Balzac, Honoré de (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)
Honoré de Balzac 1799-1850
(Born Honoré Balssa; also wrote under pseudonyms Lord R'hoone and Horace de Saint-Aubin) French novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, playwright, and editor. The following entry provides critical commentary on Balzac's works from 1976 through 2003. See also Honore de Balzac Short Story Criticism.
Balzac is considered to be the most prolific fiction writer of nineteenth-century France and ranks as one of the great masters of the novel. His huge production of novels, novellas, and short stories, collected under the name La Comédie humaine (1842-55), depict, in realistic detail, life in modern bourgeois France. Although his work was written largely in the tradition of French romanticism, with its emphasis on exceptional events, the idealization of love, and use of contrasting characters (the beautiful and the grotesque, the lofty and the popular, the tragic and the comic), Balzac is now considered one of the creators of realism in literature. A keen observer of human life and behavior, Balzac wrote about the everyday events in the lives of individuals in every sector of French society, from noblemen to peasants, artists to businessmen, churchmen to prostitutes. Some of his major themes include the family, economics, the theatre, modern scientific knowledge, and history. Balzac's work habits are legendary, and although he is said to have loved physical indulgences, when he wrote—sometimes for eighteen hours a day—he consumed copious amounts of strong black coffee. Balzac's writing is sometimes criticized for its sloppiness and melodrama, but critics agree that his best novels offer original and vivid depictions of nineteenth-century French life that are interesting for their historical accuracy as well as their social and philosophical commentary. Modern scholars have also found Balzac’s works of interest due to his use of varying narrative techniques and voice, the attention paid to the reader, the interest in alternate sexualities, and the way he pushes the limits of the novel form.
Balzac was born Honoré Balssa in Tours on March 20, 1799 to a middle-class family. His parents are said to have been distant and paid little attention to their son; Balzac claimed that his mother hated him before his birth. Until the age of four, Balzac was raised by a wet nurse and at eight he was sent to boarding school at Vendôme, where he was visited by his mother only twice in six years. He was not a good student, by all accounts, but he read voraciously. In 1814 his family moved to Paris, and Balzac completed his schooling there before enrolling as a law student in 1816. He received a law degree in three years and began clerking in a law office, but soon decided he wanted to be a writer. He asked his parents to indulge his ambition for a year, but his early attempts were deemed awful by a literature professor. Balzac continued to write, experimenting with different forms and publishing sensational novels and stories under pseudonyms. From the beginning of his career, he worked feverishly, and even though his first efforts were ignored by the literary establishment, he managed to support himself with his meager earnings.
During the 1820s Balzac was involved with Madame de Berny, a woman more than twenty years his senior. During this decade he also abandoned writing briefly and bought a publishing company and printing house, both of which failed and left him heavily in debt. His first success as a writer came in 1829 with the historical novel Le dernier Chouan (The Chouans; published as Les Chouans in 1834) and the humorous novella Physiologie du mariage (1830; Physiology of Marriage), a revision of an earlier work. That same year his father died, and after his mother miraculously recovered from a severe illness he began to study the works of the mystical thinkers Jacob Boehme and Emmanuel Swedenborg. Between the years 1830 and 1832 Balzac published six novellas under the title Scènes de la vie privée (1830), and thereafter he began contributing to France's most important literary journals. It was around this time that he added aristocratic “de” to his name. He was received by Parisian salon society and into the circle of writers who defined French romanticism, the cénacle, or symposium, that included Charles Nodier and Victor Hugo.
