Although he was an accomplished short-story writer, Honoré de Balzac is famous above all as a novelist. Between 1829 and 1850, he created a series of more than ninety interconnected novels with recurring characters. In 1841, he gave this collection of novels the general title of La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1895-1896, 1911). He was also a prolific essayist, and he wrote five plays, which enjoyed some popular success during his lifetime, but have long since fallen into oblivion.
Balzac was the most influential and creative French novelist in the first half of the nineteenth century. The French poet and literary critic Charles Baudelaire expressed a profound insight into Balzac’s genius when he stated that Balzac was not a realist but rather a visionary who taught readers to see and understand the exploitation and alienation of modern men and women. His novels described the radical transformation of French society after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. Balzac did not depict the broad sweep of history but rather the intense and very personal suffering of key characters whose vulnerability and innocence allowed them to be destroyed by others. Balzac created the narrative technique of recurring characters whom readers find at different moments in their lives in various novels. His The Human Comedy revealed his ability to describe with sensitivity and psychological depth characters from the full spectrum of French society. His masterpieces included works such as Les Chouans (1829; The Chouans, 1885), which denounced the violation of basic human rights during the French Revolution, his lyrical and autobiographical novel Le Lys dans la vallée (1836; The Lily in the Valley), and La Peau de chagrin (1831; The Wild Ass’s Skin), which is a variation on the Faust legend.
In addition to his fiction, Honoré de Balzac (BAHL-zak) wrote several plays, including Cromwell (wr. 1819-1820, pb. 1925), Vautrin (pr., pb. 1840; English translation, 1901), and Le Faiseur, also known as Mercadet (pr. 1849; English translation, 1901), but he was not a playwright and generally devoted time to the theater only when he felt that there was a good profit to be made with little effort. Likewise, many of the articles and essays that Balzac wrote between 1825 and 1834, published in such journals as Le Voleur, La Mode, La Caricature, La Silhouette, and La Revue de Paris, were composed to enable the author to acquire ready money. Balzac’s letters to the Polish baroness Evelina Hanska, to his family, and to Madame Zulma Carraud were published after the novelist’s death.
The Human Comedy, Honoré de Balzac’s masterwork, is one of the greatest literary achievements of all time. It contains many novels beyond those listed above, the bulk of which were written between 1830 and 1847. Before 1829, Balzac wrote under various pseudonyms—notably “Lord R’Hoone” and “Horace de Saint Aubin”—and frequently composed novels in collaboration with other writers. These twenty or so early volumes, which include Sténie: Ou, Les Erreurs philosophiques (1936; Sténie: or, philosophical errors), Falturne (1950), Le Centenaire: Ou, Les Deux Beringheld (1822; The Centenarian: Or, The Two Beringhelds, 1976), and La Dernière Fée (1823; the last fairy), were later renounced by Balzac, and rightly so, for they were written in haste and were obvious attempts to exploit the current taste for gothic melodrama and romantic adventures.
Honoré de Balzac wrote his fictional works as the self-appointed secretary of French society. It was natural, therefore, that he should consider the police (both political and judicial), this newest and most efficient branch of modern, autocratic governments. He was in fact one of the earliest writers of French fiction to recognize the police as society’s best defender against subversives and criminals.
Like members of other powerful and arbitrary organizations, Balzac’s police officers were shown to be relentless in their missions and cruel in their vengeance. Thus, he was less interested in police work as such than in the psychological study of police officers of genius—not only for their Machiavellian cynicism and superior understanding of people but also for their quest to dominate and rule the world. Such theories of vast conspiratorial associations and of intellectual power influenced later novelists, including Fyodor Dostoevski, Maurice Leblanc, Pierre Souvestre, Marcel Allain, and Ian Fleming, among others.
Discuss the monomania evidenced by some of Honoré de Balzac’s most important characters: the miserliness of Old Grandet, the paternal love of Père Goriot, the hatred of Bette, and the erotomania of Baron Hulot.
Balzac describes Père Goriot as a “Christ of paternity.” How accurate or helpful is this characterization?
One critic describes the loving Adeline Hulot as a “sublime sheep.” Is her apparently infinite capacity for forgiveness admirable, or is it the reverse?
Consider Père Goriot and Cousin Bette as portraits of Restoration Paris (1816-1830) and the Paris of Louis-Philippe (1830-1848). What forces dominate society in each case?
Discuss Eugénie Grandet’s depiction of provincial France.
Beizer, Janet L. Family Plots: Balzac’s Narrative Generations. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. A careful study of the family and other hierarchies in Balzac’s novels. Beizer argues that the structure of the family itself is an ordering principle of the fiction. Beizer’s introduction clearly situates her in the tradition of Balzac criticism while making clear how her book differs from earlier studies.
Charlton, D. G., et al., eds. Balzac and the Nineteenth Century. Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1972. This volume of essays describes very well the profound influence of Balzac on important nineteenth century French writers such as Charles Baudelaire, Émile Zola, and...
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