Balzac, Honoré de (Short Story Criticism)
Honoré de Balzac 1799-1850
French short fiction writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Balzac's short fiction works from 1990 to 1997. For discussion of Balzac's short fiction career prior to 1990, see SSC, Volume 5.
Balzac is generally considered to be the greatest nineteenth-century French novelist. His importance rests on his vast work La comédie humaine (1842-53; The Human Comedy), which consists of more than ninety novellas and stories. Critics generally concur that his genius lies in his accurate use of observation and detail, his inexhaustible imagination, and his authentic portraits of men, women, and their physical environments. Considered an early exponent of realism, Balzac is praised for providing a comprehensive portrait of the French society of his day.
Born on May 20, 1799, Balzac led a solitary childhood and received little attention from his parents. He lived with a wet nurse until the age of three, and at eight he was sent to board at the Oratorian College at Vendôme. Later, his family moved from Tours to Paris, where Balzac completed his studies. He received his law degree in 1819; however, to his parents' disappointment, he announced that he intended to become a writer. From 1819 to 1825 Balzac experimented with literary forms, including verse tragedy and sensational novels and stories, which he wrote under various pseudonyms. He considered these works to be stylistic exercises; they were conscious efforts to learn his craft, as well as his only means of support. At one point in his career he abandoned writing to become involved in a series of unsuccessful business ventures. Balzac returned to writing, but despite eventual renown, money problems continued to haunt him throughout his life.
Le dernier Chouan; ou, La Bretagne en 1800 (1829; The Chouans) was Balzac's first critically successful work and the first to appear under his own name. The novel La Physiologie du mariage; ou, Méditations de philosophie éclectique (The Physiology of Marriage) and the collection of short stories Scènes de la vie privée, both published in 1830, further enhanced his reputation. These works also appealed to female readers, who valued his realistic and sympathetic portraits of women as vital members of society. In 1832 Balzac received a letter from one of his female admirers signed l'Étrangère (the Stranger). The writer expressed her admiration for Scènes de la vie privée and chided Balzac for the ironic tone in his newest work, La peau de chagrin (1831; The Magic Skin). Later she revealed her identity as Madame Hanska, the wife of a wealthy Polish count. Balzac and Madame Hanska carried on an extended liaison through letters and infrequent visits. For nine years after her husband's death in 1841, she refused to remarry; her eventual marriage to Balzac just five months before his death came too late to ease the author's financial troubles.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Although Balzac wrote what he intended to be short stories, most of these short pieces eventually became part of a longer work. Because of this, it is difficult to make clear distinctions between his longer and short works. Eventually, they all became part of La comédie humaine, written between 1830 and 1850 and considered to be Balzac's finest achievement. His preface to the 1842 collection outlines the goal of his writings. He refers to himself as “secretary to French society” and expresses his desire to describe and interpret his era. Balzac considered it possible to classify social species as the naturalists had classified zoological species. By organizing his stories into groups that depict the varied classes and their milieu, his work reveals his belief that environment determines an individual's development. La comédie humaine includes three main sections: the Etudes analytiques, Etudes philosophiques, and the bulk of his work, the Etudes de moeurs, which he further divided into the Scènes de la vie de province, Scènes de la vie parisienne, Scènes de la vie politique, Scènes de la vie militaire, Scènes de la vie de compagne, and Scènes de la vie privée, a title he had previously used for a collection of short stories. Balzac attempted to portray all levels of contemporary French society, but he did not live long enough to complete the work.
Many of Balzac's most discussed works, such as La fille aux yeux d'or (1834) and Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu (1831; The Unknown Masterpiece), are variously categorized as novels, novellas, and short stories by critics. In his effort to achieve a complete representation of society, Balzac included in his work not only virtue, faithfulness, and happiness, but also squalor, misery, chicanery, sexual perfidy, and greed. Many nineteenth century readers and critics found his work to be depressing and, more frequently, they considered his representation of life immoral. Others contended that Balzac was a realist and merely depicted society as he witnessed it. Modern critical interest in Balzac attests to his enduring importance. Much of the recent criticism on his fiction focuses on intertextuality in his fiction and in the works of others that have followed. There is also interest in examining sexuality and gender in Balzac's writings. His ability to blend realistic detail, acute observation, and visionary imagination is still considered to be the author's greatest artistic gift. Balzac's popularity continues unabated, as successive generations look to his fiction for a universal as well as personal view of human existence.
