Honoré de Balzac Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5138

At the age of thirty, Honoré de Balzac resolved to become a great French writer. At first, he believed that he could accomplish this goal by emulating the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, whose historical novels were highly esteemed in France during the first half of the nineteenth century. Like Scott, Balzac would be a historian of social, psychological, and political life. Later, however, as Balzac explains in his preface to The Human Comedy, this idea was modified. Balzac finally saw his true and original role to be that of “the secretary of society” rather than that of a social historian; that is, instead of bringing the past to life, as Scott had done, Balzac chose to transcribe the life around him into fiction. In many ways, the author of The Human Comedy is faithful to this role, drawing a picture of French society at all levels from roughly 1815 until the end of Balzac’s writing career in 1848.

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The Human Comedy

In his novels, Balzac reveals the driving passions and needs of a wide range of individuals in various social positions: noblemen and aristocratic ladies; politicians, bankers, businessmen, and moneylenders; scientists, doctors, and priests; lawyers, policemen, and criminals; musicians, painters, sculptors, and writers. This picture of society delineates not only ambitious members of the bourgeoisie and proud aristocrats but also the environments in which they live and work, including the luxurious, exhilarating, and cutthroat life of Paris and the comparatively dull and inactive existence of small provincial French towns. The two thousand characters whom Balzac depicts in The Human Comedy are not, however, mere social types. On the contrary, Balzac’s protagonists are, in general, strongly individualistic, some of them to the point of eccentricity.

Each novel of The Human Comedy contains a single story that may be read and appreciated for itself; at the same time, each story is linked to the whole. A protagonist encountered in one novel might very well appear again, like an old acquaintance, within the context of another novel and possibly a very different plot. The small number of characters who travel from one novel to another give unity to Balzac’s works and at the same time convey the impression that the fictional world described in The Human Comedy is alive and infinite in scope.

With regard to tone, Balzac’s plots embrace a wide range of attitudes: tragically sad or comically ironic, highly idealistic, fantastic, or romantic. The novelist, however, is judged to have excelled particularly as a realist in his candid portrayal of the tremendous will to power of human nature and of the influence of money on social behavior.

In Balzac’s works, many of the characteristic impulses of the nineteenth century coincided and reinforced one another. Balzac’s legendary energy, his enormous, hubristic ambition, his tireless interest in the world, and his sheer appetite for experience—all these elements worked together to produce a massive tapestry of an entire society, unmatched in scope and detail before or since the author’s time.

Three themes in Balzac’s fiction can be seen as reflections of the novelist’s personality: The first of these is the theme of madness or monomania, the second is the large role given to money, and the third is the recurrent search of Balzac’s characters for love and success. The madmen of The Human Comedy include some of Balzac’s most original and memorable characters. These figures are generally obsessed by ideas that they try to make into reality and for which they sacrifice everything. Although the individual obsessions of these protagonists vary, Frenhofer, the painter in The Unknown Masterpiece, Grandet, the miser in Eugénie Grandet, and Claes, the scientist in The Quest of the Absolute, are nevertheless shadows of Balzac, the author, who expresses through them his own obsession: the painstaking composition of The Human Comedy. Balzac wrote for hours, weeks, and months on end to prove his genius to the world. Everything was sacrificed for his literary task, including comfortable lodging, clothes, and the most insignificant of worldly amusements.

The monomaniacs of Balzac’s creation are particularly interesting figures. They are intelligent and possess glorious ideas that, if they initially seem eccentric, at the same time denote genius. Their bold determination to accomplish all they have set out to do is admirable only to a point, however. Balzac always shows that the obsessions of his monomaniacs dehumanize them. When, for example, Claes in The Quest of the Absolute sacrifices the sustenance of his family in order to continue financing his experiments, Balzac pushes his protagonist’s passion to an extreme. The manias of Balzac’s characters slowly annihilate everything around them until, in the end, these figures appear so blinded by their passion that they are completely enslaved by it. The tragic depiction of Balzac’s monomaniacs is undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of The Human Comedy. These characters, who first command one’s admiration, then appeal to one’s sympathy, and finally elicit one’s scorn, cause one to ponder with Balzac the force of human thought and willpower. Moreover, by means of his monomaniacs, Balzac expresses his own obsession and his fear of it.

