THE COUNTRY DOCTOR is unlike most of Honore de Balzac’s novels. One of his early books, and not added to THE HUMAN COMEDY series until more than a decade after its composition, it is a lyrical, quiet novel, one more concerned with reform than revolution, with peasants rather than the ambitious bourgeoisie of Balzac’s more famous books. Dr. Benassis, expounding his views on politics, airs Balzac’s own attitudes. He is opposed to universal suffrage, fearing a long struggle between the bourgeoisie and the working class. He speaks of the movement of population from country to towns and the growth of a dissatisfied, uprooted class. Dr. Benassis indicates the difference between the “destroyer” and the “builder,” which are, he explains, two manifestations of human “Will.” He believes in the progress of civilization; from his point of view, the welfare of people depends on the cure, the doctor, and the justice of the peace. Account must be taken of the nature of the peasants, who are neither monsters nor angels but creatures rendered hard and narrow by the harshness of their existence. Balzac, through the mouthpiece of his doctor, states that the peasants can be uplifted if a communal spirit is fostered within them; but they can be saved only through great patience.
The almost saintlike Dr. Benassis is a man with that patience. His story is revealed gradually through a series of flashbacks and leisurely narratives. While trying to expiate the sins of his past, he proves to be the savior of this tiny valley and the wretched beings who dwell within it. As the doctor’s biography is told, so are the country customs, the ways of dying and mourning, the manner of conducting business, the rituals connected with birth and marriage, and the history of the village and the valley. The novel moves slowly, without the drama of passion usual in a Balzac novel, but the tale is strangely moving, and the doctor is an impressive and memorable figure.