Honoré de Balzac

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Lucienne Frappier-Mazur (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2381

SOURCE: Frappier-Mazur, Lucienne. “Balzac's Metaphors.” In Critical Essays on Honoré de Balzac, edited by Martin Kanes, pp. 187-91. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall and Co., 1990.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1976, Frappier-Mazur argues that Balzac's use of metaphor elaborates on human identity and character and attempts to create an eternal human image in a specific historical moment.]

Every day sees the publication of a new study of metaphor.1 Any theoretical conclusion can represent only a step in present-day research.2

At least we now know more about the possible relationships between image and fictional form. We also see more clearly the various mental mechanisms that underpin metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche, and that determine their appearance, their superposition, and their connections, whether they refer to the cultural code, to their context, or to an extralinguistic referent.

An important theoretical consequence results from this. Thanks to the explanatory function of the image, its all-encompassing development, and the recurrence of the same categories in the novel, our study confirms the fact that many metaphors of our discourse belong to the language of psychoanalysis; more generally, it confirms the identical nature of associative mechanisms that come into play in these two modes of expression. We have seen that associations of similarity, contiguity, and inclusion, and the processes of displacement and of condensation that they entail, are common to the internal structure of the image in texts as well as dreams. Metaphors of money and of food, which refer to a physiological domain, illustrate this phenomenon to the point of self-evidence, by bringing together the very categories that the unconscious associates and identifies: money-phallus, food-sexuality, and others. The sadomasochistic pairing is continued in the complementarity of the weapon and the wound. These associations are not unique to Balzac, nor indeed to literature. They can be found in other systems of representation such as mythology or the visual arts.

Another omnipresent factor, exceptionally developed in Balzac even outside the physiological domain, contributes to tightening the links between the metaphoric text and the psychoanalytical point of view: this is the theory of unitary energy that is expressed throughout the Comédie humaine. Most of the categories of images that we have studied end up by representing that centralizing energy and its ramifications in Thought. The monetary metaphor analyzes in detail the quantitative character of that energy, but the same economic point of view also pervades the other categories. Balzac did not invent this theory. It has ancient and composite sources, as Moïse Le Yaouanc has shown, and it was defended by the greatest names in contemporary medicine.3 But the Comédie humaine provides an interpretation and demonstration that gives Balzac a place among the precursors of the Freudian conception of psychic energy. The conjunction with psychoanalysis corresponds to an internal principle of Balzac's work that goes beyond the domain of the image.

The expression of the quantitative point of view endows the problem of metaphor in the Comédie humaine with certain particularities. First of all, we wonder if the image can contribute to the elaboration of character as a definite identity. The response varies according to the categories. The multiple images for which the name of a character serves as a point of encounter carry semantic features that, drawn together, do not constitute a truly integrated totality. To this it is now possible to add that character is seen, at least through the image, as the locus of a conflict or of an exchange of energy. Is this always the case? Among the categories studied in this book, only the theatrical metaphor approaches the question of self-consciousness—without resolving it—since it shows the subject to be uncertain of his own identity and of the nature of truth. The metaphor of gambling, which presupposes the identification between character and real individual, is deflected towards an “energetical” interpretation. And yet, the situation is different in categories we have not studied here. The larger part of the religious metaphor, that of mystical and erotic experience, is devoted to the birth of awareness and to the establishment (or loss) of the self. Other categories gravitate, entirely or in part, around the question of the identity of the subject.4 In fact, the ensemble of the metaphorical text assigns equal importance to the quantitative and qualitative aspects of personality. But the economic point of view almost entirely monopolizes the domain of social and physiological metaphors, because the latter lends itself to such a monopoly, and because that corresponds to Balzac's overall undertaking.

In the second place, the unitary principle that governs Balzac's world also crystallizes a tension inherent in the implementation of metaphor in the Comédie humaine. On the one hand, the metaphorical procedure is atemporal, at least traditionally so, and its fundamental categories use language as a means of creating an image of eternal man: from this point of view, the conception of a quantifiable and centralizing energy, whose operations are described by the metaphor, refers us to the idea of an immutable human nature. On the other hand, many of the metaphors describe a society determined by the historical moment to which it belongs: certain critics establish an absolute interdependency between the theme of the depletion of strength implied by the unitary theory and the type of society that Balzac undertook to describe. Pierre Barbéris agrees with the remark of one of Balzac's contemporaries, according to whom “the electrical and galvanic qualities in the author of La Peau de chagrin can be explained by society, by its absurd and crazy pace.” And he finds the explanation of the “self-destructive life force” in the then-current state of society.5

To a certain extent, the study of social and physiological metaphors confirms this point of view, without allowing us to consider the universe of the Comédie humaine as a simple replica of contemporary reality, which, in fact, Barbéris does not claim. It is difficult to assert, moreover, that under the July Monarchy the acquisitive bourgeois property owner and the lazy or ambitious aristocrat really burned more energy than the serf attached to the soil (as Balzac would say) in the medieval system of production. The same remark must be made apropos of a Rastignac or of a Mme Camusot straining toward success, as compared to their literary ancestors who are victims of passion, and this in spite of Balzac's affirmations to the contrary. Further-more, Balzac himself does not always limit to the new society the broader opposition that, coming back to “eternal” mankind, he establishes between the social relations that consume and the withdrawn life that preserves. In both cases, his work explains this contrast by the thesis of the destructive superiority of desire over the act.

That being said, it is correct to see a correlation between contemporary upheavals and the “self-destructive life force” of the Balzacian creature—which doesn't mean that Racine's heroes or those of La Princesse de Clèves are not also consumed with passion. There is no need to postulate a perfect referential correspondence between the universe of the Comédie humaine and the society of 1830. But the analysis in terms of energy coincides with a conception of man inscribed in History, in its encounter with the cannibalistically desirous Balzac. It is true that the theory of the harmful consequences of intellectual and affective expenditure—of the idea that kills—was adopted by contemporary medicine. Its widespread acceptance at the time had several causes. One of them was certainly the progress of materialistic thought during the preceding two centuries. But the metaphorical Balzacian text offers us a second one, in the connection it establishes between the emergence of money—the generalized equivalent that enormously extends the range of desire—and the supremacy of desire over the act as a consumer of energy. In this way, the metaphor presents that type of economy in which notions of quantification and autodestructive desire dominate as the product of the types of forces that characterize that period. That does not imply that the “energetical” hypothesis is less appropriate in other periods: even if it is ultimately impossible to define the nature of energy, it represents an irreducible substratum. But it undergoes a unique development in the Comédie humaine, because its action, which is creative as well as destructive, can reflect the functioning of money and speculation.

But this only partially clarifies the ambiguous position of the metaphor between eternal man and historical man. It is possible to make it somewhat more precise by examining more closely the meaning of the image, according to the domains that are compared. In the description of social struggle, the image establishes an obvious correlation between the power relationships and the period in which they are exercised. This point can be verified even in the group of cannibalistic metaphors devoted to money, and in spite of its strongly physiological character. We have studied in detail, in connection with the stereotypes of social situations, the process of “temporalization” that affects the relationship of the vehicle to the tenor. This process is the same in the other categories, but it has a less-critical function to the extent that other categories escape more easily from the rigidity of the stereotype. This correlation, however, expressed by the image, between the “energetical” point of view and the historical moment, does not automatically assign to the society the responsibility for the depletion of strength. We have seen, on the contrary, that the metaphor tends sometimes to make “human nature” the primary cause of the social situation, and that this point of view does not contradict certain political views expressed by Balzac. In the same way, his historical vision and his mythology are extensions of each other.

In addition, there is no contradiction between generalizing metaphorical strategy and the tenor of the metaphor, when the metaphor shows the mechanism of exchange and of combustion directly at work in inter- and intrasubjective relationships. On the contrary, both come together to trace the picture of a human nature in which the only determinations are biological, in which the passions move in a closed space outside of time: “Passion is humanity,” said Balzac. “Without it religion, history, the novel, and art would be useless.”6

To sum up, we find on the one hand whole groups of metaphors that do not distinguish the economy from the existence of the historical moment, but that at the same time depend on an infrastructure that refers us to an eternal conception of man; on the other hand, we find no less important groups that refer directly to this archetypical vision of humanity. One might say that the theater, play, and the patriarchate illustrate the first case, and that physiological metaphors distribute themselves more or less evenly between the two.

As for the very important categories that are not considered in this study, and that endlessly reopen the question of self-consciousness, these introduce a different perspective. Placing themselves outside of historical contingencies, they contribute also to the definition of an atemporal being. But by expressing a qualitative point of view, they also show that this being carries within itself its own principle of development.

The ability to evolve thus conferred upon the subject at the very center of atemporal strategy has its equivalent, in all categories, in the semantic distance that Balzac cultivates between vehicle and tenor, the new meanings that he introduces revealing the same attempt to move beyond familiar references. There is no subversion in this undertaking, merely a desire for progress. Balzac does not anticipate Lautréamont.7 In his case, every new relationship, once verbalized, becomes eternal.

For the modern reader, the metaphorical Balzacian text outlines with astonishing force the myths of a historical period, certain of which are still our own; it sheds light on truths that seem fundamental; it sometimes sketches out new relationships. If it reflects the tension between historical man and eternal man, it can also, as we have just indicated, sketch a synthesis between the two. There is nothing surprising in that, since Balzac dreamed of this synthesis in other contexts, not in the case of social man. In 1842, while asserting that society improves mankind, he still claims not to believe in social progress. But, as in 1832, he asserts his belief “in the progress of mankind over itself,” and he hopes for the emergence of “the total being.” He believes that man is “a finite creature, but one endowed with perfectible faculties,” thanks to the action of his interior self, which expresses itself through prodigious expenditures of Willpower—always a question of energy. The present is sombre, but Balzac does not abandon the hope that the evolutionist hypothesis implies. If thought kills, it also gives life. In other words, the development of man is not social, it is biological.

In Balzac's work, Being must eternally create itself. The metaphor defines human nature, deepens our understanding of it, and participates in its progress.


  1. [Ed. note: The author analyzes a large number of metaphors in the Comédie humaine, which she classifies as those of Games (Theater and Gambling), Patriarchy (Primitive Man, Criminal-Victim-Executioner, Courtesan, King-Master-Slave, Army, Church, Law, Money), and The Human Body (Cannibalism and Nutrition, Internal and Organic Sensations, Illness, Weapons and Wounds). Her terms comparé and comparant correspond roughly to the English terms “tenor” and “vehicle.”]

  2. I must cite the book by Paul Ricœur, La Métaphore vive (The living metaphor) (Paris: Seuil, 1975), which appeared too late for consultation.

  3. By Cabanis and Broussais among others. The influence of the latter on Balzac has been noted in my discussion of metaphors of illness. See M. Le Yaouanc, Nosographie de l'humanité balzacienne (The nosography of Balzac's characters) (Paris: Maloine, 1959), 35-61, 153-75.

  4. One group of plant and aquatic metaphors, according to our preliminary analyses, evokes, as do certain religious metaphors, the pantheistic fusion of the self. On the other hand, the metaphor of light closely identifies light and energy. See our article “Balzac et les images reparaissantes: Lumière et flamme dans La Comédie humaine,Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France, January-March 1966, 45-80.

  5. Pierre Barbéris, Balzac. Une Mytholoqie réaliste (Balzac, a realistic mythology) (Paris: Larousse, 1971), 279-80.

  6. Avant-Propos of 1842, 1, 16.

  7. [Ed. note: The reference is to a later nineteenth-century poet, precursor of the surrealists.]


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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 vie privée (1830), and thereafter he began contributing to France's most important literary journals. It was around this time that he added aristocratic “de” to his name. He was received by Parisian salon society and into the circle of writers who defined French romanticism, the cénacle, or symposium, that included Charles Nodier and Victor Hugo.

In 1832, as Balzac's reputation was rising, he received a letter from a female admirer who identified herself only as “l'étrangère”—“the stranger.” The following year in Geneva he met the woman, Madame Hanska, the wife of a wealthy Polish count. The two of them engaged in a love affair that spanned eighteen years, most of it carried out in correspondence. In 1833 Balzac signed a contract for his novel cycle, which was named La Comédie humaine in 1841. For twenty years he worked tirelessly at this project, writing fourteen to eighteen hours a day, drinking large amounts of specially blended Parisian coffee as he wrote. It is said that he slept only in the evenings and wrote from midnight until the next afternoon. He was almost always in financial trouble, and there is speculation that he produced as much work as he did to settle his debts. Balzac spent most of his time in Paris, but also often stayed in Saché, near Tours. In his later years he lived for much of the time in his villa in Sèvres. Despite his devotion to writing, Balzac had time for other interests: he enjoyed painting, loved to eat and drink, was an avid collector of bric-a-brac, had a taste for luxuries, and had numerous affairs. In 1841 Madame Haska's husband died, but she refused to remarry for nine years, perhaps because she knew of Balzac's financial situation and his constant attempt to relieve himself of his debts. Then on 14 March 1850 she and Balzac married. Balzac was seriously ill at the time, but he and Hanska undertook the arduous two-month-long journey from the Ukraine to Paris. When they arrived at the Paris house Balzac had meticulously furnished for his bride, the door was locked, the servant had gone mad, and the house was in complete disarray. Balzac died three months later, on August 18, 1850.

Major Works

From 1822 until his death in 1850, Balzac produced a vast body of work, including ninety-two novels and novellas, numerous short stories, essays, journalistic pieces, and a few plays. He also revised earlier works and republished them, so many of his novels appeared under several titles. Balzac's great achievement is his novel series, La Comédie humaine, a collection of around one hundred linked stories and novels that reflect the French society of the time, portraying in precise detail more than two thousand characters from every class and profession. The tales take place in a variety of settings, and characters reappear in multiple stories. Balzac wrote the works that were eventually to be included in the collection as early as 1829, but it was not until 1833 that he conceived of the idea of linking together his novels, and the first edition of the multivolume work was released in 1841. The works in the collection are divided under five headings: Scènes de la vie privée (Scenes from Private Life), Scènes de la vie de campagne (Scenes from Country Life), Scènes de la vie parisienne (Scenes from Parisian Life), Scènes de la vie militarie (Scenes from Military Life), Scènes de la vie politique (Scenes from Political Life), Scènes de la vie de province (Scenes from Provincial Life), and Études philosophiques (Philosophical Studies). Each of these divisions contains three or more novels and sometimes include shorter pieces. Some of the divisions also include trilogies or multipart novels, making the entire series an intricate web of stories that are interconnected on various levels.

Because so many of them were composed in haste, many of the novels in La Comédie humaine display minor imperfections and careless writing. However, despite the faults of the works, which also include a tendency toward moralizing and melodrama, they showcase the author's originality, great powers of observation, and vivid imagination. Perhaps the best known work in La Comédie humaine is Le pére Goriot (1833), about law student Eugène Rastignac from the provinces who tries to claw his way to success in nineteenth-century Paris. The novel includes elements of love, money, adventure, and intrigue, but while it has romantic themes and concerns, the portrait it paints of Parisian society and human nature mark it as an early work of historical realism. Another early and important work that shows Balzac marrying the elements of romanticism and realism is the novella La peau de chagrin (1831; The Magic Skin or The Wild Ass's Skin), about a depressed young man who acquires a talisman that will grant him his wishes—at a price. The trilogy Illusions perdues (1837; Lost Illusions), about a young poet who tries desperately to make a name for himself in Paris, is a brilliantly realistic and boldly satirical portrait of provincial manners and aristocratic life and shows how Balzac disregarded the formal limitations of the novel by producing novels within novels within novels. Other important works in La Comédie humaine include La cousine Bette (1847-48; Cousin Bette) about a noble family that is destroyed by sexuality, and Eugénie Grandet (1834), about a young woman's emotional awakening against a backdrop of provincial oppression. In these and many other works, Balzac represents women as no French writer had done before—realistically and with sympathy. Balzac uses tragedy, social history, black humor, and satire to uncover the complex dynamics of family life. Other thematic concerns that have been examined are Balzac’s exploration of alternate sexualities—dealing with homosexuality and homoeroticism in a thoughtful manner, without sensationalism or scandal—his interest in historical narrative and accuracy, his emphasis on the value of material abjects, his use of language and writing as material presence in his texts, and his interst in theatre as a metaphor for life. In most of Balzac's novels the landscape is Paris, with its old aristocracy, new financial wealth, middle-class trade, professionals, servants, young intellectuals, clerks, prostitutes, criminals, and others. But the author also sets some of his stories in the country and provinces so that he offers in his stories a realistic and penetrating portrait of all segments of French life in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Critical Reception

Balzac enjoyed renown and critical acclaim during his lifetime, and his reputation has not diminished since his death. In the nineteenth century the author was praised by such literary figures as George Saintsbury and Charles Baudelaire, who stressed his profound powers of imagination in addition to his acute powers of observation. Nineteenth-century literary historians concerned themselves with the relation between the life of the author and his fiction. In the early twentieth century, critics were interested in the question of Balzac's status as the father of the modern realism, his themes of death and family, the workings of the novelist's imagination, and his place in European literature. Those scholars noted how Balzac influenced later generations of novelists, including Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, and Emile Zola. Balzac scholars in the latter part of the twentieth century and onwards have taken up a number of new issues, and Balzac has proved to be a useful exemplar for Marxist criticism as well as for semiotics and narrative analysis. Because of the close attention Balzac paid to his craft as well as to his readers, critics have found the relationship between author, text, reader, and meaning in his novels a rich area of study. Scholars have explored his various narrative techniques and voices and his use of recurring narrators in multiple stories. They have also examined the use of interconnected plots, characters, and themes in the works that make up La Comédie humaine.

Balzac's reputation today rests on La Comédie humaine. His other works, including essays, philosophical meditations, and plays, are infrequently read or studied. Balzac's voluminous correspondence has been published and offers insight into his personal life and philosophical views. Balzac's plays, which he wrote solely for money, are dismissed as being of inferior quality.

James Mileham (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3760

SOURCE: Mileham, James. “A Web of Conspiracy: Structure and Metaphor in Balzac's Novels.” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 26, no. 4 (1979): 523-32.

[In the following essay, Mileham analyzes the complex, weblike structures of the motif of conspiracy as it is developed in Balzac's novels, discussing how the author uses the metaphor of fabric to articulate this theme.]

One of Balzac's most powerful and ubiquitous myths is that of the conspiracy.1 Here, a malevolent leader motivates a group of individuals who attack a victim, destroying him. As in contemporary organized crime, the kingpin of these conspiracies only rarely comes in contact with his victim. A middleman, therefore, is necessary to transform malevolence into malfeasance. Jacques Collin sends Asie, Europe, and Esther to divest Nucingen of a million francs. Corentin sends Marie de Verneuil to ensnare Montauran, and thereby kills him. Cérizet sends Théodose de La Peyrade to marry Céleste Colleville in order to despoil her of part of her dowry.2 Useful in describing this indirect relationship of persecutor to persecuted is the taxonomy proposed by A.-J. Greimas in his Sémantique Structurale.3

In Greimas' system, a Subject may be said to influence an Adjuvant (by definition, one who acts in the interest of the Subject) to act upon an Object, the conspiracy's victim. The arrows below represent direction of influence4:

This three-part configuration is the building block of the Balzacian conspiracy, but it never occurs in its simple form. The conspiracy is plural as well as indirect. While Subject and Object remain singular, Adjuvants are invariably multiplied, both horizontally and vertically. As an example:

By horizontal proliferation of Adjuvants (Adjuvants influencing other Adjuvants who act upon the Object), the Subject is able to maintain an even greater separation between himself and his Object.5 Vertical proliferation (the Subject sets more than one Adjuvant into action) multiplies the conspiracy's force.6 As the resulting complexity of interconnecting lines of influence resembles a web, it is not surprising that Balzac often employs the time-honored fabric metaphor to represent his conspiracies.7

The individual arrows on the above schema are likewise often represented by filament metaphors. A Subject thus enlaces an Adjuvant, and an Adjuvant entwines either another Adjuvant or the Object. In César Birotteau, for example, du Tillet obtains control over Roguin (whom he will employ to precipitate César's ruin). He creates this Subject-Adjuvant relationship with Roguin by reestablishing him financially. Their relationship is represented as a rope: “C'était une corde à portée de main pour un homme qui se noyait, et Roguin ne s'aperçut pas que [du Tillet] la lui passait autour du cou” (CB., 373). In Les Petits Bourgeois, Cérizet has established control over Théodose de La Peyrade (his Adjuvant) in order, through him, to despoil Céleste Colleville of her dowry. La Peyrade says of this control, “[J'ai] une corde autour du cou” (Bou., 189). Théodose, Cérizet's Adjuvant, himself recruits two Adjuvants to facilitate his access to Céleste; these are her influential godparents, Louis-Jerôme and Brigitte Thuillier. Of the former, Théodose has established complete control by promising to win him a deputation: “il tenait Thuillier par un harpon entré jusqu'au fond de l'amour propre” (Bou., 192). Brigitte Thuillier needs to be won over by more tangible inducements, so Cérizet shrewdly proposes offering her certain lucrative purchasing rights in a property speculation. With the following metaphor, Cérizet describes to Théodose this recruitment of Brigitte: “je viens ce matin vous donner les cordes pour mettre les poucettes à la vieille fille et la faire aller comme un tonton” (Bou., 128). Here the cord metaphor is mixed and double: thumb-cuffs, and the lash which spins a top.

Similarly, Elisabeth Baudoyer in Les Employés uses her empty-headed husband, Baudoyer, in her efforts to ruin the career of Rabourdin. She convinces Baudoyer to take credit for a gift which will curry ecclesiastical favor. Another character, punning on Baudoyer's name, describes Elisabeth's husband-Adjuvant as “Un baudet … il porte des reliques, et arrivera conduit par la main habile qui tient la bride” (E., 1011). In Les Paysans, Rigou manipulates the peasants by owning mortgages on their land; he will later incite them against his Object, Montcornet. “[I]l faisait mouvoir les paysans par le jeu de fils cachés dont le maniement l'amusait” (Pay., 211). Rigou, in fact, says of Montcornet, “il faut le ficeler comme une carotte de tabac!” (Pay., 217).

David Séchard, of Illusions perdues, is Object to the machinations of the brothers Cointet and must, finally, surrender himself to his persecutors “pieds et poings liés” (IP., 1043). And in Les Chouans, as mentioned above, it is Marie de Verneuil who finally attracts and destroys Montauran. She very frankly warns him about the skills women possess “pour vous enlacer dans [des] filets invisibles” (Ch., 864).

A similar image of connection by filaments occurs in Le Curé de Tours in the form of a plant whose capillaries are the Adjuvants of Troubert:

Ces personnes, logées toutes dans la ville de manière à y figurer les vaisseaux capillaires d'une plante, aspiraient, avec la soif d'une feuille pour la rosée, les nouvelles, les secrets de chaque ménage, les pompaient et les transmettaient machinalement à l'abbé Troubert, comme les feuilles communiquent à la tige la fraîcheur qu'elles ont absorbée.

(CT., 829)

This striking, if unscientific, image of an intelligence-gathering network becomes all the more effective later in the work, when the same network of capillaries is used to conduct material in the opposite direction, that is, away from the stem (Troubert) to the leaves (the citizens and families of Tours): “‘Birotteau tuait sa bienfaitrice …’ Telle était la substance des phrases jetées en avant par les tuyaux capillaires du grand conciliabule femelle, et complaisamment répétées par la ville de Tours” (CT., 838). Thus, this single structure serves a dual purpose: intelligence-gathering (centripetal) and propaganda dissemination (centrifugal). Evoking, as it does, the image of a bundle of filaments, each emanating from, or leading into, a central point (the Subject), this image is a particularly appropriate representation of the conspiracy.

Given the importance of this cord, net, and weaving imagery in the Comédie Humaine, it is significant that four of the most successful female Subjects of conspiracies can be seen engaged in sewing, knitting, or embroidering.8 Elisabeth Baudoyer, whom we have already mentioned, has been a seamstress from childhood and has knitted her uncle Bidault's stockings for the last thirty years (E., 901, 902, 1000). This last fact is brought out in Mitral's successful argument to induce Bidault to become Elisabeth's Adjuvant (E., 1000). In Le Cabinet des Antiques, Mme Camusot, who becomes an extremely effective Adjuvant in Chesnel's conspiracy against du Croisier,9 whiles away her long hours in the provinces embroidering (CA., 442, 443).

The title character of Balzac's conte drolatique, La Filandière, who controls the action of the plot through the mediation of her dutiful son, is a “vieille sorcière, qui ne dormait jamais, et filait avec une prestesse diabolique; elle filait, filait, que l'on croyait son fuseau, son fil, sa quenouille et ses doigts desséchés immobiles, tant vite ils allaient” (La Filandière, XI, 949).

Rosalie de Watteville, who in Albert Savarus secretly and through emissaries accomplishes the destruction of the title character, has learned from her mother “tous les points possibles de la tapisserie et les petits ouvrages de femme: la couture, la broderie, le filet” (AS., 762). In Rosalie's case, machinating and embroidering are clearly associated, seemingly by antithesis. Rosalie's appearance belies her nature, and the act of embroidering is one of the means she employs to project this image of serenity: “Pendant toute la journée, elle tira l'aiguille sur sa broderie avec cette attention obtuse de la jeune fille qui paraît comme Agnès ne penser à rien et qui réfléchit si bien sur toute chose que ses ruses sont infaillibles” (AS., 771). It happens, moreover, that whenever we see Rosalie in the act of embroidering, she is at the same time planning what she will do to Savarus (AS., 821, 833). The allusion to Molière's Agnès is especially felicitous, as she, too, is a seamstress (Ecole des Femmes, I, 3). Moreover, this calm deliberateness of the female manipulating threads and simultaneously controlling a man's destiny evokes the striking image of Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, the three Fates. A more recent example is that of Dickens' sinister Madame Defarge.10

In addition to these four women who engage in needlework and are highly effective Subjects of conspiracies, there are two important Adjuvants who both have histories associated with filaments of different sorts. Prudence Servien, “Europe,” in Splendeurs et misères serves Jacques Collin in his conspiracy to divest Nucingen of much of his wealth. She has spent her early years working in a spinning-mill (S&M., 807). Similarly, Fourchon, who, in Les Paysans, gathers for Rigou intelligence regarding Montcornet (Pay., 195, 200), is a rope-maker (Pay., 48). As with many of the cord images we have already seen, a cord is, to Fourchon, a means for figuratively tying up, and thereby exploiting, an Object. Blondet employs this multifaceted conceit to describe him:

Il a en outre une autre corde à son arc, car il se dit cordier de son état. Il a sa fabrique le long du mur de la porte de Blangy. Si vous vous avisiez de toucher á sa corde, il vous entortille si bien qu'il vous prend l'envie de tourner la roue, et de faire un peu de corde, il vous demande alors la gratification due au maître par l'apprenti.

(Pay., 41)

This theme of enlacement extends also to Balzac's use of animal metaphors for his characters. The spider, for example, figuratively participates in all the major activities we have remarked in the Subject. Like him, it spins its threads, weaves them into a network (our conspiracy), and finally enlaces its prey, the fly. This fly may represent an Object or even a potential Adjuvant suddenly come under the domination of the spider (who may be an Adjuvant himself). Thus Fraisier, in Le Cousin Pons, is spider-like as he ensnares an Adjuvant, la Cibot: “La portière, entrée dans ce cabinet comme une mouche se jette dans une toile d'araignée, devait y rester, liée, entortillée, et servir de pâture à l'ambition de ce petit homme de loi” (CP., 682). Mme Sauvage then becomes the spider, and it is clear that she is spinning her web at the behest of Fraisier: “La bonne de Fraisier avait déjà reçu le mot d'ordre, elle avait promis de tramer une toile en fil de fer autour des deux musiciens, et de veiller sur eux comme l'araignée veille sur une mouche prise” (CP., 757).

François Birotteau, in Le Curé de Tours, is caught up by Mlle Gamard when he remains in her company after dinner “comme une mouche se prend dans la toile d'une araignée” (CT., 797). Théodose, in Les Petits Bourgeois, skillfully lures Vinet, a potential rival for Cécile's hand, into the web of bourgeois values of which he is unaware: “[Vinet] ne s'était pas baissé jusqu'au point où les fils de ces toiles bourgeoises se voient, et il venait de donner, comme une mouche, la tête la première, dans le piège presque invisible” (Bou., 110).

Like these spiders, a snake can entangle its prey as a means of holding it. Thus the snake's supple and elongated body allows it to represent either a Subject holding an Adjuvant, or an Adjuvant entwining and subjugating its Object. We have already seen that Marie de Verneuil enlaces Montauran in Les Chouans. Marie, in doing this, is only the Adjuvant of Corentin, because he has purposely deceived her with the intention of provoking her betrayal of Montauran (Ch., 1049-1050, 1062). Marie entwines Montauran and Corentin enlaces her, just as a boa constrictor might—encircling her, then gradually constricting. Corentin explains this strategy to Hulot: “cette femme sera donc à moi! depuis cinq ans le cercle que je trace autour d'elle s'est insensiblement rétréci, je la tiens” (Ch., 1009). Marie, herself, says that Corentin “s'est attaché à moi comme un serpent à un arbre” (Ch., 1004). Corentin is “[le] serpent qui l'enveloppait dans ses replis” (Ch., 1013). It is this same strategy of encirclement that Corentin employs against Montauran when he causes him to be surrounded by the “triple enceinte” of Hulot's troops (Ch., 1054).

