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Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac Essay - Balzac, Honoré de (Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Séraphita 1835

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 Physiology of Marriage] (novel) 1829

Le peau de chagrin [The Magic Skin; also translated as The Wild Ass's Skin] (novel) 1831

Le Médecin de campagne (novel) 1833

Etudes de moeurs au XIXe siècle. 12 vols. (novels) 1833-37

Le Livre mystique (novel) 1835

Le Père Goriot [Old Goriot] (novel) 1835

Etudes philosophiques. 20 vols. (novels) 1835-40

Le Lys dans la vallée [The Lily of the Valley] (novel) 1836

Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau [History of the Grandeur and Downfall of Cesar Birotteau; also translated as The Bankrupt] (novel) 1838

Beatrix; ou, Les Amours forcées [Beatrix] (novel) 1839

Vautrin (play) 1840

Ursule Mirouët [Ursula] (novel) 1842

Petites misères de la vie conjugale [The Petty Annoyances of Married Life] (novel) 1845-46

Les Parents pauvres [Poor Relations] (novel) 1847-48

La Marâtre [The Stepmother] (play) 1848

Lettres à l'étrangèr. 4 vols. [with Mme. Hanska] (letters) 1899-1950


Joyce O. Lowrie (essay date May 1990)

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.

Montaigne, Essais1

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 published for the first time on 17 March 1836 in the Chronique de Paris. It is thirteen pages long in the Pléiade edition, and its final resting place is with the other Scènes de la vie parisienne. The initial part of the frame, told by Narrator I, as I shall call him since he is given no name, occupies the first five pages. Two pages are then devoted to dialogue between the first and the second narrator, and to a description of the latter. Facino Cane, who is Narrator II, takes up five pages with his embedded narrative, and one page of commentary and dialogue rounds (or squares) off the frame. The transitional dialogue and description is in a chiastic relationship to the final description and dialogue. The structure is a strikingly balanced one.

The two stories exist in such a way that works sighted in them participate in the reflexive aspects of the narratives themselves. The process of analyzing the layers upon layers of allusions is not only vertiginous but spellbinding. Due to the complexity of these narratives, a summary of them is in order.

In the frame, or the histoire enchâssante, as Tzvetan Todorov calls it,2 Narrator I describes the poor section of Paris in which he lives, as well as his love of la science.3 He has a veritable passion for observing the customs and lives of others, and while taking breaks from the Royal library where he studies, he follows people and “substitutes” himself for them, participating, second-hand, in their lives. He follows a couple and their child down the street, listening to their discussions. They talk about the play they have just seen at the Ambigu-Comique, and about their finances, their wages, the high price of food. The Narrator then analyzes his own capacity to empathize with others to the point of identifying himself with them.

While attending the wedding of his housekeeper's daughter, Narrator I becomes fascinated by one of the three blind musicians hired to play for the assembled crowd, and engages him in dialogue. The extraordinary old man is Marco Facino Cane, a Venetian from the royal house of Varese. The blind man becomes aware of a mutual affinity he has with Narrator I, and after finishing his playing, he tells the young man his story.

In this embedded narrative, Facino Cane describes how, at the age of twenty (which is also Narrator I's age at the time of the events he has been describing thus far), he fell in love with a young married Venetian woman. Found with her, he is attacked by the husband, and in self-defense, kills the older man. Bianca refuses to flee with her lover to Milan, where he goes to escape his pursuers. Returning to Venice when his funds run out, Bianca then hides him in her house where they live together happily for six months. Because a Provéditeur (a public officer) becomes interested in Bianca, he discovers Facino Cane, captures him, and throws him into a dark prison dungeon. Deciphering a message cut into a stone, Cane finds an escape route that the previous occupant had begun to dig. A broken piece of his sword helps Cane carve his way out of the passageway, and it happens to lead into the room of the palace where the treasures of Venice are stored. He buys off his jailer and they escape, taking with them as much of the treasure as they can carry. The jailer dies; Cane goes blind. He ends up in London, where “I'amie de Mme du Barry,” with whom he had become involved, robs him and abandons him. Finally making his way to Paris, penniless, he spends his days with other blind men from the Quinze-Vingts (a home for the blind), telling his story to whoever will listen. His intention is to entice someone into taking him back to Venice, where he is sure to find the treasure by intuiting its location, by sniffing it out, by “smelling it,” as he says of his monomania for gold.

