Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3281
The fullest expression of Balzac’s vision is The Human Comedy. Although it comprises more than ninety novels and stories, it was never completed. Enough is in place, however, to allow one to grasp the outer limits and inner workings of a complete universe. As Napoleon I set out to conquer Europe—a parallel of which Balzac was well aware—Balzac set out to conquer the world that he envisioned by capturing it in words. Province by province and realm by realm, Balzac added to his universe of human types, occupations, and conditions.
The idea of using recurring characters—coming to the foreground in some works, receding to the background in others, thus creating an effect of multidimensional reality—came to Balzac spontaneously, indeed as an organic outgrowth of his work. Yet he found philosophical support for his method in the thinking of French naturalist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire regarding the unity in diversity of all creation.
Balzac bases his compelling vision upon portraits of physically and psychologically convincing individuals. The reader is made to care enough about Balzac’s individual characters to absorb even the most prosaic details of their occupations and, eventually, the workings of the social forces that buffet them.
One of Balzac’s most moving characters is Père Goriot, in the novel of the same name. At first, Balzac reveals little more of him than that he is a retired pasta maker, a thoroughly prosaic profession. Before the story began, when Goriot had first moved to Mme Vauquer’s boardinghouse, he was rotund and portly and wore a coat of cornflower blue. Then Goriot goes into a decline, which is depicted only through humble, concrete details. Both the reader and Goriot’s fellow boarders are brought to an extreme pitch of suspense as Balzac withholds all explanation. At last, clues surface that suggest a hypothesis: A girl comes to visit Goriot, gliding into his room like a snake, with “not a speck of mud on her laced cashmere boots.”
Balzac was one of the first great literary realists of the nineteenth century to discover that the most prosaic details of real life are themselves poetry. It requires an unobtrusive mastery and poetic inspiration to make such unlikely material as “laced cashmere boots” speak to the reader’s emotions. Yet while Balzac could have created beauty with an unrelieved inventory of prosaic details, he does not limit himself in that way. His portraits of girls and young women shine with a luminous charm. In creating such portraits, which always have an element of the ideal, Balzac combines realistic detail with metaphor. His range of memorable characters includes the spiritual Eugénie Grandet and the worldly but noble Mme de Beauséant.
An important organizing element of Balzac’s world, one which raises it to a higher aesthetic pitch than the real world it resembles, is contrast. The author shows wealth side by side with poverty, the ascetic beside the profligate, beauty beside ugliness, the ideal and the cynical, the urbane and the rustic, virtue and vice. Such contrasts abounded in his own life and in the city that he loved—Paris, the “ocean that no line can fathom,” the world within a world. Just as no quality can exist without its opposite, proud Paris cannot exist without the provinces. Yet, paradoxically, the extremes can sometimes change places or masquerade in each other’s raiment.
Balzac, who began his literary career by following the tragedies of Racine and Corneille, reached for a higher insight in The Human Comedy. If Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) had provided a guide to Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, then Balzac would write a no less comprehensive account of this world. To call it “comedy” was not a facile decision, though “tragicomedy” might have been more accurate; time and again, Balzac’s heroes make great sacrifices that are unnecessary, unappreciated, misunderstood, or, worst of all, drive out of reach the very goal that they are seeking. The “human” side of Balzac’s epic is in the universals of human nature that he reveals. In a world where the real and illusory are intertwined, simple human love endures as the great, and only nonillusory, value.
While Balzac’s psychological insight is the foundation of his realism and enduring interest for the reader, his understanding of the political and economic workings of his society adds depth to the picture. Ideologically, Balzac was Roman Catholic, conservative, and at times an avowed monarchist. He was too keenly aware of the opportunism in human nature to put much faith in radical political ideology. He also expressed an almost visceral aversion to the “mud” in which the lower classes lived and with which his heroes dread being spattered. Yet in the heyday of Romantic contempt for the “Philistine” (in other words, everyone who was not an artist, from the humblest tradesmen to upper-class professionals), Balzac had a generous, democratic acceptance of so-called ordinary people. A human being, to Balzac, was by definition never ordinary, and the distinctions of class had no effect on the universal human dilemmas of how to live, whom to love, and what choices to make.