Théodose in Les Petits Bourgeois, to whom we have already alluded, evokes an almost surrealistic vision of enlacing. He is being entwined, he says, by Cérizet and his accomplice Dutocq: “ces serpents qui m'enlacent, qui me donnent des baisers de serpents, qui me bavent sur les joues, qui veulent me sucer mon sang, mon honneur!” (Bou., 198). And Théodose is himself a serpentine individual. For example, when he plans to make use of a person (to recruit an Adjuvant), Théodose, on two occasions, grasps that person around the waist (Bou., 134, 214) in a gesture which evokes the image, used by Marie de Verneuil (Ch., 1004), of a serpent attached to a tree. Thus, of Théodose, who has taken full possession of the Thuillier household, we are told: “Il eut, pendant quatre mois, la figure engourdie d'un serpent qui digère et engloutine sa proie” (Bou., 187).

Another image of serpentine entanglement in the strands of a conspiracy occurs in L'Envers, where Barbet, Métivier, Morand, and their Adjuvants financially ensnare M. Bernard's family: “cette famille entortillée par le malheur comme celle de Laocoon (image sublime de tant d'existences!)” (EHC., 376). Métivier, Adjuvant to the Cointet brothers in Illusions perdues, enlaces David Séchard in a tangle of debts. It is more than coincidental that his offices are situated in the rue Serpente (IP., 899, 919). Bidault (dit Gigonnet), an important Adjuvant in Elisabeth Baudoyer's conspiracy against Rabourdin and in du Tillet's conspiracy against César Birotteau, is, like Métivier, a usurer of sinuous and constricting ways: he is “ce bon petit Gigonnet, un homme coulant … comme un noeud” (CB., 522).

In all the filamentary images discussed thus far, the cord serves as a subordinating mechanism: it connects two individuals, one who holds and one who is held. Remarkably, in Balzac, this desire of one character to hold, possess, own another is real as well as metaphorical. Not content to despoil his victim of some asset, moral or monetary, the Subject is driven to seize its possessor, the Object himself.

Thus Balzac's fictional world fulfills the condition proposed by Etienne Souriau, that in theater the goal sought by a hero is best personified, on stage, by an actor.11 Balzac, in fact, goes even farther: in his conspiracies, the owner of the desired entity actually becomes, by metonymy, the object of the conspirator's desire. The Subject seeks to possess his Object.

The Cointet brothers' ownership of their Object, David Séchard, for example, is expressed on a number of occasions: “Ils [David and his wife] sont à moi” (IP., 912); “il faut le tenir pendant quelque temps en prison” (IP., 916); “nous tiendrons David en prison” (IP., 943); “le tenir en prison” (IP., 960); “avoir David sous clef” (IP., 961); “mettre David en prison” (IP., 961); “en tenant [David] par un prêt” (IP., 998); “le mettre entre mes mains” (IP., 998); “Il [Doublon, the Cointets' Adjuvant] prendra notre homme” (IP., 999); “vous êtes entre leurs mains” (IP., 1054).

Likewise, in L'Envers, Barbet, Métivier and Morand hold their Object M. Bernard: “ils le tiennent,” affirms Mme Vauthier (EHC., 371). Rigou in Les Paysans holds Montcornet. “Nous le tenons,” he says to associates (Pay., 217). Sometimes it is an Adjuvant who is held. Cérizet, as already noted, has Théodose de La Peyrade for his Adjuvant in Les Petits Bourgeois: “il est tellement dans nos mains” (Bou., 130); “Je suis entre les pattes de coquins” (Bou., 190); “avoir sur toi prise de corps” (Bou., 191); “vous tenez ce garçon-là” (Bou., 218). Corentin, in Les Chouans, affirms, of his Adjuvant Marie, “je la tiens” (Ch., 1009), and Fraisier tells his own Adjuvant, la Cibot, “Je vous tiens” (CP., 780).

It is possible to define the three roles of the conspiracy in relation to this concept of holding: the Subject holds his Adjuvant(s) and is held by no one; the Adjuvant is held by Subject or Adjuvant, and holds Object or Adjuvant; the Object is held and holds no one. In an oppositional paradigm12 of the concept of holding, each of our three roles participates in two of the four elements:

The fact that the fourth quadrant of our paradigm is vacant should not be considered a limitation of the conspiracy myth as a model for the Comédie Humaine. On the contrary, the absence of a role that neither holds nor is held demonstrates the similarity between the conspiracy pattern and the novels of Balzac in general. Others have noted that in the Comédie Humaine characters define themselves in terms of volition.13 The Balzacian character who neither desires nor is desired (and will neither hold nor be held) is null from a functional point of view, of course. He can neither act nor be acted upon and is thus inert. Almost never does Balzac create such a character. In certain rare cases, however, usually owing to an excessively acute emotion, a once vital character becomes burnt-out, unviable. When this occurs, death follows inevitably, if not immediately. Witness Louis Lambert after the last crisis of his madness (LL., 443-446) or Schmucke after realizing his inadvertant and innocent betrayal of Pons (CP., 800-801).

There is a good reason that the Balzacian conspiracy is constituted of only three roles. Balzac viewed the universe as a three-part dynamism: principes, or first causes, set in motion causes, which engender effets. This, Henri Evans has pointed out, is expressed in Louis Lambert's diluted Swedenborgianism.14 This is also the plan that Balzac foresaw for his Comédie Humaine. In 1834, he wrote to Mme Hanska:

Les Etudes de moeurs représenteront tous les effets sociaux. … Alors la seconde assise sont les Etudes philosophiques, car après les effets, viendront les causes. … Puis, après les effets et les causes, viendront les Etudes analytiques … car après les effets et les causes doivent se rechercher les principes. Les moeurs sont le spectacle, les causes sont les coulisses et les machines. Les principes, c'est l'auteur; mais, à mesure que l'oeuvre gagne en spirale les hauteurs de la pensée, elle se resserre et se condense.15

In the conspiracy, then, we can see the Subject as Balzac's principe; the Adjuvant is his cause; the Object (and more particularly the Object's fate) is the effet. But the above quote suggests one other metaphor: the author, Balzac, is the principe of his novel. Thus, Balzac is the Subject, manipulating his characters (his Adjuvants) to carry out his novelistic intentions. Balzac's Object is then the reader himself, the intended victim of a benevolent conspiracy to ensnare him in a web of fiction.


  1. The importance of the conspiracy has been discussed in some detail by such critics as André Le Breton, Balzac l'homme et l'oeuvre (Paris: Armand Colin, 1905), 215-226; and H. U. Forest, L'Esthétique du roman balzacien (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950), 186-198.

  2. In, respectively, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, Les Chouans, and Les Petits Bourgeois. All references are to the Pléiade Comédie Humaine, ed. Marcel Bouteron (Paris: Gallimard, 1932-1959), 11 vols. Abbreviations used in text are those listed pp. 1131-1132, Vol. XI, namely: AS.—Albert Savarus (I); Bou.—Les Petits Bourgeois (VII); CA.—Le Cabinet des Antiques (IV); CB.—Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau (V); Ch.—Les Chouans (VII); CP.—Le Cousin Pons (VI); CT.—Le Curé de Tours (III); E.—Les Employés (VI); IP.—Illusions perdues (IV); Pay.—Les Paysans (VIII); S&M.—Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (V).

  3. A.-J. Greimas, Sémantique structurale, Langue et Langage (Paris: Larousse, 1966), 172-180.

  4. This is not at all the configuration suggested by Greimas for the Russian fairy tales analyzed by Propp (see Sémantique structurale, 180), where the Subject himself strives toward and acts directly upon his Object, aided, laterally, by his Adjuvant. The difference in the two schemata results from an intrinsic difference between the fairy tale and the Balzacian conspiracy.

  5. The Subject takes special pleasure in manipulating (through intermediaries) a seemingly distant Object. As Georges Poulet says of Balzac's dominating characters, “Point de plaisir plus proprement divin que celui d'influer anonymement, lointainement, sur sa créature,” La Distance intérieure (Paris: Plon, 1952), 189.

  6. The conspiracy's force resides in its multiplicity. “[L]a lutte balzacienne implique toujours une inégalite … marquée par la seule imposition du multiple sur l'un.” Jean-Pierre Richard, “Balzac, de la force à la forme,” Poétique, 1 (1970), 12.

  7. Ourdir, ourdie, ourdisseur, etc.: Bou., 223; CA., 438, 461; CB., 495; CT., 813, 836; Pay., 254; S&M., 751, 760.

    Tramer, se tramer, trame, etc.: Bou., 202, 223; CA., 426, 438, 461; CT., 813, 836; S&M., 759, 760, 871.

  8. That the female manipulator of threads (spinner, weaver, sewer, embroiderer) is an important anthropological archetype is demonstrated by Gilbert Durand, in Les Structures anthropologiques de l'imaginaire (Paris: Bordas, 1969), 369-372. Several studies have discussed this motif in the nineteenth century French novel. Of particular interest are: Alfred G. Engstrom, “Flaubert's Correspondence and the Ironic and Symbolic Structure of Madame Bovary,Studies in Philology, 46 (July, 1949), 470-495 (especially 489-495); A. M. Lowe, “Emma Bovary, a Modern Arachne,” French Studies, 26 (Jan., 1972), 30-41; Richard B. Grant and Nelly H. Severin, “Weaving imagery in Fromentin's Dominique,Nineteenth Century French Studies, 1 (1972-1973), 155-161.

  9. The reader of Le Cabinet des Antiques is more likely to be aware of the conspiracy led by du Croisier than of the one conducted against him. It is, however, this second conspiracy in which Chesnel employs such Adjuvants as du Croisier's wife (who will falsely contradict her husband's testimony against Victurnien—CA., 425-426) and the duchess de Maufrigneuse (who wins over the wily Mme Camusot—CA., 447-449). Chesnel's counter-conspiracy finally succeeds in causing du Croisier's conspiracy to fail. Nothing, in Balzac, is stronger than a conspiracy. Therefore, the only way to frustrate a conspiracy is to counter it with another.

  10. See note 8 above.

  11. Etienne Souriau, Les Deux cent mille situations dramatiques (1950; rpt. Paris: Flammarion, 1970), 86-87, 95.

  12. Opposed here are the active and passive modes of this concept; the solid arrow expresses their relationship of contrariety. The broken arrows represent negation, contradiction of the two original contraries. This paradigm, a modified (and relaxed) form of the Aristotelian “square of oppositions” is discussed by A.-J. Greimas in Du Sens (Paris: Seuil, 1970), 135-150.

  13. E.g., Muriel Blackstock Ferguson, La Volonté dans la Comédie Humaine de Balzac (Paris: Courville, 1935), 120.

  14. Louis Lambertet la philosophie de Balzac, (Paris: Corti, 1951), 210-213.

  15. Letters à Mme Hanska, ed. Roger Pierrot (Paris: Les Bibliophiles de l'Originale, 1967-1968), I, 269-270.

Principal Works

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Le dernier Chouan; ou, La Bretagne en 1800 [The Chouans] (novel) 1829; also published as Les Chouans: ou, La Bretagne en 1799, 1834

Physiologie du mariage; ou, Meditations de philosophie éclectique sur le bonheur et le malheur conjugal [Physiology of Marriage] (novel) 1830

Scènes de la vie privée (short stories) 1830; enlarged edition published as Scènes de la vie privée, 1832

La peau de chagrin [The Magic Skin; also translated as The Wild Ass’s Skin] (novel) 1831

Romans et contes philosophiques (novel and short stories) 1831

*Les célibataires (novella) 1832; published in Scenes de la vie privée [enlarged edition]; also published as Le curéde Tours in Les célibataires, 1858 [The Abbé; Birotteau (Le Curéde Tours), 1895-98]

Les cent contes drôlatiques: Colligez ès abbaïes de Touraine et mis en lumière par le sieur de Balzac, pour l’esbattement des Pantagruelistes et non aultres, premier dixain (short stories) 1832; deuxième dixain, 1833; troisième dixain, 1837

Notice biographique sur Louis Lambert [Louis Lambert] (novel) 1832; published in Les nouveaux contes philosophiques; also published in revised form as Histoire intellectuel de Louis Lambert in Le livre mystique, 1835

Les nouveaux contes philosophiques (novel and short stories) 1832

Le médecin de campagne [The Country Doctor] (novel) 1833

Études de moeurs au XIXe siècle. 12 vols. (novels, novellas, and short stories) 1834-37

Eugénie Grandet [Eugenia Grandet; or, The Miser’s Daughter: A Tale of Everyday Life in the Nineteenth Century] (novel) 1834; published in Études de moeurs au XIXe siècle

Histoire des treize [The Thirteen] (novellas) 1834-35; published in Études de moeurs au XIXe siècle

La recherche de l’absolu [Balthazar; or, Science and Love; also translated as The Quest of the Absolute] (novel) 1834; published in Etudes de moeurs au XIXe siècle; also published as Balthazar Claës; ou, La recherche de l’absolu, 1839

Le livre mystique (novels and short stories) 1835

Le père Goriot: Histoire parisienne [Daddy Goriot; or, Unrequited Affection; also translated as Old Goriot] (novel) 1835

Séraphita [Séraphita] (novel) 1835; published in Le livre mystique

Le lys dans la vallée [The Lily of the Valley] (novel) 1836

Les deux poètes (novella) 1837; published in Études de moeurs au XIXe siècle

La vieille fille (novel) 1837; published in Etudes de moeurs au XIXe siècle

Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau, parfumeur [History of the Grandeur and Downfall of César Birotteau; also translated as The Rise and Fall of César Birotteau] (novel) 1838

Béatrix; ou, Les amours insert 1 space forcés [Béatrix] (novel) 1839

Un grand homme de province à Paris [A Great Man of the Provinces in Paris] (novella) 1839

La Comédie humaine. 16 vols. [La Comédie humaine] (novels, novellas, and short stories) 1842-46; vol. 17, 1848; vols. 18-20, 1855

La femme de trente ans [A Woman of Thirty] (novel) 1842; published in La Comédie humaine

Illusions perdues [Lost Illusions] (novel) 1842-48; published in La Comédie humaine

Ursule Mirouët [Ursula] (novel) 1842

Ève et David (novella) 1843; published in La Comédie humaine; also published as Les souffrances de l’inventeur in Oeuvres completes de H. de Balzac: Édition definitive, 1879

Honorine [Honorine] (novella) 1844

Les trois amoureux [Modeste Mignon] (novel) 1844; also published as Modeste Mignon; ou, Les trois amoureux, 1844

Les parents pauvres. 12 vols. (novels) 1847-48

Théâtre [first publication] (plays) 1853

Oeuvres complètes de H. de Balzac. 20 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, and plays) 1855-63

Les célibataires (novellas) 1858

Pierrette [Pierrette] (novella) 1858; published in Les célibataires

La Rabouilleuse [A Bachelor's Establishment] (novella) 1858; published in Les célibataires

Les paysans [completed by Madame Hanska; The Peasantry] (novel) 1863; published in Oeuvres complètes de H. de Balzac

Oeuvres complètes de H. de Balzac: Édition définitive. 26 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, plays, letters, and essays) 1869-1906

Balzac’s Contes Drôlatiques: Droll Stories Collected from the Abbeys of Touraine (short stories) 1874

Correspondance de H. de Balzac, 1819-1850 [The Correspondence of Honoré de Balzac] (letters) 1876

Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes [A Harlot’s Progress; also translated as Splendors and Miseries of a Courtesan] (novel) 1879; published in Oeuvres complètes de H. de Balzac: Édition définitive

Comédie humaine. 40 vols. (novels, novellas, and short stories) 1895-98

Honoré de Balzac: Letters to Madame Hanska, Born Countess Rzewuska, Afterwards Madame Honoré de Balzac, 1833-1846 (letters) 1900

The Dramatic Works of Honoré de Balzac (plays) 1901

The Love Letters of Honoré de Balzac: 1833-1842 (letters) 1901

Oeuvres complètes de Honoré de Balzac. 40 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, plays, letters, and essays) 1912-40

*Les célibataires, the title of Balzac’s 1832 novella, is also the title of his collection of novellas published in 1858. The novella appeared in the collection under the title Le curé de Tours.

†These works were collectively published as Illusion perdues in La Comédie humaine, 1842-55.

‡This collection includes the novels La cousine Bette: Où la passion va-t-elle se nicher? (also published as La causine Bette: Le Père prodigue), translated as Cousin Bette, 1888; and Le cousin Pons (also published as Le cousin Pons: Les Deux Musiciens), translated as Cousin Pons, 1880.

Mary Susan McCarthy (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: McCarthy, Mary Susan. Introduction to Balzac and His Reader: A Study of the Creation of Meaning in La Comédie Humaine, pp. 1-18. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, McCarthy explores the attention Balzac paid in his novels to the craft of writing as well as to the reader's creative activity of reading, using for her analysis reception theory and touching too on other literary theories that examine the relationship between author, text, reader, and meaning.]

C'est toujours à cause de la manière dont une histoire est racontée que nous nous y intéressons. Chaque sujet a sa forme spéciale.

(It is always because of the way in which a story is told that we are interested in it. Every subject has its own special form.)

Balzac, “Lettres sur la littérature”

Our image of Balzac as an artist has been much influenced by the copious correspondence through which we glimpse the artist at work. From his many letters, and of course the works themselves, we have constructed an image of the frenetic worker, the author driven by a sense of his art, by debt, and by need and at the same time propelled by a vision of a masterwork. Although his was a grandiose plan for the historical portrayal of his own time, his vision was as much artistic as it was historical. His letters and critical writing portray an intense awareness of craft, the self-consciousness of the creative artist. As Balzac states in the “Avant-Propos” to La Comédie humaine, the task of writing history in a literary form was more difficult than the “simple” writing of history.1 History and artistry came together naturally and smoothly for the author as his own description of his vision demonstrates.

En dressant l'inventaire des vices et des vertus, en rassemblant les principaux faits des passions, en peignant les caractères, en choisissant les événements principaux de la Société, en composant des types par la réunion des traits de plusieurs caractères homogènes, peut-être pouvais-je arriver à écrire l'histoire oubliée par tant d'historiens, celle des moeurs.


(In preparing an inventory of vices and virtues, assembling the facts of emotions, portraying character, selecting Society's important events, constructing models with the traits of several homogeneous personalities, perhaps I can write the history that is forgotten by so many historians, that of manners.)

Although he begins on a note of objectivity, as if he were, as he claimed to be, simply the recorder of an era, his description points to a consciousness of craft and of art within his work and a preview of the creativity at the heart of La Comédie humaine. He sought both in and through his writing the “sens caché,” the hidden reality of society, the most profound meanings and motivations within the actions of its members. The search was both the privilege and the responsibility of the artist. “Le talent [de l'auteur] éclate dans la peinture des causes qui engendrent les faits, dans les mystères du coeur humain dont les mouvements sont négligés par les historiens”2 (“An author's talent bursts forth in the portrayal of causes that produce the facts, in the mysteries of the human heart, the movements of which are neglected by historians”). Thus, the world the author creates for us, his readers, is that of his day as he perceived it, as well as that which was beyond, within, behind the visible surface as he was able to divine or imagine it. It was a duality of nature, of the person, and of society, a duality at once material and spiritual, which he sought to explore through his writings and which has been much discussed by the critics.3 We find the evidence of that exploration at every level of La Comédie humaine. In the “Préface de la Première Edition” (1838) Balzac wrote of Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau:

Ce livre est le premier côté d'une médaille qui roulera dans toutes les sociétés, le revers est La Maison Nucingen. … Toute oeuvre comique est nécessairement bilatérale. L'écrivain, ce grand rapporteur de procès, doit mettre les adversaires face à face. Alceste, quoique lumineux par lui-même, reçoit son vrai jour de Philinte:

“Si tanta licet componere parvis.” (6:35)

(This book is the first side of a coin present in all societies; the opposite side is La Maison Nucingen. … Every comic work is necessarily bilateral. The author, that recorder of process, must place adversaries face to face. Alceste, although luminous in his own right, is seen in full light opposite Philinte:

“If it is permitted to compare such great things to such small.”)

While the duality of the world became a subject implicit in much of Balzac's writing, his choice of the fictional mode implied for him a further dual relationship, that of the reader and the text, and it is his recognition of that relationship that is the topic of this study. The fictional universe he fashioned for us is of course a mixture of historical writing and artistic creation. A fictional reality, or, more correctly, our illusion of it, is the result not only of the objective portrayal of what Balzac so adroitly observed, not only of his subjective representation, but also of the strategies and devices upon which his narrations are built, of the complicated construction of the text on multiple levels of theme, structure, and stylistics. Only because of its artistic rendering are we able to participate in Balzac's fictional world. Only through art, and what it demands of us as recipients, can that world transcend the epoch, the culture, and the man that it reflects. It is the author's construction of the work, with careful attention to the pleasure and to the creativity of the reader, that permits us to become so thoroughly engaged in the fictional universe of La Comédie humaine. That construction and its relationship to the reader deserve our careful attention if we wish to understand more deeply our fascination with this literature.

That Balzac should have chosen the literary form for his representation of a historical moment and for his investigation of its most profound meanings reflects a number of assumptions. Although it is in part to state the obvious, it is important to consider these assumptions and their implications. Of course, the choice of the novel form implies a craft to be mastered and attended to. It implies representation not only through realistic portrayal, but also through the use of such artistic devices as symbols, metaphors, descriptions, hyperbole, or minimization. Balzac certainly exercised his poetic privilege in the evocation-creation of a universe, and, as his own definition cited above indicates, the creation of a fictional reality was not in the representation of that which one knew, but in the creative assembly, choice, and composition of aspects of that reality, and in the structuring of these aspects and others into narrative form.

Of course, the literary form also implies readers, not mere recipients of the narration but active participants in completing the meaning that the story begins. The textual strategies to be studied here are evidence of the healthy respect that Balzac had for the power and imagination of the reader. He criticized his contemporary E. Sue, who, as he put it, “[prenait] ses lecteurs pour des ignorants”4 “([took] his readers for know-nothings”).

There are in Balzac's correspondence frequent references to the reading public, frequent requests, especially to Mme Hanska and other women, for response, criticism, and reaction. We know that the response to Balzac's work during his lifetime was mixed and that he strove for a long time, despite later protestations, to please the readers of his own day.5

The nature of that reading public, however, is significant because it greatly influenced the shape of Balzac's texts. A widening distance between artist and audience forced writers of the nineteenth century to abstract their audience far more than did writers of an earlier age. Thus it is that Balzac and his contemporaries seem to us at times to have been confounded by an audience they did not understand. According to Christopher Prendergast,

The “mysterious” nature of the public is not just a matter of a failure to discover the evidence or to elaborate adequate methods of research; it is rooted in the particular realities of the nineteenth century, where the anonymity of the reading public is of the essence. In earlier periods there is frequently a close relationship between artist and public; indeed many writers are directly acquainted with many members of an anyway severely restricted circle of readers. In the nineteenth century, however, that intimacy begins to disappear; the relationship between writer and reader tends to become a basically economic one, mediated by the workings of the market, that is, by something essentially impersonal.6

As the author's concept of reader becomes gradually more abstract, the strategies to accommodate that reader within a text must, we may assume, demand closer attention and more subtle treatment. Although Balzac did at times take himself as the model of the reader (in his discussions of Cooper and Stendhal, for example), he did indeed formulate his narrative strategies and theories with an abstracted notion of the reader in mind.

La vérité littéraire consiste à choisir des faits et des caractères, à les éléver à un point de vue d'où chacun les croie vrais en les apercevant, car chacun a son vrai particulier, et chacun doit reconnaître la teinte du sien dans la couleur générale du type présenté par le romancier.7

(Literary truth requires that an author select facts and personalities and elevate them so that everyone, upon seeing them, believes them to be true. What is truthful is different for everyone, and each reader must recognize shades of his own truth in the general color of that which is presented as typical by the novelist.)

As this passage indicates, the work could be constructed in such a way that an author could reach individual readers, permitting them to play out their individuality while at the same time exerting a measure of control over each response. Balzac accommodated the unknown reader of his day, unknown in temperament and taste,8 as well as readers such as ourselves, in part through the construction of the narration that clearly defined the role to be played by the reader. Displayed in Balzac's writing, there are strong efforts to situate the reader in relationship to the narration, to then invite an active participation in the production of literary meaning, and to communicate the nature of that participation through the numerous strategies laid within the text. When he praised Stendhal for his “magnifique croquis militaire” (“magnificent military sketch”), the battle of Waterloo scene of La Chartreuse de Parme, Balzac portrayed himself as one such active reader, guided and inspired in his reading by the author's skillful style.

[M. Beyle] ne s'est pas jeté dans la peinture complète de la bataille de Waterloo, il l'a côtoyée sur les derrières de l'armée, il a donné deux ou trois épisodes de la déroute; mais si puissant a été son coup de pinceau, que l'esprit voit au-delà: l'oeil embrasse tout le champ de bataille et le grand désastre.9

([M. Beyle] did not attempt a complete portrayal of the battle of Waterloo. Instead he concentrated upon the rear of the army, giving two or three episodes of the rout; but so powerful was his presentation that one imagines beyond it: the eye takes in the entire battlefield and the terrible disaster.)

Indeed, we find in the critical writings of Balzac a significant attention to the craft of writing. He was highly critical, to cite but one example, of the feuilletonistes (serial writers) who composed their works on a day-to-day basis and for whom an installment of a story would be influenced, if not dictated, by the audience response to its predecessor. “[T]ous ceux qui publient leurs ouvrages en feuilletons n'ont plus la liberté de la forme”10 (“All those who publish their novels in installments forfeit the benefits of the form”) wrote Balzac. Even those works Balzac himself published en feuilletons were written, if he was at all able, in their entirety before the presentation of the first installment.

More interesting, however, than his criticism of others is the image we receive of Balzac himself: an artist on the cutting edge of artistic invention.11 Balzac realized that the novel was the genre on the rise, the genre in which innovation was possible. He was aware of the revolutionary nature of Walter Scott's fiction and set his goals high in his desire to better the master in the formation and development of the historical novel. As Martin Kanes has pointed out, Balzac “took the first steps toward the contemporary self-consciousness of fiction, toward the break-down of mimesis as the conscious and accepted mode of narration.”12

The attention to the nature of the reader's participation in the work that Balzac's writing manifests may well have led him to approve of, if not to enhance, twentieth-century critical tendencies, in particular those of reception theory. Literary criticism that has in the recent past emphasized scientific methodology, objective truth, and interpretation of the text in isolation has more recently turned toward a recognition of the importance of the reader and the considerable subjectivity inherent in the act of reading. In so doing, it makes tacit admission that all criticism, despite its most sincere efforts to remain objective and scientific, is, to a degree, subjective. That simple proposal, which has generated no little controversy, acknowledges the liberty and diversity that criticism represents and must tolerate. Critics now recognize and accept that each reader experiences a given work differently at different times and that the experience of literature will always be subjective. For the purposes of this study it is necessary to analyze the nature of the literary text in relation to its readers and, indeed, to examine the act of reading itself.

When I. A. Richards was working on Practical Criticism he was acutely aware of the subjectivity of the reader.13 Richards did not appreciate the diversity he found in reader response, but rather sought to correct what he perceived to be misreadings and to bring about a uniformity of response. Were Richards writing today, he would perhaps again be interested in correcting erroneous readings that stem from misunderstandings of language, form, or history. But the direction of contemporary criticism might have led him to a greater appreciation of the valid diversity of response that is the object of so much attention. In “The Subjective Paradigm in Science, Psychology and Criticism,”14 critic David Bleich suggests that subjectivity is the paradigm to be found at the very foundation of our intellectual era. It replaces, for him, an objective paradigm that, as the basis of intellectual activity, permitted many to believe in the possibility of a totally objective truth as well as in those purely scientific and objective methods believed capable of leading us to the truth. As criticism has recognized the subjectivity involved in the process of evaluation and interpretation, it has concerned itself more with the transaction between text and reader in the same way that it has always attended to the transaction between author and text. Literary criticism has been highly active, then, in the study of the subjective paradigm of which Bleich speaks.