In 1832, as Balzac's reputation was rising, he received a letter from a female admirer who identified herself only as “l'étrangère”—“the stranger.” The following year in Geneva he met the woman, Madame Hanska, the wife of a wealthy Polish count. The two of them engaged in a love affair that spanned eighteen years, most of it carried out in correspondence. In 1833 Balzac signed a contract for his novel cycle, which was named La Comédie humaine in 1841. For twenty years he worked tirelessly at this project, writing fourteen to eighteen hours a day, drinking large amounts of specially blended Parisian coffee as he wrote. It is said that he slept only in the evenings and wrote from midnight until the next afternoon. He was almost always in financial trouble, and there is speculation that he produced as much work as he did to settle his debts. Balzac spent most of his time in Paris, but also often stayed in Saché, near Tours. In his later years he lived for much of the time in his villa in Sèvres. Despite his devotion to writing, Balzac had time for other interests: he enjoyed painting, loved to eat and drink, was an avid collector of bric-a-brac, had a taste for luxuries, and had numerous affairs. In 1841 Madame Haska's husband died, but she refused to remarry for nine years, perhaps because she knew of Balzac's financial situation and his constant attempt to relieve himself of his debts. Then on 14 March 1850 she and Balzac married. Balzac was seriously ill at the time, but he and Hanska undertook the arduous two-month-long journey from the Ukraine to Paris. When they arrived at the Paris house Balzac had meticulously furnished for his bride, the door was locked, the servant had gone mad, and the house was in complete disarray. Balzac died three months later, on August 18, 1850.
From 1822 until his death in 1850, Balzac produced a vast body of work, including ninety-two novels and novellas, numerous short stories, essays, journalistic pieces, and a few plays. He also revised earlier works and republished them, so many of his novels appeared under several titles. Balzac's great achievement is his novel series, La Comédie humaine, a collection of around one hundred linked stories and novels that reflect the French society of the time, portraying in precise detail more than two thousand characters from every class and profession. The tales take place in a variety of settings, and characters reappear in multiple stories. Balzac wrote the works that were eventually to be included in the collection as early as 1829, but it was not until 1833 that he conceived of the idea of linking together his novels, and the first edition of the multivolume work was released in 1841. The works in the collection are divided under five headings: Scènes de la vie privée (Scenes from Private Life), Scènes de la vie de campagne (Scenes from Country Life), Scènes de la vie parisienne (Scenes from Parisian Life), Scènes de la vie militarie (Scenes from Military Life), Scènes de la vie politique (Scenes from Political Life), Scènes de la vie de province (Scenes from Provincial Life), and Études philosophiques (Philosophical Studies). Each of these divisions contains three or more novels and sometimes include shorter pieces. Some of the divisions also include trilogies or multipart novels, making the entire series an intricate web of stories that are interconnected on various levels.
Because so many of them were composed in haste, many of the novels in La Comédie humaine display minor imperfections and careless writing. However, despite the faults of the works, which also include a tendency toward moralizing and melodrama, they showcase the author's originality, great powers of observation, and vivid imagination. Perhaps the best known work in La Comédie humaine is Le pére Goriot (1833), about law student Eugène Rastignac from the provinces who tries to claw his way to success in nineteenth-century Paris. The novel includes elements of love, money, adventure, and intrigue, but while it has romantic themes and concerns, the portrait it paints of Parisian society and human nature mark it as an early work of historical realism. Another early and important work that shows Balzac marrying the elements of romanticism and realism is the novella La peau de chagrin (1831; The Magic Skin or The Wild Ass's Skin), about a depressed young man who acquires a talisman that will grant him his wishes—at a price. The trilogy Illusions perdues (1837; Lost Illusions), about a young poet who tries desperately to make a name for himself in Paris, is a brilliantly realistic and boldly satirical portrait of provincial manners and aristocratic life and shows how Balzac disregarded the formal limitations of the novel by producing novels within novels within novels. Other important works in La Comédie humaine include La cousine Bette (1847-48; Cousin Bette) about a noble family that is destroyed by sexuality, and Eugénie Grandet (1834), about a young woman's emotional awakening against a backdrop of provincial oppression. In these and many other works, Balzac represents women as no French writer had done before—realistically and with sympathy. Balzac uses tragedy, social history, black humor, and satire to uncover the complex dynamics of family life. Other thematic concerns that have been examined are Balzac’s exploration of alternate sexualities—dealing with homosexuality and homoeroticism in a thoughtful