Scènes de la vie privée 1830
Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu [The Unknown Masterpiece] 1831
Romans et contes philosophiques 1831
Le Colonel Chabert 1832
Contes bruns [with Philarète Chasles and Charles Rabou] 1832
Nouveaux contes philosophiques 1832
Les Salmigondis: Contes de toutes les coleurs 1832
Les cent contes drolatiques. 3 vols. 1832-37
La fille aux yeux d'or 1834
Une passion dans le désert [A Passion in the Desert] 1837
La comédie humaine. 20 vols. (novels, novellas, and short stories) 1842-53
The Human Comedy. 40 vols. (novels, novellas, and short stories) 1895-98
Oeuvres complètes. 40 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, plays, letters, and essays) 1912-40
La comédie humaine. 11 vols. (novels, novellas, and short stories) 1951-59; revised edition, 1976–81
Selected Short Stories 1977
Collected Short Stories 1979
Le dernier Chouan; ou, La Bretagne en 1800 [The Chouans] (novel) 1829
La Physiologie du mariage; ou, Méditations de philosophie éclectique [The...
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SOURCE: Lowrie, Joyce O. “Works Sighted in a Frame Narrative by Balzac: Facino Cane.” French Forum 15, no. 2 (May 1990): 149-67.
[In the following essay, Lowrie provides a stylistic analysis of “Facino Cane,” focusing on the structure of the frame story.]
Parmy tant d'emprunts, je suis bien aise d'en pouvoir desrober quelqu'un, les desguisant et difformant à nouveau service.
Links that exist between the “frame” and the “framed” in embedded narratives are multifarious and complex. Works sighted in Balzac's “Facino Cane” reveal how authors, real and implied, and narrators use intra- and intertexts to build bridges between basic segments of frame stories. The orchestration of these elements also shows that the narratives themselves are frequently homologous, in their dialogic structures, to the very texts to which they allude. Balzac's (and his narrator's) direct and indirect references to libraries, books, 1,001 Nights, the Divine Comedy, the Odyssey, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, and Diderot's Lettre sur les aveugles build bridges between the two parts of “Facino Cane” and foreground, as well, acts of narrating and decoding texts.
“Facino Cane” is a short story that was written by Balzac in one night. It was...
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SOURCE: Weber, Maryann. “How to Do Things with Dreams: Dream Power in Balzac and Nerval.” Romance Quarterly 37, no. 4 (November 1990): 409-17.
[In the following essay, Weber examines the function of dreams in Balzac's “L'Auberge rouge” and “Sur Catherine de Médicis,” and Gérard de Nerval's Aurélia.]
Dreams escape the confines of reason and reality. Although Freudian psychologists find dreams to be deeply motivated and overdetermined, recounting a dream would appear to have no purpose except a therapeutic one or, in certain cultures, the foretelling of events to come. But dream discourse as a framed narrative within a literary text can have an intended perlocutionary effect in the social sphere and create a double hesitation—the hesitation between the real and the imaginary which characterizes the fantastic as a genre and a second hesitation between an iconic fixation at the level of the dream tableaux and a goal-oriented use of the dream. The work of two major nineteenth-century French writers lends itself particularly well to investigating the use of dream discourse because the selected texts display both of these hesitation, despite the fact that they are not usually included in the canon of fantastic literature. Dreams are the core experiences of Honoré de Balzac's “L'Auberge rouge” (1831) and another text written the previous year, “Les deux rêves” (1830), which Balzac...
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SOURCE: Hutton, Margaret-Anne. “Know Thyself vs. Common Knowledge: Bleich's Epistemology Seen through Two Short Stories by Balzac.” Modern Language Review 86, no. 1 (January 1991): 49-56.
[In the following essay, Hutton explores the concept of community in “Le Colonel Chabert” and “Adieu” and employs David Bleich's epistemology to gain insight into the two stories.]
Reader-response theorists, still haunted by the spectre of the ‘affective fallacy’, yet equally aware of the dangers of an objectivist stance, are faced with a problem of authority: who or what is the ultimate source of meaning? At one end of the spectrum, authority may be invested in the actual author of the text, as in the theory of E. D. Hirsch; at the other, meaning may be a function of the individual reader's identity, an approach favoured by Norman Holland.1 Other works, such as Wolfgang Iser's The Act of Reading, or Stanley Fish's Affective Stylistics, grant the written text a measure of authority by claiming that the reader's response is guided and limited by specific objective textual structures.2
Epistemologies may shift authority from the subjective to the intersubjective: meaning is a function not of the individual reader but of intersubjective communities. The later work of Stanley Fish, introducing the notion of ‘interpretive communities’, falls into this...
