Honoré de Balzac Balzac, Honoré de (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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Honoré de Balzac 1799-1850

(Born Honoré Balssa; also wrote under pseudonyms Lord R'hoone and Horace de Saint-Aubin) French novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, playwright, and editor. The following entry provides critical commentary on Balzac's works from 1976 through 2003. See also Honore de Balzac Short Story Criticism.

Balzac is considered to be the most prolific fiction writer of nineteenth-century France and ranks as one of the great masters of the novel. His huge production of novels, novellas, and short stories, collected under the name La Comédie humaine (1842-55), depict, in realistic detail, life in modern bourgeois France. Although his work was written largely in the tradition of French romanticism, with its emphasis on exceptional events, the idealization of love, and use of contrasting characters (the beautiful and the grotesque, the lofty and the popular, the tragic and the comic), Balzac is now considered one of the creators of realism in literature. A keen observer of human life and behavior, Balzac wrote about the everyday events in the lives of individuals in every sector of French society, from noblemen to peasants, artists to businessmen, churchmen to prostitutes. Some of his major themes include the family, economics, the theatre, modern scientific knowledge, and history. Balzac's work habits are legendary, and although he is said to have loved physical indulgences, when he wrote—sometimes for eighteen hours a day—he consumed copious amounts of strong black coffee. Balzac's writing is sometimes criticized for its sloppiness and melodrama, but critics agree that his best novels offer original and vivid depictions of nineteenth-century French life that are interesting for their historical accuracy as well as their social and philosophical commentary. Modern scholars have also found Balzac’s works of interest due to his use of varying narrative techniques and voice, the attention paid to the reader, the interest in alternate sexualities, and the way he pushes the limits of the novel form.

Biographical Information

Balzac was born Honoré Balssa in Tours on March 20, 1799 to a middle-class family. His parents are said to have been distant and paid little attention to their son; Balzac claimed that his mother hated him before his birth. Until the age of four, Balzac was raised by a wet nurse and at eight he was sent to boarding school at Vendôme, where he was visited by his mother only twice in six years. He was not a good student, by all accounts, but he read voraciously. In 1814 his family moved to Paris, and Balzac completed his schooling there before enrolling as a law student in 1816. He received a law degree in three years and began clerking in a law office, but soon decided he wanted to be a writer. He asked his parents to indulge his ambition for a year, but his early attempts were deemed awful by a literature professor. Balzac continued to write, experimenting with different forms and publishing sensational novels and stories under pseudonyms. From the beginning of his career, he worked feverishly, and even though his first efforts were ignored by the literary establishment, he managed to support himself with his meager earnings.

During the 1820s Balzac was involved with Madame de Berny, a woman more than twenty years his senior. During this decade he also abandoned writing briefly and bought a publishing company and printing house, both of which failed and left him heavily in debt. His first success as a writer came in 1829 with the historical novel Le dernier Chouan (The Chouans; published as Les Chouans in 1834) and the humorous novella Physiologie du mariage (1830; Physiology of Marriage), a revision of an earlier work. That same year his father died, and after his mother miraculously recovered from a severe illness he began to study the works of the mystical thinkers Jacob Boehme and Emmanuel Swedenborg. Between the years 1830 and 1832 Balzac published six novellas under the title Scènes de la...

(The entire section is 154,369 words.)