manner, without sensationalism or scandal—his interest in historical narrative and accuracy, his emphasis on the value of material abjects, his use of language and writing as material presence in his texts, and his interst in theatre as a metaphor for life. In most of Balzac's novels the landscape is Paris, with its old aristocracy, new financial wealth, middle-class trade, professionals, servants, young intellectuals, clerks, prostitutes, criminals, and others. But the author also sets some of his stories in the country and provinces so that he offers in his stories a realistic and penetrating portrait of all segments of French life in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Balzac enjoyed renown and critical acclaim during his lifetime, and his reputation has not diminished since his death. In the nineteenth century the author was praised by such literary figures as George Saintsbury and Charles Baudelaire, who stressed his profound powers of imagination in addition to his acute powers of observation. Nineteenth-century literary historians concerned themselves with the relation between the life of the author and his fiction. In the early twentieth century, critics were interested in the question of Balzac's status as the father of the modern realism, his themes of death and family, the workings of the novelist's imagination, and his place in European literature. Those scholars noted how Balzac influenced later generations of novelists, including Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, and Emile Zola. Balzac scholars in the latter part of the twentieth century and onwards have taken up a number of new issues, and Balzac has proved to be a useful exemplar for Marxist criticism as well as for semiotics and narrative analysis. Because of the close attention Balzac paid to his craft as well as to his readers, critics have found the relationship between author, text, reader, and meaning in his novels a rich area of study. Scholars have explored his various narrative techniques and voices and his use of recurring narrators in multiple stories. They have also examined the use of interconnected plots, characters, and themes in the works that make up La Comédie humaine.
Balzac's reputation today rests on La Comédie humaine. His other works, including essays, philosophical meditations, and plays, are infrequently read or studied. Balzac's voluminous correspondence has been published and offers insight into his personal life and philosophical views. Balzac's plays, which he wrote solely for money, are dismissed as being of inferior quality.
Le dernier Chouan; ou, La Bretagne en 1800 [The Chouans] (novel) 1829; also published as Les Chouans: ou, La Bretagne en 1799, 1834
Physiologie du mariage; ou, Meditations de philosophie éclectique sur le bonheur et le malheur conjugal [Physiology of Marriage] (novel) 1830
Scènes de la vie privée (short stories) 1830; enlarged edition published as Scènes de la vie privée, 1832
La peau de chagrin [The Magic Skin; also translated as The Wild Ass’s Skin] (novel) 1831
Romans et contes philosophiques (novel and short stories) 1831
*Les célibataires (novella) 1832; published in Scenes de la vie privée [enlarged edition]; also published as Le curéde Tours in Les célibataires, 1858 [The Abbé; Birotteau (Le Curéde Tours), 1895-98]
Les cent contes drôlatiques: Colligez ès abbaïes de Touraine et mis en lumière par le sieur de Balzac, pour l’esbattement des Pantagruelistes et non aultres, premier dixain (short stories) 1832; deuxième dixain, 1833; troisième dixain, 1837
Notice biographique sur Louis Lambert [Louis Lambert] (novel) 1832; published in Les nouveaux contes philosophiques; also published in revised form as Histoire intellectuel de Louis Lambert in...
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SOURCE: Frappier-Mazur, Lucienne. “Balzac's Metaphors.” In Critical Essays on Honoré de Balzac, edited by Martin Kanes, pp. 187-91. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall and Co., 1990.
[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1976, Frappier-Mazur argues that Balzac's use of metaphor elaborates on human identity and character and attempts to create an eternal human image in a specific historical moment.]
Every day sees the publication of a new study of metaphor.1 Any theoretical conclusion can represent only a step in present-day research.2
At least we now know more about the possible relationships between image and fictional form. We also see more clearly the various mental mechanisms that underpin metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche, and that determine their appearance, their superposition, and their connections, whether they refer to the cultural code, to their context, or to an extralinguistic referent.
An important theoretical consequence results from this. Thanks to the explanatory function of the image, its all-encompassing development, and the recurrence of the same categories in the novel, our study confirms the fact that many metaphors of our discourse belong to the language of psychoanalysis; more generally, it confirms the identical nature of associative mechanisms that come into play in these two modes of expression. We...
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SOURCE: Mileham, James. “A Web of Conspiracy: Structure and Metaphor in Balzac's Novels.” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 26, no. 4 (1979): 523-32.
