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?