Another important theme of The Human Comedy is money, which, in Balzac’s fictional world, dominates all other values. In a sense, Balzac’s attitude toward money is ambivalent. On one hand, he often shows nostalgia for the neoclassic age, when, under the monarchy, a member of the nobility was assured a life of ease and intellectual grandeur. On the other hand, however, Balzac accepts and objectively portrays the bourgeois society of his day. It is a society whose wheels are oiled by money, but many of Balzac’s heroes feel optimistically that, by means of their intelligence, they can succeed in conquering the cycle. Apparently, Balzac himself believed that the appearance of having money was enough to command respect and social acceptance. Sometimes when his characters wear expensive-looking clothes and ride about in fancy carriages, they are, in fact, engaged in a carefully calculated masquerade to fool society by using its own superficial code against it. Of course, some of Balzac’s protagonists succeed in this way, but most of them fail—paralleling the novelist’s career, in which successes were few and financial failures many. Balzac’s most pointed criticism of the role of money in society is not, however, that it is the entry ticket to social success. In such novels as Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet, Balzac portrays money in its most diabolical role, as a corrupter of the noblest of human feelings, love.

Balzac depicts two kinds of love in his novels. Ideal love is the quest of many protagonists of The Human Comedy, who suffer in its absence and fail to realize its glorious promise. Desirable women in Balzac’s fiction are often much older than their aspiring lovers, leading biographers to speculate about Balzac’s own mother’s indifference toward him and about the novelist’s first amorous adventure with Madame de Berny, who—when Balzac met her at the age of twenty-two—was twenty-two years older than he. Aristocratic and maternal women such as Madame de Mortsauf in The Lily in the Valley represent a supreme love the likes of which cannot be matched. The very ideal quality of this love, however, is perhaps what leads to its impossibility. Although Balzac’s characters glimpse the perfect love object time and time again, the latter generally remains out of reach because of societal or financial constraints. In contrast, love, as Balzac portrays it in his fictional society, is a dangerous counterfeit. Coquettish females of The Human Comedy, such as Antoinette de Langeais in The Duchess de Langeais (a part of The Thirteen), provoke innocent gentlemen to fall in love with them only to cultivate their own egos. For the boldest male protagonists of The Human Comedy, love is like money, something to be used to advance oneself in society. Rastignac in Père Goriot and Raphaël de Valentin in The Wild Ass’s Skin, for example, make the calculated decision to fall in love, one with a wealthy banker’s wife and the other with an aristocratic lady. Family love and devotion are also shams, falling into insignificance when confronted by personal ambition and money.

The Wild Ass’s Skin

Balzac classified the novels of The Human Comedy into three large areas: “Studies of Social Manners,” “Philosophical Studies,” and “Analytical Studies.” The Wild Ass’s Skin, published in 1831, was placed into the category “Philosophical Studies,” probably because of its fantastic theme, the possession of a magic skin. Like many of Balzac’s best novels, however, The Wild Ass’s Skin is actually a mixture of cold reality and fantastic illusion. The hero of the novel, Raphaël de Valentin, a downtrodden genius whom society persistently ignores, is clearly a figure with whom the novelist could identify. Balzac’s protagonist has written a philosophical treatise titled “Théorie de la volonté” (“Theory of the Will”), a work whose exact contents are never revealed but whose significance for Balzac and for The Human Comedy is evident. Like his hero, Valentin, Balzac is engaged in an analysis of man’s will. Valentin may appear to be more theoretical than the novelist, but both Balzac and his protagonist find the power of ideas at work in the mind to be a fascinating and dangerous study. One suspects that Valentin is actually an image of Balzac’s own projected success as well as the foreboding prototype of his failure.

The destiny of Raphaël de Valentin follows a curve from failure to success and back to failure again. At the beginning of the book, Valentin thinks seriously about committing suicide for two reasons. First, he has suffered very deeply in his love for a beautiful but heartless coquette named Foedora. Second, he is destitute. Even though his “Theory” has finally been completed—a lifework that ought to be acknowledged as striking proof of his genius—societal acclaim is still denied him. When Balzac later explains in his epilogue to the novel that Foedora is actually a symbol of society, one understands that her indifference to Valentin includes not only a condemnation of a would-be lover but also a cruel underestimation of his intelligence, the hero’s very raison d’être. The initial tragedy of Valentin is realistically portrayed as a battle between a sensitive romantic young man and Parisian society.

