Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439
Sir Walter Scott’s influence is evident in THE CHOUANS. Honore de Balzac has selected a relatively minor episode in the history of the Republic and concentrated on figures of everyday life who become involved in the process of history. Their motives, military strategies, and love affairs help determine historical reality while, at the same time, take additional significance from it. Balzac is unexcelled in his grasp of those details of life which reveal social relations to their fullest; THE CHOUANS shows this talent in a way none of Balzac’s earlier work does and in a way that Scott never approached. Balzac is able to describe clothing, room, hairstyles, furnishings, facial expressions, attitudes, and food in such a way that the reader gains a complete vision of French life of the time. It is in this distillation of a total cultural experience that Balzac shows his true talent.
The novel, nevertheless, suffers from weaknesses; although Balzac attempts to mix the elements of love and politics, he is not quite successful in analyzing and representing the passions which bring his characters to commit extreme and dramatic acts. Balzac has a sense for the malignant in THE CHOUANS, which he inherited from his earlier novels, but not for the pathological, which he developed in his later work. Although instinctively a realist, Balzac had not yet overcome his romantic tendencies. Some direct personal knowledge or experience of the matters of which he wrote was always necessary for Balzac, and this lack of direct military knowledge shows in the narrative, which is at times awkward and cloudy.
The book does contain the materials of a good romance; the opening skirmish, the scenes at Vivetiere, the incident of the attack on Fougeres, and the finale are exciting. Many of the characters are of more than casual interest; Hulot is one of the best of Balzac’s growling and grumbling characters, and Montauran is a thoroughly noble young man without being flat or false in tone. Marche-a-Terre is very nearly a masterpiece, and many of the minor characters are well handled. Mademoiselle de Verneuil is charming and Madame du Gua is well drawn; Francine surpasses her type, to become more than a mere soubrette. Unfortunately, these potentially interesting characters are often bogged down in page after page of boring conversation. Balzac had not yet learned to move the narrative by means of dialogue. The book is worth reading both for its important place in Balzac’s own development as a writer and for numerous passages of fine writing and glimpses of the vivid portrayal of character which was to be Balzac’s chief greatness.
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