Cyrano de Bergerac
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Values and Virtue
Cyrano de Bergerac places strong emphasis on values and ideals. Cyrano is the play’s eloquent and ardent defender of integrity, bravery, glory, and the pursuit of love and women. The play’s main conflict—Cyrano’s inability to tell Roxane how much he loves her out of deference to her request that he protect Christian—results from Cyrano’s unwavering promise to keep his word. Cyrano protects his secret nearly to his death; his death itself, though tragic, is also transcendent. The play suggests that by adhering to his values at the expense of his personal desire, Cyrano achieves an ideal, untarnished moral standing. Roxane herself is, in all ways, the ideal woman: she is intelligent, warm, caring, and beautiful.
Inner and Outer Beauty
Cyrano de Bergerac can be read as an allegory of inner and outer beauty. Cyrano, representing inner beauty, passively battles Christian, who represents outer beauty, for Roxane’s love. Roxane becomes the arbiter of the relative values of these characters and, by extension, of the values of inner and outer beauty. The play places a premium on inner beauty, integrity, and intellect. Yet Cyrano’s own swashbuckling, flamboyant character emphasizes his exterior rather than his interior traits.
What impresses Roxane and the other marquises is his ability to craft words deftly, to fight off unbelievable numbers of men, and to engage in brilliant gestures: throwing a bag of gold in the theater to pay for the night’s receipts and to stop the play; denying himself everything but the most meager meal out of respect for his own pride; and composing a poem to accompany his sword fighting. All of these actions are publicly impressive and derive their power from their outward manifestation. Cyrano’s and Christian’s outer beauties differ, of course: Christian is blessed with good looks while Cyrano’s bombast is a product of a clever mind. Nonetheless, when Roxane claims to be choosing between the outer beauty of Christian and the inner beauty of Cyrano, in many ways she is simply choosing between two different versions of an ostentatious, visible show.
The Danger in Deception
Cyrano is in some ways a morally unblemished character, never veering from his strict moral standards. The play, however, seems to have a moral code that is even stricter than Cyrano’s own. Indeed, his one minor flaw—his willingness to deceive Roxane in order to to help Christian, and perhaps even to win her love himself—prevents him from having her at all. Because Cyrano deceives Roxane even after Christian’s death, he cannot declare his love for her. Doing so would show disrespect for Christian’s memory and make a mockery of her mourning. After Christian’s death, the play examines the repercussions of Christian and Cyrano’s duplicity by demonstrating the harsh existence that Cyrano must endure: living in close proximity to his one true love, but remaining emotionally barred from her. Through their deception, the two men have made Roxane fall in love with someone who does not exist: an ideal. As a result, she truly loves neither Christian nor Cyrano—she loves their magnificent collaboration. Cyrano and Roxane are never able to consummate the deep love that they undeniably share for each other.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The first few scenes of Cyrano de Bergerac demonstrate the fallen grace of French society during Rostand’s time. In the late nineteenth century, Rostand felt that the French people had forgotten the values and ideals that made them a proud and virtuous people, the qualities and character that made them honorable and specifically French. The critique of society continues in the presentation of several peripheral characters. De Guiche is a corrupted, powerful man who fails to win the respect that a leader should. Lise is unfaithful to her husband and leaves him to seek sensual adventure.
Cyrano is constantly composing, whether he writes ballads as he fights, recites poetry in the dark, or writes love letters for Christian. His compositions are not just literary; they also represent a way for Cyrano to create an identity for himself that he feels he can never have in real life. The letters in which he declares his love for Roxane begin to replace Cyrano himself. However, they also reveal a failing on Cyrano’s part: just as Christian cannot express himself in words, Cyrano cannot express himself in action. The only action he undertakes to win Roxane’s heart is this deceptive composing. The letters become inseparable from Cyrano’s inner beauty.
Fighting and War
Many characters in the play are fighters, whether they are members of the cadets or the musketeers. In the first three acts, these characters display their strengths and settle their arguments with swords. The play has a violent twist. When the play presents the war in Act IV, much of the play’s tension begins to heighten, and the climax suddenly occurs: Christian dies in Roxane’s arms while Cyrano looks on. After this heart-wrenching scene, most of the play’s force, or conflict, dissolves, and the characters return to their lives however they may have changed.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Cyrano’s nose is the most obvious symbol in the play. Not only does it make him ugly, it characterizes Cyrano’s main flaw: his lack of self-confidence and initiative in potential encounters with love, and the deceptive actions he commits as a consequence of this low self-esteem. His nose is the barrier between him and love. Every time he opens his eyes, the nose is there, stretching out into his field of vision. As the play progresses, Cyrano’s nose might also be a symbol for society’s reliance on outer beauty, and its inability to see inner beauty.
Cyrano’s Tears and Christian’s Blood
In Act V, when Roxane realizes Cyrano’s secret, she notices that the tears on Christian’s letter are probably Cyrano’s tears. Cyrano responds by deflecting her comment and stating that the blood is Christian’s. This mixture of blood and tears on the final letter symbolizes the melding of Cyrano and Christian into the romantic hero. This combination helps Roxane realize their deception.
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