In the next phase of Valentin’s destiny, however, one sees an abrupt transformation that at first appears to project Balzac’s hero to the heights of success. Valentin acquires from a mysterious antiquarian a wild ass’s skin. Because, as in a fairy tale, the magic skin grants its owner’s every wish, Valentin need no longer be poor. Indeed, it is society’s turn to court him! Now the Parisian society that Valentin previously hoped to please is depicted as thoroughly repulsive and morally corrupt. As a sign of Valentin’s rejection of it, one of his wishes is that he may forget Foedora, the novel’s symbol of society. One may find in Valentin’s change of attitude toward society the novelist’s own admission to himself that what he ultimately seeks—general recognition of his genius as a writer—simply does not exist in a world ruled by personal vanity and money. Now that Foedora has been forgotten, she is replaced in Valentin’s heart by Pauline, a poor, innocent young girl who has always shown him true love and devotion.

This “happy ending” is short-lived, however. In the final phase of Valentin’s destiny, Balzac returns to the philosophical theme of the human will. The wild ass’s skin that Valentin possesses is not a blessing after all, but a curse. After each wish that it grants to its owner, the skin shrinks in dimension, its dwindling size quickly becoming a horrifying picture of the diminishing length of Valentin’s life.

It is interesting to correlate this tragic depiction of Balzac’s hero with the situation of the novelist himself. When Balzac wrote The Wild Ass’s Skin in 1831, he was already aware that his enormous writing task would take him away from the world of reality and cause him to become a more firmly established inhabitant of his fictional world. After the protagonist of The Wild Ass’s Skin has unmasked society, he attempts to withdraw from it. Perhaps, pen in hand, wearing his monk’s cloak, Balzac, too, may have thought that he could escape to the fictional realm of his imagination. Eventually, however, reality always intervened and subjugated the writer to its practical demands. Hence, Balzac gives that part of himself that repudiates money and all those who worship it a kind of allowance analogous to money. Valentin must make fewer and fewer wishes and finally tries not to express any desires at all, simply in order to continue living.

In this complex novel, Balzac transposes into fiction his own misery, his maddening drive to succeed, his dreams and love for life, while giving the reader a survey of the themes that will permeate many novels of The Human Comedy: money, unrealized love, the drive to succeed, and madness.

The Vicar of Tours

Balzac finished writing The Vicar of Tours in April, 1832. In this short novel, Balzac, like Gustave Flaubert in his famous short story “Un Cur simple” (“A Simple Heart”), relates a story that superficially seems unworthy of mention. Balzac’s hero, Birotteau, like Flaubert’s heroine, Félicité, is rather simpleminded and lives an uneventful life. True to the nature of Balzac’s most memorable heroes, however, Birotteau is quite different from Félicité in that, despite his lack of intelligence, he is ambitious. Furthermore, he is naïvely happy. Balzac alternately pities and ridicules his provincial priest, whose passion it is to possess the beautiful apartment of his colleague, Chapeloud. While pointing out that a desire for material wealth is not seemly for a priest, Balzac ironically pardons his hero, who is, after all, only human and whose ambition, as ambitions go, can only be termed petty.

When Birotteau’s ambition is fulfilled upon the death of Chapeloud, the apartment becomes the subject of a war of wills involving not only Birotteau’s spinster landlady, Mademoiselle Gamard, but eventually the whole town of Tours. Indeed, a political career in the highest echelons of the French government and the important advancement of a priest within the Catholic Church both end up having, in some way, a relationship to what begins as Birotteau’s “insignificant” passion.

In some ways, Birotteau is the opposite of the typical Balzacian monomaniac. Happy to let everything be handled by his friends and incapable of understanding what is going on, he watches the battle rage around him. Birotteau would not purposely hurt a fly, and he does not have an inkling of why he is being attacked.

As in many novels of The Human Comedy, an important turn in the plot of The Vicar of Tours hinges on a legal document, in this case the apartment lease. Balzac’s years as a law student often served him well, as he used his knowledge of the law in composing many of his plots. Essentially missing from this novel is one of Balzac’s major themes, money. Nevertheless, the vanity of the characters in The Vicar of Tours and their drive for personal success and power are keenly developed subjects of satire and, at the same time, very realistic studies of human psychology and social behavior. Balzac classed The Vicar of Tours under the heading “Scenes of Provincial Life,” a subcategory of “Studies of Social Manners”—where the largest number of novels in The Human Comedy can be found.

