The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Torture of Hope" (1888)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Torture of Hope” (original: “La torture par l’espérance”) was written by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and first appeared in Nouveaux Contes Cruels (1888). Jean Marie Mathias Philippe Auguste, Comte de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (1838-1889) was a French poet, dramatist, novelist, and short story writer. Villiers was well-regarded during his lifetime, influencing W.B. Yeats among others, and is now seen as an important figure in the history of French literature. His work is valued for its imagination and its combination of the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century and the Symbolist movement of the early twentieth century. “The Torture of Hope” is in many ways the quintessential conte cruel, the genre of story which took its name the story collection in which “The Torture of Hope” appeared.

The antagonist of “The Torture of Hope,” Pedro Arbuez d’Espila, is based on the historical Don Pedro Arbues de Epilae (1441/2-1485), one of the most notorious and vicious of the Spanish Grand Inquisitors. Arbues engaged in compulsory baptism of Jews and used judicial torture to ensure that the conversions were sincere. Arbues was killed by a group of Jews in 1485; Pope Pius IX canonized Arbues as St. Peter of Arbues in 1867.

Many years ago “the aged Pedro Arbuez d’Espila, sixth prior of the Dominicans of Segovia, third Grand Inquisitor of Spain,”1 goes to a cell deep in the dungeons of the Inquisition, accompanied by a prior and a fra redemptor. In the cell is held Rabbi Aser Abarbanel, an Aragonese “convicted of usury and pitiless regard for the poor, who for over a year been put upon the rack daily. And yet, his ‘blindness being as hard as his hide,’ he had refused to abjure.”2 D’Espila, with tears in his eyes at the thought of the Rabbi rejecting salvation, informs the Rabbi that the following day he will be included in the auto-da-fé

exposed to the quemadero, the fire premonitory of eternal flames. It burns, as you know, only at a distance, my son, and death is at least two hours (often three) to come, because of the wet and ice-cold bandages with which we take care to shield the foreheads and hearts of the holocausts.3 

D’Espila has the Rabbi unchained, tenderly embraces him, and then leaves. The prior embraces the Rabbi and the fra redemptor begs the Rabbi’s forgiveness for “that to which he had submitted him in order to redeem him.”4 The Rabbi is left alone, bewildered and suffering, in the darkness. He notices, however, that the door to his cells was not completely closed. He carefully and slowly drags himself through the dungeons of the Inquisition, evading the guards and the inquisitors, and makes it outside the dungeons. The mountains are near, the night is starry, freedom is nigh, and the Rabbi’s heart swells with gratitude. Then the tall figure of Pedro Arbuez d’Espila emerges from out of the darkness and embraces the Rabbi:

And while Rabbi Aser Abarbanel, his eyes drawn up under his lids, was convulsed with anguish in the arms of the ascetic Don Arbez, understanding confusedly that all the incidents of that evening were but a prepared torture--, the torture by hope!—the Grand Inquisitor, with an accent of poignant reproach and a glance of consternation, murmured in his ear, with ardor heightened by fasting,--“Eh! What, my child? On the evening, perhaps, of salvation, you would, then, leave us?”5 

Modern readers should not let the predictability of the ending of “The Torture of Hope” blind them to the savagery of the story. As a statement of the cruelty of fate, “The Torture of Hope” is rarely if ever exceeded in fiction. Of course, that was the theme and the point of the contes cruel: that life makes no sense, that justice is not to be found, that fortune does not smile at you but instead frowns, that Murphy’s a right bastard who hates you. And Villiers, in “The Torture of Hope,” drives this point home as strongly as anyone ever has. “The Torture of Hope” is vicious and merciless and very effective.

The cruelty of “The Torture of Hope,” and by extension the whole genre of the conte cruel and those writers who specialized in it, was the point, of course: “the conte cruel seeks to unveil reality in its crudest, cruelest form in order to question appearances and to make the reader yearn for an alternative society.”6 In the case of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, as with some of the most prominent contes cruel writers, there was a religious element to the writing of the cruel tales: as a tool to both moralize and to discredit the message and literary ideals of conservative Catholics writers and thinkers, whose oft-stated worldview was antithetical to the essentially humanocentric (if still Catholic) viewpoints of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and others.7 But on the whole the conte cruel, like “The Torture of Hope,” “is, in a sense, a kind of ‘amoral fable,’ but its inherent cruelty is partly derived from the fact that the nullity it seeks to demonstrate is an aching void rather than a mere circumstantial absence.”8 

Recommended Edition

Print: Jack Adrian, ed., Strange Tales From the Strand. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.



1 Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, “The Torture of Hope,” in Charlotte Porter, ed., Clever Tales (Boston: Copeland & Day, 1897), 89.

2 Villers de l’Isle-Adam, “The Torture of Hope,” 89-90.

3 Villers de l’Isle-Adam, “The Torture of Hope,” 90-91.

4 Villers de l’Isle-Adam, “The Torture of Hope,” 91.

5 Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, “The Torture of Hope,” 98.

6 Matthew Erick Sandefer, “Literary Cruelty in the Short Prose of Barbey D’Aurevilly, Leon Bloy, and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam,” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 2015), 39.

7 Sandefer, “Literary Cruelty,” is worth reading for more on this point.

8 Brian Stableford, Heterocosms: Science Fiction in Context and Practice (Cabin John, MD: Borgo Press, 2007), 173.