Despite his humanistic spirit, Balzac was acutely aware of the pervasive role of money throughout the French society of his day. It was a glue binding all together, from the lowest to the highest. Its power to corrupt provides the saddest, most pessimistic, and most ironic pages of The Human Comedy.
With Balzac, creative fiction comes of age, and the outer parameters of the realistic novel are clearly indicated even if Balzac did not live to fill them in completely. Later novelists who proudly acknowledged their debt to him include Fyodor Dostoevski, Henry James, and Balzac’s compatriots Guy de Maupassant and Marcel Proust.
The Wild Ass’s Skin
First published: La Peau de chagrin, 1831 (English translation, 1888)
Type of work: Novel
Balzac contrasts the exercise of will and calm wisdom, dissipation and asceticism, involvement in life with all its delights and pains and withdrawal.
Inspired by Balzac’s contrasting ideas about the nature of the will and the expenditure of necessarily finite vital force, The Wild Ass’s Skin is the first and probably the greatest of Balzac’s “Philosophical Studies,” a subdivision of The Human Comedy. Raphaël de Valentin has run out of money and decides to throw himself in the River Seine. Waiting for nightfall, he enters an old curiosity shop, where an old man offers him a magical wild ass’s skin, un peau de chagrin (in French the latter word means both “shagreen,” or wild ass’s skin, and “grief” or “vexation”). The wishes of its possessor will be fulfilled but the skin will shrink in proportion to the number and strength of those wishes. When it has shrunk into nothing, its owner will die.
The old man has lived to a great age by avoiding desire and its turmoil; Raphaël declares that he wants to live to excess. Rushing from the shop, he falls in with friends who take him to an orgy. There he recounts at length to a fellow guest how years of contented denial and scholarly work in a garret were followed by the agony of his love for the heartless Countess Foedora, for whom he had squandered money earned by writing and gambling. The morning after the orgy, Raphaël learns that he has inherited the vast wealth he had wished for but sees that the skin has perceptibly shrunk. He realizes that he can do whatever he wants, but he wants now to do nothing and therefore husband his life.
He organizes a regime in which he is never obliged to express a wish. Cut off from almost all human contact, he effectively abdicates from life for the sake of going on living, constantly attempting the impossible task of repressing the slightest desire.
Raphaël again meets Pauline, the daughter of his former landlady, who had always loved him. Now she is rich and conforms to his idea of the perfect society lady. He is overwhelmed by her beauty and goodness, and he returns her feelings. There follow days of ecstasy. Sometimes Raphaël feels that love is worth its cost, but in fear he eventually flees Pauline. When she finds him he cannot control his desire, which causes the disappearance of the final remnant of the ass’s skin and therefore his death.
First published: 1833 (English translation, 1859)
Type of work: Novel
The selfless goodness of Eugénie Grandet survives the harshness of her miserly father and the treachery of her lover, but her moral triumph is not accompanied by any hope of happiness.
Eugénie Grandet shows Balzac at his most idealistic. He presents three characters who are completely incorruptible in the face of the greed that surrounds them. Eugénie Grandet, her mother, and their servant Nanon all lead lives that are virtually monastic in their self-denial. Despite the fabulous wealth that has been accumulated by the shrewd and unscrupulous winemaker, Monsieur Grandet, his family lives in a wretched house, under strict and despotic rules enforced by him.
While Grandet, a miser who doles out candles and sugar cubes one at a time, keeps his wife and daughter ignorant of their enormous fortune, the local townspeople are very well aware of it. Indeed, talk of Grandet’s millions is the chief subject of gossip. While everyone in town is well aware that Grandet is a most unsavory character, he is regarded with awe and forgiven every trespass because of his millions of francs. As Eugénie turns twenty-three, her father assumes that he will marry her off to the candidate of his choosing. Two local figures vie for her hand, with no thought of anything but her father’s money. As all the principals are gathered for Eugénie’s birthday, an unanticipated guest arrives from Paris like a magnificent peacock descending on a barnyard.
