Honore de Balzac’s approach to novel writing was, at least in part, scientific. He was fascinated by the unfolding or the sudden explosion of some vice, passion, or mania which threatened to transform or break up a normal life. In CESAR BIROTTEAU, the setting is bourgeois Paris, and the human being under the microscope is Cesar, a self-made man who, with the aid of some Parisian scoundrels, destroys himself. The novel shows that craving for success can become a mania as much as the craving for money or power or amorous conquest.
For Balzac, environment and heredity explained both character and fate. This novel is the tale of a parvenu, an “epic of the bourgeoisie,” as Balzac called it, but the protagonist is not satirized as much as analyzed and understood. Energy, more than intelligence, is responsible for Cesar’s success, yet when he fails because of overreaching, his honesty commands respect and admiration. Cesar learned the principal rule of city life, “each for himself,” but his innate integrity was stronger than this cynical philosophy.
In Balzac’s fiction, the events in the public and private lives of the characters are always linked with setting, specifically with architecture. When perfumer Cesar, deputy-mayor of Paris and recently appointed to the Legion of Honor, builds a ballroom and remodels his house, his fortunes begin to decline. Balzac’s imaginary world in CESAR BIROTTEAU is one in which rent and bills must be paid, creditors kept at bay, marriage contracts scrutinized, and money constantly found for pleasure and business; these things determine the pattern of life for Cesar and most of the characters. Cesar Birotteau is perhaps the supreme example in the Human Comedy of a man caught in the financial web. The novel is brilliantly structured, with the two balls as framework for the story of Cesar’s rise and fall, and the final brief moment of triumph.