[In the following essay, Mileham analyzes the complex, weblike structures of the motif of conspiracy as it is developed in Balzac's novels, discussing how the author uses the metaphor of fabric to articulate this theme.]
One of Balzac's most powerful and ubiquitous myths is that of the conspiracy.1 Here, a malevolent leader motivates a group of individuals who attack a victim, destroying him. As in contemporary organized crime, the kingpin of these conspiracies only rarely comes in contact with his victim. A middleman, therefore, is necessary to transform malevolence into malfeasance. Jacques Collin sends Asie, Europe, and Esther to divest Nucingen of a million francs. Corentin sends Marie de Verneuil to ensnare Montauran, and thereby kills him. Cérizet sends Théodose de La Peyrade to marry Céleste Colleville in order to despoil her of part of her dowry.2 Useful in describing this indirect relationship of persecutor to persecuted is the taxonomy proposed by A.-J. Greimas in his Sémantique Structurale.3
In Greimas' system, a Subject may be said to influence an Adjuvant (by definition, one who acts in the interest of the Subject) to act upon an Object, the conspiracy's victim. The...
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SOURCE: McCarthy, Mary Susan. Introduction to Balzac and His Reader: A Study of the Creation of Meaning in La Comédie Humaine, pp. 1-18. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.
[In the following essay, McCarthy explores the attention Balzac paid in his novels to the craft of writing as well as to the reader's creative activity of reading, using for her analysis reception theory and touching too on other literary theories that examine the relationship between author, text, reader, and meaning.]
C'est toujours à cause de la manière dont une histoire est racontée que nous nous y intéressons. Chaque sujet a sa forme spéciale.
(It is always because of the way in which a story is told that we are interested in it. Every subject has its own special form.)
Balzac, “Lettres sur la littérature”
Our image of Balzac as an artist has been much influenced by the copious correspondence through which we glimpse the artist at work. From his many letters, and of course the works themselves, we have constructed an image of the frenetic worker, the author driven by a sense of his art, by debt, and by need and at the same time propelled by a vision of a masterwork. Although his was a grandiose plan for the historical portrayal of his own time, his vision was as much artistic as it...
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SOURCE: Dargan, Joan. Introduction to Balzac and the Drama of Perspective: The Narrator in Selected Works of La Comédie Humaine, pp. 11-18. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum Publishers, 1985.
[In the following essay, Dargan surveys a number of novels in La Comédie humaine written before 1835—Louis Lambert, Le Colonel Chabert, Histoires des treize, and Eugénie Grandet—to analyze the relation between the author and narrator and to trace the development of Balzac's narrative technique.]
Le but de profonde moralité caché dans mon livre [La Peau de chagrin] échappe à beaucoup de critiques malveillants, qui ne voient que la forme, et j'avoue que je suis vivement touché lorsque quelque critique veut bien dégager mes intentions de leur sauvage enveloppe. Tous nos maîtres ont mis la moelle dans un os, à l'exemple de la nature.
In 1831 Balzac had just completed his first major work, La Peau de chagrin, and had embarked upon the first and most prolific phase of his mature career. By 1835 he had written close to forty novels and stories, many of which would be subject to revision and expansion with each new edition of La Comédie humaine. But in 1831 La Comédie humaine as such did not yet exist; it was only with Le Père Goriot, in 1834, that the...
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SOURCE: Moyal, Gabriel. “Making the Revolution Private: Balzac's Les Chouans and Une épisode sous la Terreur.” Studies in Romanticism 28, no. 4 (winter 1989): 601-22.
[In the following essay, Moyal argues that in Les Chouans and Un épisode sous la terreur, two works set during the French Revolution, Balzac deliberately minimizes the changes that took place during the period and depicts the private spheres of characters as limited, full of compromise, and lacking in choice and freedom.]
Though, in our time, the restoration of the class system of the ancien régime is no longer entertained as a possibility, the narrations in Balzac's Comédie humaine which tell of its last attempts to prevail, and of its ultimate downfall, still hold some fascination for us despite their apparent irrelevance to the representations we entertain of our own political and historical situation. The tales of passions and ambitions which tell how a “grocer may become a peer of France, and [how] a nobleman may sink into the lowest rank of society,”1 still captivate readers long after the Revolution first destroyed the rigid class system of the ancien régime. Our continued interest in the short stories and novels whose focus is the crossing or the dissolution of the boundaries of that class structure is perhaps due to our perceiving that structure as having been...