The peacock is Eugénie’s cousin Charles, the son of Old Grandet’s younger brother. Young Charles is visiting the poor country cousins to humor his father, from whom he is bringing a letter to Old Grandet. Unbeknown to Charles, the letter contains news of his father’s bankruptcy and intended suicide.
In the few days that the young man is allotted to mourn, before he is sent to “the Indies” to make his fortune, he and his cousin fall in love. The worldly Charles has loved before; but as Balzac describes this first love of Eugénie, it is as if she were truly seeing the world for the first time. Eugénie is constantly accompanied by the imagery of light. As light is the first thing that people love, asks Balzac, then is not love the very light of the heart?
In one of many plot ironies anticipating the stories of Guy de Maupassant, Eugénie gives Charles all of her gold coins, mainly gifts from her father. As a pledge of both his own and the money’s return, Charles gives her a golden case with two exquisite portraits of his parents. Charles, however, uses Eugénie’s money to pursue trade yielding the quickest profit, including traffic in slaves. He stays away for seven years, forgets all about her, and becomes utterly corrupt and cynical. Eugénie has to face a terrible day of reckoning when her father, who craves the sight of gold as if addicted to it, discovers that she has given all of her coins away. She refuses to tell her father anything.
The struggle of wills between father and daughter is as epical, in its own way, as any struggle in the House of Atreus (Balzac’s analogy). Drama is created not by the object of contention but by the clash of principles. On Grandet’s side, there is the individual’s sense of absolute ownership, mastery, will, and desire. On Eugénie’s side, there are moral and religious principles: fidelity, charity, pity, respect for family bonds, and love. Eugénie’s mother, long ago reduced to psychological slavery by Grandet, is crushed by Grandet’s harshness and suffers a decline that results in her death.
Grandet’s obsession with self-enrichment and the physical possession of gold never flags. Balzac’s ultimate miser differs significantly from Harpagon, Grandet’s great seventeenth century French predecessor in L’Avare (pr. 1668, pb. 1669; The Miser, 1672) of Molière. Molière used his archetype to provoke ridicule and pity. Yet Grandet, who has his own sardonic sense of humor, dupes others to the very end and dies almost contentedly, with his millions intact. The contrast between Grandet and his daughter can be compared to that between Shylock and Portia in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597, pb. 1600); it is more stark than that between Molière’s miser and his children.
First published: Le Père Goriot, 1834-1835 (English translation, 1860)
Type of work: Novel
A young provincial makes his choice to pursue the vanity of the world, while an old man sacrifices himself so that his two daughters may have a glittering life.
Père Goriot is a novel of beautifully balanced ironies. A young provincial, Eugène de Rastignac, comes to Paris and finds lodging in the same boardinghouse as a decrepit former pasta maker, Père Goriot. While the other lodgers make Goriot the butt of their jokes, Eugène feels an instinctive sympathy for him. Goriot, formerly wealthy, has inexplicably fallen upon hard times; for no visible reason, his fortune has melted away. He bears his humiliation with a seemingly imbecilic meekness. Another mysterious lodger, Vautrin, takes a liking to young Eugène and shocks him with a cynical offer to help him escape poverty. Vautrin eloquently states the philosophy that the ends always justify the means.
The setting is Balzac’s Paris, a semimythic place that foreshadows the Paris of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1931). The evil and the angelic live side by side and wrestle in this setting. Evil, with the unbridled power of money on its side, appears to have the upper hand. Eugène, from motives of wishing to help his family, especially his two sisters, decides to put aside the drudgery of his law studies and apprenticeship and take a shortcut to easy wealth. He persuades his mother, back home in the provinces, to sell her jewels and asks his sisters for their savings in order to outfit him for his great adventure of storming high society. While only a poor relation, he wishes to exploit his family connection with the socially powerful Mme de Beauséant.
