(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Inspired by Balzac’s contrasting ideas about the nature of the will and the expenditure of necessarily finite vital force, The Wild Ass’s Skin is the first and probably the greatest of Balzac’s “Philosophical Studies,” a subdivision of The Human Comedy. Raphaël de Valentin has run out of money and decides to throw himself in the River Seine. Waiting for nightfall, he enters an old curiosity shop, where an old man offers him a magical wild ass’s skin, un peau de chagrin (in French the latter word means both “shagreen,” or wild ass’s skin, and “grief” or “vexation”). The wishes of its possessor will be fulfilled but the skin will shrink in proportion to the number and strength of those wishes. When it has shrunk into nothing, its owner will die.

The old man has lived to a great age by avoiding desire and its turmoil; Raphaël declares that he wants to live to excess. Rushing from the shop, he falls in with friends who take him to an orgy. There he recounts at length to a fellow guest how years of contented denial and scholarly work in a garret were followed by the agony of his love for the heartless Countess Foedora, for whom he had squandered money earned by writing and gambling. The morning after the orgy, Raphaël learns that he has inherited the vast wealth he had wished for but sees that the skin has perceptibly shrunk. He realizes that he can do whatever he wants, but he wants now to do nothing and...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

The Wild Ass's Skin Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In a poor quarter of Paris, Raphael de Valentin walks hesitantly into a gaming room. Inside are the usual raffish hoodlums. To them, the young man appears marked for mischance. Raphael plays his last coin on a turn of the wheel and loses.

Resolved to commit suicide, he wanders to the Seine. For a time, he leans over the parapet of the Pont Royal and looks at the cold water below. Only the thought of the paid rescuers keeps him from jumping. He finally seeks shelter in an antique shop, where he poses as a customer. The proprietor, a wizened old man, takes him upstairs and shows him a piece of shagreen, or untanned animal skin, on which are engraved words in Sanskrit telling the power of the skin. The possessor of the skin will get anything he or she wishes for, but, in return, the wisher’s life will belong to the talisman, and he or she will die when the skin, shrinking with each wish, dwindles to nothingness.

Despite the antique dealer’s warning, Raphael recklessly takes the piece of skin and wishes for a great banquet furnished with much wine, carousing companions, and ladies of light virtue. As he leaves the shop, he meets his friends Rastignac and Émile, two penniless adventurers. They have a great scheme in mind for him—he is to be the editor of a new periodical backed by a rich banker. To celebrate the appointment, the banker is giving a banquet in Raphael’s honor that very evening. Disquieted only a little by the prompt and complete granting of his wish, Raphael goes willingly enough to the banquet.

A rich table is laid in the banker’s apartment. After eating and drinking far too much, the company of men withdraw to another room, where a group of joyous ladies are waiting for them. In his somewhat drunken state, Raphael thinks that the women all look pure and beautiful. Settling himself with two complaisant entertainers and Émile, Raphael decides to tell them the story of how he has come to be where he is.

After his mother’s death, his rather stern father did his best to train his son for a scholarly career. The boy was destined to be a lawyer, and to that end he read law diligently. Shortly before he was to take a law degree, however, his father died. Instead of leaving the son financially secure, the estate amounted to only a few francs. Thinking to achieve a fortune, Raphael decided to shut himself up in a garret and produce literary works of genius. He found that by living strictly on cold meat, bread, and milk, he would have enough money for a while.

He found a cheap room under the eaves of a modest house and settled into his laborious routine of writing. Soon, he had begun his projects. He spent half of his time writing a comedy, and the rest of his efforts went into the composition of a discourse on the human will. The family from whom he rented his room consisted of a mother, Madame Gaudin, and her young daughter, Pauline. The father, an army captain, had been lost in Siberia; only his wife believed him still alive. Pauline was an attractive child. Raphael gave her piano lessons, and Pauline performed small household chores for him in return.

For a long time, Raphael stuck to his spartan schedule, but at last the poor diet and the effort of intense concentration proved too much for him to endure. He went out for a short walk one day and ran into Rastignac, who teased him about the way he lived. Rastignac had no money and many bills, yet he lived a life of luxury....

(The entire section is 1418 words.)