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SOURCE: McGuire, James R. “The Feminine Conspiracy in Balzac's La Cousine Bette.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 20, nos. 3 & 4 (spring-summer 1992): 295-304.
[In the following essay, McGuire explores the lesbianism in La cousine Bette and argues that the title character of the novel dies outside the narrative because her sexual rebellion threatens patriarchal society; she must disappear to the margins of the novel, it is argued, so that the virtues of the family can be extolled.]
There is something suspicious about the deaths of Lisbeth Fischer and Valérie Marneffe. Bette dies outside of the narrative, parenthetically, of a “phtisie pulmonaire,” yet she is the title character; the scene of Valérie's death is rife with melodrama and moral symbolism. The awkward, expeditious elimination of these two principal female figures leads one to question the actual nature of their transgressive role in La Cousine Bette. Clearly, the theme of deviancy, linked historically to the rise of an acquisitive bourgeoisie and the erosion of traditional social values based on heredity, is central to Balzac's narrative. Few critics, however, have emphasized the textual evidence suggesting that such deviancy takes the form of a lesbianism that seeks to supplant the increasingly weakening patriarchal social structures, namely the Family and the Church. Bette and Valérie conspire, in...
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SOURCE: Heathcote, Owen. “Balzac's Go-between: The Case of Honorine.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 22, nos. 1 & 2 (fall-winter 1993-94): 61-76.
[In the following essay, Heathcote explores the representation of the themes of creation, dissolution, and recreation of difference in Honorine in terms of space, time, sexuality, and language.]
Honorine is one of Balzac's most haunting narratives. It is the story of a young woman, Honorine, who, having deserted her devoted husband, Octave,1 because she cannot requite his affections, has a son by an unnamed lover who deserts her in his turn. After her son's early death, Honorine withdraws into a secret retreat in Paris in order to live independently off her own industry—the creation of artificial flowers. Equally secretly, however, her husband Octave discovers her whereabouts, subsidizes her sales of flowers, and invades her privacy through his emissary and spokesman, Maurice, who takes up residence next door to Honorine's retreat. Although Honorine is eventually persuaded to return to Octave with whom she has a second son, she is still unable to love her husband. She declines and dies. Her story is later recounted by an older, married Maurice at a dinner-party in Genoa, in honor of the writer Camille Maupin. Overhearing the story, Maurice's wife, Onorina, realizes that Maurice never really loved her, despite his...
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SOURCE: Smith-DiBiasio, Anne-Marie. “‘Le Texte de la Vie des Femmes’: Female Melancholia in Eugénie Grandet.” Nottingham French Studies 35, no. 2 (autumn 1996): 52-9.
[In the following essay, Smith-DiBiasio considers the singularity and universality of the protagonist in Eugénie Grandet against the background of the debate about Balzac's realism and analyzes the text itself in terms of female melancholia.]
This essay begins with the text, Eugénie Grandet, and looks at it initially against the background of La Comédie Humaine and in the context of critical debate about Balzac's realism. This in turn raises questions about the function and composition of character, character as type and character as case and my reading attempts to analyse the singularity of Eugénie Grandet, which leads inevitably to considering the universal aspects of this singularity. The specificity of Eugénie Grandet emerges from Balzac's description of a life and the text itself offers universalizing sententiae which see this life in terms of ‘le texte de la vie des femmes’, the text of women's lives. Reading the text of Eugénie Grandet's life leads me to analyse this in terms of melancholia as defined by Freud and elaborated by Abraham and Torok; and more specifically in terms of female melancholia as described by Kristeva and accounted for by Irigaray. I nearly stopped here with...
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SOURCE: Yates, Susan. “Women in the Discourse of Balzac's Horace Bianchon.” Australian Journal of French Studies 36, no. 2 (May-August 1999): 173-87.