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SOURCE: Majewski, Henry F. “Painting as Intertext in Balzac's La Fille aux yeux d'or.” Symposium 45, no. 1 (spring 1991): 370-84.
[In the following essay, Majewski analyzes the influence of Delacroix's paintings on Balzac's novella La fille aux yeux d'or.]
La Duchesse de Langeais andLa Fille aux yeux d'or are dedicated respectively to Lîszt and Delacroix. These two novels, from the trilogy L'Histoire des Treize, can be considered experimental novels in which Balzac shows his skill at developing interartistic parallels as musician and painter. La Duchesse includes a conscious attempt to reproduce musical structures in fiction; La Fille aux yeux d'or is almost a romantic “transposition d'art.” Balzac endeavors to produce aesthetic effects similar to those of Delacroix's paintings: a strange beauty elicited by images of violent passion. Through the use of pictorial description, color symbolism, and structural devices related to painting, he creates exotic “oriental” scenes in the midst of modern Paris, calculated to rival works like Hugo's Orientales and Delacroix's La Mort de Sardanapale.
Olivier Bonard has studied the role of painting in Balzac's early works, including Le Père Goriot.1 He finds specific paintings (real or imagined) to be the point of departure of the narrative in texts like La...
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SOURCE: Toumayan, Alain. “Barbey d'Aurevilly, Balzac, and ‘La Vengeance d'une femme.’” French Forum 19, no. 1 (January 1994): 35-43.
[In the following essay, Toumayan establishes thematic and “intertextual connections” among Barbey d'Aurevilly's “La Vengeance d'une femme” and Balzac's La fille aux yeux d'or.]
Barbey d'Aurevilly's profound admiration for Balzac has provided well-attested keys to understanding Barbey's thematic and narrative universe, especially as concerns Les Diaboliques. Jacques Petit's and Herman Hofer's useful documentation of statements by Barbey and their identification of texts by Balzac which serve as sources or models of Barbey's stories have established clearly and concisely the literary landscape against which Barbey's stories have been understood.1 Yet all too often, Barbey's numerous references to Balzac or, for that matter, to other authors, once identified as such, are merely labeled “sources” warranting no further commentary; rarely do these references provide a basis for reading Barbey's texts.2 In other words, in many readings of Barbey's stories and novels it is assumed that Barbey gleaned narrative and thematic ingredients from his extensive readings of Balzac and of other authors and assimilated these within his own personal narrative, moral, or psychological esthetic agenda. Rarely are these two actions associated...
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SOURCE: Bresnick, Adam. “Absolute Fetishism: Genius and Identification in Balzac's ‘Unknown Masterpiece.’” Paragraph: A Journal of Modern Critical Theory 17, no. 2 (July 1994): 134-52.
[In the following essay, Bresnick investigates the role of genius in The Unknown Masterpiece and considers how it impacts Balzac's aesthetics in the novella.]
I. BALZAC'S GENIUS
For the genius each caesura, and the heavy blows of fate, fall like the gentle sleep itself into his workshop labour. About it he draws a charmed circle of fragments ‘Genius is application.’
It is no secret that Balzac was obsessed with the problem of genius. In a letter to his sister written in 1819, Balzac confides, ‘I have no other concern than the desire to elevate myself, and all of my worries come from the small amount of talent that I believe myself to have. For … all the work in the world does not produce one speck of genius.’ According to the logic of this statement, genius has little or nothing to do with application; genius is not a matter of labour, but one of being. In another letter to his sister from the same year, Balzac's tone is more frantic: ‘If by chance they sell Genius at Villeparisis, buy me as much of it as you can, but unfortunately it is not for sale, nor is it for the giving, nor can one...
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SOURCE: Haydock, John S. “Melville's Séraphita: Billy Budd, Sailor.” Melville Society Extracts, no. 104 (March 1996): 2-13.
[In the following essay, Haydock considers the influence of the novella Séraphita on Melville's novella Billy Budd, Sailor.]