Meanwhile, it comes to light that Père Goriot has sacrificed all that he had, down to the last silver memento from his late wife, in order to keep his two spoiled daughters in a blaze of glory. In particular the elder daughter, Mme Anastasie de Restaud, has exploited Goriot in order to pay the bills run up by her young lover, Maxime des Trailles. She haughtily rejects Eugène, who tries to insinuate himself into her good graces, being himself irresistibly drawn to the luxury for which she has sold her father.
Goriot’s only slightly less ruthless younger daughter, Delphine, then becomes the object of Eugène’s relentless pursuit, initially in order to spite Anastasie and Maxime. Eugène, however, falls in love with Delphine. Like her adoring father, Eugène sees Delphine’s total selfishness but is blinded by her goddesslike beauty and the need to feel that he pleases her. Rather than being able to make use of them, Eugène becomes as much the sisters’ victim as their old father.
With no more left to give, Père Goriot, as pitiful as King Lear, is dying. He is barred from both his daughters’ homes. In any event, they have been so profligate that they have not the wherewithal to help him. Yet so long as he is allowed simply to love them, Goriot experiences happiness. Eugène uses the last of the money that he has received from home to pay for Goriot’s burial. Then he heads for the house of Delphine, still dreaming of his future conquest of society.
First published: La Cousine Bette, 1846 (English translation, 1888)
Type of work: Novel
A hate-fueled poor relation plots against the family she sees as having slighted her, with the obsessive philandering of its head aiding her machinations.
A brilliant and vivid portrait of the Paris of Louis-Philippe, Cousin Bette is a portrait of hidden rage and hatred directed against a prominent but vulnerable family. Hector Hulot has done well during Napoleon I’s wars, proving himself an efficient chief transport officer and winning the beautiful and noble—if peasant—Adeline Fischer as his wife. Adeline and her sister, the jealous Lisbeth, thin, dark, and ugly, are taken by Hulot to the Paris of the Emperor Napoleon, where Bette, as she is called, nurses her hatred and resentment of her sister. Bette saves Wenceslas Steinbock, an expatriate Polish count and talented sculptor, from suicide. She forms an odd half-maternal relationship with him, and she responds with carefully concealed rage when Hulot’s daughter, Hortense, wins the handsome Pole as husband. Bette then forms a pact with mercenary Valérie Marneffe, recently installed mistress of the aging Baron Hulot, against the Hulot family. If Valérie can be compared with Becky Sharp in English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848), then Bette is a portrait of venomous malice whose only parallel is William Shakespeare’s Iago in Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622, revised 1623). She sets out to destroy the family that has patronized and slighted her.
Like Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet’s father, Hulot is a monomaniac. His obsession is women, who are more important to him than even the necessities of life, his honor, and the happiness of his family. Valérie persuades him that he is the father of her child. Steinbock, now also Valérie’s lover, is told he is the father, too, as are the rich retired businessman Célestin Crevel and Montès de Montéjanos, a Brazilian aristocrat and Valérie’s first love. Hortense accidentally learns of her husband’s infidelity, leaves him, and weeps with Adeline, to the secret joy of Bette.
Hulot asks his wife’s uncle, Johann Fischer, to go to Algeria, now in the process of colonization by the French, and take grain from the Algerians in order to sell it to the French army at considerable profit. However, instead of sending Hulot the money he had anticipated, Fischer is obliged to ask for 200,000 francs to avert disgrace when the plot is discovered. Financially broken, asked to shoot himself by his superior in the War Department, and ostracized by his upright brother who dies of the disgrace, Hulot leaves his home to avoid creditors.
He hides himself in obscure quarters of Paris and lives with a succession of working-class mistresses, occasionally accepting money from Bette, who keeps her knowledge of his whereabouts from Adeline. His wife, however, accidentally finds him in the course of her charitable work and the two are reconciled. Bette dies of a combination of tuberculosis and grief, mourned by all as the family’s good angel.
The senescent baron, however, is soon pursuing the kitchen maid, whom he makes a baroness after Adeline dies of the shock of the discovery. Meanwhile, Valérie has been poisoned by the betrayed Montéjanos and Steinbock has returned to Hortense.
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