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
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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...
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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...
(The entire section is 3760 words.)
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....
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
(The entire section is 4291 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 7158 words.)
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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
(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...
(The entire section is 7170 words.)