Critical Context

Louis Lambert was the product of a new and growing tradition of French Romanticism and added to that tradition; it was also an important work in Balzac’s own estimate of his career, although it is not ranked among his generally acknowledged masterpieces. The more well-known precedents for the novel include Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile: Ou, De l’education (1762; Emilius and Sophia: Or, A New System of Education, 1762-1763), Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (1816; English translation, 1816), Etienne de Senancour’s Obermann (1804; English translation, 1910-1914), and Chateaubriand’s Rene (1802; English translation, 1813). Similar concerns with human nature’s physical and spiritual dimensions are evident in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Werther, 1779; better known as The Sorrows of Young Werther) and Faust: Eine Tragodie (1808; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823), and Lord Byron’s Manfred (1817). Balzac’s contribution to the tradition is the acute observation and detailed description of the actual state of persons, places, and segments of society (the school, village life, Parisian life), and the penetrating examination of the life of a mind overloaded with facts, suppositions, theories, and intuitive mysticism.

Although the novel has not fared well in the late twentieth century, it was well received in Balzac’s time and remained one of his favorites. He had begun writing in a philosophical vein—the entire body of his work may be viewed as explorations in philosophy—early in his career, but his chief philosophical works include, along with Louis Lambert, Le Peau de Chagrin (1831; The Wild Ass’s Skin; also as The Fatal Skin), and Melmoth reconcilie (1835; Melmoth Converted, 1900). Of the nearly ninety novels in The Human Comedy, which range from scenes of private and provincial life to scenes of Parisian life, political life, military life, and country life, Balzac particularly favored Louis Lambert because it is his most autobiographical work.

The master of analysis, having at last analyzed this critical period in his own life when he himself underwent a crisis of mysticism, built an even firmer foundation for his speculations based on observation of human behavior. While engaged over a three-year period in writing and rewriting this novel, Balzac was also at work on several other volumes, including his best-known masterpieces, Eugenie Grandet (1833; English translation, 1859) and Le Pere Goriot (1835; Daddy Goriot, 1860; also as Pere Goriot).