identity is the point of the story.

  7. Ivana Surjancev says:

    Megan, I also noticed how the man we assume to be Colonel Chabert wanted to buy cigarettes the first time he got the money. I thought that this could both prove and disprove that who he claimed he was. As you said, it didn’t seem likely that a poor, hungry man who had previously been previously been well-known and rich to want to buy cigarettes. It seems below such a man. At the same time, perhaps cigarettes were something that the past wealthy Colonel Chabert enjoyed. He had much more than the basic necessities in his previous life per say, and cigarettes could have been one of the many pleasures he could enjoy while he was rich. In this sense, wanting to buy cigarettes makes sense because it would bring back Colonel Chabert’s fond memories based on who he used to be.

    Finding that we can analyze one thing like the cigarettes to support both ideas just goes to show that we have to gather multiple clues to paint the bigger picture. We need to consider the cigarettes, his behavior, his relations with his wife, his story, and much more together rather than pick apart each separately. As it is, I am skeptical that this character really is Colonel Chabert, but I feel that my skepticism is a result of an initial gut feeling and from picking apart each of this clues independently of each other so far.

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