Louis Lambert

Approximately three months after completing The Vicar of Tours, in July, 1832, Balzac finished Louis Lambert. This novel was eventually included with The Wild Ass’s Skin and eighteen other novels in the category “Philosophical Studies,” but its relationship to Balzac’s “Studies of Social Manners” is strengthened through the device of recurring characters. One of the minor figures of The Vicar of Tours is an old woman, Mademoiselle Salomon de Villenoix, who befriends Birotteau and shows him a great deal of compassion. In Louis Lambert, the same woman plays a more important role, as Balzac describes Mademoiselle de Villenoix in her youth, when she was the ideal love object of Louis Lambert, the principal character of the novel.

The parallels between The Wild Ass’s Skin and Louis Lambert are quite interesting. Like Raphaël de Valentin, Louis Lambert is a genius who composes a philosophical work on the will; the title of his work, “Traité de la volonté” (“Treatise on the Will”), is virtually identical to the title of Valentin’s. Each of the two characters succeeds in finding an ideal woman whose name is Pauline: Pauline de Villenoix in Louis Lambert and Pauline de Witschnau in The Wild Ass’s Skin. Finally, the tragedy of each of the genius heroes lies in the fact that he goes mad. The Paulines of the two novels react to the inexplicable madness of the men they love by devoting themselves totally to them, somewhat like nurses or angels of mercy.

The similarities between Louis Lambert and The Wild Ass’s Skin give one a fairly clear idea of what must have been Balzac’s attitude toward himself. The novelist instills in his heroes two great passions that are undoubtedly reflections of his own drives: to become a recognized genius and to be loved. In these two novels, Balzac appears to demonstrate his belief that love and genius cannot coexist and that when one attempts to blend them, they annihilate each other. In this sense, the madness that overcomes Balzac’s protagonists represents a double failure. Both Lambert and Valentin fall short of attaining ideal love and also fail to develop the potential of their genius.

It is nevertheless true that Balzac shows the passions of Louis Lambert for love and for recognition of his genius somewhat differently from the way he portrays these passions in his earlier novel. In Louis Lambert, the novelist seems to indicate a preference for one of the two goals when he emphasizes Lambert’s genius. From the beginning of the novel, Lambert is seen through the eyes of an admiring narrator who relates in retrospect the bitter experiences of school days shared with Balzac’s genius hero. In detailing these experiences, Balzac transposes into fiction many of his own memories of the lonely years he spent as a boarder at the Collège de Vendôme. Both the narrator and Lambert are neglected by their parents, ostracized by their peers, punished by their teachers, and forbidden—as in a prison—to enjoy even the slightest amusement. The narrator admits to being inferior to Lambert, whose genius he sensed when they were in school together and whose insights, although they are now only half-remembered, had the power of truth.

At the end of the novel, Balzac intensifies sympathy for the plight of his genius hero gone mad by reproducing a series of philosophical fragments that, because they are written down by Lambert’s loving companion, Pauline, are only sketchy transcriptions of his actual thoughts. It is not important that these fragments appear puzzling and in some cases absurd: Like the incomplete recollections of the narrator, they are powerfully evocative because they are fragmentary, tantalizingly so, suggestive of what the world lost when it lost the genius of Louis Lambert.

Eugénie Grandet

Before the publication of Eugénie Grandet in 1833, Balzac had continued to experiment in his novels with the theme of madness. In addition to Louis Lambert, Balzac had written other “Philosophical Studies” in the period 1830-1832 that expand on this theme, including The Unknown Masterpiece and Maître Cornélius. In The Unknown Masterpiece, Balzac portrays a painter, Frenhofer, whose madness manifests itself in his increasing inability to transpose the idealized feminine figure he imagines to a canvas. The hero of Maître Cornélius suffers from an insidious malady: When he sleepwalks, his unconscious self steals the money that, in reality, he is supposed to guard.