One of the objections raised against reader-response criticism has been that it precludes the possibility of a definitive reading, that is, any one true and final interpretation. It is precisely this point, however, that is its strength and essence, because no method of analysis can reduce a literary text to a single meaning. The very nature of the literary work defies this sort of reduction. Furthermore, every text, as it is read, becomes intimately bound to the personality and to the environment of the reader. Equally, it is bound to the personality and environment of the author, making the study of a writer's biography and history important in the understanding of a work. Readers in the twentieth century, however, cannot know the psyche of a nineteenth-century author. We have only history (both of the writer and of the time), the text, and ourselves with which to work. Literary meaning cannot be separated from the reader, just as the meaning and definition of the object cannot be separated from the observer. Indeed, the two are closely linked through the act of observation, or, in the case of literature, through the act of reading. Despite the small measure of disorder the diversity of subjective response admits into the body of criticism, attention to that response allows us to consider many valid interpretations without violating the integrity of the text itself. Even more importantly, such attention reveals to us numerous subtleties within a text that have heretofore gone unnoticed. It permits us to combine our roles of reader and critic, at once admitting our personal involvement in the text and making use of the many clear, precise, and scientific tools with which we analyze the text, ourselves, and the transaction between the two.15 Reception theory has engendered not only interesting textual analyses but also compelling studies of aesthetic perception and the process of reading.

The approach used in this study is based on current reception theory.16 I treat the literary text as a highly dynamic entity, defining it as the vehicle of meaning, the axis of communication between author and reader, the creative field in which meaning is generated through the cooperative efforts of these two. A work can then be seen, I believe, in its fullest dimensions, not as a blank screen upon which are projected the fantasies of the reader, but as a skillfully constructed ensemble of story, language, and image that awaits its reader's dramatic fulfillment. Moreover, with each reading of a masterpiece, we evolve new levels of interpretation, progressively uncovering new depths and creating new meaning within. A significant work is constructed so as to allow and to guide our creativity. Balzac's Comédie humaine is a combination of a great many such works and is thus, because of its breadth and unity, a particularly rich object of study. The intricacy of Balzac's work and the author's clear concern in his texts for the reader's creative activity render our involvement in La Comédie humaine both complex and essential. At the same time, however, his conception of the whole and his sophisticated use of stylistic techniques define and control our participation in and contribution to the work.

As critical interest in reader response has grown throughout the twentieth century, the definition of the nature of the literary work and its relation to the reader as well as the understanding of how literary meaning is produced have changed.

In 1929, I. A. Richards greatly altered the perspective of both criticism and teaching with the publication of Practical Criticism. Clearly, Richards believed in the objective text and in the possibility of arriving at a definitive interpretation. But his analysis of students' responses to some poems was one of the first efforts of a critic to confront the reader's subjectivity. Richards did not hesitate to admit that the source of diversity in reader response lay deep in the unconscious. He denied, however, the value of any probing therein and sought only to correct errors in reading.17

In 1954, W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Monroe C. Beardsley decried what they called “The Affective Fallacy,” a confusion between the poem and its results.18 For them the meaning of a literary work was quite separate from its effect on the reader, and subjectivity in criticism led only to impressionism and relativism.

In 1957, Fiction and the Unconscious, by Simon Lesser, a strict follower of Freud, was published.19 Indeed, Lesser initiated the serious use of psychoanalytic principles in the study of literature. He believed that literature “represents an attempt to augment the meager satisfactions offered by experience through the creation of a more harmonious world to which one can repair, however briefly, for refuge, solace and pleasure.”20 In Lesser's analysis, the material of fiction is psychic conflict that arouses tension in the reader and then relieves it; he thus defined the literary work in terms of the experience it provokes. Reading, in Lesser's terms, is a source of satisfaction for the psyche as defined by Freud. Fully ten years after his book appeared, the active study of reader response began.

The first significant book to build upon Lesser's study was The Dynamics of Literary Response by Norman N. Holland, which proposed the model of literature as transformation of the basic psychic issues or as the transformation of a central fantasy to be discovered and interpreted by the reader.21 In 5 Readers Reading, Holland analyzed not only the vastly different responses of five students of literature to Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily” but also the very process of reading that evolves and permits such diversity of response.22 He altered his original model of literature in demonstrating that a transformation can take place only in the reader—not in the text. It is in the transaction or convergence between text and reader, he argued, that the transformation of psychic issues is to be found. The principles of that transformation are proposed in four clearly defined steps in the process of reading.

Equally significant, although more philosophically oriented, are the writings of David Bleich.23 For Bleich, no literary meaning exists independent of that which the subjective reader creates. All critical interpretation is subjective, despite the obvious and quite natural attempt on the reader's part to objectify response. In “The Subjective Character of Critical Interpretation,” Bleich claimed,

the truth about something that requires an audience to gain reality is a different sort of thing than the truth about something that does not. The truth about the Newtonian Bible is different from the truth about the Newtonian apple. The truth of the Bible requires the faith of the reader; the truth of the acceleration of gravity does not. The truth about literature has no meaning independent of the truth about the reader.24

Other critics have considered the question of the reader in a significantly different manner. In “The Writer's Audience is Always a Fiction,” Walter J. Ong suggested that every writer fictionalizes an audience, casts it in a specific role, and calls upon it to assume that role.25 He further analyzed the question of communication between author and reader through the text by suggesting that the audience also must fictionalize itself and accept the role imposed on it by the author. Ong did not in this article test his theory by examining a work in order to show through what means the text communicates to its readers the role that the author has fictionalized for them or in what ways the readers play out the role that they see for themselves within the text.

In The Implied Reader,26 Wolfgang Iser concentrated not upon the reader but upon the text, in order to lay the foundation for a theory about the nature of literary effects and reader reactions, which he put forth in The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response.27 Iser's thesis is that the text contains a prestructured potential meaning that is actualized by the reader through the process of reading, which is itself a highly dynamic activity. Reading is the convergence of the text and the reader's imagination, the point at which meaning appears, not in one or the other but in the combination of the two. This approach permits Iser to study not only the contribution of an objective text but also the process by which the reader reads, in order to understand the reasons behind interpretations. The convergence of text and reader is what Iser refers to as the text's “virtual dimension.”28 This, of course, is the very transaction of which Holland spoke.

Combining approaches that concentrate on the text with those that focus on the reading process is essential to our understanding of the literary work as a form of communication: “Le texte de fiction doit être considéré avant tout comme une communication et l'acte de lecture, comme une relation dialogique”29 (“The fictional text must be considered before all else as communication and reading as a dialogue”). To consider the text as squarely placed between the author and the reader permits us to see it as a transformation in and of itself, but also as existing in a constant state of transformation because it is a dynamic structure upon which interpretations are continually (or with each reading) made. The transformations worked through the literary text by author and reader alike are of stories themselves, of psychic conflicts and constructs, of the individual perception of social reality, and even of history.

In this study, I will pay primary attention to textual analysis, in order to delineate and refine an understanding of the processes through which meaning is produced in Balzac's work. It is, of course, within the text that the author has laid the plan for his reader, and it is on the work that we focus in our inevitable subjective interpretation and elaboration of the narration.

The diversity of interpretation given to a single literary text testifies to an author's ability to exert only partial control over the reception of his or her work, however. “Meaning is the referential totality which is implied by the aspects contained in the text and which must be assembled in the course of reading.”30 This process of assembly is our function as readers and our source of pleasure within the act of reading. A narrative must be constructed so as to take into account the many active readers who will interpret the fictional material in ways proper to their own experience. Thus, strategies that operate on many levels at once for the accommodation and manipulation of the active participant in the literary process are essential to narration. It is not hard to imagine that Balzac, an author who created an environment of social determinism for his characters, created one as well for his readers. I hope to demonstrate that Balzac did indeed create for us a deterministic setting, a social milieu of the reading that guides our thought and shapes our response, thus defining for us the basis of our interpretation.

The reading process itself, then, must be seen in the larger context of communication, of a special dual relationship, of a pact between author and reader. It is, of course, more than a simple decoding of the complexities built into the text. Inevitably, reading calls upon the past and present experience of the reader and plays upon the chaotic material of the unconscious. An individual reading is a rich blend of the cognitive and the sensuous; although we must respond cognitively to the words of the text, we are drawn in as well by its sensuousness, by rhythm, rhyme, and sound. We react both emotionally and intellectually to all levels of the narration, and at times we even respond physically. Grasped cognitively by the reader and elaborated subjectively, the text expands endlessly. The potential for this enormous expansion is present at all times within the text as the cognitive, that is, literal, material of the work assumes its broader dimensions through the reading process. Were the emotional and the sensuous carefully incorporated in the text itself, we would all receive approximately the same meaning, relative to the degree of our perspicacity, which, of course, we do not. In other types of communication, conversation for example, the listener has the advantage (if it is indeed an advantage) of such aids as voice, gesture, attitude, or facial expression to guide the interpretation. In literature, however, the depths of meaning that the work assumes and the reactions that it evokes depend on the reader's participation, which the author must subtly control through the text itself.31

Manipulating, shaping, and reshaping of the text are the activities of author and reader alike. The literary work is approached from both poles of the axis of communication. Iser has articulated the task of the reader vis-à-vis the text.

Each sentence correlate contains what one might call a hollow section, which looks forward to the next correlate, and a retrospective section, which answers the expectations of the preceding sentence (now a part of the remembered background). Thus every moment of reading is a dialectic of protension and retension, conveying a future horizon yet to be occupied, along with a past (and continually fading) horizon already filled; the wandering viewpoint carves its passage through both at the same time and leaves them to merge together in its wake. There is no escaping this process, for … the text cannot at any one moment be grasped as a whole. … the aesthetic object is constantly being structured and restructured.32

It is revealing to consider the text in this light, especially realizing that it is just this sort of activity that the author must anticipate when designing the narration.

It is significant within this context to ask why we enter into the relationship required by the reading of imaginative literature. The many answers to the question explain some of the expectations that we bring to a work. The most fundamental and, one would hope, the most pervasive answer is that we read for the sheer pleasure of it. Pleasure, like so much else that touches us, is linked to our psyche and orientation, and pleasure, it can be argued, is linked to our need and desire for mastery.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud speculated that play and the active representation by children of real-life situations are means by which they gain mastery of those parts of their lives over which they have little control.33 In another essay, he further proposed that the adult activities of creative imagining and daydreaming are simply continuations of that play and serve a similar purpose.34 If writing, which is the imposition of order and meaning upon the unordered, is a form of mastery, which it clearly is, then we can justly suppose that reading is also an activity that seeks to gain control and mastery, for it too imposes order and meaning. This is, of course, a widely held view of reading. But the activity of the reader is further similar to writing in the process by which meaning is produced. Reading is the restructuring of material already structured into meaning. We achieve an interpretation through our imaginative reconstruction of the author's written structure in the way that our own psychic orientation wishes and allows. If this model of a mental process is valid, then reading is an activity closely tied to the pleasure principle, which Freud defined as “a tendency … to free the mental apparatus entirely from excitation or to keep the amount of excitation in it constant or to keep it as low as possible.”35 The excitation of which Freud speaks here is a psychic excitation that is a source of “unpleasure,” the state that the psychic apparatus seeks at most times to avoid. Reading is an activity clearly in the service of the pleasure principle. We simply do not (unless specifically required to do so by some outside force) read works that arouse great conflict and then do not resolve it. It is not difficult to imagine, for example, that scene after scene of bodily violence in a story might arouse more conflict and discomfort than a reader could bear. Freud believed that at the heart of every literary text there was a “raw issue,” a central or focal conflict, and that the genius of the great writer was to disguise it in so acceptable a form that it would be recognized by readers without arousing in them a need to defend against it. In Freud's terms, the inferior work is one that offers its audience either too little or too much conflict. In either case, the reader would put the book aside. Thus, if violence were unacceptable to the given reader's psyche, that reader would defend against it by exercising the ultimate control, closing the book. This definition of an artistic creation is highly reductive, and it was written to serve Freud's own theories. It is, nevertheless, an interesting perspective from which to view literature, especially when we consider a reader's expectations.

Although it may seem obvious that a reader does not read that which arouses too much conflict, it is an important observation. That we can reject a text at any moment in our reading allows us to involve ourselves in it safely. The distance that we enjoy from a text, the constant knowledge that it is only a story, allows us a freedom we do not enjoy in our daily intercourse. Sensing that reading is a safe activity and that we are ultimately in control, we can allow such internal conflicts to be aroused as would ordinarily be unacceptable to us. Because we are not threatened by any real consequences, we can take psychic risks that would, in our other activities, be too conflictive. Indeed, we often enjoy literature that is a good deal more adventuresome than our lives, because reading allows us control, mastery, and resolution of conflict.

However, it is not only for the danger and the adventure that we enjoy reading. We also read with some interest that which is quite familiar to us. Balzac fully recognized and exploited the interest that we have in ourselves and our own milieu. But this interest is also psychically based. It is far more than simply seeing how a common situation may be handled within a fictional setting. It is permitting familiar tensions to well up once again, but without any real threat and with assurance of resolution. Although reading can be an escape from the daily routine, it can also be an escape into the self, without the dangerous consequences that we know and defend ourselves against daily. We would seem then to answer the question “Why do we read?” by saying that we read in part for therapeutic gains that result from communication at a psychic level. An author, then, must within the narration accommodate our expectations of involvement, escape from and into self, conflict and its resolution, and manipulation, yet disguise that control sufficiently so as to allow us our creativity.

Acknowledging that we read not only for the objective and conscious reasons we would all offer in response to the question of why one reads but also for far deeper, highly subjective, and probably unconscious reasons as well, leads us to question the process of reading itself and to pose yet another question, “How do we read?”

Wayne C. Booth was the first to speak of the “mock reader,” a term he coined in discussing his own “inability or refusal to take on the characteristics [Lawrence] requires of his ‘mock reader.’”36 Other writers since Booth have used other names for this reader who is a mental (conscious or unconscious) construct of the author. Gérard Genette named him the “narrataire,”37 a term referring to a fictional recipient of the text who can be either intratextual or extratextual. The narrataire becomes a construct of the text (if only during its writing) by playing the role of the reader, whether in the author's mind or in the text itself. When this construct truly plays a part in a story, that is, becomes an actual character, the reader cannot help but identify with the role of recipient, if not with the actual character. The transaction between reader and mock reader differs with each work and with each reader. In general, we attempt to reduce the distance between the actual self and the fictional self, an activity in part controlled by the text itself. Assuming the role of the mock reader, accepting the role imposed on us (be it that of confidant, eavesdropper, removed audience, or simple spectator) is a form of role playing, and aside from being among the great pleasures of reading, it is one of the primary maneuvers that reading requires. As Walter J. Ong has pointed out,

Readers over the ages have had to learn this game of literacy, how to conform themselves to the projections of the writers they read, or at least how to operate in terms of these projections. They have to know how to play the game of being a member of an audience that “really” does not exist. And they have to adjust when the rules change, even though no rules thus far have ever been published and even though the changes in the unpublished rules are themselves for the most part only implied.38

The reader's entry into the narration is, then, the actual taking on of the role of reader; it is becoming a member of an audience. It is more than the willing suspension of disbelief of which Coleridge spoke, although that is certainly part of it. By taking on the role of reader, we assume a position in relation to the work, that of recipient, actualizer, and recreator. We make an effort to become the narrataire within the text, and we act as if we were—that is, we have a sense of being addressed when we read. Our goal is to break down the barrier between ourselves and the text in order to internalize the narration. Only upon internalization can fiction be objectified, and only then can it be manipulated subjectively.

Norman N. Holland has described in considerable detail this process of internalization and manipulation, acknowledging thereby the individual creativity of the reader. As he states in his preface to 5 Readers Reading, literary response involves “a transformation by means of forms acting like defenses, of drives, impulses, and fantasies back and forth from the most primitive strata of psychic life to the highest.”39 He delineates four principles of literary experience that chronologically outline the four stages of reading necessary to effect internalization of the message. According to Holland, we first test a text to see that it will gratify us in a psychically satisfactory fashion. We seek, he states, defenses and adaptations that are acceptable, if not similar to our own. In these stages, we treat the fictional narrative as an outside reality. If, however, it passes our psychic tests of fire, we allow it to be internalized; we become fully engaged in the reading. In the next phase, we use the text and our reading of it to build wish-fulfilling fantasies consistent with our psychic life. Finally, we will receive, shape, and interpret the text in a way characteristic of all our subjective activity. Having accepted the text, we master it along with our own unconscious conflicts.

The transaction between text and reader, however, is not dominated consistently by the reader, whose activity is in constant tension with the text that exerts its influence and control. Just as the reading process is essential to actualization of the text, so too the guidance of the strategies within the text is essential to the reading process. As Iser has clearly established, literary meaning remains always virtual, wholly present neither in the reality of the text nor in the disposition of the reader. The dynamic nature of the text itself is linked to this virtuality. We become involved in movement within the text and within ourselves, linking past, present, and future of the reading, building intratextual memories and expectations, associating and combining elements of the text, and hypothetically completing it. The truly dynamic and challenging text is the one that resists our efforts to maintain equilibrium, that keeps us off balance by continually frustrating our expectations and destroying our illusions, thus forcing us into an ever more active reading. “In seeking the balance we inevitably have to start out with certain expectations, the shattering of which is integral to the esthetic experience.”40 But this free movement within the text permits us to unify it and to see relationships that are significant in and of themselves. If the aesthetic pleasure of reading depends in part on this dynamic process within the context of an individual story or novel, how much greater must be the pleasure for the reader of La Comédie humaine, in which each work is related to a network of others and in which we perform our operations intertextually as well as intratextually.

The philosophical stance of reception theorists is significant for the purposes of this study. They stress the dynamism of the transaction effected through the reading process and the centrality of manipulation of the text by author and reader alike. They acknowledge the goal of internalization and objectification that is part of our response to the text, and they recognize the importance of our psychic, historical, and cultural orientation. What is not stressed in their work, however, although it is certainly implied, is the relationship of the influence that the work exerts to the design of the author. The narrative strategies constituting that design precede and shape our reading, and an understanding of how they operate in Balzac's writing will permit us to grasp more fully the meaning of his work, his mastery of his craft, and our continued pleasure and fascination with his fictional world. It will permit us to illuminate the creative process by which the fictional universe of La Comédie humaine is shaped.


  1. Honoré de Balzac, “Avant-Propos,” La Comédie humaine, ed. Pierre Georges Castex, Edition de la Pléïade, 1:7-20. All references to Balzac's work in this study are to the new Pléïade edition of La Comédie humaine unless otherwise noted. Quotations from it will be followed by an indication of both volume and page numbers.

  2. Honoré de Balzac, “Lettres sur la littérature,” in Oeuvres complètes de Honoré de Balzac, 40:278.

  3. For an interesting discussion of this concept, see Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess, pp. 110-52.

  4. Balzac, “Lettres sur la littérature,” 40:289.

  5. See Christopher Prendergast, “Balzac and the Reading Public,” in Balzac, Fiction and Melodrama, pp. 17-38.

  6. Ibid., p. 20.

  7. Balzac, “Lettres sur la littérature,” 40:278.

  8. It would be naive to believe that Balzac was totally ignorant of his own audience. As Prendergast pointed out, however, the reading public grew rapidly during the years of Balzac's production. Equally, the popularity of serialization imposed new and different demands upon an author interested in appealing to the taste of the day. Tastes were changing rapidly, in part influenced by the growing industry of literature, which paid little heed to artistic merit.

  9. Balzac, “Lettres sur la littérature,” 40:287.

  10. “Avertissement quasi-littéraire,” Le Cousin Pons, cited by Prendergast, p. 28.

  11. For a complete discussion of Balzac as critic and innovative artist, see Geneviève Delattre, Les Opinions littéraires de Balzac.

  12. Martin Kanes, Balzac's Comedy of Words, p. 219.

  13. I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism.

  14. David Bleich, “The Subjective Paradigm in Science, Psychology and Criticism,” New Literary History.

  15. I am not saying that all readings of a given text are correct. There can and frequently do exist blatant misreadings upon which may rest a very false interpretation. I am speaking here of the interpretation of a competent reader who knows fully the language of the text in all its connotative depth, who brings to the text full communicative skills, and who has a certain degree of literary sophistication and experience.

  16. For a clear description of the range of assumptions and practices of these theorists in America, see Steven Mailloux, “Learning to Read: Interpretation and Reader-Response Criticism,” Studies in Literary Imagination 12 (1979): 93-108.

  17. In 1929, Richards was being avant-garde in confronting so directly the question of psychic motivation and subjectivity in critical interpretation. A footnote (on p. 7) reveals to us how these issues were viewed. Comparing the difficulty of dealing with the complex diversity of response to the difficulty of following “the ravings of mania or the dream maunderings of a neurotic,” Richards excused himself for the implication and then stated in a footnote, “A few touches of the clinical manner will, however, be not out of place in these pages, if only to counteract the indecent tendencies of the scene. For here are our friends and neighbours—nay our very brothers and sisters—caught at a moment of abandon giving themselves and their literary reputations away with an unexampled freedom. It is indeed a sobering spectacle, but like some sights of the hospital ward very serviceable to restore proportions and recall to us what humanity, behind all its lendings and pretenses, is like.”

  18. W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Monroe C. Beardsley, “The Affective Fallacy,” in The Verbal Icon, pp. 21-39.

  19. Simon Lesser, Fiction and the Unconscious.

  20. Ibid., p. 21.

  21. Norman N. Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response.

  22. Norman N. Holland, 5 Readers Reading.

  23. See David Bleich, “The Determination of Literary Value”; “The Subjective Character of Critical Interpretation”; Readings and Feelings: An Introduction to Subjective Criticism; “The Subjective Paradigm in Science, Psychology and Criticism”; and Subjective Criticism.

  24. Bleich, “The Subjective Character,” p. 745.

  25. Walter J. Ong, “The Writer's Audience is Always a Fiction.”

  26. Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett.

  27. Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response.

  28. Iser, The Implied Reader, p. 279.

  29. Wolfgang Iser, “La Fiction en effet,” p. 279.

  30. Iser, The Act of Reading, p. 151.

  31. Obviously, when we study a text we have more to draw upon than the simple word. We have the author's other writings, our other readings, dictionaries, biographies, and histories. I refer here to that inevitable first reading, to a reading when our major involvement is with the text itself. At that time, our emotional involvement may be at its highest.

  32. Iser, The Act of Reading, p. 112.

  33. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey, 18:7-64.

  34. Sigmund Freud, “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” 9:143-53.

  35. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 18:62.

  36. Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, pp. 138-39.

  37. Gérard Genette, Figures III, pp. 265-67. In English, the term “narrataire” translates as the rather awkward ”narratee.” Cf. Gerald Prince, “Notes Towards a Categorization of Fictional ‘Narratees’,” Genre IV (1971): 100-5.

  38. Ong, “The Writer's Audience,” p. 12.

  39. Holland, 5 Readers Reading, p. xii.

  40. Iser, The Implied Reader, p. 287. Iser used as a primary example of this aesthetic experience James Joyce's Ulysses, which encourages a pattern of response but immediately destroys it with each new chapter.


I. Primary

Balzac, Honoré de. La Comédie humaine. Edited by Pierre-Georges Castex. 12 vols. Bibliothèque de la Pléïade. Paris: Gallimard, 1976-1981.

———. “Lettres sur la littérature.” In Oeuvres complètes de Honoré de Balzac. Vol. 40, pp. 271-329. Paris: Louis Conard, 1940.

II. Secondary

a. On La Comédie humaine

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination, Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976.

Delattre, Geneviève. Les Opinions littéraires de Balzac. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1961.

Kanes, Martin. Balzac's Comedy of Words. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Prendergast, Christopher. Balzac, Fiction and Melodrama. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1978.

b. Theory

Bleich, David. “The Determination of Literary Value.” Literature and Psychology 17 (1967):19-30.

———. Readings and Feelings: An Introduction to Subjective Criticism. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1975.

———. “The Subjective Character of Critical Interpretation.” College English 36 (1975):739-55.

———. Subjective Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

———. “The Subjective Paradigm in Science, Psychology and Criticism.” New Literary History 7 (1976):313-34.

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Translated and edited by James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute for Psycho-analysis, 1953-1974.

Genette, Gérard. Figures III. Paris: Seuil, 1972.

———. “Frontières du récit.” Figures II. Paris: Seuil, 1969.

Holland, Norman N. The Dynamics of Literary Response. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

———. 5 Readers Reading. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

———. “La Fiction en effet.” Poétique 19 (1979):275-98.

———. The Implied Reader, Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Lesser, Simon O. Fiction and the Unconscious. 2d ed. 1957. Reprint. New York: Vintage Books, 1962.

Ong, Walter J. “The Writer's Audience is Always a Fiction.” PMLA 90 (1975):9-21.

Prince, Gerald. “Notes Towards a Categorization of Fictional ‘Narratees’.” Genre 4 (1971):100-5.

Richards, I. A. Practical Criticism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1929.

Wimsatt, W. K., Jr., and Beardsley, Monroe C. The Verbal Icon. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954.

Further Reading

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Royce, William Hobart. A Balzac Bibliography. 1929. Reprint. New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1969, 464 p.

Early bibliography in English of writings by and about Balzac.


Maurois, André. Prometheus: The Life of Balzac. Translated by Norman Denny. London: The Bodley Head, 1965, 573 p.

Edited translation of a biography first published in French in 1965; concentrates on Balzac's literary career.

Pritchett, V. S. Balzac. London: Chatto and Windus, 1973, 272 p.

Using correspondence from family, friends, and lovers, presents a picture of Balzac as an artist of abundant energy committed to his vocation.

Robb, Graham. Balzac: A Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994, 521 p.

Richly descriptive biography that explores Balzac's complex inner life without excessive psychoanalysis; comments only briefly on the author's writings.

Zweig, Stephan. Balzac. Translated by William and Dorothy Rose. New York: The Viking Press, 1946, 404 p.

Unfinished biography by an Austrian poet and essayist that reads like a novel and paints a portrait of Balzac as a remarkable but flawed genius.


Allen, James Smith. “Obedience, Struggle, and Revolt: The Historical Vision of Balzac's Father Goriot.Clio 16, no. 2 (winter 1987): 103-19.

Portrays Le père Goriot as a work of artistic and social significance as well as an important historical document that sheds creative understanding on a complex period of French history.

Baran, James John. “Predators and Parasites in Le Père Goriot.Symposium 47, no. 1 (spring 1993): 3-15.

Argues that the characters in Le père Goriot are not Hobbesian predatory animals but rather are parasitical, in the manner suggested by the French philosopher Michel Serres.

Barricelli, Jean-Pierre. Balzac and Music: Its Place and Meaning in His Life and Work. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990, 305 p.

Considers Balzac's use of music as theme and as material for the analysis, exploration, communication, and development of characters.

Bertault, Philippe. Balzac and The Human Comedy. Translated by Richard Mongues. New York: New York University Press, 1963, 212 p.

Detailed study of Balzac's novel cycle, examining the author's methods, use of ideas, technique, and style.

Honoré de Balzac. Edited by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chelsea House Publishers, 2003, 256 p.

Fourteen essays covering a wide range of critical subjects, from Balzac's realism to metaphorical structures in Le père Goriot; includes a short biography of Balzac, a chronology of his life, and an introductory essay by Bloom.

Bowen, Ray P. The Dramatic Construction of Balzac's Novels. Eugene: University of Oregon, 1940, 128 p.

Elaborates on an earlier study analyzing the classical source and dramatic construction of La Comédie humaine, focusing on the mise en scene and dramatic dialogue of the novels.

Dargan, E. Preston, W. L. Crain, and others. Studies in Balzac's Realism. 1932. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967, 213 p.

Eight essays debating Balzac's realism and whether he may be considered the father of modern realism.

Gans, Eric. “Balzac's Unknowable Masterpiece and the Limits of the Classical Esthetic.” Modern Language Notes 90, no. 4 (May 1975): 504-16.

Analyzes the intersection of classical and modern aesthetic elements in Balzac's short story “Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu.”

Ginsburg, Michal Peled. Approaches to Teaching Balzac's Old Goriot. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2001, 203 p.

Collection of essays that offers new interpretations of the novel which reflect changes in critical approaches to literature.

Greene, J. P. “Cosmetics and Conflicting Fictions in Balzac's César Birotteau.Neophilologus 83, no. 2 (April 1999): 197-208.

Argues that the author subverts the logic of the text in César Birotteau by choosing a subject matter—cosmetics—that masks the truth.

Hughes, Edward J. “Money, Meaning and Knowledge: A Reading of Balzac's La Recherche de l'absolu.Romance Studies, no. 23 (spring 1994): 31-42.

Discusses the accuracy of Balzac's interpretation of social reality, and his use of type, economics, and scientific knowledge in La Recherche de l'absolu.

Jonasson, Kerstin. “Naming Conventions, Focalization, and Point of View in Balzac's La Peau de chagrin.” In Perspectives on Semantics, Pragmatics, and Discourse, edited by István Kenesei and Robert M. Harnish, pp. 257-72. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2001.

Provides a linguistic analysis of La peau de chagrin, focusing on the use of expressions, when referring to the hero and to other characters, to create a certain narrative point of view and to show that Balzac was operating outside typical nineteenth-century narrative conventions.