[In the following essay, Yates maintains that Balzac identifies with his character Dr. Horace Bianchon and examines the five texts in which he appears as narrator to expose the author's understanding of the social condition of women as well as his essential misogyny.]
One of the major vehicles used by Balzac to express his beliefs about women in the Comédie humaine is Dr Horace Bianchon.1 As a doctor, Bianchon is presented as a shrewd and dispassionate observer of human nature par excellence2 and moreover, by virtue of his special access to the private lives of his patients, as an expert on women. Seen in his role as physician, he is most often sympathetic and courteous in his attitude to women, covering up their secrets and defending their interests as patients against the outside world.3 In five of the thirty-odd texts featuring Dr Bianchon, however, he is seen above all in his social persona, as habitué of the fashionable Paris salons, and in the discussions on women which take place in these salons he appears to be much more representative of the traditional views of the male-dominated society around him. It is no coincidence that in three of these five texts he is also cast as narrator:...
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SOURCE: Dickinson, Linzy Erika. “Theatre as Metaphor in La Comédie humaine.” In Theatre in Balzac's La Comédie humaine, pp. 169-229. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi B. V., 2000.
[In the following excerpt, Dickinson analyzes terminology and imagery in La Comédie humaine to illustrate how the theatre metaphor is used in various ways.]
The theatre features strongly throughout La Comédie humaine as a major social institution and as an industry, often providing the novels with characters, locations and intrigues firmly anchored in an accurate historical context. It is also a rich source of imagery which is fundamental to Balzac's mode of expression and closely linked to the theatrical character of Balzac's narrative technique. In discussing Balzac's use of melodrama in his novels, critics refer not only to the dramatic features of Balzac's writing but also to the tissue of images borrowed from the theatre, and through which the melodrama of the Balzacian plot with its relentless development of catastrophe, intrigue and peripeteia is often expressed.1 Peter Brooks states in his discussion of melodrama in Illusions perdues:
The model of representation in life and personal style refers us inevitably to the theatre, a principal milieu, and perhaps the dominant metaphor, of the novel. The theatre, object of Balzac's repeated...
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SOURCE: Shuh, Rachel. “Madness and Military History in Balzac's ‘Adieu.’” French Forum 26, no. 1 (winter 2001): 39-51.
[In the following essay, Shuh argues that in his short story “Adieu,” Balzac comments on historical narrative and indeed competes with the genre in his fictional account, maintaining too that the madness in the novel represents historical trauma.]
The distinctiveness of Honoré de Balzac's Comédie humaine has often been linked to its representation of contemporary society. For both Erich Auerbach and George Lukács, for instance, Balzac inaugurates a new style of realism by portraying the present. Auerbach maintains that Balzac is one of the founders of “modern realism” for having “seized upon the representation of contemporary life as his own particular task” (468). And Lukács writes that Balzac transcends the historical novel of Walter Scott by passing “from the portrayal of past history to the portrayal of the present as history” (83). While Balzac does abandon the overtly historical mode of his romans de jeunesse in La Comédie humaine, certain works, such as the 1830 short story “Adieu,” continue to grapple with the past. Through its use of historical reference, “Adieu” problematizes the representation of history and the integration of the past into the present. Balzac reworks historiography in the nouvelle,...
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SOURCE: Pasco, Allan H. “The Allusive Complex of Balzac's Pierrette.” French Forum 26, no. 3 (fall 2001): 27-42.
[In the following essay, Pasco explores the use of allusion in the neglected novel Pierrette, focusing on references in the work to the eighteenth-century novel Paul et Virginie and to the case of Beatrice Cenci, the young girl who was abused by her father, whom she later killed.]
Despite its popularity, if one can consider successive paperback editions an indication of popularity, Balzac's Pierrette (1840) has had remarkably little attention from critics and scholars, no more than passing references and a very small handful of introductions and studies.1 These professional readers have frequently mentioned Balzac's early plans for the work, indicated in a letter to Mme Hanska on 4 June 1839: “la première œuvre un peu jeune fille que je ferai, je la dédierai à votre chère Anna …” While everyone understands that the expectation for what Jean-Louis Tritter calls “une œuvrette plus ou moins à l'eau de rose” was set aside, this comment promising a nice little story does not give much hope for a powerful masterpiece, and it remains to consider the mechanisms through which Balzac turned that same story into “une des scènes les plus désespérées de La Comédie humaine” (4 June).2 Tritter's excellent edition makes it...
