The Wild Ass’s Skin is the first volume of the sprawling sequence of novels known as La Comédie humaine, or The Human Comedy, which occupied Honoré de Balzac between 1829 and 1848. The French title, La Peau de chagrin, embodies an untranslatable pun, in that the name of the material of which the magical object is made (equivalent to the English shagreen) also carries the meaning that crosses directly into English in the word “chagrin”: a kind of vexation that grates continually and tortuously on the mind. When Raphael has acquired his talisman, he invites his friend Émile to bear witness to “how my chagrin will shrink”—and so it does, in both senses of the word. Unfortunately for Raphael, the shrinkage of the skin quickly reaches the point at which his own state of mind acquires a new and much sharper desperation; the temporary banishment of his chagrin merely serves to clear the way for a more profound and inescapable regret.
Balzac is famous as one of the boldest pioneers of narrative realism, and there are descriptive passages in The Wild Ass’s Skin that are closely observed studies of life in contemporary Paris, foreshadowing the naturalistic triumphs to come in literature. Before this, however, Balzac had written a number of pseudonymous thrillers heavily influenced by gothic tales of terror, and he understood well enough the imaginative power exerted by such motifs as the diabolical bargain. In bringing such a motif out of the quasi-medieval settings favored by the gothic novelists and planting it firmly in contemporary Paris, he was helping to pave the way for a distinctly modern kind of horror story as well as recruiting a useful allegorical device.
Like any modern hero would, Raphael looks to science for assistance when the power of his magic is exhausted, but science cannot help him; he has surrendered his soul to the judgment of superstition and must accept its cruel verdict. This is the fear that haunts all modern tales of...
(The entire section is 826 words.)