Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The succession of versions, titles, and labelings of this novella, or rather long short story, reveals a shifting of thematic focus. In the definitive text, the figure of the moneylender has reached its fully rounded size and is central as the portrayal of a remarkable individual as well as a social phenomenon, and the conflict between the Comtesse de Restaud and her ill-treated husband—or the consequences of misconduct—remains as an important secondary theme.

Honoré de Balzac’s art grew in parallel with the growth of “Gobseck,” in which its salient topics and motifs are already found in full bloom: the interplay of polar principles—a moral polarization also working within the characters’ psyches—the dramatic situations and outspoken, confrontational dialogues, the characters grandiloquently describing and justifying themselves with regard to the opposing characters and society—not only the usurer Gobseck but also the dandy Count Maxime de Trailles. There is also the keen attention directed both toward moral conflicts deep in the individual consciousness and toward the conflicting forces and affairs observed in society.

In trying to transport the Parisian milieu of 1830 to his own distinct social conditions and mentality, the American reader may find correspondences between some of Balzac’s incidents and, for example, those in the popular soap opera “Dallas.” Balzac was accused of succeeding better in the portrayal of evil than in the presentation of virtue. Repeatedly and from several angles he answered this charge. Commenting on Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747-1748), he replied to one of the editors of La Semaine: “Do you think that such work would be readable if it were necessary to have the decent people whose lives lack drama occupy in it the extent of space they occupy in social reality?”