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SOURCE: Goulet, Andrea. “‘Tomber dans le phénomène’: Balzac's Optics of Narration.” French Forum 26, no. 3 (fall 2001): 43-70.
[In the following essay, Goulet explores the dual narrative modes of vision and sight, or mystical revelation and scientific observation, in La Comédie humaine, showing how images of the eye and seeing, as well as ideas about spiritual seeking and inner vision, permeate Balzac's novels.]
Traditional distinctions between romantic and realist fiction in nineteenth-century France invoke a direct relation between narrative form and authorial vision: the poetic thrust of the romantic novel implies a visionary eye, attuned to the realm of mystical revelation, while the descriptive logic of the realist novel implies a scientific eye, trained for the positivist observation of details in the world. One need only read the titles of two well-known critical works on Hugo and Zola to recognize the competing poles of visuality at stake: Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel and The Visual Novel: Emile Zola and the Art of His Times.1 Victor Brombert's study of Hugo emphasizes a transcendent and transgressive visuality, one that exceeds mere ocular perception. Themes of temporal boundlessness, spiritual turbulence, and hallucinatory revelation invest Hugo's narrative “eye” with a visionary consciousness. By contrast, the eye in Zola's novels...
(The entire section is 11662 words.)
SOURCE: Thiher, Allen. “Balzac and the Unity of Knowledge.” In Fiction Rivals Science: The French Novel from Balzac to Proust, pp. 37-80. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, Thiher claims that Balzac transformed the novel from philosophical allegory to a discussion about the nature of knowledge, and explores the author's attempt to offer a reality in his novel that would compete with the supposed total truths posited by scientific discourse.]
Qui ne pardonnerait ce dernier plaisir à un homme de science et de poésie?
[Who would not forgive a man of science and poetry for this last pleasure?]
—Balzac, La Peau de chagrin
|1778:||Mesmer arrives in Paris with his medical theory based upon animal magnetism, sometimes viewed as the precursor to psychotherapy.|
|1785:||Coulomb publishes his research on the inverse square laws of electrical and magnetic attraction.|
|1789:||After several years of research that included the discovery of oxygen and...|
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SOURCE: Caruth, Cathy. “The Claims of the Dead: History, Haunted Property, and the Law.” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 2 (winter 2002): 419-41.
[In the following essay, Caruth maintains that in Le Colonel Chabert, a novel about a ghostly claim to property, Balzac illustrates how the law, functioning as historical memory, recognizes and yet fails to understand those traumatized by history.]
Balzac's novel, Colonel Chabert, first published in 1832, opens with a peculiar scene: a soldier who is known to have died in battle most improbably and unexpectedly returns to the office of a lawyer to reclaim his property. Disfigured and unrecognizable, the stranger insists that he is actually the famous colonel and asks the lawyer to help him to obtain a form of legal recognition that will restore to him his lawful identity, his property, and his wife. In this strange reincarnation of his own dead self, the character appealing to the lawyer hopes to become legally, and therefore humanly, alive. Unfolding from this haunting encounter, Balzac's story dramatizes the attempt by a man who is legally dead to come alive before the law and the capacity and limits of the law to respond to this attempt at legal resuscitation.
Set in post-Revolutionary France during the Restoration, this ghostly return of a Napoleonic soldier clearly echoes the historic repetitions that were taking place during...
(The entire section is 11497 words.)
SOURCE: Farrant, Tim. Introduction to Balzac's Shorter Fictions, pp. 1-18. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Farrant discusses Balzac's shorter works—stories, articles, and fragments—and their relationship to and development into his longer works, exploring in the course of the discussion the idea of brevity and the role of the fragmented in Balzac's fiction.]