Knight, Diana. “Skeletons in the Closet: Homosocial Secrets in Balzac's La Comédie humaine.French Studies: A Quarterly Review 57, no. 2 (April 2003): 167-80.

Explores Balzac's realistic representation of homosociality, homosexuality, and homophobia in La cousine Bette, La maison Nucingen, Le père Goriot, and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes.

Lewis, David W. P. “Between the Sheets: The Perils of Courtship by Correspondence in Balzac's La femme abandonnée.Nineteenth-Century French Studies 24, nos. 3 & 4 (spring-summer 2003): 296-305.

Analyzes the use of letters in the novella La femme abandonnée, which the critic views as a work of romantic psychoanalysis.

Lucey, Michael. “Legal Melancholy: Balzac's Eugénie Grandet and the Napoleonic Code.” Representations, no. 76 (fall 2001): 1-26.

Investigates Balzac's preoccupation with the historical, material, and social conditions that determine family feeling, gender, and sexuality as depicted in his novels, particularly Eugénie Grandet.

———. The Misfit of the Family: Balzac and the Social Forms of Sexuality. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003, 308 p.

Detailed study of the range of alternative sexualities represented in Balzac's fiction, considered against the historical-social background in which the novels were written.

Madapusi, Jayashree. “The Secrecy of Vautrin (‘The Criminal and the Enemy’) and His Society of Ten Thousand in Balzac's La Comédie Humaine.History of European Ideas 19, nos. 1-3 (July 1994): 87-92.

Examines the criminal sect organization the Secret Society of Ten Thousand represented in several novels in La Comédie humaine.

Madden, James C. “Introduction: Stories Told and Heard.” In Weaving Balzac's Web: Spinning Tales and Creating the Whole of La Comédie humaine, pp. 1-16. Birmingham, Ala.: Summa Publications, Inc., 2003.

Explores the interconnectedness of the stories in La Comédie humaine and the meaning and importance of the overall fictional world Balzac creates in his masterwork.

Mortimer, Armine Kotin. “Myth and Mendacity: Balzac's Pierrette and Beatrice Cenci.” Dalhousie French Studies 51 (summer 2000): 12-25.

Discusses the politicization of the story of the title character of Pierette into myth, particularly through Balzac's use of the model of Beatrice of Cenci in his novel.

———. “Balzac and Poe: Realizing Magnetism.” Dalhousie French Studies 63 (summer 2003): 22-30.

Considers similarities in Balzac's Ursule Mirouët and Edgar Allen Poe's Fall of the House of Usher and speculates on Balzac's knowledge of Poe's text.

Nolan, Wendy. “Frenhofer's Suicide and the Downfall of Le Baron Gros.” Symposium 54, no. 2 (summer 2000): 90-112.

Explores the theme of doubt in “Le chef-d'ouvre inconnu” and how it reflects the cultural climate of uncertainty during the early years of the July Monarchy.

Pasco, Allan H. “Dying With Love in Balzac's La Vieille Fille.L'Esprit Créateur 35, no. 4 (winter 1995): 28-37.

Explores the use of comedy and suicide in La Vieille Fille.

Pugh, Anthony R. Balzac's Recurring Characters. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1974, 510 p.

Study of the systematic recurrence of characters in a number of works in La Comédie humaine, focusing on Le père Goriot.

Siebers, Tobin. “Balzac and the Literature of Belief.” L'Esprit Créateur 28, no. 3 (fall 1998): 37-48.

Claims that modern readers find the Etudes philosophiques “unphilosophical” because they are fantastic in nature and require readers to believe in what they do not find credible.

Additional coverage of Balzac's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 119; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; European Writers, Vol. 5; Guide to French Literature, 1789 to the Present; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 5, 35, 53; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 10; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 5, 59; Supernatural Fiction Writers; Twayne's World Authors; and World Literature Criticism.

Joan Dargan (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Dargan, Joan. Introduction to Balzac and the Drama of Perspective: The Narrator in Selected Works of La Comédie Humaine, pp. 11-18. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum Publishers, 1985.

[In the following essay, Dargan surveys a number of novels in La Comédie humaine written before 1835—Louis Lambert, Le Colonel Chabert, Histoires des treize, and Eugénie Grandet—to analyze the relation between the author and narrator and to trace the development of Balzac's narrative technique.]

Le but de profonde moralité caché dans mon livre [La Peau de chagrin] échappe à beaucoup de critiques malveillants, qui ne voient que la forme, et j'avoue que je suis vivement touché lorsque quelque critique veut bien dégager mes intentions de leur sauvage enveloppe. Tous nos maîtres ont mis la moelle dans un os, à l'exemple de la nature.

(Correspondance, 1831)

In 1831 Balzac had just completed his first major work, La Peau de chagrin, and had embarked upon the first and most prolific phase of his mature career. By 1835 he had written close to forty novels and stories, many of which would be subject to revision and expansion with each new edition of La Comédie humaine. But in 1831 La Comédie humaine as such did not yet exist; it was only with Le Père Goriot, in 1834, that the unifying concept of the reappearing character flashed through his mind “comme un rêve … une chimère,” as Balzac would note in the “Avant-Propos” to his collective work.

Balzac's early works are especially interesting because they are “isolés les uns des autres et présentés comme des œuvres différentes.1 Unknown even to their creator, these novels already possessed the dynamic qualities, the inner consistency of theme and symbol, upon which he could build a comprehensive analysis of society. With the discovery of the reappearing character—a kind of familiar landmark in a vast symbolic territory—Balzac was able to present his work in such a way that its analytical dimension became more accessible to the reader. In the “Avant-Propos,” introducing the categories into which the novels are divided—Etudes philosophiques, Scènes de la vie parisienne, Scènes de la vie privée, and so on—the author acknowledges his responsibility as teacher or guide and tells us how to approach his work as a whole.

But for all practical purposes, we must still begin with each individual work, each “sauvage enveloppe,” and through it discover that “but de profonde moralité” of authorial vision, of Balzac's poetical consciousness. And so we may contemplate Balzac here, at the threshold of his career, already plagued by misapprehension of the fundamental seriousness of his work, already supplying a metaphor—“la moelle dans un os”—affirming the organicity of form and, therefore, his novel's autonomy as work of art. Already he adopts the defensive posture that will become a hallmark of his prefaces; and in referring to the “sauvage enveloppe” of narrative form, he appeals to us as benevolent readers to reconsider the intelligence hidden within its rough appearance. This most maligned of authors was in fact supremely conscious of literary influence (“Tous nos maîtres ont mis la moelle dans un os …”) and frequently had recourse to melodrama to impress upon the reader symbolic truths implicit in a prose renowned for its meticulous, even relentless, naturalistic detail.

The apparent incongruity between bone and marrow, form and content, between the autonomy of the single work and the unity of the collection, may dismay any number of “critiques malveillants” and disconcert even the most favorably disposed reader. But these same paradoxes reflect a basic tension at the heart of Balzac's fiction, a condition of poetical discourse itself. The relation of the particular and the universal, of mimesis and myth, takes us back to a fundamental principle of Aristotelian poetics, one underlying the tensions inherent in all literary creation:

La poésie, disait-il [Aristotle], est une imitation des actions humaines; mais cette mimesis passe par la création d'une fable, d'une intrigue, qui présente des traits de composition et d'ordre qui manquent aux drames de la vie quotidienne. … si la tragédie n'atteint son effet de mimesis que par l'invention du mythos, le mythos est au service de la mimesis et de son caractère foncièrement dénotatif. …

Cette jonction entre mythos et mimesis n'est pas l'œuvre de la seule poésie tragique; elle y est seulement plus aisée à détecter parce que, d'une part, le mythos prend la forme d'un “récit” et que la métaphoricité s'attache à l'intrigue de la fable, et parce que, d'autre part, le référent est constitué par l'action humaine qui, par son cours de motivation, présente une affinité certaine avec la structure du récit. La jonction entre mythos et mimesis est l'œuvre de toute poésie.2

If we consider Balzac's fiction as a conjunction of myth and mimesis, of symbolic truth and naturalistic detail, of visionary insight and observation of human appearances and behavior, then it is easy to appreciate his impatience with those who misread La Peau de chagrin. At the same time, if we are to accept La Comédie humaine as the elaboration of a single authorial vision already present in the early works before the organization of La Comédie humaine as such, we must recognize the presence of one more apparent incongruity, one more necessary conjunction: that of perspective in the individual novel or story in its relation to the vision of the author. The perspective afforded by the “sauvage enveloppe” of a single work indirectly reveals the “but de profonde moralité” of authorial vision, just as the latter informs the former as its instrument. Hence, the organicity or autonomy of each narrative necessarily implies a closure with respect to the particular conjunction of myth and mimesis effected within it. But with respect to the single poetic imagination at its source, each narrative is also a means of access and exploration, one of many such openings that invite comparison and that reveal repeated, characteristic preoccupations of the author on the formal and thematic levels.

Although it would be presumptuous, not to say impossible, to determine Balzac's own “intentions,” no reader is barred from the symbolic universe each of his novels invites us to enter. Thus, in examining a number of works Balzac originally wrote before 1835 and which he later included in La Comédie humaine, I would like to explore the relation of narrative perspective to authorial vision, to study the narrator as a kind of avatar or instrument of a writer whose genius for formal innovation was as remarkable as his insight into language, history and human behavior. In each of these works—Louis Lambert, Le Colonel Chabert, the trilogy Histoire des Treize and Eugénie Grandet—the narrator adopts a distinctive point of view, often openly addressing problems of form and transition while relating his story; and the process of narration itself, therefore, unfolds as a drama in conjunction with the plot or action of the novel. It is this drama of technique that will be the subject of the readings of these individual works, which are addressed in the approximate chronological order of their inception (the first versions of Louis Lambert and Le Colonel Chabert were written in 1832, those of the novels of the Histoire des Treize, between 1833 and 1835; and Eugénie Grandet was begun in 1833, but not completed until 1839). This sequence suggests a refinement of technique culminating in the masterpiece Eugénie Grandet; in fact, no such rigid, linear technical development can be said to have taken place, since Balzac continually revised these as well as many other novels throughout the course of his career. However, I would like to suggest a possible inner development by means of the sequence that may parallel Balzac's gradual mastery of technique and expansion of its range—from the confused perspective in Louis Lambert to the masterfully told chronological narration of Le Colonel Chabert, to the experimentation with fragmented perspective and chronology in the Histoire des Treize, to the harmonious fusion of social panorama and story in Eugénie Grandet.

Louis Lambert is arguably the most autobiographical of Balzac's novels; it is also an essay in philosophical speculation. In the guise of the dead hero's friend and self-appointed biographer, the narrator attempts to reconstruct Lambert's life and thought from surviving evidence—written fragments, letters, the narrator's own reminiscences. As he progresses further into the recesses of memory and the open space of speculation, the narrator finds himself alternately locked within—or out of—the closed world of Lambert's private vision and often impenetrable discourse. In the end he can only acknowledge his failure truly to unify his “histoire intellectuelle,” to fuse storytelling with analysis. Thus, we watch the narrator unsuccessfully struggle to integrate the various forms of expression that find their way into the narrative—letters, philosophical tenets and speculation, poetical myth and mimesis. And yet the narrator's problematical identification with his subject is instructive, illuminating some of the fundamental, recurring themes in Balzac's work generally, and enabling us the better to appreciate the detachment of perspective he achieves in other novels.

Whereas in Louis Lambert the narration sometimes borders on near-despair of intelligibility—the hero's cryptic speech, the narrator's inability to conjoin poetical and philosophical discourse—the narrator of Le Colonel Chabert forcefully asserts the referential capacity of language as a source of power and responsibility both in society, where it is frequently misused, and in poetry, where it participates in the symbolic. Through a perspective that explores the relationship of many different levels of meaning, the novel explores linguistic ground beyond the mere recognition of the denotative relation of sign to referent—a relation dangerously severed by Lambert in his last ravings. We enter the realm of moral and intellectual responsibility: the truthfulness and simplicity of Chabert's claim—“Je suis un homme!”—contrast utterly with the dishonesty and compromise too often tolerated by conventional language. The ambiguous relation of language and, by extension, of social justice to truth that, in this dispassionately told story, leads to willful personal and collective blindness, inspires in the lawyer Derville a kind of metaphysical horror. On the formal level the narrator addresses this ambiguity with respect to the symbolic truth of poetical discourse by deferring certain dramatic incidents in order to impress upon us the distanciation between sign and referent so richly exploited by metaphorical language. In so doing, he distinguishes between the tolerance of ambiguity of meaning essential to poetry and, through Derville's gradual disillusionment, its very different, often unjust application practiced in society.

In the preface to the trilogy Histoire des Treize Balzac introduces the persona of a narrator, an anonymous figure in whom the three stories have ostensibly been confided, only to abandon all pretense of a single narrative perspective once embarking on the narration of the first work, Ferragus. This and the other novels, La Duchesse de Langeais and La Fille aux yeux d'or, address the problem of fragmented perspective; they relate stories in which chronology, or the rearrangement of it, requires obvious and concerted shifting of the narrator's point of view. Hence, the way in which the narrator manages transitions within these works is a measure of technical accomplishment and growing mastery. In Ferragus the narrator indirectly and successively embodies the perspective of two of the characters, male figures in jealous pursuit of the mysterious Madame Jules; and then he steps back to adopt an “omniscient” pose, revealing her relationship as daughter to the hero, Ferragus, and inscribing the story in the larger context of a global vision of Paris. Thus, the narrator at one point carefully distinguishes between “récit” and “histoire,” reminding us that the mere anecdote of the story depends upon the art of narration for its effectiveness and meaning. Although the work is not so compelling in its drama of persecution and loss as is the superior Le Colonel Chabert, it is instructive for its attempt to meet the challenge of coordinating several different perspectives within a single narrative, all the while respecting the law of chronology.

In La Duchesse de Langeais the narrator openly flouts that law, relating a story in flashback form, its suspense and timing representing Balzac's dramatic sense at its best. Technically, the deliberate rearrangement of chronology structurally imitates the operation of memory, associating past with present and endowing both with a sense of urgency and meaning. On a thematic level, insofar as the narrator would recreate the social and political environment of the Restoration and shows the hero Montriveau in his attempt to kidnap the cloistered Duchess, there also the narration is an act of retrieval. The transitions require that the narrator, who adopts throughout the detached, “omniscient” pose, convey depth and background, as opposed to the sense of linear continuity in Ferragus. Because the flagrant disregard of strict chronology makes this a self-conscious work, the narrator makes no explicit distinction between “récit” and “histoire”—only a final, inevitable tribute to the power of poetry to preserve feeling and memory. “Ce n'est plus qu'un poème,” says Montriveau of the eponymous heroine; the adventure, once over, is a source of mystery, not disappointment.

Of the works in the Histoire des Treize, the third and last, La Fille aux yeux d'or, is formally and thematically the most audacious. It opens with the famous panorama of the chapter entitled “Physionomies parisiennes,” invoking Classical mythology and Romantic allegory in its vision of industrial society and modern art; then abruptly, with only implicit transition through metaphor, the narrator relates an anecdote of a hero's exotic and grotesque initiation to the passions of greed, homosexuality and incest, all of which is prefigured in the first scene. By virtue of its appendage to the opening vision, the stylized tale acts as a metaphor for Balzac's poetical vision, stressing the fundamental consistency and identity of his imaginary universe, one that fuses myth with mimesis. The story of the hero de Marsay's eventual discovery of his relation to a rival and artist figure, his half-sister, corresponds to the formal effect of the disjointed two-part structure, which delays the reader's recognition of the esthetic unity of the work as a whole.

In an obvious parallel to La Fille aux yeux d'or, Eugénie Grandet begins with a quiet, classic description of the provincial town Saumur entitled “Physionomies bourgeoises”; but rather than sharply breaking with the description in the service of formal innovation, the narrator of Eugénie Grandet develops the themes of history, melancholy and solitude in an unobtrusive continuation of his initial scene. He allows that even he cannot fully interpret, completely understand, the world of symbols he opens before us; like the ancient markings carved into wooden doors, like the grotesque figures embellishing the town's mute, often forbidding architecture, lives and faces are hieroglyphs, full of mystery and unspoken stories. Unlike Louis Lambert and his biographer, this narrator renounces the ambition of omniscience; and although he sounds many of the themes explored in Le Colonel Chabert, he chooses an inherently less remarkable and articulate protagonist. Thus, the interest of Eugénie Grandet shifts away from the gradual resolution of an open conflict, such as Chabert's personal war against society, towards the drama of discernment, through the narrator's eyes, of hidden conflict, passion and the silent depths of experience. The process of seeing coincides with the progress of the heroine's rite of passage on the thematic plane; more clearly than the other works, Eugénie Grandet illustrates the painstaking art, the patient evolution of visionary insight Balzac so memorably described in Facino Cane:

Chez moi l'observation était déjà devenue intuitive, elle pénétrait l'âme sans négliger le corps; ou plutôt elle saisissait si bien les détails extérieurs, qu'elle allait sur-le-champ au-delà; elle me donnait la faculté de vivre la vie de l'individu sur laquelle elle s'exerçait, en me permettant de me substituer à lui comme le derviche des Mille et Une Nuits prenait le corps et l'âme des personnes sur lesquelles il prononçait certaines paroles.

It is, after all, this process of “observation”—its exploitation on the level of perspective, its constant deepening on the level of authorial vision—that initiates the reader into the special poetical consciousness of any author. The “sauvage enveloppe” Balzac so staunchly defended in his letter requires no apology for its superficial lack of refinement; distortions of theme or rearrangements of chronological order may serve to stress profound symbolic insights. A serious writer will cultivate first of all his vision, his “but de profonde moralité”; all the rest will follow. For all its technical faults, Louis Lambert is the work of such a writer, a work flawed by the absence of a controlling perspective sufficiently removed to coordinate insights from many sources—philosophy, religion, autobiography, invention. Told by a narrator who is not torn by so many conflicting impulses, Le Colonel Chabert elevates the poignant social criticism it contains far above the level of mere didacticism; it brings us to the crossroads where conventional language meets its obligation to truth, and explores the uses of compromise and ambiguity with respect to law, ordinary speech and symbolic expression. In the Histoire des Treize we see in three reprises the experimental uses of perspective in the relation of stories in which desire becomes a metaphor for the search for absolute, eternal meaning, one in which the identity and difference between the sexes can be reconciled and transcended. The inevitable failure of this endeavor leads, in these novels, to endings affirming the limitations and the possibilities of poetical discourse. Finally, in Eugénie Grandet, in less flamboyant and more measured style, the narrator departs from the solemn historicity of his opening vision to relate an adventure of the heart that does not entirely decipher the physical and moral façades of ordinary provincial life, but only deepens their mystery. Indeed, it is an attitude of wonder, of exploration, of scrutiny, that the drama of perspective would communicate to us in all these works. The revelation that one cannot change or control the world by divining its essence (Louis Lambert), by proclaiming one's personal truth (Le Colonel Chabert), by possessing one's beloved (Histoire des Treize), in Eugénie Grandet takes the form of a drama of relation: Eugénie meets her destiny, and herself, by accepting her paternal inheritance—the inescapable material and spiritual fruit of her father's avarice and of her own provincial roots. This ending, however bleak is an esthetically compelling one, stating in its way the ultimate subordination of the life of the individual to the forces of history, and of the novel as work of art to the era from which it springs. It is as if Balzac would bequeath his work to us with a benevolent detachment prefigured by his narrator; as Martin Kanes observes:

Eventually we come full circle, for by recognizing the aesthetic status of the text, we make of the novel an object in its own right: not a copy of something else, but an autonomous object whose structures of perception and consciousness are those of the age that produced it. Inevitably, then, it will return us to history, not by what it refers to, but by what it is, thus fulfilling Balzac's fondest dream.3

Thus, the close readings of the novels that follow will take as their premise that an examination of narrative perspective will enable us to glimpse the “but de profonde moralité” implicit within a profusion of detail, in melodrama, in formal innovation, in the adventure of poetic feeling given permanence in words. Each work is a means of access to the single authorial vision in which it originates; but each work establishes its own unique symbolic world also. The relation of each narrative to the underlying poetical vision remains ambiguous, revealing as much as it conceals; we cannot explain away or categorize the qualities of such a vision; we can only respond as readers to the works before us. The accumulation of painstaking descriptive detail in Balzac's fiction reminds us, even as we question its linguistic and metaphysical underpinnings, that worlds become possible through language and that language cannot preclude the representation of humble detail expressed in accessible form. It is Louis Lambert's tragedy to have sacrificed the particular in the sounding of the universal—a helplessness, or temptation, firmly rejected by his creator. Colonel Chabert, Ferragus—these haunting, moving figures of wounded intelligence—convey an author's urgent sense of the fragility and limitations of the human mind—and of the intrinsic seriousness and value of its creative works and knowledge. This commitment to poetic vision, implicit in the drama of perspective in its many and enduring forms, illuminates the “sauvage enveloppe” of Balzac's art by fusing bone with marrow and marrow with bone.4


  1. Maurice Bardèche, Balzac: Romancier (Paris: Plon, 1940), p. 183.

  2. Paul Ricœur, La Métaphore vive (Paris: Seuil, 1975), p. 308.

  3. Martin Kanes, Balzac's Comedy of Words (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1975), p. 224.

  4. In the text of this study I have supplied page references to two of the most accessible editions of Balzac's work: first, La Comédie humaine, ed. Pierre-Georges Castex, 12 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1976-1980), the new Pléiade edition; and second, La Comédie humaine, ed. Pierre Citron, 7 vols. (Paris: Seuil, 1965-1966). The volume numbers for each work will be indicated in a note at the beginning of each chapter.

Selected Bibliography

La Comédie humaine. Ed. Pierre Citron. 7 vols. Paris: Seuil, 1965-1966.

La Comédie humaine. Ed. Pierre-Georges Castex. 12 vols. Paris: Gallimard, 1976-1980.

Le Colonel Chabert suivi de Honorine et de L'Interdiction. Ed. Maurice Allem. Paris: Garnier, 1964.

La Duchesse de Langeais. La Fille aux yeux d'or. Ed. Rose Fortassier. Paris: Gallimard, 1976.

Eugénie Grandet. Ed. Pierre-Georges Castex. Paris: Garnier, 1965.

Histoire des Treize. Ed. Pierre-Georges Castex. Paris: Garnier, 1966.

Louis Lambert. Ed. Marcel Bouteron and Jean Pommier. Paris: José Corti, 1954.

Correspondance. Ed. Roger Pierrot. 5 vols. Paris: Garnier, 1960-1969.

Gabriel Moyal (essay date winter 1989)

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SOURCE: Moyal, Gabriel. “Making the Revolution Private: Balzac's Les Chouans and Une épisode sous la Terreur.Studies in Romanticism 28, no. 4 (winter 1989): 601-22.

[In the following essay, Moyal argues that in Les Chouans and Un épisode sous la terreur, two works set during the French Revolution, Balzac deliberately minimizes the changes that took place during the period and depicts the private spheres of characters as limited, full of compromise, and lacking in choice and freedom.]

Though, in our time, the restoration of the class system of the ancien régime is no longer entertained as a possibility, the narrations in Balzac's Comédie humaine which tell of its last attempts to prevail, and of its ultimate downfall, still hold some fascination for us despite their apparent irrelevance to the representations we entertain of our own political and historical situation. The tales of passions and ambitions which tell how a “grocer may become a peer of France, and [how] a nobleman may sink into the lowest rank of society,”1 still captivate readers long after the Revolution first destroyed the rigid class system of the ancien régime. Our continued interest in the short stories and novels whose focus is the crossing or the dissolution of the boundaries of that class structure is perhaps due to our perceiving that structure as having been replaced in our time by one even more rigid, one more insidious—if less obtrusive. We neither want nor even can realistically conceive of a return to the autocratic, aristocratic system Balzac seems to want restored, yet, as Balzac presents it, certain aspects of the old system still appear to hold some nostalgic appeal for us, an appeal which is impervious to and separate from the arbitrariness and injustice we also associate with the ancien régime.

The characters in La Comédie humaine appear to cling desperately to a sense of individual wholeness which they see as continuous with their social responsibilities while they are besieged by a society which pressures them to systematically shed the remaining abstract spiritual values which have sustained them until the Revolution and beyond. In the place of these values, money and material property increasingly dominate and control all the activities and all the concerns of individuals within society. Though Balzac's France still clings to its symbols and theoretically remains a constitutional monarchy, its true rulers are its bankers and financiers. Under their near-hegemony abstract values and ideals which invariably come into conflict with material interests come to be seen as matters of private conscience and are gradually excluded from influence or effect on social or political behavior.

In promulgating individual liberties and equality, the Revolution had also granted much greater freedom of action to private commercial and financial enterprise. Nevertheless, Balzac does not see these shifts in society's values or in the structure of its hierarchy exclusively as direct results of the Revolution. The Revolution was not, for Balzac, a magical event which suddenly and irremediably dissolved all arbitrary restraint and eradicated all artificial impediments to personal ambition. Rather it was for him a prominent point in an ongoing process which had been initiated long before the Revolution and which was steadily and ineluctably continuing in his own time. Analyzing and explaining that process is what Balzac presents as the primary concern of the Comédie humaine.

For us, the Revolution's exceptional importance in history and its undeniable influence in determining the shape of modern society have set it apart in a chronology of its own, almost in a separate time frame unconnected with ours. As a historical point of reference, it has come to be considered a fixed, practically opaque object, incommensurate with our own experience. For us, it has become the closed period of time within which radical changes inexplicably took place under inexplicably converging propitious circumstances. Thus, in speaking of Balzac and the Revolution, we are tempted to project our own perspective onto his. Having reified the Revolution in our conception, we tend to read ourselves into Balzac's text and presume him to have perceived it in the same way we do. In doing so, we would want to find some justification in thinking that Balzac's depiction of French society after the Revolution has had some part in making up our own conception of the Revolution. Yet, nothing in Balzac's writings authorizes such projection. Quite the opposite: even a superficial reading of Balzac's texts reveals that his novels, far from seeking to transform past history into static, representable objects, attempt to explain present conditions as part of a continuous dynamic.

Both in the novels and in the Avant-propos, Balzac's discussion of history and of its representation in fiction manifests a resistance to the temptation of simplifying history by making objects out of events. The images he uses to recount the development of the Comédie humaine tend to complicate rather than simplify the author's perspective. “La Société française allait être l'historien, je ne devais étre que le secrétaire”2 [“French society was to be the historian, and I but the secretary” (1: x)], says Balzac in one of the more famous passages of the Avant-propos. The image evoked deserves some elaboration if only because of its ambiguity. Here the “historian” is presumed to be in action, in motion, while the novelist at first appears as a passive but faithful stenographer. This passivity is perhaps meant to be interpreted as some guarantee of veracity, of non-interference with objective facts. Yet, that being so, the dynamic “historian” clearly cannot be an easy subject for the “secretary.” The “historian” appears as acting out its history unhindered by the limits of the scribe's perspective, unconfined by his opinions. Yet, as “historian,” society provides not just the facts, the material content, but also dictates the text. The image of this text has to be the palimpsest, for if, as “historian,” it is telling a past, it is telling it through the “secretary” 's and its own present. The text Balzac is given to read and transcribe is already “history,” the actualization of a past potential. The roles of historian and secretary are not, of course, simply assigned by circumstance: the author is the one who determines his role and claims it for his own. Nonetheless, the images he has chosen to represent his perspective already describe his own sense of exclusion and loss of control in relation to what we take to be his own creation. The awkward position in which he situates himself here seems more appropriate for a historian than for a novelist and the helplessness which it also implies seems more familiar to us, to our own condition than we might expect.

This becomes all the more surprising when we remember that Balzac does not express this forced passivity solely in relation to what he refers to as national and public historical events but to that part of history which historians have traditionally neglected, everyday private life:

En saisissant bien le sens de cette composition, on reconnaîtra que j'accorde aux faits constants, quotidiens, secrets ou patents, aux actes de la vie individuelle, à leurs causes et à leurs principes autant d'importance que jusqu'alors les historiens en ont attaché aux événements de la vie publique des nations.


[If the meaning of my composition be well understood, it will be acknowledged that I accord to indubitable facts of everyday life, whether secret or open, to the acts of individual existence, and to their origin and cause, the same importance that, up to this time, historians have attached to the public life of nations.]

(1: xx)

Though he seems to narrow the focus, Balzac is not devaluing his perspective. This is Balzac's loftiest claim for his novels, that they explain the inner workings of his society's public history by recounting the everyday private behavior (“moeurs”) of representative fictional individuals. Balzac's narrations cannot be dismissed as simple human interest stories. One of the long-recognized values of Balzac's novels is that, in them, intersections of “public” historical events with the private lives of the characters hardly ever take the form of a chance meeting. Indeed, the characters' most intimate passions seem to lead them blindly into the waiting arms of the historical destiny of their social class.3 Yet, even the shape Balzac is to give their private destinies has to be mediated by widespread popular conceptions of history, of historical events and figures. If public history seems disconnected from private life, it seems to escape the control of the individuals who both make it and undergo it, it is because its events and figures are already mediated by a screen of legends, of popular received ideas and commonplaces. The effect of this screen is to reinforce the sense that private actions and thoughts are irrelevant to the course of public, national history. This legendary aspect of public figures and events makes history appear as a separate unattainable realm, yet, paradoxically it also mediates the public's comprehension of its own history. Balzac knows that all references to historical events in his novels will, in the end, be filtered through this screen as they will, inevitably, contribute to its texture.