In Eugénie Grandet, however, the theme of madness reaches a turning point. Balzac’s protagonist, Old Grandet, like Maître Cornélius, is a miser, but what distinguishes him from the latter is that his mania does not indicate total sickness or madness. Grandet’s passion does not seem to debilitate him in any way. On the contrary, it is his raison d’être and is willfully and, one may even say, intellectually directed. Grandet, one of the most fascinating characters of The Human Comedy, is a full-blown monomaniac. What makes him so interesting is that he is not one-dimensional. Although Grandet’s obsessive drive for money remains constant throughout the novel, he is not always seen in the same light. In relations with his wife, his cook, his small-town neighbors, and especially his daughter, Eugénie, Grandet sparks off a variety of reactions to his miserly behavior. At times he is admired and feared for his sharp intelligence; at other times he is condemned for his lack of understanding and unyielding ruthlessness.

Yet manifestations of Grandet’s monomania do not, by themselves, dominate the novel. Rather, Grandet’s avarice competes for importance with another, complementary plot: the awakening of Grandet’s daughter to love. Indeed, in Eugénie Grandet, the three subjects that have been identified as key themes in Balzac’s fiction—madness, money, and the search for love—converge. Grandet’s obsession with money comes into conflict with Eugénie’s equally strong impulse to love. While her father’s nature is to hoard money even if it means that his family must be destitute, Eugénie finds in giving away all of her money to her beloved cousin, Charles, a supreme expression of love.

Balzac pits his young heroine against other adversaries as well: provincial opportunism, social morality, and Charles’s ambitions. Using his innocent and naïve heroine as a foil, Balzac reveals the crass motives of provincial society, contrasting Eugénie’s exceptional, giving nature with the self-interest of others who, like Eugénie’s father, are motivated primarily by money. Balzac placed Eugénie Grandet into the subcategory of The Human Comedy titled “Scenes of Provincial Life.”

Père Goriot

Published in 1835, Père Goriot, given its Parisian locale, could easily have been placed into the category of The Human Comedy called “Scenes of Parisian Life.” Balzac finally classified it, however, among his “Scenes of Private Life,” which is an equally suitable designation for the novel. Père Goriot is a pivotal novel of The Human Comedy in several ways. First, with respect to Balzac’s trademark, the use of recurring characters, nearly all the characters in this novel, whether their roles are large or small, can be found somewhere else in Balzac’s opus, with the exception of Goriot himself. Some characters were already seen in works published before 1835; others would be developed in subsequent novels. Eugène de Rastignac, the young hero of Père Goriot, for example, appeared briefly as a friend of Raphaël de Valentin in The Wild Ass’s Skin. Similarly, Goriot’s older daughter, Anasthasie, was already portrayed in a short novel, Gobseck, published in 1830. The criminal Jacques Collin, alias Vautrin, who makes his debut in Père Goriot, would be given prominent roles in such later works as Lost Illusions and The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans.

Balzac successfully interweaves three different plots in Père Goriot, their relationship being that the principal protagonists of all three live in the same Parisian boardinghouse, La Maison Vauquer. Eugène de Rastignac is an innocent provincial young man, new to Parisian manners but eager to learn. In a sense, Rastignac takes up the same crusade as does Raphaël de Valentin in The Wild Ass’s Skin, in that he directs all his efforts toward “conquering” society—which means that, like Valentin, he strives to earn social acceptance and esteem. One notes, however, that Balzac does not make Rastignac a writer, like Valentin. Rather, shadowing another part of Balzac’s own past, the young hero of Père Goriot is a poor law student.

Old Goriot himself is another inhabitant of La Maison Vauquer. He is a Balzacian monomaniac, a hero whose “madness” is self-willed and consciously directed. Goriot is not, however, another copy of Balzac’s miser, Grandet; rather, Balzac opposes these two figures. Goriot is not a miser; he does not hoard money. On the contrary, he spends it on his two daughters, Anasthasie and Delphine. Whereas Grandet causes his family to live like paupers in order to continue amassing money, Goriot willingly strips himself of his means of sustenance in order to continue giving money to his daughters. Balzac’s intent in portraying Goriot may have been to examine the power of money in a situation that contrasts directly with that of his miser, Grandet. Certainly, Balzac never found a more intense formula for tragedy than when he created his monomaniac Goriot, who attempts to link money and love.

The third major plot of Père Goriot centers on another inhabitant of La Maison Vauquer, Vautrin, who—unbeknown to the other boarders of Madame Vauquer’s establishment—is an escaped convict wanted by the police. Vautrin’s view of society is in absolute opposition to that of Rastignac; whereas the young man attempts to court social favor, Vautrin denounces everything to do with the social order, calling it a bourbier, or mud hole. Intelligent and cynical, Vautrin advocates a different sort of social conquest, namely, bold defiance and outright rebellion.