At the end, in the histoire enchâssante's dialogue between both narrators, Narrator I agrees to lead Facino Cane back to Venice. But the old man dies, not long after, of a catarrh.


References of import appear immediately in the first two sentences of the text. Narrator I is the encoded implied author who most resembles Balzac in his work. He lives on the rue de Lesdiguières, near a library. The signifier “Lesdiguières,” having to do with dams or dikes, is a bridge leading toward Narrative II, for Venice is the principal locus of Facino Cane's narration. The signified also relates to the real author because Balzac had lived at no. 9, rue Lesdiguières, in 1819 and 1820. Narrator I spends many hours during the day working “dans une bibliothèque voisine, celle de MONSIEUR.”4 This became the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal in which Balzac, too, had worked. In this intratextual referent, the books in the “bibliothèque,” a royal library, are in relation to the Livre d' or in which the “real” historical figure, Bonifacio Facino Cane,5 the fictive Marco Facino Cane's ancestor, had had his name inscribed in order to protect himself from the Visconti (1024). The Golden Book was the register, destroyed in 1797, in which noble families of Italy had their name written. This was done in golden letters, which explains the title of the book (Raitt n238). The words “Facino Cane” must have fascinated Balzac, whose delight in onomastics is evident throughout his work: Facino is close, in sound, to the Italian word fascino (fascination), and cane (dog) may have inspired Balzac to endow his character with the ability to smell, to sniff out gold. “Une cane” is also associated with a blind man's walking stick.

According to André Lorant, the name “Cane” was that of an Irish family with whom the Balzacs had shared a house in Tours. The English name was pronounced “Canet” in the Touraine, and Balzac may have transformed it, says Lorant, into an Italian one (1013). But this explanation does not, in any way, account for the Marco or the Facino in Marco Facino Cane's name. The fictive first name Marco is obvious, for Balzac's character is Venitian, and Facino, is “real.” Marco also evokes the thirteenth-century paradigmatic Venitian traveler and gold seeker, Marco Polo. He too was an author, having narrated descriptions of the East that were, throughout the Renaissance, the principal if not the only source for the exotic lands he describes.6 Not only is the inscription of a proper name in a book a mise en abyme of the text, but the “real” and the “fictive” are confounded in the referent. The bibliothèque de MONSIEUR was “real”; Bonifacio Facino Cane was “real”; the livre d' or was “real.” The geographic and topographic semes in the text are “real,” in the main, even though Balzac had not yet seen Venice when he wrote the short narrative.7 Referential signs are thus used to highlight the fictive. Facino Cane is doubly fictional in serving as title to the short story that the real author wrote, and in becoming a narrator in his own right. He reflects the real author and Narrator I as well. Relationships between “reality” and fiction, between libraries, books and reading, between the structure of this text and its “conversations” with other texts are established from the start and continue throughout.

In his discussion of the opening paragraph of Le Père Goriot, Victor Brombert calls attention to the references that are “structured around contradictory signals of surface realism and of simultaneous subversions of the realistic discourse.”8 I would say that rather than undermining surface realism, “Facino Cane”'s “reality effect” is in tension with the fictive. Balzac, in fact, had some hesitation when it came to the title he was to give his short narrative.9 The original edition, published in 1837 under Etudes philosophiques, bore the royal name, “Facino Cane.” In the Souverain edition of Mystères de Province, the text became plebeian (i.e., “realistic” in title): it was called “Le Père Canet.” In the Furne edition of 1844, the royal lineage was recovered, and “Facino Cane,” from then on, has figured in Scènes de la vie parisienne.