Balzac's way of extricating himself from the epistemological dilemma is to complicate the problem by incorporating these historical commonplaces within his novels and openly discussing their effects, by presenting characters who are themselves entangled in the consequences of the Revolution and who are trying to understand and expose them in their own creative work. This is particularly evident in Illusions perdues, a novel in which Balzac outlines how bourgeois energy and capital have taken control of the publishing industry and created huge newspaper and book-publishing empires. With these, bankers and financiers are able to manipulate public opinion in both the cultural and political domains. They are, by the same token, in a position to rewrite past history by reshaping and disseminating revised versions—adapted to their own ends—of historical events and figures. By propagating and reinforcing the legendary aspect of public history, they reinforce their control over the destiny of society, over the everyday lives of the individuals within it. That, in this, the ancien régime proceeded analogously in its exalting of the symbols of the monarchy and its promoting the monarch himself to the status of legendary hero appears less threatening to Balzac than the manipulations of the bankers and the liberal press.

It is in order to counteract some of the effects of the liberal press that Daniel d'Arthez, the philosopher-hero of this novel, advises Lucien de Rubempré, a budding poet and would-be novelist to recast the established image of some of France's more autocratic rulers:

Vous avez un moyen d'être original en relevant les erreurs populaires qui défigurent la plupart de nos rois. Osez, dans votre première oeuvre, rétablir la grande et magnifique figure de Catherine [de Médici] que vous avez sacrifiée aux préjugés qui planent encore sur elle. Enfin peignez Charles ix comme il était, et non comme l'ont fait les écrivains protestants.

[You have scope for great originality, in rectifying the popular errors that disfigure most of our kings. Have the courage, in your first book, to re-establish the great, magnificent figure of Catherine (de Medici), that you have sacrificed to the prejudices that still cloud her name. And, above all, paint Charles ix as he really was, and not as Protestant writers have made him.]4

In the context, this rectification of popular error implies a reaction against the commercially successful novels of Walter Scott via a return to a more conventional French novel form: “Remplacez ces diffuses causeries, magnifiques chez Scott, mais sans couleur chez vous, par des descriptions auxquelles se prête si bien notre langue” (5: 313) [“Replace those diffuse conversations, magnificent in Scott, but colourless in your work, by description, to which our language lends itself so well” (225)]. D'Arthez's advice does not pertain exclusively to literature. The dissatisfaction he expresses with the popular accounts of past history reflects his rejection of the standard explanations given for the state of society and, implicitly, for his own situation within it. The effect of the historical novel, as Balzac presents it here, cannot be limited to the literary domain. D'Arthez's advising Lucien to restore the image of some of France's more autocratic rulers needs to be read as an attempt to resist the oversimplifications proffered by the bourgeois press. In the context of this novel, Balzac's insistence on the utter poverty of d'Arthez and of the honest young men of genius who surround him in the “cénacle” gives his critique of Lucien's novel a far wider scope. The representation of history in literature for Balzac inevitably affects society's own image and understanding of itself. Rewriting, correcting the liberal press version of history is for him to counteract the manipulation of both political and private life by private interests. Making this rewriting one of the explicit subjects of his novel is to attempt to expose the manipulation, to deflate the legends and undermine their effect.

The pertinence of d'Arthez's comments and their applicability to everyday private life are brought out more clearly by the near juxtaposition of Etienne Lousteau's fatal counsel to Lucien. Lousteau, a failed author turned journalist, begins by linking creativity to public political opinion. Before he even hears Lucien's poems, Lousteau wants to know his political affiliation. As he explains, a literary affiliation is immediately translatable into a political one:

[—Etes-vous classique ou romantique? … Vous arrivez au milieu d'une bataille acharnée, il faut vous décider promptement. La littérature est partagée d'abord en plusieurs zones; mais nos grands hommes sont divisés en deux camps. Les Royalistes sont romantiques, les Libéraux sont classiques. La divergence des opinions littéraires se joint à la divergence des opinions politiques. … Par une singulière bizarrerie, les Royalistes romantiques demandent la liberté littéraire et la révocation des lois qui donnent des formes convenues à notre littérature; tandis que les Libéraux veulent maintenir les unités, l'allure de l'alexandrin et le thème classique. Les opinions littéraires sont donc en désaccord, dans chaque camp, avec les opinions politiques. … De quel côté vous rangez-vous?

—Quels sont les plus forts?

—Les journaux libéraux ont beaucoup plus d'abonnés que les journaux royalistes et ministériels.

(5: 337)

—Are you a classic or a romantic? … My dear fellow, you have arrived in the middle of a pitched battle, and you must take sides immediately. Literature, at first sight, might seem to be divided into several zones; but our great men all belong to one of two camps. The royalists are romantics, the liberals are classics. Difference of literary opinion goes with difference of political opinion. … By a strange coincidence, the royalist romantics demand freedom in literature, and the revocation of the laws that have established our accepted literary forms; while the liberals are all for maintaining the unities, the alexandrine, and classical themes. Literary opinions, therefore, are in direct opposition to the political opinions of the respective camps. Which side do you intend to take?

—Which is the winning side?

—The sales of the Liberal papers are much bigger than those of the Royalist and Ministerial journals.]


Lousteau's answer to Lucien's question (“which is the winning side?”) takes the translatability of literary and political affiliations one step further: they are also convertible into cash profit. Political ideals, personal values, beliefs of all sorts and especially the talent to represent them have all become marketable. They can be bought and sold, changed and exchanged on the intellectual marketplace which the massive expansion of the publication industry has created.

The “désaccord” [“direct opposition”] between political and literary opinions does not affect their translatability. It refers to a certain predictability of values and opinions under the ancien régime. Implied in Lousteau's term is the notion that class can be presumed to determine individual personal ideals—even in matters of literary taste—with an accuracy proportional to the rigidity of the system itself. That class structure having been dissolved by the Revolution, ideals now appear as no longer anchored, as able to circulate freely in a presumably egalitarian society. Each individual is then left to privately devise his own mode of adaptation to the new circumstances and, in doing so, to determine his beliefs and ideals. The illusion which this new situation fosters is that ideals no longer have external, social determinants, that having become private, they are alienable property separable from the constitutional monarchy's lingering remnants of aristocratic hierarchy and from the growing influence of class interests. In fact, they are becoming marketable commodities which can be made to serve economic and political interests—precisely those interests which bring the royalist romantics to favor change and the liberals to defend the status quo—in literature and elsewhere.

Lucien's unhappy adventures, his ultimate failure, retrace the fate of talent which is neither committed nor solidly grounded in knowledge or in historical understanding. In a time when all the forms of intellectual production are being taken over as means of access to power, Lucien's lack of engagement and of persistence can only lead to personal disaster and the fate he suffers is determined by his inability to measure the power and influence of the economic and political conditions on creativity. His conviction that his talent and genius can thrive or even survive within society and remain unaffected by its materialist structure appears, in the end, tragically naïve. Balzac's discussion of the problems of historical novel-writing within what he wants to be perceived as a renewed form of historical novel—a form specifically adapted to represent the material conditions governing literary production—serves as Balzac's resolution of the conflicting demands those conditions make on his own talent. In telling Lucien's failure Balzac succeeds in portraying the conditions under which the novel itself is written.

If Illusions Perdues retraces the effects of the Revolution on intellectual production in the first half of the nineteenth century, if we can assume from it that Balzac's other historical novels are written (or re-written) with the aim of creating an awareness of these conditions, then those novels which deal with the Revolution itself might, examined from this perspective, provide a different understanding of the Revolution. These novels, though they might not altogether avoid the stereotypes we have come to associate with the Revolution, tend to minimize the differences between the pre- and post-Revolution periods. The presumed effects seem already present in the causes and the Restoration appears as having simply entrenched tendencies existing long before the Revolution. Les Chouans and Un épisode sous la Terreur—the two narratives whose action is situated in the period of the Revolution—tend to dissolve the received impression that the Revolution was a period of precipitous radical change. Rather, when perceived through the private lives of Balzac's characters, the images which represent the Revolution involve various forms of transaction, of negotiated exchange and ongoing compromises between the forces in conflict.


Jaded by a too eventful life, and seeking, for once, to experience true love, Marie de Verneuil has agreed to work for Fouché's secret police and, for a price, to entrap with her charms Alphonse de Montauran, the leader of the royalist rebels in Brittany. Montauran's mission is to lead the Chouans, Breton peasants fiercely loyal to the church and the crown, in attacks against the republican armies and to coordinate the leadership of all the counter-revolutionary forces in France. When Marie meets Montauran, she falls in love and renounces her mission altogether. Madame du Gua, Montauran's comrade in arms and Marie's rival for his affections, warns him that Marie is probably Fouché's spy and manages to arouse his defiance. Marie senses this suspicion from an offhand remark and is set adrift in her thoughts and emotions:

La vie humaine est tristement fertile en situations où, par suite soit d'une méditation trop forte, soit d'une catastrophe, nos idées ne tiennent plus à rien, sont sans substance, sans point de départ, où le présent ne trouve plus de liens pour se rattacher au passé, ni dans l'avenir. Tel fut l'état de Mlle de Verneuil. Penchée dans le fond de la voiture, elle y resta comme un arbuste déraciné.

[Human life is lamentably fruitful in situations in which, as the result of too profound meditation or of some catastrophe, our ideas cease to cohere, are without substance, without a starting-point, and in which the present finds nothing to connect it with the past or with the future. Such was Mademoiselle de Verneuil's condition. She lay in the back seat of the carriage like an uprooted tree.]5

This sense of disjunction, though it is initially explained by Montauran's sudden change in attitude, is not separable from the wider historical context of the narrative. Earlier on, Marie expressed her surprise at how rapidly she and Montauran had come to confide in one another—they have only met the previous day. When she tries to dismiss this intimacy by attributing it to the implicit convention that their relationship is only expected to last the time of their voyage together, Montauran supplies another interpretation, one which is aimed at bringing Marie to regard another convention as obsolete: that which stipulates that a certain lapse of time is a prerequisite to intimacy. Implicitly, he invites her to trust her emotions of the moment:

Remarquez-vous, mademoiselle … combien les sentiments suivent peu la route commune dans le temps de terreur où nous vivons? Autour de nous, tout n'est-il pas frappé d'une inexplicable soundaineté. Aujourd'hui, nous aimons, nous haïssons sur la foi d'un regard. L'on s'unit pour la vie ou l'on se quitte avec la célérité dont on marche à la mort. On se dépéche en toute chose, comme la Nation dans ses tumultes.

(8: 1003)

[Have you noticed, Mademoiselle … how seldom the sentiments follow travelled paths in these days of terror that we are living in? Doesn't everything about us seem to happen with inexplicable suddenness? To-day we love or hate on the strength of a glance. People join hands for life or part with the same celerity with which they go to their death. Everyone makes haste with everything as the nation does with its insurrections.]

(33: 161)

Both Marie's sense of disconnection from time and Montauran's partial conjunction of private emotions and desires with the historical context can be read as complementary segments of a typical seduction scene. At the same time, however, both present us with corresponding versions of the two characters' perception of history and of their place within it.

Having chosen private happiness over her political mission, Marie finds herself uprooted when the man for whom she has made this choice appears to reject her. Being excluded at once from public and private roles, Marie finds herself reduced—albeit temporarily—to insignificance. Meanwhile, Montauran's lighthearted reference to the Terror in his attempt to seduce Marie might be dismissed as part of a stereotypical image of aristocratic bravado. History, he seems to believe, is his to use at will. Yet the analogy he draws ironically denies the self-assurance he wants to convey as it points out the helplessness of individuals to manage even their most private relationships independently. Even private relationships are shaped by political circumstances outside the control of those who enter into them. Montauran's self-confidence is all the more striking as he does not seem aware, even as he says this, of the dangers in his own situation, of how the very private affair he anticipates with Marie might jeopardize his military and political mission. His sense of control seems so total that it is impervious even to his descriptions of his own situation.

Neither Marie nor Montauran are able to gauge adequately the interdependence of public and private interests, and both act as though they could, despite their political involvements, keep their freedom of action in their personal lives. All the events of the plot of this novel repeatedly demonstrate how illusory this belief is. That this inseparability applies equally to those who are not entrusted with political responsibility is demonstrated in the parallel love story between Francine, Marie's maidservant, and Marche-à-Terre, one of the Chouans.

By contrast, Corentin, Fouché's other secret agent and Marie's long-standing suitor, speaks as though he has achieved the perfect balance between private and political interests and has made each serve the other. His boast to Hulot, the local commander of the republican troops, is that he has managed to have all the men who have come between him and Marie eliminated. For him, the Revolution's principal accomplishment seems to be to have created a power vacuum in liberating individual ambitions and energy. Power will inevitably flow to those who are best able to manipulate others and who, like Corentin himself, are no longer bound by loyalty to individuals, to ideals or to political systems. His political philosophy is the one which dominates the post-Revolution society Balzac represents in the other novels of the Comédie humaine:

Employer habilement les passions des hommes ou des femmes comme des ressorts que l'on fait mouvoir au profit de l'Etat, mettre les rouages à leur place dans cette grande machine que nous appelons un gouvernement, et se plaire à y renfermer les plus indomptables sentiments comme des détentes que l'on s'amuse à surveiller, n'estce pas créer, et comme Dieu, se placer au centre de l'univers?

(8: 1148)

[To make skilful use of the passions of men or women as springs which one works to the advantage of the State, to put all the parts of the great machine we call government in their proper places, and to amuse one's self by attaching thereto the most unconquerable sentiments like hair-triggers which it is exciting to watch—is not that to create, and, like God, to take one's place at the centre of the universe?]

(33: 393)

In the end, Corentin will accomplish his political mission, he will eliminate Montauran. The price he will pay for it is entirely personal: to have Montauran killed, he unwittingly kills Marie who has donned Montauran's clothes to save him. Despite all his claims of perspicacity, Corentin is unable to anticipate the intricate personality of the woman he supposedly loves: he literally cannot even recognize her. Having used his political position to consolidate his advantage with Marie, it is through Marie's death that he achieves his political goal. His claims to have resolved the contradictions between public and private life reveal themselves in the end to be no less illusory than Marie's or Montauran's. Corentin's total lack of emotion on Marie's death also symbolizes the dehumanization which inevitably follows from his treatment of others as objects, as means to his purpose. Private sentiments, for Balzac, are never insulated from the economic and political forces which govern society. In Les Chouans, this is most clearly illustrated by the very immediate and reciprocal effects private emotions and ideals have on history. Corentin's speech prevents us from dismissing this intertwining of public and private lives as simply satisfying a conventional demand of the structure of historical novels.

As the illegitimate daughter of a high-ranking nobleman and as a courtesan turned into a republican secret agent, Marie de Verneuil escapes all attempts at categorization.6 She is endlessly torn between conflicting claims on her political allegiance. Her private passions and desires can only complicate these further. One scene in the text dramatizes these conflicts and, at once, demonstrates how “sentiment,” which is both irrational and intimate, is inextricably implied in political decisions. Seated both with royalist leaders and with unsuspecting republican officers, Marie compares the appearance of the two groups of men. Looking first at the republicans and their threadbare uniforms Marie thinks to herself: “Oh! là est la nation, la liberté” [“Ah! there is the nation, liberty!”] Then, looking at the royalists: “Et, là est un homme, un Roi, des privilèges” (8: 1045) [“And there a man, a king, a privileged class!” (33: 228)]. Marie, at first, clearly favors the republicans. When she looks at Montauran, however, her opinions change completely: “elle était arrivée par le sentiment au point où l'on arrive par la raison, à reconnaître que le Roi c'est le pays” (8: 1046) [“she had reached by way of sentiment the point that others reach by reasoning—that the king is the country” (33: 229)]. This conversion cannot be dismissed as a thoughtless change of heart on the part of an infatuated woman. Marie has just been arguing the republican position against Montauran so convincingly that his own royalist convictions have been shaken. Marie's love for Montauran and the support for his cause which it entails will survive all his betrayals. Precisely because it is irrational, because it is capable of sustaining contradictions, sentiment provides a more solid grounding for political allegiance than reason.

Montauran's aristocratic convictions as well are founded almost exclusively on emotion, on pride in particular, and centered on honor. The struggle to restore the monarchy to its former power looks, from his perspective, like a quest for the Holy Grail: it demands a pure heart and pure intentions. Yet, this idealism is not entirely naïve for Montauran shows elsewhere that he is not incapable of understanding the need for compromise in politics, he is not entirely blind to political reality. Having explained to Marie how the Abbé Gudin convinces the fanatical Chouans to die for their king by promising them resurrection, Montauran exposes his political doctrine, one which is very reminiscent of Corentin's: “Vous le voyez: il faut employer les intérêts particuliers de chacun pour arriver à un grand but. Là sont tous les secrets de la politique” (8: 1036) [“You see how it is; we must make use of every man's private interests to attain a great end. Therein lies the whole secret of politics” (33: 214)].

What is to be particularly excluded in Montauran's quest for moral purity, is money. His naïveté appears most clearly in his inability to understand that the rebellion cannot be sustained without money.7 What is at stake in his fidelity to the monarchy is his personal honor. The struggle he is engaged in is for him an occasion to display his loyalty and the strength of his commitment to a set of ideals and abstract values. The measure of individual worth is, in his system, proportional to the loyalty he displays to these ideals. His political action is inseparable from himself, from his self-representation as worthy of his social rank. Exchanging his ideals for material gain, even for hereditary property, would mean selling himself and, from Montauran's perspective, imply that all the values which sustain the aristocratic structure can also be sold.

That Montauran's position is already anachronistic is made plain by the greed his fellow nobles shamelessly display:

Chacun des chefs trouva le moyen de faire savoir au marquis [de Montauran], d'une manière plus ou moins ingénieuse, le prix exagéré qu'il attendait de ses services. L'un demandait modestement le gouvernement de Bretagne, l'autre une baronnie, celui-ci un grade, celui-là un commandement; tous voulaient des pensions.

(8: 1128)

[Each of the leaders succeeded in signifying to the marquis (de Montauran), by more or less ingenious means, the exaggerated reward that he expected for his services. One modestly asked for the government of Bretagne, another for a barony, this one for a commission in the army, that one for a high office; and they all wanted pensions.]

(33: 361)

As he cannot recognize himself nor the ideals he has come to defend in his peers his only option is to resign his leadership of the rebellion: “Je ne veux plus commander … qu'à ceux qui verront un Roi dans le Roi, et non une proie à dévorer” (8: 1130) [“Henceforth, I propose to command only those who see in the king a king, and not a victim to be devoured” (33: 364)].

For Montauran, the royalist rebellion presents the nobility with an opportunity to display once again the valor and courage, which, for him, are the only true aristocratic qualities. The greed of the other nobles, just like their readiness to bargain with the Republic and to put down arms in exchange for the restitution of their hereditary lands, is made to appear, in contrast to the nature of Montauran's loyalty, as the sign of an already well-entrenched corruption which the Revolution could neither have initiated nor provoked.

This is precisely what Montauran cannot see. That the monarchy has long ago forfeited the ideals which Montauran wants to defend seems to escape him entirely. His idealism appears to rest on a one-sided simplification of history from which all the past corruptions of the French monarchy seem to have been evacuated. His obsession against money ends up appearing as a personal aversion, not a political one. Montauran appears as an idealized version of the nobility, an image distorted by a nineteenth-century society steeped in materialism and nostalgically craving its former values.

When Montauran compares his devotion to the monarchy to a faith, to a religion in which the king is a priest,8 the comparison seems particularly adequate. As a metaphor for monarchy, religion crystallizes the unity which both Montauran and Marie vainly seek throughout this novel. This quest appears, in Montauran, as entirely personal: to succeed in his mission, or to die in the attempt would be proof of his own unwavering integrity, of his being at one with his ideals. The unity and sovereignty of France is, for him, irrelevant and in any event would ensue—as though magically—from his succeeding in his task. Neither the complicity of the foreign nations whose aid to the royalist cause serves to neutralize the threat the Republic presents, nor the obvious dissension amongst the too individualistic aristocrats who serve with him can instill in him any doubt in this regard. Monarchy remains for him the symbolic preserver of a spiritual unity, the guarantor of individual integrity against the encroachments of materialism. In this scheme, money appears as the evil solvent by which individuals are separated from their ideals and ultimately from themselves.

The unity of the Nation is, by contrast, primordial for Marie. In her strongest argument against Montauran's cosmopolitan royalism she presents herself personifying France, as the motherland torn apart by its squabbling children:

Laissez-moi penser que vous êtes le seul noble qui fasse son devoir en attaquant la France avec des Français, et non à l'aide de l'étranger. Je suis femme, et sens que si mon enfant me frappait dans sa colère, je pourrais lui pardonner; mais s'il me voyait de sang-froid déchirée par un inconnu, je le regarderai comme un monstre.

(8: 1037)

[Let me think that you are the only nobleman who does his duty in attacking France with Frenchmen and not with the aid of foreigners. I am a woman, and I feel that if my child should strike me in anger, I could forgive him; but if he looked on in cold blood while I was torn to pieces by a stranger, I should consider him a monster.]

(33: 215-16)

France's unity appears, with Marie, as holding out the distant promise of a conciliation between royalists and republicans. Yet her conversion “by sentiment,” her suddenly seeing in the monarch the embodiment of a unified nation is founded on her love for Montauran. As such it can serve to resolve—temporarily—only those conflicts she herself perceived between her emotions and her ideology. Her private perception will not suddenly make the aristocrats patriotic or the republicans forget their egalitarian ideals. In this novel, however, private sentiments are the means through which national political solutions are to be symbolically attained. As she has been converted through love, Montauran, through his love for her, proclaims his patriotism with his dying breath:

Je compte sur votre probité pour annoncer ma mort à mon jeune frère qui se trouve à Londes, écrivez-lui que s'il veut obéir à mes dernières paroles, il ne portera pas les armes contre la France, sans néanmoins jamais abandonner le service du Roi.

(8: 1210)

[I rely upon your honor to inform my young brother, now in London, of my death. Write him that, if he has any respect for my last words, he will not bear arms against France, but will remain faithful to the king, nonetheless.]

(33: 490)

For Montauran to be converted through love has implications for the aristocratic system which he represents by his political mission. He also stands for that system symbolically, as it is also through him that the sovereignty of the king is recognized. His advice to his brother is, under the political circumstances, impossible to follow. Remaining faithful to the king without taking up the struggle to restore him to power would be, at best, a futile kind of fidelity, one which can only have effects inwardly and privately, just as the passive patriotism Montauran also recommends becomes meaningless if it is to remain a private faith and cannot lead to any outward action. Montauran's advice makes the struggle an internal, personal one. It cannot be read, despite Balzac's according it so prominent a position at the end of the text, as a model solution to France's internal dissension. The Revolution has changed the stakes, and the negotiable value of the nobles' hereditary land property has become more significant for their survival than any inner, personal sense of integrity could possibly be.

Les Chouans was the first novel Balzac published under his own name. The idealization of the monarchy's role as symbol of unity and as preserver of abstract, spiritual values it presents would be taken up again in different forms in several of Balzac's later novels as well as in the Avant-propos. The most elaborate expression of this idealization, however, is to be found in a slightly earlier text, in a short story Balzac ghost-wrote for a commercial literary venture, as the “Introduction” to Les Mémoires de Sanson. Its final title within the Comédie humaine is Un épisode sous la Terreur.


In its first published form, the suspense which surrounds the anonymous central character of this short story [Un épisode sous la Terreur] was probably not as prevalent as it became later, when it appeared under Balzac's own name and under a new title. The name “Sanson” was known to be that of the executioner, and the date given at the very beginning of the story—22nd of January 1793—was easily recognized by the reading public as the day following the execution of Louis xvi. As the short story appears today, however, attention is focused on the identity of this “stranger” which is withheld until the very last page. As long as we do not realize that he is the executioner, that he has just executed the king, the full meaning of the story evades us and the narrator's insistence on making explicit the symbolism of every object and character described appears unjustified. The enigma of the “stranger” 's identity contaminates the entire text and defers our appreciation as well as our comprehension.

Without its mysterious stranger this story would simply recount a clandestine mass celebrated for the repose of the king's soul by an “insermenté” (non-juring) priest and two old nuns. All three are from aristocratic families. They are also survivors of convents and monasteries which have been ransacked by revolutionaries. They have taken refuge in a poor garret and are at the end of their resources when the stranger appears at their door and asks to attend the requiem mass they have been preparing. The mass having been said, the stranger gives the priest a “holy relic”—a handkerchief stained with sweat and blood—as an act of gratitude. He advises the religious that they will be secretly protected by their landlord and asks to return the following year to celebrate with them the anniversary mass. Throughout the year the refugees find food on their doorstep—even in periods of severe shortages. They await the stranger's return with grateful anticipation, but, when he does come back, he seems somber and distant and he does not even partake of the meal they have prepared in his honor. After the 9th Thermidor, the fall of Robespierre, the priest sees this stranger in the executioner's tumbril. When he is told, at last, that the man is himself the executioner, he faints. Reviving, he mutters something his friends dismiss as delirium: “Il m'a sans doute donné … le mouchoir avec lequel le Roi s'est essuyé le front, en allant au martyre … Pauvre homme … le couteau d'acier a eu du coeur quand toute la France en manquait! …” [“He must have given me … the handkerchief which the King used to wipe his brow as he went to his martyrdom … Poor man! The steel blade had a heart when all of France had none! …”]9

Referring to the executioner as the “steel blade” is consistent with the register of this narrative in which all characters and all objects are delineated more in terms of what they stand for than of what they are or might physically appear. When the four are gathered for the mass, they portray “La France chrétienne” (8: 445) [“Christian France” (84)]. Alternatively, they also and at once stand for both the monarchy and the Revolution: “Toute la monarchie était là, dans les prières d'un prêtre et de deux pauvres filles; mais peut-être aussi la Révolution était-elle représentée par cet homme dont la figure trahissait trop de remords …” (8: 445) [“The whole Monarchy was there, in the prayers of a priest and two poor women; but perhaps the Revolution too was represented by the man whose face showed so much remorse …” (84)].

This almost immediate identification of the characters with historical political forces would, from the first, make redundant any attempt to distinguish between the private and public aspects of their personalities. All the more so by the fact that even though Balzac, in revising the short story, gave the fictional religious characters the names of great aristocratic families of the Comédie humaine, their personalities remain hardly developed at all in the text.

Ironically, it is through the historical figure of the executioner, by the revelation of his identity at the end of the text, that the story retroactively gains psychological complexity. His conscience becomes the center of interest. It is because there is a conflict between his public function and his private beliefs that he has come to attend this clandestine mass. Yet, when in the face of his very obvious repentance, the priest questions him about his personal responsibility, his answers are evasive and misleading: “Mon père, lui dit-il d'une voix visiblement altérée, nul n'est plus innocent que moi du sang versé” (8: 446) [“‘Father,’ he said in a voice clearly touched with emotion, ‘no one is more innocent than I of the blood which has been spilt’” (85)].

When the priest, unconvinced, explains that even a passive complicity in the regicide will have to be accounted for to the “King of Heaven,” the executioner answers with a riddle: “Vous croyez … qu'une participation indirecte sera punie … Le soldat qui a été commandé pour former la haie est-il donc coupable?” (8: 447) [“‘You believe that even indirect participation will be punished’ … ‘The soldier commanded to line the streets (during the execution), is he then guilty?’” (86)]. The question confronts the abbé with the executioner's own dilemma of obedience to the law or to personal belief. Capital punishment is the law's ultimate sanction and the executioner's riddle makes it appear as though, on one level, he could not separate himself from his function, as though he saw himself simply as “the steel blade,” the soulless instrument of the law. Being a part of the law, he cannot decide the lawfulness of the law. His anonymity—he is never referred to by his name, only by his function at the end of the story—would be the text's confirmation of that inseparability.

The intention behind the riddle, however, is a claim of innocence, a claim which necessarily entails a separation between the man and his function. His very presence in the garret indicates that the king's executioner has found some inadequacy in that separation. When he offers the “relic” he appropriates the mass and speaks of it as being said “pour l'acquit de ma conscience” (8: 447) [“for the relief of my conscience” (86)]. It is all as though the executioner, as a man, has assumed guilt for the law.

If the mass is to be, for him, a personal atonement, the nature of the payment he offers for it and the manner in which he presents it complicate rather than resolve the problem of responsibility:

Je rougirais de vous offrir un salaire quelconque du service funéraire que vous venez de célébrer pour le repos de l'âme du Roi et pour l'acquit de ma conscience. On ne peut payer une chose inestimable que par une offrande qui soit aussi hors de prix. Daignez donc accepter, monsieur, le don que je vous fais d'une sainte relique. … Un jour viendra peut-être où vous en comprendrez la valeur.