Melville had in his library at the time of his death fifteen books of short stories and novels by Honoré de Balzac. One of them was the “philosophical study” Séraphita.1 The novel represents the third and culminating volume of Balzac's trilogy on the power of human will that begins with The Magic Skin and Louis Lambert, both of which Melville also kept on his bookshelf (MR, 153). Melville had always read philosophy, but in his later years, philosophy became an absorbing interest (MR, 130). As always, he was insistently curious about the relationship between free will and necessity, between individual freedom and impersonal fate. These three novels by Balzac deal profoundly with the advantages of strengthening and managing individual will to achieve specialized ends in and beyond ordinary life. Although in our time readers frequently sidetrack Séraphita as unessential to The Human Comedy, Balzac's correspondence makes clear that he intended Séraphita to be his definitive statement about individual moral evolution. It is one of his most misunderstood works, and...
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SOURCE: Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. “‘The Other Woman’: Reading a Body of Difference in Balzac's La fille aux yeux d'or.” Symposium 51, no. 1 (spring 1997): 43-50.
[In the following essay, Sharpley-Whiting explores the role of sexual and racial differences in the novella La fille aux yeux d'or.]
Et qu'est-ce que la femme? Une petite chose, un ensemble de niaiseries?
Balzac, La fille aux yeux d'or
In his undelivered lecture entitled “Femininity,” Sigmund Freud ventured to decipher what no man before him had ever successfully discerned—the nature of femininity:
Today's lecture, too[,] should have no place in an introduction. … It brings forward nothing but observed facts, almost without any speculative additions. … Throughout history people have knocked their heads against the riddle of femininity. … Nor will you have escaped worrying over this problem—those of you who are men … to those of you who are women this will not apply—you are yourselves the problem.
Freud's inquiry reflects the tendency of Western patriarchal discourse to render unintelligible and incomprehensible peoples and cultures that do not conform to the normative gaze. The lecture “Femininity” is an attempt to capture...
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SOURCE: Peterson, Thomas E. “‘Le Dernier Coup de Pinceau’: Perception and Generality in Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu.” Romantic Review 88, no. 3 (May 1997): 385-407.
[In the following essay, Peterson investigates the scientific notion of proof in the artistic context of Balzac's Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu.]
In what amounts to a primer of holistic studies, Gregory Bateson asserts, “Science probes, it does not prove”.1 Science can only enhance certain hypotheses and discard others. The changing paradigm of what constitutes scientific knowledge is only part of a new epistemology, a forma mentis shared with artists and humanists. If “science is a way of perceiving and making what we may call ‘sense’ of our percepts,” since “all experience is subjective,” then the gap between scientific and aesthetic discourse has been narrowed.2 Henceforth any search for truth is tinged by narrative interferences, imperfections in the measuring device or procedures, the impact of the questions not asked, or, in the case of the easel-painted portrait, the details not rendered.
This changed theory of knowing and learning, advanced in parallel with the cybernetic revolution, has its philosophical predecessors in such figures as Leibniz, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein. What these thinkers had in common was a view of thought as interactive process,...
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Bongiorni, Kevin. “Balzac, Frenhofer, Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu: Ut Poesis Pictura.” Mosaic 33, no. 2 (June 2000): 87-99.
Challenges traditional readings of the novella by suggesting that the character Frenhofer's work is not a failure, but rather simply misunderstood.
Houk, Deborah. “Self construction and Sexual Identity in Nineteenth-Century French Dandyism.” French Forum 22, no. 1 (January 1997): 59-73.
Investigates dandyism in La fille aux yeux d'or and texts by Baudelaire, Huysmans, and Rachilde.
Livingston, Paisley. “Counting Fragments, and Frenhofer's Paradox.” British Journal of Aesthetics 39, no. 1 (January 1999): 14-23.
Examines the concept of paradox through a reading of Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu and Balzac's unfinished work.
Lowrie, Joyce O. “The Artist, Real and Imagined: Diderot's Quentin de la Tour and Balzac's Frenhofer.” Romance Notes 31, no. 3 (spring 1991): 267-73.
Discusses the influence of Diderot on Balzac's Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu.
Nolan, Wendy. “Frenhofer's Suicide and the Downfall of Le Baron Gros.” Symposium 54, no. 2 (summer 2000): 90-112.
Argues that Antoine-Jean Gros served as a model for the mad painter in Le chef-d'oeuvre...
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