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Literature / Papillon

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Papillon is a 1969 French autobiographic novel by Henri Charrière. The author reportedly spent the years 1931 to 1945 in various prisons on a murder conviction.

Charrière, better known as "Papillon" for a butterfly tattoo on his chest, is a young man falsely sentenced to a life of hard labor at the Penal Colony of French Guiana. From the moment he is shoved into a post-trial cell the only thing he can think of is escape. For fourteen years he suffers in a cruel prison in between escape attempts. Eventually, he is taken to the inescapable Devil's Island, which he then escapes and finally reaches freedom and sanctuary in Venezuela.

Made into a 1973 Allied Artists movie, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Another film adaptation was made in 2017. It is directed by Michael Noer and it stars Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek.

Followed by a sequel, Banco, his attempted revenge against his enemies in France.

This novel provides examples of:

  • The Alcatraz: The "Islands of Salvation" as a whole, Devil's Island in particular. The cliffs and currents make escape all but impossible.
  • Amoral Attorney: The prosecutor. He isn't interested in whether Papillon is innocent or not, his career and reputation rely on sending every last man possible to the guillotine or a penal colony.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: Some have posited that the events described in the book did not happen to Charrière, but rather to someone else or perhaps is the compiled experience of several prisoners. Some records have been able to disprove some of Charrière's claims, but by and large whether or not the book is fully this trope is a matter of debate.
  • Ass Shove: A critical survival tactic is shoving a small metal cylinder full of money, called a plan, up the rectum and using the cash to buy supplies or make bribes.
  • Counterfeit Cash: Dega was busted as part of a defense bond counterfeiting ring. They would bleach off the 500 denomination and replace it with 10,000 francs.
  • Death World: The jungles of French Guiana are a nightmarish hellhole where France dumps its unwanted criminals to die. Between dangerous animals, unforgiving climate, brutal work, half a dozen tropical diseases, cruel guards, and other murderous inmates, the penal colony has an annual 80% mortality rate.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: France's entire penal system seems to hinge on this trope. The penal colony is terrible enough, but there are a number of other insanely cruel systems in place as well.
  • Embarrassing Tattoo: The Masked Breton's cockroach tattoo, which is on his face. As he tells Papillon and the other escapees, he foolishly got it in prison to look tough, but after escaping realized that it made him very easy to identify and would make a normal life almost impossible for him.
  • Faking Amnesia: Papillon pretends to have amnesia after he's caught receiving coconuts and cigarettes in solitary, thoroughly frustrating the warden who wants to know who was providing the contraband and for how long. After four months of reduced rations, which almost kill him, he remembers to continue the game and "mistakes" his release from solitary as being pardoned from the penal colony.
  • Going Native: Papillon spent some time with a native tribe in South America after one of his escapes from the penal colony. He made friends with the chief, adopted a local lifestyle and subsistence, and married two women whom he fathered children with. However, there are doubts about how much of the story is true as Papillon is suspected of combining tales from other prisoners with his own and outright making some parts up for drama.
  • Great Escape: Papillon attempts three such plans.
  • Homage: To The Count of Monte Cristo, Papillon lifts his plans on getting revenge on the prosecutor from the novel.
  • Instant Sedation: Averted. The drug-laced coffee Papillon gives a guard makes him drowsy and sluggish but he doesn't pass out until the very last minute, their escape thwarted by his relief's scheduled arrival.
  • Kangaroo Court: Papillon's trial. He is charged with murder and will be found guilty of it no matter what.
  • Language of Love: Papillon took on not one but two wives in the South American tribe he was sheltered in. By the time he married the second, he could manage rudimentary communication with the first wife. But when he married Lali they were still communicating in gestures and nods.
  • Made in Country X: The sleeping drug that fails Papillon is made in the United States and his accomplice curses the American-made garbage.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: Papillon is framed for murdering a pimp. The chief witness is a stool pigeon saving his own ass. Each time the evidence would clear Papillon a new piece of evidence is fabricated until one sticks. The prosecutor lives to get convictions, regardless of evidence, to further his career.
  • National Geographic Nudity: Papillon is adopted by some South American Indians.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: At one point, Papillon feigns insanity to be transfered to another sector of the penal colony with less strict watch, in order to plan an evasion. Then, his attempt fails and one of the wardens tells him that he immediately spotted him as simulator at his arrival.