(8: 447)

[I should blush to offer you any payment for the funeral service you have just celebrated for the repose of the king's soul and for the relief of my conscience. One can pay for something priceless only with a gift which is also priceless. So deign to accept, sir, this gift of a holy relic. … The day will perhaps come when you will understand its value.]


If the relic cannot be a salary for the priest, it has already been one for the executioner, as by tradition, the personal effects of the condemned were part of the executioner's wages. It is as a result of his public function that he now owns the king's handkerchief. In offering it and in determining its value as priceless he acts as a private individual. Although his own salary is determined elsewhere, by others, only he knows—for now—the true value of the relic. Having been paid for his labor, he now determines the price (“l'acquit”) of his conscience as though he had somehow managed to exclude it from his office, left it at home, only to find it again after work.

Though he is not giving the priest a salary, in the strict sense perhaps that he is not paying him with money, the relic is given as a payment in kind: the priceless is exchanged for the priceless. What is priceless, however, can never be a payment, not even—especially not—for something priceless. Yet here, through the limited economy of the executioner's privacy, it has become at once a salary and a fixed price. The term “priceless” remains the same but its meaning is privately modified: the priceless is no longer an indeterminable value, rather it is a value to be determined—“perhaps someday.” It is, with the withheld identity of the executioner, a “true value” left to conjecture and speculation. The meaning of the exchange which takes place here is left in suspense both for the characters within the text and for ourselves, its readers.

By the small detail of the box in which the relic is contained, this transaction recalls another which takes place at the very beginning of the story. The wafers which have been prepared for the Eucharist also come in a little cardboard box. The scene in which the wafers are purchased is fraught with suspense and apprehension enough to justify the “Terror” in the title. As we do not know until several pages later what it is the nun has come to buy, we can only feel this tension without understanding its cause. As these hosts are clandestine as well, the price paid for them is, as the text states, exorbitant: one “louis d'or” (a gold coin with the effigy of the king engraved on it).

In this transaction the text makes explicit the disparity between the values which are exchanged. As the old woman gives the coin over, the pastry-cooks who have made the wafers feel pity and guilt:

Le pâtissier et sa femme se regardèrent et se montrèrent la vieille femme en se communiquant une même pensée. Ce louis d'or devait être le dernier. Les mains de la dame tremblaient en offrant cette pièce, qu'elle contemplait avec douleur et sans avarice; mais elle semblait connaître toute l'étendue du sacrifice.

(8: 435)

[The pastry-cook and his wife looked at each other, exchanging the same thought, as they glanced at the old lady. This was evidently her last louis d'or. The old lady's hands trembled as she held out the coin, looking at it sadly yet ungrudgingly; but she seemed to appreciate the full extent of her sacrifice.]


Whatever scruples the pastry-cooks may have, they still pocket the coin. The text leaves no doubt that, to them, the value of the piece has nothing any longer to do with the figure of the monarch inscribed on it. As of that day, only the gold, the metal in which the coin is minted, matters. That it still bears the name “louis,” and that it is still inscribed with the insigna of royal authority, become, like the term “priceless” in the executioner's vocabulary, signs whose conventional meaning has changed because the conventions which established them have also changed.

The symbolic value of the coin which the Revolution has just subtracted from it is privately redeemed in the clandestine mass. In describing the mass, the text repeats the fact of the absence of the king's body. The first mention is made allusively by the executioner when he asks for the mass to be said for “une personne sacrée dont le corps ne reposera jamais dans la terre sainte” (8: 443) [“an anointed person whose body will never rest in consecrated ground” (82)]. In the description of the mass itself, the absence of the king's body is mentioned four times. The first mention is the most striking for its ambiguity. The priest has tied crepe around the chalice and the crucifix, “n'ayant rien pour annoncer la destination de cette messe funèbre, le prêtre avait mis Dieu lui-même en deuil” (8: 445) [“For as there was nothing to indicate for whom this funeral mass was being said, the priest had put God Himself into mourning” (84)].

In accordance with royalist credo, the text expresses the spiritual elevation of Louis xvi through his martyrdom a number of times. But here, using the symbols which represent God as substitutes for the king's body in the funeral mass is somehow more than to claim that God mourns for a particularly tragic event. It is almost to imply that a god has died. This implication is strengthened by the parallel absence of any description of the parts of the liturgy in which the hosts are used. Other parts of the service being mentioned and all the implements necessary for the consecration of the Eucharist being described make this absence particularly noticeable. It is as though the Eucharist which makes present the absent body of Christ was also to make present the remains of the king which have been “devorés par de la chaux vive” (8: 445) [“devoured by quick-lime” (84)]. Transubstantiation is repeated in the elevation of the handkerchief to the status of relic which bears both the body (in the form of sweat) and blood of the king.

Whereas at one end of this series of transactions, abstract values are evacuated from the material objects which served to represent them—the louis d'or's value is only the gold it is made out of—at the other, relatively insignificant objects are endowed with powerful spiritual meaning—the handkerchief becomes a relic, the host for a saintly martyr. As the case of the executioner exemplifies, the circulation of the values which both these objects represent has come to be split into separate spheres: into public—for the gold—and private—for the relic.

The executioner's and the nun's attempts to reconcile these by translating the valueless of one sphere into the priceless of the other necessarily involves sacrifice and suffering in that part of their existence they choose to discount. That the executioner's private conciliation of the conflicts between the two can at best only be a provisional and superficial solution is implied by his aloofness and apparent despondency when he returns for the anniversary mass. The Abbé's fainting upon learning the identity of the “stranger” underlines how irreconcilable the conflict ultimately is. That the priest is not able to articulate that conflict without sounding delirious makes manifest the profound illogicality of the executioner's compromise. This compromise cannot be read—as one might be tempted to—as a reasonable way of dealing with an irrational situation. Rather, the text seems to imply that to adapt to this split between public and private values is to risk becoming irrational, to risk delirium.

Portraying this conflict through the executioner, ironically, ends up playing into the commercial venture for which this text was originally written. That venture intended to exploit the public's morbid curiosity about the executioner and, particularly, the king's execution. Balzac's initially publishing this text in collaboration with that venture puts him in the same position as the executioner: he takes part in and profits from an enterprise which, otherwise, in his own writings, he denounces. Moreover, Balzac's not signing his own name to the story in its first publication replicates the executioner's anonymity within the story itself. Anonymity, in the context of a literary commercial venture, allows the author the illusion that he can separate his private thoughts from his published ones, that, like the executioner, he can consider his own work as distinct from himself—once he has been paid his fee. That Balzac ultimately incorporated this story into the Comédie humaine might demonstrate his readiness to associate his name to the ideals expressed in it but does not simplify his relationship to it. Whatever value Balzac privately attributed to this story, it remained, on one level, exchangeable for the price which had been and would continue to be paid for it.

That the solutions the characters in these texts come up with end up being one-sided and provisional is not simply a result of Balzac's narrowing the focus of history to the dimensions of private life. They are always solutions that are imposed on the characters, never freely chosen. Whatever choices are left to them appear as more and more limited. Even these are only available in the ever-narrowing private sphere the characters have been forced to retreat into. Even where the characters have been granted some limited control over the destiny of their society, conflict between their private desires and what they perceive as their ideals and political responsibilities seems unavoidable. In itself, the task of distinguishing between the two appears all-consuming for them. Perhaps because establishing clear boundaries between our private and our public selves has come to be expected and perceived as almost natural for us, the dilemmas Balzac's characters experience might seem overly dramatic to us. What Balzac's characters perceive as issues vital to their identity and survival, we have reduced to questions of more or less efficient time-management for which we accept the responsibility. Where their sentiments are torn between irreconcilable demands for their allegiance, we have rationalized partitions between arbitrarily defined segments of our existence.

What Balzac depicts as delirious, we have come to consider as natural. Our relative inability to recognize our own dilemmas in those of Balzac's characters is a measure of how—insensibly—we have come to accept what to them appears as unlivable. Our wanting to perceive Balzac's characters and his depiction of society after the Revolution in an objective, reified manner can probably be explained by our inability to account for our evolution into our own situation, by our inability to recognize our own situation in theirs. Yet, that we are still fascinated by them, by their struggles, is symptomatic of some recognition which we continue to try to explain.


  1. Balzac, Author's Preface to The Human Comedy, 51 vols., trans. Ellery Sedgwick (Philadelphia: George Barrie's Sons, 1896-1900) 1: vi. English translations are the most recent available and will be indicated separately for each text immediately after the French reference.

  2. Balzac, Avant-propos, in 1: 11 of La Comédie humaine, 12 vols., ed. P. G. Castex (Paris: Gallimard, 1976-81). All quotations of Balzac in French in this essay are from this edition of La Comédie humaine, and will henceforth be indicated in the text by volume and page numbers.

  3. See G. Lukacs, Balzac et le réalisme français (Paris: Maspéro, 1969) and M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981) 246-47.

  4. Illusions perdues 5: 313; Lost Illusions, trans. Kathleen Raine (London: John Lehmann, 1951) 226.

  5. Les Chouans 8: 1020; The Chouans, trans. G. Burnham Ives, in vol. 33 of The Human Comedy (Philadelphia: George Barrie's Sons, 1896-1900) 187-88.

  6. See Ruth Amossy and Dina Harouvi, “Eternel féminin et condition de la femme dans Les Chouans de Balzac” in Vendée, Chouannerie, Littérature: Colloque d'Angers (Angers: Presses de l'Université d'Angers, 1986) 331-42.

  7. Les Chouans 8: 943-45; The Chouans 16: 65-67.

  8. Les Chouans 8: 1061; The Chouans 33: 254.

  9. Un épisode sous la Terreur 8: 450; An Incident in the Reign of Terror, in Honoré de Balzac, Selected Short Stories, trans. Sylvia Raphael (London: Penguin, 1977) 90.

James R. McGuire (essay date spring-summer 1992)

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SOURCE: McGuire, James R. “The Feminine Conspiracy in Balzac's La Cousine Bette.Nineteenth-Century French Studies 20, nos. 3 & 4 (spring-summer 1992): 295-304.

[In the following essay, McGuire explores the lesbianism in La cousine Bette and argues that the title character of the novel dies outside the narrative because her sexual rebellion threatens patriarchal society; she must disappear to the margins of the novel, it is argued, so that the virtues of the family can be extolled.]

There is something suspicious about the deaths of Lisbeth Fischer and Valérie Marneffe. Bette dies outside of the narrative, parenthetically, of a “phtisie pulmonaire,” yet she is the title character; the scene of Valérie's death is rife with melodrama and moral symbolism. The awkward, expeditious elimination of these two principal female figures leads one to question the actual nature of their transgressive role in La Cousine Bette. Clearly, the theme of deviancy, linked historically to the rise of an acquisitive bourgeoisie and the erosion of traditional social values based on heredity, is central to Balzac's narrative. Few critics, however, have emphasized the textual evidence suggesting that such deviancy takes the form of a lesbianism that seeks to supplant the increasingly weakening patriarchal social structures, namely the Family and the Church. Bette and Valérie conspire, in effect, to legitimize their marginal sexual identification by vengefully taking control of all the men around them. The text exhibits a marked absence of vigorous, licit, heterosexual relationships; the only man who exudes any virulence is the Brazilian, Montès, and his function as such is critical to the possibility of a preserved patriarchy. The other men in the novel are characterized as either doddering philanderers (Hulot), ostentatious bourgeois (Crevel), infantilized and feminized objects of feminine desire (Steinbock), or exceedingly uninteresting (Victorin). From the perspective of the somewhat contrived expurgation of two dangerous women, the ironic and hasty recuperation of the “legitimate” values of the Family and the Church at the end of the novel merits some attention.

Balzac's wordplay with the name “Bette” and the word “bête” is clearly intentional. Repeatedly the title character, nicknamed “la Chèvre” by Baron Hulot, is the object of animalization. Her description is, moreover, diametrically opposed to that of her more socially anchored cousin Adeline who is painted in angelic tones; she is a “déesse” (La Cousine Bette. Paris: Gallimard “Folio,” 1972, 58). The deification of the young Hulot couple is set against the beastliness of “la Bette.” Adeline, one of those “caractères sublimes,” is likened to Venus and “notre mère Eve” (52), while the young Baron Hulot is “en homme, une réplique d'Adeline en femme” (53). This passage is clearly evocative of the biblical first family of Genesis; yet, curiously, here the male seems to be fashioned after the female. Man's difference springs from his original likeness with the woman, not vice-versa. This first suggestion of the inversion of sexual roles linked to the survivability of the Family will surface as a principal motivation of the narrative. Indeed, the Baron, “from the beginning,” is as godly as his wife, but the suggestion of which sex might be capable of “failing” or “falling” is subtly implied: “pour Adeline, le baron fut, dès l'origine, une espèce de Dieu qui ne pouvait faillir” (54). This sacrosanct rendering of the Family dominated by the Father unites later with the sober presence of another patriarchal social force, the Church.

The divine Hulots are thus staged to clash with the sullen portrait of Lisbeth Fischer who “était loin d'être belle comme sa cousine … Paysanne des Vosges, dans toute l'extension du mot, maigre, brune, les cheveux d'un noir luisant, les soucils épais et reunis par un bouquet, les bras longs et forts, les pieds épais, quelques verrues dans sa face longue et simiesque, tel est le portrait de cette vierge” (59). This is not the only simian description of Bette. Later Balzac states: “Parfois elle ressemblait aux singes habillés en femme” (65); and later, Valérie addresses her as “ma tigresse” (233). Bette is not merely one “bête,” but beastliness itself; she is a composite monster, at once goat, ape, and tiger. Although Bette's marginality is due in part to her provinciality, her low social rank and her homeliness, her status as a “monstrosity” derives for the most part from her “abnormal” sexuality, her celibacy. For Balzac, the virgin is invested with a singular reserve of nearly superhuman, unpredictable forces: “La virginité, comme toutes les monstrosités, a des richesses spéciales, des grandeurs absorbantes. La vie, dont les forces sont économisées, a pris chez l'individu vierge une qualité de résistance et de durée incalculable. Le cerveau s'est enrichi dans l'ensemble de ses facultés réservées” (138). The sexual monstrosity of virginity emerges from the shadows of the underworld; the action of “les gens chastes” is motivated by “une force diabolique ou la magie noire de la Volonté” (138). Patriarchal sexual norms are thus, from the first pages of the novel, pitted against the maleficent forces of sexual abnormality.

Bette's marginal social status as a monstrous virgin seems her lot. Hulot's efforts to “civilize” her by arranging acceptable candidates for marriage and by procuring her a position as a haberdasher's apprentice are wasted. Despite learning to read and write and becoming “une assez gentille, une assez adroite et première demoiselle” (60), Bette's jealousy of her cousin Adeline causes her to regress to her original social position—“elle redevint simple ouvrière” (60). Unable to ignore the imposing beauty and comfortable social position of Adeline, Bette is overcome by that burning jealousy that “formait la base de [son] caractère plein d'excentricités” (59). Bette is in fact far from the center of sociosexual norms. She inhabits the dismal fringe of Parisian society.

Set apart from a world where patriarchal structures demand strict gender identification, Bette seems to thrive on her difference, her resistance. She is at home in the “barbarie” of a “quartier en démolition,” in one of those houses “envelopées de l'ombre éternelle … noircies … par le souffle du Nord” (80-1). Her marginality is willfully sustained—“elle aimait son chez soi” (65). It is significantly in this infernal quarter that Bette will first encounter Valérie Marneffe. Bette embraces and nurtures her eccentricity, consciously opposing herself to the sacred Hulots. She is no longer one of them, she has intentionally demarcated the boundary of her difference: “Cette fille perdit alors toute idée de lutte et de comparison avec sa cousine” (61). The seed of revolt has been sown, for “l'envie resta cachée dans le fond de son cœur, comme un germe de peste” (61).

Reinforcing thus her status as a feminine anomaly, Bette becomes the antithesis of the woman “comme il faut.” She will not agree to marriage, even if “maintes fois le baron avait résolu le difficile problème de la marier” (61). Cognizant of her difference, Bette will not allow men to penetrate her unsocial circle, to dominate her. She is unable to regard herself as an object of male desire; she wants to be a dominator of men: “[elle] eût aimé à protéger un homme faible” (62). Indeed, Bette possesses attributes which are more masculine than feminine and, in an effort to de-feminize her appearance, she defaces the finery given to her by Adeline. She is too much a man to take on the traditional role of the passive, servile wife. As a masculinized woman, Bette desires a feminized man. Her virginal monstrosity is only accentuated by the fact that she “possédait … des qualités d'homme” (68). For many characters in the novel, there is an irresolvable vacillation between their actual and their functional gender. For example, Bette, as an actual female, functions as a male and desires another actual male, Steinbock, himself functioning for a time as female. In turn, Steinbock will function as a male in relation to Hortense, but once again as a female for Valérie. Bette's functional gender is also seen to slip from male to female as her desire shifts from Steinbock to Valérie. This slippage prohibits a comfortable gender identification and inaugurates the sexual confusion to come.

Wenceslas Steinbock, of course, becomes Cousin Bette's “homme faible,” at least temporarily. Bette is fifteen years his elder, however, and her love for him is more parental than sexual. She tells Wenceslas, “Eh bien! je vous prends pour mon enfant” (95); but he becomes in effect her “esclave” (102). Bette dominates Wenceslas because he feels indebted to her for having prevented his suicide and taking him under her wing. Because she is homely, she would doubtfully have been loved by him as a “woman.” Her control of him is only through a parental tyranny; Bette, the manly, sexless virgin becomes the “entreteneuse” of Wenceslas, who here is characterized at once as a woman-child and as Bette's “homme faible.” Just as Bette is both motherly and masculine in her relationship with Steinbock, so is he a feminine man. Balzac acknowledges this peculiar blurring of sexual roles: “on aurait pensé que la nature s'était trompée en leur donnant leurs sexes” (89). This gender whirligig serves to inform the dynamics of the entire narrative, and it is the unfixed functioning of sexual roles which threatens to destabilize the moral constancy of patriarchy. Bette, for example, undertakes to subvert traditional sexual conventions by forming this “unnatural” bond with Wenceslas. The relationship defies the sanctity of the patriarchal model in that the identity of the male has become ambiguous. In fact, Bette and Wenceslas have come to represent the very opposite of traditional expectations of man and woman. Thus Balzac consciously qualifies their relationship with atypical adjectives: “le mariage de cette énergie femelle et de cette faiblesse masculine, espèce de contresens” (92). This “contresens” (which can be read as “contrary/wrong meaning” or “contrary/wrong direction”) marks the union of Bette and Wenceslas as sexually aberrant and forebodes the subsequent disorder.

As Bette's protégé, Steinbock is initiated into her marginal universe and is himself, to some extent, animalized. Bette brags to the inquisitive Hortense that the name “Steinbock” means in German “animal des rochers” (70), as though such a quality should make him compatible with her. She strives to neutralize their differences, to see him as she is seen by others. The young Pole is more reticent, however, to consummate “cette alliance bizarre” (90), to submit to the “tyrannie d'une mère” (90). Bette fails, ultimately, to realize a union founded on the disregard of sexual conventions which demand gender stability between a male and a female. Wenceslas loves “real women”; Bette accuses him, “Vous aimez les femmes …” (90), as though she were not one herself. In short, Bette is too manly for him, and he is too much a part of the socio-sexual mainstream. He will not commit to this inversion of the norm. Bette is forced consequently to withdraw completely from this attempted semblance of normalcy, semblance because Steinbock is, at least by appearance, of the opposite sex.

Steinbock's marriage to Hortense Hulot marks Bette's definitive break with conventional feminine sexuality. Here begins the “transformation de la Bette” (138). This transformation involves more the sexual clarification of the object of Bette's desire than her own gender identity. Embracing completely now her monstrous self, she transfers her “energie femelle” from Steinbock to Valérie Marneffe. There is no longer any need to feign the necessity of forming a licit heterosexual relationship. Bette's vengeance takes the form of a conscious plot to undermine the patriarchal, heterosexual social order in favor of love between women. Unable to belong to the world of the Father, Lisbeth sets out to create a counter-universe founded on a dominant femininity. Bette's pursuit to legitimize a feminine love can easily be read as a mere “compensatory” lesbianism, which threatens the demise of the Family so dear to Balzac, and which, therefore must be eradicated. Yet, as we will see, this menacing homosexuality represented by Bette and Valérie seems nearly to succeed in spite of itself.

Homosexual relations between Lisbeth and Valérie are far from explicit in the text. Yet, several passages demand that this aspect of their friendship be reckoned with. In the first phase of this homosexual bond, the two women enter into a secret pact against the Hulot family. Valérie's objective is clearly social elevation. It is Bette who is obsessed with ruining the Hulots, wreaking her vengeance for having lost Steinbock, and founding a “licit” homosexuality. Both take as their common enemy and the means to their end, the moneyed men around them. As their scheme progresses, the emotional bond between them strengthens and Valérie becomes “une jeune femme qui, pour elle [Bette], avait des semblants d'amitié, qui lui disait tout, en la consultant, flattant et paraissant vouloir se laisser conduire par elle, devint donc en peu de temps plus chère à l'excentrique Cousine Bette que tous ses parents” (127). For Bette, familial values, the values of heterosexuality represented by the Hulots (and especially by the righteous Adeline), are subsumed by her relationship with Valérie. Even Valérie, whose stunning beauty does not exclude her from “normal” social circles and a licit sexual life, scorns familial responsibility; one can recall the description of her bedroom in that bleak quarter of the Louvre “où l'enfant abandonné à lui-même, laissait traîner ses joujoux partout” (85). Not only is Valérie an apparently ineffective mother, she confides to Bette that she much prefers her company to that of her husband:

—Mon Dieu, comme vous disposez de moi! … dit alors madame Marneffe. Et mon mari?

—Cette guenille?

—Le fait est qu'auprès de vous c'est cela … répondit-elle en riant.


To consummate their bond, the two women move into the same house to form, in the words of Bette, their own “ménage”: “Dès lors, mon petit ange, ma véritable vie, mon vrai ménage sera rue Vaneau” (129). The suggestion of homosexuality between Bette and Valérie finds even stronger support in this provocative dialogue between the two women, alone in Valérie's bedroom:

—Es-tu belle, ce matin! dit Lisbeth en venant prendre Valérie par la taille et la baisant au front. Je jouis de tous tes plaisirs, de ta fortune, de ta toilette … Je n'ai vécu que depuis le jour où nous nous sommes faites sœurs …

—Attends! ma tigresse, dit Valérie. …


First, the sexual tone of the verb “jouir” colors the passage and suggests that Bette takes pleasure from Valérie as she does with her many male lovers. Bette derives pleasure vicariously from the money Valérie acquires because of her physical beauty. Valérie's body becomes, at least symbolically, the locus of Bette's only erotic pleasure. Bette's embracing gesture and kiss, as well as Valérie's use of the word “tigresse,” accentuate the sexual undercurrent of the passage. Furthermore, the word “sœur” serves to mark both as functionally female. Pierre Barbéris, in a note on this passage in the Gallimard “Folio” edition, cautiously proposes that the evidence here of at least a latent homosexuality supports the notion of a feminine conspiracy:

Valérie est sensuelle et débauchée. Bette est vierge. Mais Bette jouit par personne interposée. De plus Bette et Valérie s'entendent pour exclure et juger les hommes. Elles vivent toutes deux dans un univers particulier, fait d'intérêts communs mais aussi d'une sorte de complicité féminine. Balzac a-t-il voulu suggérer l'existence entre Bette et Valérie sinon de relations homosexuelles concrètes au moins de tentations?


Whether merely “tentations” or true homosexuality, Balzac is clearly staging the illicit nature of Bette and Valérie's relationship as the primary threat to patriarchal society. Whatever the case may be, the two women conspire, Bette as the monstrous virgin whose “dissimulation est impénétrable” (in the sexual sense?), and Valérie as a prostitute whose relations with Hulot and Crevel are a mere ploy to acquire wealth and social status. One will argue that Valérie's love for Steinbock and for Montès is sincere. Indeed it is. She confesses to Bette that she loves Wenceslas “à en maigrir” (190), and to Crevel: “Je crois bien que je l'aime, mon petit Wenceslas! … je l'aime au grand jour comme si c'était mon enfant!” (411). Just as in Bette's case, however, Steinbock functions as female and childlike. He is also for Valérie an “homme faible,” a coddled, infantile artist. In effect, Balzac says of Polish men in general that they “se parent comme des femmes” (252). Valérie's love for Steinbock is more homosexual, given his overall feminine characterization. His inability to be an effective husband for Hortense supports his function as a female figure and serves to affirm Bette and Valérie's proclivity for the feminine sex.

As for Valérie's love for Montés, his case is also exceptional. Montès functions as a catalytic character in the novel. His presence ultimately serves (along with that of Victorin as we will see) to effect the necessary dismantling of the feminine conspiracy. His relationship with Valérie is justified mostly because of his vast fortune. She fully intends to exploit him as she does Hulot and Crevel. It is symbolically important that Montès, unlike the other men of the novel, exhibits a certain virility and that Valérie is attracted to him as a man since he will be the agent of her death and the ultimate unravelling of the conspiracy. Montès reconciles in a way the reconstitution of a male order and the inevitable installation of wealth, not name, as the determining factor of social status. It is in this role that Valérie is able to “love” Montès; she never loves for love's sake. She admits herself that her liaison with Montès is pure “fantaisie” (233). Indeed, she even unemotionally considers abandoning Montès observing, “Montès est Brésilien, il n'arrivera jamais à rien” (232). Bette reminds her, however, of the times they live in: “Nous sommes, dit Lisbeth, dans un temps de chemins de fer, où les étrangers finissent en France par occuper de grandes positions” (232). Clearly, her primary aim is not to establish a heterosexual relationship with Montès but rather to revel in the possibility of an exotic wealth and a higher position in a burgeoning bourgeois social structure.

The episode in which Valérie persuades Wenceslas to execute the sculpture of Samson and Delilah is an allegory for the sexually subversive mission of the two conspirators. The sculpture posits not only a dominant femininity, but precisely the designs of Valérie and Bette, to wrest power from male order in a moment of vulnerability. Samson's emasculation as he lies sleeping signifies the cutting off of traditional masculine power—represented by a symbolically phallic extension of the male body, hair or money—by the woman. Valérie explains to Steinbock:

Il s'agit d'exprimer la puissance de la femme. Samson n'est rien là. C'est le cadavre de la force. Dalila, c'est la passion qui ruine tout … voilà comment je comprends la composition. Samson s'est réveillé sans cheveux … elle a dû aimer Samson devenu petit garçon … Ce groupe … [sera] la femme expliquée.


Delilah's passion empowers her as it nullifies the force of the male. This passion is clearly that for another woman, that is, the emasculated (castrated), childlike Samson. Valérie demands that she be the model for this monument to the founding of a new femininity that emerges beside the corpse of male domination.

How is this sexual rebellion put into action in the narrative? How can homosexual love between women be legitimized in a society structured after the Family and the Church, a society literally generated out of heterosexual love? It is by controlling the substance that is, in the careless hands of Balzac's male characters, a measure of virility, or the lack thereof: money. Money, in fact, comes to represent the vulnerability of masculinity as it becomes more and more a force controlled by women. Bette and Valérie set out to usurp the nascent social power of money traditionally reserved for men. Like a life source, money flows rapidly to the side of the woman. It is thus that Valérie and Bette sap Hulot's power and force him to abandon his family. They also succeed in disintegrating the Marneffe family and plot the fall of Crevel and the ultimate, interested union with Montès. This brutal attack on the Father is reinforced as Valérie's promiscuity puts into question the paternity of the child she is carrying. This situation forebodes the death knell of the Father since the cornerstone of any patriarchy is certainty of identifying the legitimate father.

The two conspirators seem on the verge of accomplishing the dissolution of the Family's hegemony. Bette's thirst for vengeance is being satisfied, both against the constant Adeline, the religious incarnation of pure and legitimate family values, and against Hortense, who took Steinbock from her to form another “ménage légitime” (233). Yet, even though Bette and Valérie nearly succeed in annihilating the Hulot family their feminine universe must remain an anomaly, at least according to a narrative that must somehow recuperate the Balzacian Family. Theirs is an order based on immorality, illegitimacy, and sexual sterility. Such female perversions must be expunged, or, as is the case with the symbolic Atala, “civilized” and reinstituted into the patriarchal system.

The restoration of the Family is brought about, ironically, by Victorin, son of the absent father Hulot and thus his logical replacement, and, as we have already seen, Montès. Although not a virulent figure like Montès, as a lawyer and a representative of the Law, Victorin is at least master of his money. It is he who saves the Hulots and re-establishes them on rue Plumet. He replaces the original father and in so doing puts an end to the feminine plot with a little plotting of his own. Regaining control of the family fortune, Victorin is victorious also through the power of well-managed money. Fifty thousand francs to madame Nourrison finishes once and for all the cunning of the female accomplices and punishes them in the process. Money is back in the hands of man; masculinity can now be “rightfully” restored.