Balzac, on paper and in person, has a reputation for being long. Here is one sleepless victim of the author:
La nuit qui suivit cette soirée un peu tendue, se passa dans une chambre à deux lits, offerte aux deux visiteurs; au lieu d'écrire quelques notes, Balzac se plut à exprimer à son compagnon avec une verve et un brio intarissables, les impressions qu'il venait de recevoir; il eût fallu sténographier!; M. Loiseau répétait souvent qu'il n'avait jamais moins dormi, ni plus admiré son cher compatriote, que pendant cette conférence si spontanée et si prolongée.1
Not all Balzac's audiences have been as delighted. The duchesse de Dino, who had been treated to him earlier that evening, found him ‘sans verve ni facilité dans la conversation. Il y est même très lourd … Il vise à l'extraordinaire et raconte de lui-même mille choses auxquelles je ne crois nullement’.2 ‘C'est un bavard’, declared...
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SOURCE: Berrong, Richard M. “Vautrin and Same-Sex Desire in Le Père Goriot.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 31, nos. 1 & 2 (fall-winter 2002-2003): 53-65.
[In the following essay, Berrong examines the nature and presentation of the homosexuality of the character Vautrin in Le père Goriot, noting the differences between Balzac's views of same-sex desire and homoeroticism and modern essentialist conceptions.]
An awareness of Vautrin's sexual interest in other men, and particularly Eugène Rastignac, in Balzac's Le Père Goriot is not new. Though Philippe Berthier, in his often cited article on male same-sex desire in the three “Vautrin” novels, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, Illusions perdues, and Le Père Goriot, “Balzac du côté de Sodome,” shows the extent to which eminent Balzac scholars like Bardèche and Barbéris fought to deny it as late as the 1970s (167-68), his own 1979 essay, while focusing largely on Splendeurs et misères, brought the issue squarely to the forefront of scholarly attention. Since then, however, there has been little extended examination of the nature of Vautrin's desire and Balzac's way of presenting it in what remains one of his best known and most often read works. Because that presentation is complex and fascinating in ways not explored by Berthier or those few who have written on the topic...
(The entire section is 5991 words.)
SOURCE: Mileham, James W. “Desert, Desire, Dezesperance: Space and Play in Balzac's La Duchesse de Langeais.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 31, nos. 3 & 4 (spring-summer 2003): 210-25.
[In the following essay, Mileham discusses the metaphor of movement through space in La Duchesse de Langeais, arguing that the spatial dynamics are represented in two modes: games and rituals.]
Critics haven't neglected La Duchesse de Langeais, but no one has yet fully demonstrated the importance of this novella's principal metaphor: movement through space.1 Travel towards and away from the other, placing and overcoming obstacles, losing and finding one's way—such spatial images abound in this novella. In fact, this love story can be adequately summarized by its spatial dynamics: General Armand de Montriveau pursues Antoinette, Duchess of Langeais, while she holds him off; he kidnaps and then releases her, after which, she pursues him and he rebuffs her advances; finally, she flees and he searches for her but arrives too late.
There are two very different modes to the spatial metaphor in this story: games and rituals. Different as these two universally-human activities are, they are joined in the concept of play.2 Both games and rituals involve movement through space, but games have to do with maneuvering for position relative to one's...
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Royce, William Hobart. A Balzac Bibliography. 1929. Reprint. New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1969, 464 p.
Early bibliography in English of writings by and about Balzac.
Maurois, André. Prometheus: The Life of Balzac. Translated by Norman Denny. London: The Bodley Head, 1965, 573 p.
Edited translation of a biography first published in French in 1965; concentrates on Balzac's literary career.
Pritchett, V. S. Balzac. London: Chatto and Windus, 1973, 272 p.
Using correspondence from family, friends, and lovers, presents a picture of Balzac as an artist of abundant energy committed to his vocation.
Robb, Graham. Balzac: A Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994, 521 p.
Richly descriptive biography that explores Balzac's complex inner life without excessive psychoanalysis; comments only briefly on the author's writings.
Zweig, Stephan. Balzac. Translated by William and Dorothy Rose. New York: The Viking Press, 1946, 404 p.
Unfinished biography by an Austrian poet and essayist that reads like a novel and paints a portrait of Balzac as a remarkable but flawed genius.
Allen, James Smith. “Obedience, Struggle, and...
(The entire section is 1289 words.)