The story follows a young man, a corrupt politician, on a journey where he meets his love interest, a sadistic woman. She brings him to a torture garden in China, where old forms of torture are practiced and where he learns that pain borders on pleasure, and love and suffering originate from the same source of brutal emotions. The contrast, or perhaps the collaboration, between sadistic expressions of love and sensual expressions of death makes it beautiful and fascinating. The fact that they are codependent, that one can't be appreciated without the other, is apparent. Since the torture garden is beyond good and evil, neither one is less important and dignified. The infinite amount of passion and the perverted nature of human beings that might be the true nature, not the norm, have no limits. There is a freedom of expression that couldn't be found Europe in the late 19th century.
In the torture garden the beautiful flowers feed on blood from the tortured prisoners to prosper, and people are, in a way, reborn in a limitless cycle of life. In this world, pleasure is pain, love is suffering, torture is a work of art, blood is the wine of love and beauty is murder. At the same time the portrayal is a critique of the European society. The pages of murder and blood are ironically dedicated to people like priests, soldiers and judges, people who kill or restrict others from freedom and beauty. The torture garden might be interpreted as an allegory, an intense, miniature Europe. Mirbeau claimed that "the law of murder" was inconsistent in the late 1800's and wanted to portray the European civilisation as not so civilized. The government allowed murder when it benefited from it, but not when it had a real purpose. According to one of the characters in the book, the accepted view of war and colonialism were necessary because the government was only legitimized by murder. As this might also be the belief of the author, much of the book deals with these forms of hypocrisy. Just as in real life, executioners in the torture garden kill people in the service of death, but not for a meaningless purpose but as a work of art. Since we don't question murder in the service of rulers, politicians and judges, why would we question expressions of freedom and the beauty of art? Wouldn't that prove that we haven't learned anything the last century, and make us the very same hypocrites that Mirbeau indicated we were?