Adeline, the saint of family values, aids in this recuperation through her constancy as an example of a femininity that recognizes its “proper” place in the patriarchy. Her devotion, in the baron's absence, is transferred from the Family to that other prototypical patriarchal institution that enters near the end of the narrative in the stead of the familial Father, that is to say the Church. The role of the Church is central to both the official re-valorization of the Family and the obligatory termination of the feminine conspiracy. The dénouement is predictable, yet it is markedly telescoped. The female antagonists are too precipitously disposed of. The narrative has nearly become a juggernaut of outlaw femininity. Balzac resorts hastily to contrivance and melodrama to meet the demands of his patriarchally motivated text. Valérie's death, of which Montès (virility) and Victorin Hulot (money) are the agents, is caused by her ingestion of an exotic viral brew. But, as though this narrative stratagem were not enough, Balzac infuses the scene with a heavy-handed symbolism that is difficult to swallow. Valérie's body, the instrument of her sexual rebellion, rots with infection. As her beauty is transformed into pain she is suddenly brought to concede to the “rightful” patriarchal authority and she voices to the attending vicar her desire to repent, to be saved from fiery perdition. This rather abrupt capitulation to the Church tests the limits of verisimilitude; however, it serves to identify Valérie and Bette's plot as “wrong,” as a transgression of the Law and enables Balzac to regain control of the plot, to eliminate the female threat, and to recuperate the Family, all in just a few pages.

Lisbeth is left in the lurch by Valérie. As she enters the scene of Valérie's death, she is horrified, repulsed by the presence of the Church: “[elle] resta pétrifiée … en voyant un vicaire de Saint-Thomas-d'Aquin au chevet de son ami, et une sœur de la charité la soignant” (446). The sober and imposing image of religion is used to drive home the reality of the defeat of aggressive femininity and homosexuality. Heterosexuality, the basis of patriarchy represented here by the Church, inevitably prevails: “le sentiment le plus violent que l'on connaisse, l'amitié d'une femme pour une femme, n'eut pas l'héroïque constance de l'Eglise. Lisbeth, suffoquée par les miasmes délétères, quitta la chambre” (448). The violence caused to society by love between women is put aright; Valérie becomes another “âme à sauver” (447), while, with supreme irony, Bette's “phtisie pulmonaire” is brought about spontaneously by the sight of this heroic constancy of the Church.

The absence of a death scene for Cousin Bette is therefore highly significant and, in light of such melodramatic closure, conforms to the logic of the narrative. Bette must merely disappear. Rejecting conversion like her friend and “déjà bien malheureuse du bonheur qui luisait sur la famille” (466), she dies, appropriately and literally, in the margins. Steadfast in her difference, she cannot occupy much space at the end of a story that, by its formula, seeks to demonstrate the infallibility of the Family. Thus Bette's passing is merely reported, she dies out of narrative sight. The spotlight is filled by the happy “retour du père prodigue” (464); the narrative closes, naturally, with the celebration of a blissfully regained patriarchy: “On arriva naturellement à une sécurité complète. Les enfants et la baronne portaient aux nues le père de famille …” (467). Homosexuality is perfunctorily eclipsed by the heterosexual family unit reinstituted by the Church and the power of money in the hands of dependable men. Only heterosexuality, that is the love sanctioned by Nature and heredity, can be self-regenerating and is thus the only tolerable expression of love and the only safeguard of patriarchy. The sterility of lesbianism and its threat to virility as the foundation of social power necessitates this natural, final, fatherly security. The incursion of an exclusive femininity is, at least temporarily, stalled by renewed hope in a virile, procreative order. The vulnerability of the Family, however, remains interestingly visible as the novel trails off with the black humor of Hulot's marriage to Agathe the cook and the death of the angelic Adeline.

Owen Heathcote (essay date fall-winter 1993-94)

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SOURCE: Heathcote, Owen. “Balzac's Go-between: The Case of Honorine.Nineteenth-Century French Studies 22, nos. 1 & 2 (fall-winter 1993-94): 61-76.

[In the following essay, Heathcote explores the representation of the themes of creation, dissolution, and recreation of difference in Honorine in terms of space, time, sexuality, and language.]

Honorine is one of Balzac's most haunting narratives. It is the story of a young woman, Honorine, who, having deserted her devoted husband, Octave,1 because she cannot requite his affections, has a son by an unnamed lover who deserts her in his turn. After her son's early death, Honorine withdraws into a secret retreat in Paris in order to live independently off her own industry—the creation of artificial flowers. Equally secretly, however, her husband Octave discovers her whereabouts, subsidizes her sales of flowers, and invades her privacy through his emissary and spokesman, Maurice, who takes up residence next door to Honorine's retreat. Although Honorine is eventually persuaded to return to Octave with whom she has a second son, she is still unable to love her husband. She declines and dies. Her story is later recounted by an older, married Maurice at a dinner-party in Genoa, in honor of the writer Camille Maupin. Overhearing the story, Maurice's wife, Onorina, realizes that Maurice never really loved her, despite his outward devotion: like Octave, he really loved Honorine and she has been a ‘real’ substitute for her husband's lost ‘ideal.’

The framing of the récit of Honorine in the métarécit of Maurice's narrative has a double, apparently contradictory, effect on the story.2 On the one hand, récit and métarécit are separated in time and in space: enough time has elapsed for Maurice to mature, marry, have two diplomatic postings and two children; Octave, having aged considerably, has left the social and professional scene; Honorine has died; the setting has shifted from Paris to Genoa.3 On the other hand, this temporal and spatial separation enables links to be made across the very divide that has just been created. Récit-cadre and récit-tableau are both distinguished and linked by the juxtaposition of a living Onorina and a dead Honorine, a juxtaposition that is, moreover, highlighted by one of Maurice's audience, another woman, the author Camille Maupin:

Les hommes ne sont-ils pas coupables aussi de venir à nous, de faire d'une jeune fille leur femme, en gardant au fond de leurs cœurs d'angéliques images, en nous comparant à des rivales inconnues, à des perfections souvent prises à plus d'un souvenir et nous trouvant toujours inférieures?


Thus, in what has been called the méta-métarécit of Honorine,4 a woman-author exposes one of the constants of male behavior: although men distinguish between different times, spaces, women, and languages, they also tend to confuse them.5 Honorine exists for Maurice as a kind of temporal, spatial, linguistic and sexual palimpsest, preceding and overshadowing her virtual homonym, Onorina. Camille Maupin, however, while noting the similarities between Honorine and Onorina, rejects the contamination of one by the other and chooses to emphasize their difference. In this way, Maurice—and Octave before him—can be seen as men of the past, whereas Camille Maupin can be seen as a woman of the future.

One of the main themes in Honorine is, therefore, the creation, dissolution and re-creation of difference, and the relationship of the characters to that difference. Since difference and the characters' relationship to difference are so important and represented in terms of space, time, sexuality, and language, these four areas will now be examined in turn.6


One of the most obvious yet subtle themes in Honorine is that of space. From the opening words of the méta-métarécit Balzac identifies the characteristics of national groups, endorsing the popularity of travel with the English and its disfavor with the French. They are probably both right since, as Balzac remarks, “on trouve partout quelque chose de meilleur que l'Angleterre, tandis qu'il est excessivement difficile de retrouver loin de la France les charmes de la France” (525). While it would be easy to see this as simply another example of Balzac's anglophobia,7 what is more important here is that he immediately finds an exception to the latter part of his remark and plunges the reader into a Saint-Germain style dinner-party in Genoa. Having claimed the French are travel-shy, he finds a group who, for professional or personal reasons, make a habit of it. Having tightened the exclusion-zone round France, the French, Paris, and the Parisians, he finds quintessential Frenchness abroad, in Genoa. In thus simultaneously affirming and denying the definability of his characters in terms of space and race, Balzac is simultaneously affirming and denying his own definition of identity and difference. He thereby exposes the arbitrariness of the very distinctions he seems at such pains to establish. This arbitrariness becomes even more apparent when he refers to two Italians at the dinner as “deux Français déguisés en Génois” (527). If these “Français” are not “Français” but Italians, then difference seems able to pass as its opposite—if, that is, difference still has any meaning in this context. What may, therefore, seem to be a mere quip, can also be seen to confirm that the nature of identity and difference in Honorine is not in fact either/or but neither/and: like other celebrated seeming opposites in Balzac such as movement and resistance,8 inclusion and exclusion coexist within each other. Difference has become (mere) disguise; identity and its other rotate in rapidly alternating or cumulative succession.

If France has, moreover, invaded Italian space to the point that difference has become disguise, it is hardly surprising that the reality of Genoa as a foreign city seems itself in jeopardy. The company at the dinner-party are perched in a French consulate above and outside the city, and they are near “cette fameuse lanterne qui, dans les keepsakes, orne toutes les vues de Gênes”(526). Parisians could, therefore, “encore se croire à Paris,” and think that they are looking at the reproduction and not the reality. The city has become (mere) vista, (mere) view.9 What seems to be singular and different is, therefore, in danger of being coopted, commodified, domesticated, and generalized like the infinitely reproducible art of the keepsake. Here again, it is not a case of disguise reproducing guise, art reproducing life, but of life reproducing art. Or, rather, of both. Identity has become mediation. In both senses, a model.

Given the threat to identity posed by the view over Genoa, it is fitting that Maurice, who lives with this threat, gives a detailed description of earlier, more protective spaces—the hôtel in the Marais owned by his then employer, le comte Octave, and the retreat where Honorine fashions her flowers.10 Octave's hôtel is dark, secluded, echoing. Like Octave himself it has vast internal “souterrains” (549, see 539)11 that are dimly lit and as yet dimly perceived. Contrary to expectations, the day of this Parisian Marais is gloomier than the twilight of Genoa: in another reversal, Paris is a sombre center and Genoa the brilliant periphery.

Equally contrary to expectations, the womb-tomb that Octave inhabits proves no more protective of identity than the open-air vistas of Genoa. The secret of his wife's elopement is revealed, in an unguarded moment over dinner in the intimacy of his hôtel, by a trusted friend and colleague. It is, moreover, in the privacy of his hôtel that Octave works as legal adviser to the government, that he prepares his public life, his work for the French State. Public and private spaces are, therefore, eminently permeable, with Octave seeing his private life made public at home,12 and with public affairs openly discussed at home but kept secret both in public and from the public of France (545).

The permeability of private space is also evidenced by Honorine's supposedly secret retreat. Although her house is so undisturbed and inaccessible that “on se trouvait dans ce séjour à cent lieues de Paris” (566), it is with relative ease, if at considerable expense, that it is penetrated first by Octave and then by Maurice. One of the reasons for this is undoubtedly that her house is “une ancienne maison de plaisir” (561), a former “bonbonnière inventée par l'art du dix-huitième siècle pour les jolies débauches d'un grand seigneur” (566). However much Honorine seeks to (re-)privatize this former almost embarrassingly public space with trellises, tapestries, and flowers (566-567), the eighteenth-century artifice of its origins remains, like the aforementioned palimpsest, eminently apparent.13 In addition the eminently natural, flower-like Honorine then spends her time manufacturing artificial flowers, which she sells on what she thinks is an open, public market, but that is, in fact, privately, secretly subsidized by Octave. Here, too, there is a complex, almost unravelable, interweaving of public and private, guise and disguise, involving space, time, sexuality and art, which is painstakingly rewoven by Honorine herself, as she repeatedly recreates her eminently reproducible artificial flowers. Her endeavors, like those of other indefatigable workers in the narrative, Octave, Grandville, Sérizy and Maurice himself, and of course, of the artist Camille Maupin, continually work and rework on the blending of private and public spaces in what Félix de Vandenesse elsewhere calls “le travail que nécessitent les idées pour être exprimées.”14

The interplay of guise and disguise, public and private in Honorine is further complicated by the presence of mediators and intermediaries who are, like the keepsake and le travail, infinitely reproducible and relayable. Prominent among such intermediaries is Maurice's uncle, the abbé Loraux, curé des Blancs-Manteaux, whose metaphorically white guise/disguise contrasts with the triumvirate of “les magistrats noirs”:15 Octave himself and his colleagues Sérizy and Grandville. Like many of Balzac's priests, Loraux crosses and confuses public and private, sacred and secular, as he shuttles between Octave, Maurice, and Honorine, arranging careers, meetings, and reconciliations. The priests are politicians (546, 577) and the politicians are ascetics (541, 545) in a transposition of categories whose initial distinction belies and yet betokens the later merging of their physical and conceptual territories.16

There is another, perhaps final twist to the spatial loopings in Honorine—the character of the narrator, Maurice himself. Maurice, whose first ambition was to be a great actor (534), who is adopted and launched by the quintessential mediator, the priest, who is again adopted by the statesman and interpreter of legal documents, Octave, to interpret in his turn, to relay his master's ideas (543) and eventually to replace him both at work and vis-à-vis his wife. Maurice is later transplanted first to Spain and then to Italy, where, once again, as a diplomat, he relays the ideas of others, and, as host, entertains guests with some-one else's story … The succession and accumulation of these various substitutions and mediations make Maurice into one of Balzac's most elusive yet intrusive narrators. An almost literal porte-parole, he carries copies of the tripartite correspondence between himself, Octave, and Honorine (583), in a portefeuille that he asks his substitute wife to fetch in order to remove her from the dinner-party and his narrative (531). Every move for Maurice has to be at one or several removes. He is invariably either next(door) or in-between. Indeed his major task, when living in the adjacent property to Honorine's retreat, is to pretend to want to build an intervening wall between the properties, though that, too, like Honorine's flower-bower, and Thaddée Paz's fausse maîtresse, is not only a screen but a false screen: “homme-écran.” Maurice is not only function but fictitious function, not only vehicle but, in a sense, chimère. Would-be actor, translator, emissary and spy, Maurice is the epitome of a literature where “tout y est mythe et figure.”17


As has already been indicated above, the passing of time is important in Honorine, bringing about, within the space of a short nouvelle, the early aging of Octave,18 the death of Honorine herself, and tracing Maurice's “début dans la vie” from early student days through his first appointment with Octave to subsequent career, marriage and children. The very act of narration itself emphasizes the remoteness, even the irretrievability, of the past. The reception the narrative receives from Camille Maupin's Parisian escorts further highlights the disparity between Maurice's past experiences and current Parisian thinking: Claude Vignon sees Maurice as “un peu fat” and Léon de Lora is amazed that Honorine managed to survive in Paris “[sans] se crotter dans la rue” (596).19 Camille Maupin herself closes the story with a remark that seals the whole episode: “Il se trouve encore de grandes âmes dans ce siècle” (597). The trio of Honorine, Octave and Maurice are thus made to seem the admirable but now fast-receding reminders of a bygone age. These reactions recall Natalie de Manerville's sharp rejoinder to Félix de Vandenesse's account of another mal mariée and of another irretrievable and unfulfilled love. In both cases, the memories of a young would-be chevalier servant provoke bemusement, irony, and the suspicion that he, rather than time, is out of joint.

What is it, however, that prompts the bemusement, the irony, and the interrogation of a Camille Maupin who, like Mme de Rochefide at the end of Sarrasine, “demeura pensive”? Is it that the unrequited love-affair between Honorine, Octave, and Maurice belongs to a past overthrown by the “révolution de Juillet” that ends Octave's career?20 Should the new regime that followed see the end of courtly romances, amor de lonh, and chansons de toile, all connoted by Honorine and her flower-bower? Perhaps, too, it is irritation with an Octave who is similarly frozen in time, spending seven or nine years21 waiting and hoping for reconciliation but acting, when he does act, in a way that almost invalidates that action: he invariably moves par personne interposée, whether through prête-noms to purchase Honorine's retreat, or his secretary-go-between, Maurice, to reach Honorine, or through intercessors such as the curé des Blancs-Manteaux. Perhaps the impatience of Camille Maupin, Léon de Lora, and Claude Vignon, does indeed reflect the impatience of the new July monarchy towards a minister promoted by Mme la Dauphine, duchesse d'Angoulême, daughter of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, and daughter-in-law to Charles X (532). Octave would, from the perspective of 1836 when Maurice's narrative is told, seem to represent Louis-Philippe's more conservative, unimaginative, nostalgic predecessor, unwilling or unable to deal with corrupt servants (“L'abandon de ses intérêts allait, chez le comte, jusqu'à la bêtise dans la conduite de ses affaires” 542), or to move out of sterile, cocooning spaces, whether former decadent eighteenth-century boudoirs or the backwater that is the Marais. As Anne Martin-Fugier points out: “Le vieux centre de Paris évoque un univers étriqué.”22 From the moment of his employment with Octave, the young Maurice is, therefore, frozen in time like Honorine, and even Parisian-style dinners in keepsake-like settings such as romanticized Genoa seem similarly ‘frozen’ and cloistered (cf. 597) to a Camille Maupin “avare de ses instants” and reluctant to sacrifice a rare day of freedom (527). From this perspective, all the settings in Honorine are static rather than dynamic, retrospective rather prospective, resistance rather than movement. Designed as they are for a trio of Balzac's “cœurs blessés,” they are designed to be out of time as of out of space, in order to foster inertia, amnesia, and silence.

Although such perspectives are certainly evident in the novel, they cannot be endorsed without some reservations. Unlike many of Balzac's young hopefuls, such as Eugène de Rastignac, Lucien de Rubempré, Calyste du Guénic, Félix de Vandenesse, Maurice is, it seems, an orphan with no aristocratic connections. He has, at least initially, no name.23 He is, however, like other Balzacian arrivistes, ambitious for social and sexual success, and can barely be contained by his priestly uncle (534) and the ascetic Octave, who generously pays off his gambling debts (544). Given Maurice's background, and even though he rejects marriage with the young and wealthy Amélie de Courteville, “une maîtresse idéale” (560), it is perhaps not surprising that he continues to contain himself with the equally parentless, nameless Honorine (550, see 578),24 eventually preferring Onorina Pedrotti, a woman wealthy in her own right, with powerful relations and protectors, both titled and rich from trade and commerce. Maurice finally marries into an aristocracy whose work actually pays—unlike Honorine and her flowers. In this he shows that, however fascinated he was or is by the unfortunate retro Honorine, he does not totally forget his youthful ambitions for fame, fortune and future.

It can be seen that the representation of time in Honorine is as ambivalent as the representation of space. If Honorine seems to represent the past, or if the past is represented by Honorine, she is paradoxically, a past with less past than future: her ancestry is a blank but she seems to be available to Maurice in constant and total recall. If Onorina seems to represent the future, then she also seems to antedate the past that is the narrativized Honorine and yet her future may be shorterlived. Given that Octave is now departed, it can be argued that Maurice is, at the time of narration, suspended between an irretrievable past that is Honorine and a present without future that is Onorina. He is poised between a son who is not his—since he is likely to “inherit” the son of Honorine—and his own children who are, however “deux enfants silencieux, parce que le sommeil les a saisis” (527). With Maurice thus poised between non-self and silence, it is hardly surprising that, like Camille Maupin, he should resort to narrative to occupy the void. Let us hope that, unlike her, he does not renounce his voice and enter the further non-self and silence of a religious order.25


Before discussing the role of narrative and language in Honorine it will, however, be useful to turn to a third area of ambiguity and complexity—that of sexuality and gender. For if space and time are dual, so too are the women in the novel: Honorine/Onorina; Camille Maupin/Félicité des Touches. Indeed, as so frequently in Balzac's work, with its “unité composée, unité variable, unité fixe,”26 and with the recurrent motif of “tout est double” and homo duplex,27 such twinning and even tripling can be seen to apply not only to the women but to all the characters. If Octave and Maurice are, in a sense, like Gaston and Louise in Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées, “deux éditions du même ouvrage,”28 all the other characters tend to come in twos and threes, from the children (both Honorine and Onorina have two each), to the diplomats (Octave, Sérizy, Grandville), priests (les curés de Saint-Paul et des Blanc-Manteaux—546), Camille Maupin's two escorts (Léon de Lora and Claude Vignon), and even the aforementioned “deux Français déguisés en Génois.” As elsewhere in Balzac, all the characters or groups of characters in Honorine seem to be affected by a kind of spontaneous multiplication or self-generation, a kind of seemingly unsexualized cross-fertilization that operates across one generation, and within the same sex, rather than between different generations and different sexes. Reproduction does, therefore, cut across space and time at least as much as it develops over or through space and time. Reproduction seems to be both horizontal and vertical, both synchronic and diachronic. In this way it both reflects—and reproduces—the ambivalences already noted in the representation of time and space in the novel.

The above-mentioned cross-fertilization of characters is, moreover, complemented by a kind of sexual self-sufficiency made possible by a sexual polyvalence that again seems to affect both sexuality and gender, both biology and role. If Félicité des Touches, “cet être amphibie qui n'est ni homme ni femme,”29 has a male nom de plume, Honorine also asks of herself: “suis-je une femme? je suis un garçon doué d'une âme tendre” (572), of whom Maurice can say “elle n'avait plus rien de la femme” (569). Maurice, too, while remaining celibate, seems to see sexuality in primarily relational terms, adapting his position to complement that of his partner or partners. Thus he plays the role of a kind of maternal husband vis-à-vis Honorine while becoming a kind of substitute wife (or husband, given Octave's “mains de femme” 537) to Octave. As he says of their relationship: “L'union de ces deux esprits est à la fois plus et moins qu'un mariage” (539).

Elsewhere in the narrative gender roles cross, combine, and proliferate in familiar Balzacian fashion. Octave sees himself as Honorine's brother, mother and father (587, 588) and Maurice sees Octave as a second father (536) and the curé des Blancs-Manteaux as a second mother (535, 536). Thus, although Balzac does not actually deny sexual difference and gender roles, he subjects them to sufficient textual play as to expose them as constructed categories. Thus Honorine, like Sarrasine for Sandy Petrey, “maintains the verbal opposition between ‘man’ and ‘woman’ against its own refutation of the opposition's extraverbal validity.”30 Sexuality, like time and space, is a means for constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing relationships of proximity and distance, of anteriority and posteriority. Hence the remark of Camille Maupin, quoted above, characterizing men's desire as a juxtaposition of past and future, not unlike the palimpsest. Or, in the celebrated words of Claudine du Bruel: “L'espoir est une mémoire qui désire.”31

If sexuality is constructed as a wanting and as a separation,32 it is not surprising that Honorine is peopled by characters who are sexually unproductive for most of their lives. Of the four children mentioned above, one, Honorine's first son, dies, and her second is to be passed from her, to Octave, and then to Maurice. Maurice's children are, as has been noted, silent and then dismissed. The principal characters of the récit are all, for one reason or another, celibate, restrained by celibates, or sexually abstinent: from the young Maurice whose sexual desires are barely contained by an understanding uncle (534) to an Octave who holds himself back on the threshold of infidelity (552), and to the divorced or separated statesmen and celibate priests, the characters in Honorine repress and deny their sexuality. Even in the métarécit Camille Maupin travels with men with whom she has no sexual relationship, just as she refuses to allow herself to become involved with Calyste in Béatrix. This repeated sexual denial can be seen to combine with the above-mentioned proliferation and transfers of gender roles to construct an identity characterized by instability, transition, and disguise. The roles proliferate over a vacuum. Or, as again Sandy Petrey writes: “Balzac's representational prose, no less than Mallarmé's antirepresentational poetry, is in eccentric orbit around a void.”33

Given the way sexualities are deconstructed and constructed in Honorine, it seems inevitable, if symptomatic, that the relationship between Honorine and her lover be elided, almost erased from the narrative. Neither Honorine nor Octave gives any indication whatsoever of the identity of the lover—where, when, and how they met or how, where, and for how long they were together. The only residual evidence of the relationship's passing itself passes away with the death of Honorine's first son, who seems, moreover, to be further erased with the birth of her son by Octave. Furthermore, Octave explains Honorine's absence by inventing a fictitious journey on “un paquebot anglais” (592), the Cécile, to Havana, to collect the inheritance from a deceased relative and it is feared that Honorine and the boat are lost. The multiple distancing achieved through silence, sea-journey, foreignness, and death either real or imagined, determines, indeed over determines, the elision of female sexuality and desire.

Even this, however, is not enough. Fictitious absence is followed by voluntary exile, and an exile that further erases any evidence of Honorine's sexual desire. For in the retreat Honorine becomes neither mortified like “le quelque chose sans nom de Bossuet” that is Henriette de Mortsauf on her deathbed, nor a grotesque caricature of depravity like Béatrix de Rochefide. On the contrary, Honorine's decline and death occur when she returns to Octave.34 In her retreat she remains a child (564), “une colombe blessée” (575), a fairy (568), for Octave “une blanche statue” (552), as seemingly innocent, pure, and virginal as before she eloped. She even outshines a “real” innocent, Amélie de Courteville (561, see 584). In thus giving Honorine both desire and non-desire, knowledge and non-knowledge,35 Balzac makes her almost impossibly split. As Nicole Ward Jouve writes of Marie de Vandenesse: “Sex goes through Marie like a dividing line.”36 Honorine is, therefore, like Marie, a “constructed chimera,”37 a kind of female Christ—except that unlike Christ she is stigmatized without the stigmata. Hers is a sexuality which, like her flowers, are both bloom and artifice, plenitude and void. Her sexuality is the non-existent center of Balzac's world: speculum de l'autre, femme. As Irigaray also writes: “Il n'y aurait donc pas de représentation possible, d'histoire de l'économie de sa libido pour la femme.”38 Or, as Dorothy Kelly writes of Sarrasine: “The truth of a woman's gender is never revealed. … One only gets more veils, more enigmas, and never reaches the truth of woman.”39

Women's sexual identity is further jeopardized by the way in which maternity and children are repeatedly delegitimated in the novel. Although Honorine seems to erase an illegitimate relationship and a dead illegitimate son by returning to her husband, the promised adoption of her legitimate son by her would-be lover, Maurice, destabilizes two family groups: the erstwhile family Honorine-Octave-son; the new family Onorina-Maurice-children. Women are, therefore, betrayed by their own maternity into delegating their sexual status to children who, as the signs and bearers of legitimacy and illegitimacy, expose themselves and their mothers to the mobility of these precise categories. Both mother and child become simply go-betweens between fathers. Moreover, by illegitimately overhearing the account of Honorine and Maurice's potentially illegitimate relationship, and by the potential adoption of Honorine's son, Onorina, in her turn, repeats the delegitimating of her own marriage, motherhood, and sexuality. If neither purity, sensuality nor even motherhood can give women a legitimate sexual identity, it is hardly surprising that they are reduced to death, the convent, or silence.


Although both Honorine's sexually fulfilled relationship, and the apparent sexual incompatibility between her and her husband, are both sealed in silence, such silence is rather less than total in other works. Despite the parallels that have been drawn between the opacity of Honorine and Véronique Graslin,40 the desires and frustrations of other women in Balzac are made much more explicit. It is clear that women such as Dinah de la Baudraye, Béatrix de Rochefide, and the comtesse de Sérizy, seek outside marriage the fulfillment of a desire that their husbands are either unable or unwilling to satisfy within it. Even Henriette de Mortsauf betrays more of her frustrations and longings than Honorine. It is, therefore, necessary to relate the silences of Honorine the woman to the silences in Honorine the novel where, as Alain has pointed out, “tout est profondément caché.”41 This will then lead to further comments on Balzac's narrative, language and discourse.

“Probité, travail, et discrétion.”42 These words of Jean-Jérôme-Séverin Cardot to his nephew Oscar Husson in Un début dans la vie could be a motto for all the characters in Maurice's story. The characters, whether statesmen or priests, are, as Balzac emphasizes in the méta-métarécit, noted for their discretion: “Un homme n'est jamais diplomate impunément: le sposo fut discret comme la tombe” (592). The devastation caused by the revelations of Honorine's desertion to Octave, and of Octave's love for Honorine to Onorina, bears witness to the value placed by all the characters on tact, the weighed word, and discretion. It is partly because Maurice does not, though a diplomat, fully weigh his words, that Claude Vignon sees him as “un peu fat” (596). It is partly because Maurice is speaking in the company of writers—not only Camille Maupin but his ambassador, “un écrivain très distingué” (527)—that words assume such importance, with the unwitting being eschewed in favor of the witty, and hyperbole giving way to understatement, “ce génie du sous-entendu, la moitié de la langue française” (525). In other words, if a place (Genoa) and a time (after-dinner conversation) provoke a particular narrative, verbal interventions themselves need to be finely timed and appropriately placed.43 There is, therefore, a similar homology between time, space, and language as was indicated above between time, space and gender.