The implied reader is encoded in the first sentence of the frame, and for a practical reason: “Je demeurais alors dans une petite rue que vous ne connaissez sans doute pas.”10 Because the street indicates the quarters of the poor, the implied reader is thought to be above living in such an area. He or she is required to be literate, or, to say the least, to be sufficiently endowed with knowledge to understand the literary allusions in the text (1022). Literacy seems to be related to financial means (despite the poverty of both narrators), and to the ability to live in an area other than the one beginning with “la rue Saint-Antoine.” The first sentence distances readers, on the one hand, but succeeds in “instructing” them, on the other, about how another part of the world lives. Consequently, there is pedagogical and moral value placed on narrative.

In her study of the history and theory of the frame narrative, Katharine Slater Gittes states that certain organizing devices are constant throughout the genre's development. As she traces the history of the genre (that frame narrative is a genre is only one theory among others)11 Gittes observes that over and above the obvious motifs of a “controlling narrator or a pervading travel or wisdom theme,” organizing devices include: intelligence as a means of survival in the world; tension between the framing story and the enclosed tale; the rebirth theme, and the open-endedness of the framing story.12 All of these are present in “Facino Cane.”

Narrators I and II are both intelligent, even though the “lesson” of the story undermines this gift. Learning is not rewarded, at least in monetary terms: Narrator II goes blind, loses his fortune, and dies, while Narrator I continues to expend “la puissance destructrice de la pensée” by telling tales.

As he describes his intuitive powers at the end of the first paragraph, Narrator I says: “[l'observation] était déjà devenue intuitive, elle pénétrait l'âme sans négliger le corps; ou plutôt elle saisissait si bien les détails extérieurs, qu'elle allait sur-le-champ au-delà; elle me donnait la faculté de vivre de la vie de l'individu sur laquelle elle s'exerçait, en me permettant de me substituer à lui comme le derviche des Mille et Une Nuits prenait le corps et l'âme des personnes sur lesquelles il prononçait certaines paroles” (1019).

The simile Narrator I uses in his literary allusion is significant: he has recourse to the exotic, to the realm of fantasy, when he compares himself to the dervish in 1,001 Nights (the “Chinese box” narrative par excellence) at the point where the dervish absorbs both body and soul of those persons upon whom he pronounces magic words. This reference builds a bridge from Narrative I to II in regard to the exotic elements of the latter. Palaces, bridges, prisons, vast fortunes, excessive monomanias for gold, cloak-and-dagger details, symbolic aspects of blindness versus sight (and insight), narrative repetition, all relate to the sign that is deliberately encoded in the text by the reference made to the Oriental stories told by Scheherazade to her husband, Schariar, legendary king of Samarkand. A further link is established, as well, between Parts I and II, for Facino Cane himself will also mention 1,001 Nights.

By citing this work, Balzac mirrors his own activity: he, a narrator, has created Narrator I, who leads us to Narrator II, who will return us to Narrator I. But the dialogic function of the frame is almost subverted by Narrator I when he announces that he is something of a succubus; he imbibes the identity of the other, substituting the other for himself. Dialogic tension between the frame and the embedded narrative would be reduced to a univocal account if both were to become one, and the dynamism of the tale's double structure would be rendered less powerful in that case. This is only a latent temptation in “Facino Cane,” and yet it signals the empathy that exists when meaningful dialogue occurs in the act of reading.