  • Playing Sick: An artform among convicts. Hospitals have less security and because of strict scheduling protocol a well-timed hospital stay can provide time to buy better assignments or make escape preparations. And there are many, many ways to feign illness such as buying lice, eating spoiled food, bribing doctors, or stabbing yourself and claiming the injury came from a visible fall.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Don Gregorio, the director of the Barranquilla prison. After talking to Papillon and his companions he is sympathetic to their plight, being foreign escaped convicts and innocent of any crimes against Colombia aside from illegal entrance, but he is bound by law to detain them until extradition to French Guiana. In the mean time he is amazingly lenient towards Papillon's four escape attempts, the first of which involved Papillion taking him hostage with a knife and trusting that he sincerely doesn't want to kill anybody. Their failures are punished to a small degree but Papillon is allowed to remain with his friends and given the same privileges as the other better-behaved inmates. He drugs a guard, scales the wall, and finally blasts a hole with explosives, without serious reprimands or special detainment. On his final, explosive, attempt Don Gregorio merely says "Well, Frenchie, I think this was your last try" because even Papillon couldn't make another attempt with only three days to spare.
  • Reformed, but Rejected: Papillon realizes that he was a criminal and society should protect itself and punish him for his crimes-once he escapes he plans on living as a law-abiding good citizen. The bagne system however doesn't give a damn about what crimes he committed or what he intends to do with his life, he has been thrown away by France and is forever beyond redemption. The officials in French Guiana's neighboring countries often turn a deaf ear to his pleas and evidence of his behavior, since as he was shipped to the colony in the first place he must be a dangerous and untrustworthy monster.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Arnaud, Hautin, and Marceau have a gruesome and stupid plot to get revenge on the authorities by staging a revolt. Their plans involve looting the armory after which they plan to kill everyone who isn't a convict, the guard's wives and children included. They approach Papillon to lead this revolt but he refuses to kill innocents and points out that they have no hope of escape: being a hundred men participating, with boats for forty, and the fact that they'll never find refuge in another country after the bloodshed. They don't care about escape, provided they can reach the mainland and continue the revolt. The three of them are shipped off the island and attempt an uprising by themselves-none of the convicts join them and they're quickly killed.
  • Safecracking: Papillon is an accomplished safecracker with ties to the Paris underworld.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: This works to Papillon's disadvantage during his trial. He is groomed and wearing a fine tailored suit for his day in court. The prosecutor uses it to portray him as a degenerate playboy and play the envy of the poor peasant jury against him.
  • Slipping a Mickey: Papillon arranges to be the inmate with the duty of supplying the night guards with coffee. The drug he acquired tastes similar to anisette so in advance of his attempt he starts offering the guards coffee "à la française" with the liquor in it. The drug worked but not in time for his escape, and the guard sleeps for three days.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Papillon refuses to kill anybody if there is any way to avoid it. Part of it is pragmatic: the authorities are much harsher to violent escapees, foreign governments will ship a killer straight back, and as a dangerous criminal he'll be under tighter security. Outside of his desire for revenge against his enemies in France he is simply not a murderer. He briefly entertains the idea of delaying extradition by killing a local cop, but dismisses it as his would-be victim doesn't deserve to die for doing his job.
  • Too Long; Didn't Dub: A number of French terms are left untranslated. A glossary at the start of the novel defines them. In particular: bagne - penal colony, cavale - escape attempt, mec - man or pal.
  • Unreliable Narrator: It's been all but proven that Charrière did not do half of the things he claims. There are no records of him staying in certain parts of the prison he talks about, and some of his escape attempts certainly did not happen to him. It is most likely that he combined his own story with those of other prisoners to make the narrative more exciting.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: When he leaves them, Papillon swears to Lali and Zorayma that he will return to them and his unborn children by them. He mentions them again in his rambling thoughts in solitary after he's caught. He never returns to them or ever mentions them again after that, even after he earns his freedom and moves to Cuba to live a decently comfortable life.