Unlike most of the preceding novels in The Human Comedy, Père Goriot is a novel with multiple heroes and multiple plots. Balzac offers the reader a fresco of social manners through characters who represent very different classes of society, from the aristocrat and the bourgeois to the criminal révolté. Balzac uses his technique of portraying protagonists from various contrasting angles—seen in The Vicar of Tours and in Eugénie Grandet—much more extensively in Père Goriot. Goriot, Goriot’s daughters, Rastignac, Vautrin, and other characters as well are alternately judged to be admirable, honest, and powerful, and to be imperfect, deceitful, and helpless. Goriot, in particular, is delineated by means of a kaleidoscope of contrary impressions. He loves his daughters, but he also hates them. His love is fatherly and not so fatherly. He is both self-sacrificing and self-interested. In death, he curses his daughters and pardons them in the same breath. Clearly, in Père Goriot, Balzac reached maturity as a novelist.

Cousin Bette

Cousin Bette was published rather late in Balzac’s career, in 1846, and was placed, along with a complementary work titled Cousin Pons, among the “Scenes of Parisian Life.” In the ten years between the publication of Père Goriot and that of Cousin Bette, Balzac wrote approximately forty-five other novels, many of which continued to develop the three major themes in his fiction—madness, money, and the search for love and success.

It is interesting to see all three themes once again interwoven in Cousin Bette, albeit in a strikingly different manner. In one of the novel’s subplots, a new type of monomania is depicted in Baron Hulot d’Evry, who is driven repeatedly to commit adultery although his actions are an embarrassment to himself, his wife, and his family. Balzac hints at Hulot’s hidden motivation when he describes his protagonist’s wife, Adeline, as a martyr figure, a religious zealot, and a model of propriety.

Elisabeth Fischer—called Cousin Bette—is aware that the Hulot family, headed by Adeline, receives her only out of family duty and that, as a poor relation, she is neither loved nor esteemed by them. Even though she realizes that the apparent good fortune and happiness of the Hulot family are a carefully contrived sham, Bette is jealous of her cousin Adeline for having always been prettier, wealthier, and more successful than she. Cousin Bette’s vengeance against the Hulot family, which is the principal plot of the novel, incorporates all three of the major themes of Balzac’s fiction. Because Cousin Bette has no money, no success, and no love, her maddened drive for vengeance is unleashed. Her desire for revenge becomes a mania, and she is soon driven to the point where there is absolutely no limit to what she will do to ruin her cousin’s life, including finding new females to entice both the Baron and Adeline’s proposed son-in-law, Steinbock.

As though to intensify the diabolical power of Cousin Bette, Balzac adds to it the equally unscrupulous machinations of his heroine’s pretty neighbor, Valérie Marneffe. Valérie helps Bette carry out her revenge against the Hulot family, and Bette, in return, aids her neighbor in an enterprise to extract money from her many male admirers. Valérie, a beautiful and ambitious middle-class woman, discovers that she can find financial success by seducing men and making them pay for her love. It is interesting that when Valérie is given the chance to run away to South America with an exotic Brazilian nobleman who loves her sincerely, she refuses in order to continue the business of her lucrative and ego-building seductions. In Cousin Bette, the achievement of an ideal love, like that glimpsed in earlier novels such as The Wild Ass’s Skin and Louis Lambert, is seen as utterly impossible.

In Cousin Bette, Balzac makes a mockery not only of love but also of monomania. Through a gross exaggeration, this eccentric passion no longer characterizes a single figure of the novel, as in Eugénie Grandet or Père Goriot. Rather, no fewer than three characters of the novel can be called monomaniacs: Cousin Bette, Valérie Marneffe, and Baron Hulot. It is true, however, that the two females are far more developed than Hulot. These two female protagonists, as they strengthen and complement each other, offer a hyperbolic image of monomania, parodying one of the trademarks of Balzac’s fiction. By means of this parody, Balzac plainly shows that he has dissociated himself from his characters’ plight. Perhaps he was able to satirize monomania because his career as a novelist was unquestionably successful, and he was beginning to receive some of the recognition he had always sought. Nevertheless, his own “mania” persisted: Until he simply became too sick to write, he continued to work on yet another novel in The Human Comedy, with ten more volumes projected and endless bills to pay.

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