In his introduction to “Facino Cane,” Lorant reminds us that the idea of intuitive observation was one in which Balzac's contemporaries were acutely interested: “Lecteur de la série des Hermites de Victor-Joseph Etienne, dit de Jouy, Balzac a pu être frappé par certaines remarques du physiologiste des mœurs et usages parisiens sous la Restauration: ‘Je pénètre ce que je regarde; je suis doué d'un coup d'œil intrusif qui me montre les gens intus et in cute; je démêle jusque dans leur repos le mobile de leurs notions, j'entends le langage du regard, du geste, et même du silence’” (1011). What might be called, today, the interpretation of “body language” and expression was already a matter that deeply concerned Balzac and his generation. This interest was not only due to the influences of Lavater, Gall, and others, but came about with nineteenth-century developments in urban conditions of life. It became necessary and desirable to be able to classify those one did not know when one met them on the street. Balzac's own interest in street encounters results from their being a source for his creative imagination.

Another source sighted for Balzac's ideas about identification with others, according to Lorant, was Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, published in 1822. De Quincey's statements (which had been translated by Alfred de Musset in 1828) refer to a couple who have one or two children. After having “experienced” an opera under the influence of opium, De Quincey describes sharing the concerns of the poor with them: “Plus d'une famille consistant en un seul homme avec sa femme, quelquefois un ou deux de leurs enfants, se consultait sur l'emploi de la journée, sur ses plaisirs, sur ses peines, parlait du prix des choses de ménage. Peu à peu je me familiarisais avec leurs désirs, leurs embarras et leurs opinions” (1011). This quotation resembles the description of the family that Narrator I follows down the boulevard after they had attended a performance at the Ambigu-Comique. Facino Cane, too, will “follow the traces” that lead to gold. Identification leads to narration and to interpretation in all of these cases: De Quincey's, the real and the implied authors', and those of Narrators I and II.

Since ambigu alludes to “double” and signifies “ambiguity,” the name of the theater mentioned by Narrator I foregrounds the binary tensions and bridges that exist between the “plebeian” and the “royal” dimensions of the text, the “realistic” and its simultaneously fictive elements, and the characters of Narrators I and II. Both are young, in their twenties, at the time of the adventures they relate, yet one is young and the other old at the time of the diegeses themselves. Both have a passion, or a monomania; both want to “lose themselves” in the passion they have for the other, whether it be persons, gold, or the narrative act. Both allude to other texts, yet Narrator I is the more learned of the two.

Narrator I further enhances the tension between the poor and the elite (the Ambigu-Comique being a boulevard theater specializing in vaudevilles and light comedy) when he says that he follows the couple down the Pont-aux-Choux to the Beaumarchais boulevard. In the publication préoriginale of “Facino Cane” in the Chronique de Paris, the story was “précédé d'une chronique consacrée à l'adaptation de Gil Blas, due à Sauvage et de Lurieu” (1030n1). Once again, the mundane leads towards and incorporates the “literary.” The boulevard that begins with cabbages (Pont-aux-Choux) ends with the name of a writer who had criticized kings (Beaumarchais).

While describing his adventures, Narrator I's intertextual usage of one of Dante's phrases becomes another link between Paris and Venice (or Italy). Narrator I calls Paris “cette ville de douleur” (1020), thus referring to the Inferno: “Per me si va nella città dolente” (“Through me you enter into the city of grief”) (III, 1; cf. Pléiade 1020n2). Since Facino Cane experiences all manner of douleurs, Paris and Venice are in relation with each other in the text by intra- and intertextual means. The città dolente motif also brings to mind the famous opening pages of...

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Maryann Weber (essay date November 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 4272 words.)

Margaret-Anne Hutton (essay date January 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 4538 words.)

Henry F. Majewski (essay date spring 1991)

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;...

(The entire section is 5505 words.)

Alain Toumayan (essay date January 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 4031 words.)

Adam Bresnick (essay date July 1994)

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.]


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.’



(The entire section is 7906 words.)

John S. Haydock (essay date March 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 8124 words.)

T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (essay date spring 1997)

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:


(The entire section is 3658 words.)

Thomas E. Peterson (essay date May 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 11028 words.)