It is, moreover, possible to see a homology between all four categories. As part of that “jurisprudence humaine et sociale” into which Maurice, like so many other Balzacian characters, is gradually being initiated, language also needs to respect what Octave refers to as “ces lois du code féminin méconnues” (533).44 As Henriette de Mortsauf might say: “Noblesse oblige.” For language by and for Honorine is as finely controlled as the delicate floral poetry she crafts in her atelier. She, the “femme-fleur,” poeticizes her workshop (567) and, like Félix de Vandenesse, develops and deploys a whole language in flowers: “La botanique exprime, je crois, toutes les sensations et les pensées de l'âme, même les plus délicates!” (568). The novel does, therefore, unite a variety of workers in language—diplomats, priests, artists, writers, and women—whose watchword is almost wordless: for the count “‘Je souffre et je me tais.’” (541); for his wife “On ne m'a donné qu'un nom, Honorine” (578). Language seems therefore to be defined in terms of its opposite, reduced (or elevated) to a position of supplementarity. Like time, space, and gender, language is orbiting round a void.

Given that language in Honorine is represented as an essentially private affair, the public and publicity are shunned. As Balzac writes of himself in the Preface to Le Lys dans la vallée: “Il a sur la promiscuité des sentiments personnels et des sentiments fictifs une opinion sévère et des principes arrêtés.”45 The difficulty of avoiding such publicity and such prostitution is, however, made manifest in Honorine by the repeated references to literature and the theater. Willingly or otherwise, the characters repeat the already seen and said, and thereby both accrue past publicity and become available for future publication. Maurice is a littéraire manqué (533) who talks literature to his literary guests (530) and whose own past becomes a novel littered with literary references. From Maurice's resemblance to Byron (528), to Onorina being a possible retrospective model for Michelangelo (529), and to the aforementioned reference to the keepsake, the characters both repeat and have repeated a cherished common language: thus the Count visits Honorine's companion, Mme Gobain, to hear a recitation of “les moindres mots qu'elle a dits, car une seule exclamation peut me livrer les secrets de cette âme” (557). In a further homology between language and sexuality, they are both private and public, both unique métaphores vives and clichés, both the faithful wife and the adulteress. It seems inevitable, then, that Honorine should circulate, either as herself, her flowers, Onorina, or Maurice's story.

Given the temptation and fear of publicity, it is interesting that Maurice should make his revelations in the stage-like setting of Genoa, as befits the actor manqué. Honorine, too, is something of an actress, being “une comédienne de bonne foi” (570, see 593) who herself admits: “Je suis comédienne avec mon âme” (594). Here, too, then, the public invades and infects the most private and most inviolable of languages—the feminine, the sentimental, and the religious. Not only priests but their language—that of sincerity, loyalty, and piety—are neither sacred nor profane, but between discourses. As Pierre Larthomas has shown in an analysis of angelic vocabulary in Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan: “religion et théâtre se rejoignent.”46 Or as Frank Paul Bowman writes of Balzac: “religious metaphor does not function essentially in an ideological way, but rather serves as an index of various registers of imitated speech.”47

This contamination of private by public, and religious by profane, has important implications for a reading of Honorine. In showing that Honorine's private language is irredeemably contaminated by public discourses, whether eighteenth-century lasciviousness or 1820s views on marriage, Balzac's text, as Roddey Reid has shown of Les Paysans, “refuses … to indulge in its utopian impulse”48 and (simply) sublimate a sublime Honorine. This invasion of private discourses shows that public morality and the integrity of the family can only be maintained by a mixture of subterfuge, persuasion, and even violence. For the incompatibility between the private and public meanings of such terms as sincerity, loyalty, and purity, can only be eliminated if female sexuality is also elided, stigmatized, and finally killed. For Honorine, therefore, as for Les Paysans: “There is no escape … from the contradictions of the novel's familialism.”49

The contradictions in Honorine the woman and in Honorine the novel are compounded by the form of the narrative itself. On the one hand Maurice exposes Honorine's inner conflicts and thereby gives her story unwanted and unnecessary publicity. On the other hand, he turns her into a story, into a woman who, out of a mixture of self-protection and self-fulfillment, becomes her own private language, her own work of art. In thus simultaneously enhancing both Honorine's public and private personas, Maurice's narrative exacerbates the tension between the two. Rather than making Honorine's conflicts less acute or more resolvable with hindsight, his narrative increases their intensity. Exposure is precisely what she feared most and Maurice gives her posthumous celebrity. In this way Balzac's text, while thrusting Honorine into the past, shows that the double bind she found herself in may well apply just as much, if not more, to future times and to future women.

At the same time it must also be pointed out that Honorine, like Le Lys dans la vallée for Gabrielle Malandain, is “un véritable montage de textes.”50 Maurice's monologue is both completed and undermined by Balzac's own méta-métarécit, the letters of Honorine and Octave, and by the reactions of Léon de Lora, Claude Vignon, and Camille Maupin. Honorine's multiplicity of voices subverts both the authority of the single author, whether Balzac or Maurice, and the power of “the institutional organization of language” noted by Jane Nicholson in Le Cousin Pons,51 and source of such anguish for Honorine. Neither individual nor group has, therefore, ultimate power and they are all, whether they like it or not, between categories, categories themselves deconstructed as they are constructed. By using Maurice as an agent of shift between these categories, characters, himself and his œuvre, Balzac opens up new spaces, new times, new sexuality, and new language.52


  1. de Bauvan. His surname does not, however, appear in Honorine (see Honoré de Balzac, La Comédie humaine, ed. Pierre-Georges Castex, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade [Paris: Gallimard, 1976] 2: 1417). Page references to the text of Honorine (2: 525-97) will be given after the relevant quotation. References to other works by Balzac will be from the same edition. On Maurice's surname, see below n. 23.

  2. The opening and closing dialogues are later additions: see Pierre Citron's introduction, 2: 508, 517, 519 and 1440 note.

  3. The themes of proscription and separation are pervasive in Balzac. For references to proscription, see for example Per Nykrog, La Pensée de Balzac dans “la Comédie humaine” (Copenhague: Munksgaard, 1965) 171, and to separation, Nicole Mozet, Balzac au pluriel (Paris: PUF, 1990) 9: “l'écriture balzacienne, par rapport à la Passion aussi bien qu'au Moi ou à l'Histoire, est une écriture de la séparation.” Honorine, then, is the story of “une restauration/une restitution manquée”: see Mozet, 49, 52 and Owen N. Heathcote, “History, narrative position, and the subject in Balzac: the example of La Paix du ménage” in Ideology and religion in French Literature: Essays in honour of Brian Juden, ed. Harry Cockerham and Esther Ehrman (Camberley, Surrey: Porphyrogenitus, 1989) 181-99.

  4. Franc Schuerewegen, “Pour effleurer le sexe. A propos d'Honorine de Balzac,” Studia Neophilologica 55 (1983): 193, 193-197.

  5. Such a view of male time and female time may, however, be seen to go against the grain of current thinking on gender and sexuality. I would like to thank Eileen Boyd Sivert for drawing this to my attention.

  6. For an examination of difference as it is developed in this paper, see Robert Young, “The same difference,” Screen 28.3 (1987): 84-91. On p. 88, for example, Young writes: “It is only the other that makes the same the same.”

  7. Balzac's views of England and the English are, of course, too complex to be examined fully here. For other examples of his hostility see, however, M. Le Yaouanc's introduction to Le Lys dans la vallée (Paris: Garnier, 1966) lv-lvii.

  8. For an appraisal of movement and resistance with particular reference to Louis Lambert, see Nykrog 139-152.

  9. The guests at the exclusive, late-night dinner-party “oasis” (526) are on the terrace of a villa overlooking city and sea. In Béatrix Camille Maupin inhabits a similar “oasis” in the semi-island that is Guérande/Le Croisic (2: 701-02). Such narrative-inducing dinner-parties are, of course, favored by Balzac (La Muse du département, L'Auberge rouge) and another, in Autre étude de femme, is hosted by Camille Maupin/Félicité des Touches: “Le salon de Mlle des Touches, célèbre d'ailleurs à Paris, est le dernier asile où se soit réfugié l'esprit français d'autrefois, avec sa profondeur cachée, ses mille détours et sa politesse exquise.” (3: 674).

  10. The inaccessible (Parisian) retreat is another leitmotiv in Balzac, notably in La Fille aux yeux d'or. For a study of the “closed form” in Balzac, with particular reference to the Histoire des Treize, see John R. O'Connor, Balzac's Soluble Fish (Madrid: Studia Humanitatis, 1977) 39-110.

  11. See Christopher Prendergast, Balzac: Fiction and Melodrama (London: Arnold, 1978) 116-17.

  12. Although it could be said that Maurice merely joins the group “in the know,” Octave himself is certainly devastated by this betrayal of confidence in the presence of Maurice and the two priests (548).

  13. Franc Schuerewegen, “Pour effleurer le sexe,” analyzes the suggestiveness of the floral excess in Honorine.

  14. 9: 970. The disparities between “real” and “utopian” work in Balzac, and their implications for writing and reading, are discussed by Pierre Barbéris, “Dialectique du prince et du marchand,” in Balzac: l'invention du roman, eds. Claude Duchet and Jacques Neefs (Paris: Belfond, 1982) 181-212. See also Gilles Deleuze, Pourparlers (Paris: Minuit, 1990, 124): “C'est au XIXe siècle qu'une forme-Homme surgit, parce que les forces de l'homme se composent avec d'autres forces de finitude, découvertes dans la vie, le travail, le langage.”

  15. See Schuerewegen 195.

  16. The different allegiances of Balzac's priests are analyzed in Donald Adamson, “The priest in Balzac's fiction: secular and sacred aspects of the Church,” in Ideology and religion in French Literature, 1-22.

  17. Of La Peau de chagrin in the letter to Montalembert (Correspondance, (Paris: Garnier, 1960) 1: 567. See Pléiade, 10: 23 and Pierre Laubriet, L'lntelligence de l'art chez Balzac (Paris: Didier, 1961) 52, 55. For a reference to the femme écran see La Fille aux yeux d'or, Pléiade, 5: 1095. For the internal Balzacian reader seen as spy or as parasite, see Franc Schuerewegen, Balzac contre Balzac (Toronto: Paratexte; Paris: CDU.-SEDES, 1990) 157-62.

  18. One of the revealing inconsistencies in the chronology of Honorine: see Pléiade, 2: 1440.

  19. As Proust has shown, Balzac's internal audiences are usually more indulgent (Contre Sainte-Beuve [Paris: Gallimard, 1954] 250-54.) Schuerewegen, Balzac contre Balzac, offers interesting analyses of the interplay between Balzac's internal readers and alternative readings of his texts.

  20. See Citron's introduction 2: 513 and 1423, note.

  21. Again the novel's chronology is uncertain.

  22. La Vie élégante ou la formation du Tout-Paris 1815-1848 (Paris: Fayard, 1990) 107.

  23. He is referred to as M. de l'Hostal at the end of the story. It is tempting to see this name as an echo of his role of host/(guest) and, therefore, like the critic for J. Hillis Miller, both/neither within nor without the narrative (“The Critic as Host,” in Deconstruction and Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom et al., [London: Routledge, 1979] 217-53). See also Dorothy Kelly, Fictional Genders: Role and Representation in Nineteenth-Century Narrative (Lincoln: Nebraska Univ. Press, 1989) 103.

  24. Maurice does, however, refer to “tous ses quartiers de noblesse” (563-64). Other ambiguously placed “pupilles” include Ursule Mirouët, and Juana (Les Marana).

  25. Camille Maupin's final retreat into a convent may also be indebted to Sand's “rêve monastique”: see Madeleine Fargeaud's introduction to Béatrix 2: 608.

  26. Louis Lambert 11: 691.

  27. Louis Lambert 11: 622 and the Dédicace to Les Parents pauvres 7: 54. The double in Balzac has, of course, been frequently analyzed. See, for example: Rose Fortassier, “Balzac et le démon du double dans Le père Goriot,L'Année balzacienne, 1986, 155-67.

  28. 1: 380.

  29. Béatrix 2: 677. She is also “une sorte de Don Juan femelle” (698-99).

  30. Realism and Revolution: Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, and the Performances of History (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1988) 55.

  31. Un prince de la bohème 7: 821. See also La Fille aux yeux d'or: “L'amour vrai règne surtout par la mémoire” (5: 1093).

  32. Honorine's “attente sans objet” (571) may echo the waiting and the longing of the “grande ombre” Honorino in Les Proscrits (11: 551-52).

  33. Petrey 55.

  34. The persistence of death in Honorine has already been noted by Pierre Danger, L'Eros balzacien (Paris: Corti, 1989) 51-52. If Honorine, like Le Colonel Chabert, “est l'histoire de la construction et de la destruction d'un sujet” (Marcelle Marini, “Chabert mort ou vif,” Littérature, no. 13 [1974]: 95, 92-112), it is significant that in Honorine, as in Adieu, the subject in process is a woman: “from the very beginning the woman in this text stands out as a problem,” and that for Octave, too, the woman's cure is in the man's reason. (See Shoshana Felman, “Women and madness: the critical phallacy,” Diacritics, no. 5 (1975): 6, 8, 2-10 and, for Octave's fear of madness, Honorine 558). It is, therefore, possible to see Honorine, as Diana Knight sees La Cousine Bette, as betraying “male fear of women's refusal of sexual response” (“Reading as an old maid: La Cousine Bette and compulsory heterosexuality,” Quinquereme [1989]: 72, 67-79). As Honorine writes to Maurice: “je ne puis pas aimer le comte. Tout est là, voyez-vous?” (581). See also Kelly 75-117.

  35. Honorine becomes (conveniently) allegorized as “la Pudeur instruite” (584).

  36. “Balzac's A Daughter of Eve and the apple of knowledge” in Sexuality and Subordination, eds. Susan Mendus and Jane Rendall (London: Routledge, 1989) 56, 25-59.

  37. Ward Jouve 57.

  38. Speculum de l'autre femme (Paris: Minuit, 1974) 48.

  39. Kelly 114. It can, however, be argued that Balzac's text, and this study, underscores Maurice's desire for Honorine, turning that into another non-dit. I am grateful to Armine Kotin Mortimer for this observation.

  40. Citron, Introduction 523.

  41. Avec Balzac (Paris: Gallimard, 1937) 19.

  42. 1: 840.

  43. At the same time, wit is a dangerous weapon: see David Bell, “Epigrams and Ministerial Eloquence: the War of Words in Balzac's La Peau de chagrin,Nineteenth-Century French Studies 15.3 (1987): 258, 252-64.

  44. For a discussion of initiation into “a high social jurisprudence” in Balzac, see Peter Brooks, “Balzac: Representation and Signification,” in his The Melodramatic Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1976) 130-131, 110-52. Such an initiation is often conducted by women whose ability to combine lucidity and sentiment makes them into “docteurs en corset” (1: 346) or even “Machiavels en jupon” (7: 188). The most sustained example of this combination of the maternal, the political, and the literary, is no doubt Henriette de Mortsauf's celebrated letter to Félix de Vandenesse (9: 1084-97) but Camille Maupin herself combines these qualities in her behavior to Calyste in Béatrix. See Arlette Michel, “Balzac juge du féminisme,” L'Année balzacienne, 1973, 191-93, 183-200.

  45. 9: 915. A questionable assertion for Balzac, but neatly linking language and sexuality. The fact that Honorine's sexual relations with Octave, within marriage, are seen as a form of prostitution (578), even rape (579), may explain why Pierre Citron sees Honorine as illustrating Balzac's habit of making prostitutes “mal mariées” (Introduction to Les Marana 10: 1026) and echoes his comment that, for Balzac, “le mariage occidental est la prostitution” (“Le rêve asiatique de Balzac,” L'Année balzacienne, 1968, 313, 303-36). The oriental theme in Honorine does, moreover, confirm links between space, language, flowers, and sexuality: “Si les Parisiennes avaient un peu du génie que l'esclavage du harem exige chez les femmes de l'Orient, elles donneraient tout un langage aux fleurs posées sur leur tête.” (568. See 570, 574).

  46. Sur une image de Balzac,” L'Année balzacienne, 1973, 310, 301-26.

  47. “The Future of Studies on Romanticism: A Personal View,” Romance Quarterly 34 (1987): 474-75, 471-80.

  48. “Realism Revisited: Familial Discourse and Narrative in Balzac's Les Paysans,Modern Language Notes 103 (1988): 879, 865-86.

  49. Reid 881.

  50. “Dire la passion, écrire Le Lys dans la vallée,Romantisme, no. 62 (1988): 31, 31-39. See also Michaël Lastinger, “Narration et ‘point de vue’ dans deux romans de Balzac: La Peau de chagrin et Le Lys dans la vallée,L'Année balzzacienne, 1988, 290, 271-90.

  51. “Discourse, power, and necessity: contextualizing Le Cousin Pons,Symposium 42 (1988): 54, 48-61.

  52. I would like to thank Maggie Allison for her comments and suggestions on various sections of this paper. An earlier version was presented at the 16th Colloquium in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, University of Oklahoma, 1990.

Anne-Marie Smith-DiBiasio (essay date autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: Smith-DiBiasio, Anne-Marie. “‘Le Texte de la Vie des Femmes’: Female Melancholia in Eugénie Grandet.Nottingham French Studies 35, no. 2 (autumn 1996): 52-9.

[In the following essay, Smith-DiBiasio considers the singularity and universality of the protagonist in Eugénie Grandet against the background of the debate about Balzac's realism and analyzes the text itself in terms of female melancholia.]

This essay begins with the text, Eugénie Grandet, and looks at it initially against the background of La Comédie Humaine and in the context of critical debate about Balzac's realism. This in turn raises questions about the function and composition of character, character as type and character as case and my reading attempts to analyse the singularity of Eugénie Grandet, which leads inevitably to considering the universal aspects of this singularity. The specificity of Eugénie Grandet emerges from Balzac's description of a life and the text itself offers universalizing sententiae which see this life in terms of ‘le texte de la vie des femmes’, the text of women's lives. Reading the text of Eugénie Grandet's life leads me to analyse this in terms of melancholia as defined by Freud and elaborated by Abraham and Torok; and more specifically in terms of female melancholia as described by Kristeva and accounted for by Irigaray. I nearly stopped here with Irigaray's appeal to a cultural resolution to female melancholia. But I am uncomfortable with the neat clinical solution and nostalgic for the unresolved melancholy of the text. The relationship between art and psychoanalysis is not hand in glove. Eugénie Grandet is not the patient but the patient's melancholy. The essay ends with the irreducible texture of melancholy which is the text.

The question of the interrelation of social and psychic structures emerges from Balzac's creation of characters possessing both a general and quite singular authenticity. This question is itself inseparable from the debate about Balzac's realism and in turn from issues of representation.

Balzac's project in La Comédie Humaine is both onto- and phylogenetic: in his ‘avant-propos’ he defines as central to his romanesque project the portrayal of ‘l'espèce sociale’ by which he means man in culture, but he also speaks about the emotional realism of his characters, of ‘l'importance et la poésie de cette histoire du cœur humain’.1 His novels in fact testify to the fact that the account of human subjectivity in general emerges from a keen concentration on singularity.

In Eugénie Grandet we have a character whose fate is accountable to a whole set of cultural, emotional and psychic structures, the relentless interaction of which is integral to this representation of both a type and a case of femininity.

The realism of La Comédie Humaine has been seen as the product of a carefully-crafted fantasy structure whereby the reader is spellbound by the illusion of an autonomous closed world to the extent that this world begins to represent the ‘whole world’ and the ‘real world’ becomes uninhabitable outside ‘la comédie’. The realist fantasy is stage-managed by a whole materialist rationale whereby for example, a historical retrospect initiates the reader into the earlier life of an individual or social group and serves, because of its quasi-objective status, as a narrative summary of the ‘real’ past; or careful period detail establishes a relationship between the movement of history and the course of private fortunes so that in Eugénie Grandet Grandet emerges as a characteristic product of his time; or a situation is created in which a chosen character acts out his given nature at a precise historical moment and within a clearly-specified economic and social pattern, such as Grandet leaving Saumur at the dead of night to exploit the Restoration's inadequate system of public credit, or Grandet going to Angers where the price of gold has doubled.2 This realist strategy establishes characters as types. So on one level Grandet is the modern miser, the business man whose machinations precipitate enormous changes in provincial and family life, and the novel is about the new power of money in a society new to business ventures and financial speculation, with woman as an object of exchange within that system, as sacrificial. But the social-realist rationale is insufficient to explain what actually drives and motivates the characters, what accounts both for their compelling singularity and the universal appeal of that subjectivity. If we look closely, the world of Eugénie Grandet, of her mother and her father can be seen to repeat the very structure of the Comédie's seminal fantasy whereby a microcosmic world exerts such a powerful hold on a subject as to make the ‘real world’ uninhabitable for her. I would like to examine the form this structure takes in the character of Eugénie and to explain this with reference to psychoanalysis, a discourse for which the hyperreality of the fantasmatic structure is daily bread.

Eugénie Grandet does not submit to a position of object of exchange within the system of nascent capitalism defined in the novel through her father. In Kristevan terms we might say that she repudiates the symbolic order he represents, neither speaks his language nor submits to such an order of things. Hers is not a liberating alternative; she can be seen to inhabit a world of pre-Oedipal fusion with her mother, a state Kristeva would call the semiotic.3 Confined to the womb-like locus of the Grandet's living room, mother and daughter have spent every day for the last fifteen years sitting together maintaining the household linen. Not only the living room but the whole of Monsieur Grandet's house represents the mother-daughter relationship:

Une travailleuse en bois de mérisier déteint remplissait l'embrasure, et le petit fauteuil d'Eugénie Grandet était placé tout auprès. Depuis quinze ans, toutes les journées de la mère et la fille s'étaient paisiblement écoulées à cette place, dans un travail constant, à compter du mois d'avril jusqu'au mois de novembre (…) La mère et la fille entretenaient tout le linge de la maison, et employaient si consciencieusement leurs journées à ce véritable labeur d'ouvrière, que, si Eugénie voulait broder une collerette à sa mère, elle était forcée de prendre sur ses heures de sommeil en trompant son père pour avoir de la lumière4

(p. 40)

Madame Grandet avait une chambre contiguë à celle d'Eugénie, chez qui l'on entrait par une porte vitrée.

(p. 68)

Mother and daughter sleep separated only by a glass door; and these bizarre sleeping arrangements along with the description of the room where they spend their life, and the later image of their being attached to each other like Siamese twins are all symptomatic of fusion, identification and incestuous claustrophobia:

Mais à la vérité, la vie des célèbres sœurs hongroises, attachées l'une à l'autre par une erreur de la nature, n'avait pas été plus intime que ne l'était celle d'Eugénie et de sa mère, toujours ensemble dans cette embrasure de croisée, ensemble à l'église, et dormant ensemble dans le même air.

(p. 81)

As Kristeva would argue, this state of pre-Oedipal fusion is as oppressive as the law of the father, the symbolic order of things represented by Grandet's world, for it is equally totalitarian. It is related to what she calls the paralysis of the abject position, a boundary position between the infancy of the pre-Oedipal and access to language in the symbolic.5 The internalization of lost objects prevalent in melancholy is a similar boundary state, and it is the state of melancholy which I should like to examine further here in so far as it is a defining structure in Balzac's text. The structuring principle of Eugénie Grandet's world is melancholy, female melancholy in which mother and daughter are bound together in a state of mournful non-differentiation.

Melancholy is often associated with the failure of symbolic activity, the state Kristeva refers to as both ‘l'abjection’ and ‘l'asymbolie’6 and which Abraham and Torok have seen as the failure in the mourning subject of a metaphoric activity they call introjection.7 Introjection involves the infant's initiation into metaphoric activity, the replacement of a mouth full of breast/milk by a mouth full of language. The meaningfulness and success of this first metaphoric activity is guaranteed by the presence of a maternal figure who is herself an initiate of the world of language and has learnt to supplement loss with communication. The failure of the introjection of words into the mouth empty of milk takes the form of a fantasy of incorporation whereby the lost object is incorporated into the self in a fantasy guarding the subject against its loss. The self becomes a crypt and the lost object the source of an interminable mourning process we call melancholy. The fantasy of incorporation is anti-metaphoric ‘en accomplissant au propre ce qui n'a de sens qu'au figuré’,8 taking literally that which only has figurative meaning, since rather than replace loss with language it imagines taking the lost object into the self, literally, so that the self becomes a crypt. This process is an aspect of mourning which mourning works through and eventually resolves through introjection. Melancholy is the failure of the work of mourning, and as Freud noted is different from mourning in that the loss of self-regard, prevalent in melancholy, is absent in mourning.9

Eugénie and her mother inhabit a world of melancholy absent of metaphor. The melancholic principle of demetaphorisation and the concomitant fantasy of incorporation can be very clearly defined on a semantic level in the text of Eugénie Grandet and especially in the pseudo-realist description of the house at Saumur and its evocation of degradation and depoetisation, of mourning and melancholia. In Monsieur Grandet's house the allegorical figures sculpted into the stone work have become eaten away by time and decay, the figure carved out of the doorknob is now almost unrecognisable, the chair-covers, once representing La Fontaine's fables, are now worn and faded, like the portraits hanging on the walls and the wooden barometer eaten away by flies; this is the room occupied by Eugénie and her mother. On reading we ask ourselves what is the meaning of all this melancholy and decay?

Les sièges de forme antique étaient garnis en tapisseries représentant les fables de La Fontaine; mais il fallait le savoir pour en reconnaître les sujets, tant les couleurs passées et les figures criblées de reprises se voyaient difficilement (…) Au dessus de cette table, il y avait un baromètre ovale, à bordure noire, enjolivé par des rubans de bois doré, où les mouches avaient si licencieusement folâtré que la dorure en était un problème. Sur la paroi opposée à la cheminée, deux portraits au pastel étaient censées représenter l'aïeul de Madame Grandet (…) et défunte Madame Gentillet (…)

(p. 40)

Eugénie Grandet is trapped in a world of impossible fusion with a mother whose reaction to any perturbation we are told is to ‘faire la mort’. Dutybound to Grandet, she and her daughter live in the space delimited by his moods and after her mother's death Eugénie will virtually live the life of a mystic, bound to her mother's dying words, ‘il n'y a de bonheur que dans le ciel’ (p. 163). Their life corresponds closely to the three figures of female depression traced by Kristeva in her Soleil noir: dépression et mélancolie, in which she refers to three cases of female depression whose defining symptoms are roughly ‘le corps-tombeau’, ‘la perversion blanche’ and ‘la vierge mère’.10 These figures are each typified by a defining symptom, such as: the female body as crypt for the lost object, ‘faire la morte … le dedans féminin … [devient] la crypte qui englobe la morte’ (pp. 84-9); the perverse devotion to duty which masks sexual identity, ‘l'activité débordante de la mélancolie … investit en secret la perversion dans ce que la loi a de plus implacable: dans la contrainte, le devoir, le destin, et jusque dans la fatalité de la mort’ (p. 93); and self-enclosure within a pre-Oedipal space against the threats of the outside world, ‘entr[er] en maternité comme on entre au couvent’ (p. 101).

Both Kristeva and Abraham and Torok see a certain form of metaphoric activity as melancholy's ultimate prevention and cure. Now Eugénie has an opening for metaphoric activity when she falls in love with her cousin Charles:

Dans la pure et monotone vie des jeunes filles, il vient une heure délicieuse où le soleil leur épanche ses rayons dans l'âme, où la fleur leur exprime des pensées, où les palpitations du cœur communiquent au cerveau leur chaude fécondance, et fondent les idées en un vague désir; jour d'innocente mélancolie et de suaves joyeusetés!

(p. 70)

When this moment arrives for Eugénie she interests herself in her appearance for the first time in her life, wakes early and dresses with care. As she looks out of her window awaiting her cousin she watches the garden. Despite being bathed in the sunlight of her new love it hosts a sinister scenario. The plants are tangled, withered and blighted, ‘inculte’, ‘flétris’, ‘rougis’, ‘brouis’, ‘rongeés’, ‘pourri’, ‘tombée de véstusté’, ‘rabougris’ (pp. 71-2); the walls are covered in dank rotting plants and at the steps leading to the garden door, buried by overgrown plants, we have an image of encrypting proper to Eugénie's melancholy (and to Kristeva's first figure of female melancholy):

Enfin les huit marches qui régnaient au fond de la cour et menaient à la porte du jardin, étaient disjointes et ensevelies sous de hautes plantes comme le tombeau d'un chevalier enterré par sa veuve au temps des croisades

the image of a widow in mourning for a knight buried in the religious wars. Her sexual awakening and the glimmers of hope which enter the narrative with it, such as sunlight on the blighted garden, is coded by this central image of mourning and by references to a melancholic lack of self-regard against the background of the male gaze and most specifically the terror of her father. For at the very moment that Eugénie might break out of that fusional relationship with her mother she is literally terrorized by the figure of an all-powerful father: ‘Eugénie se sauva dans le jardin, tout épouvantée en entendant trembler l'escalier sous le pas de son père’ (p. 74), and this because the mother's sexual position in the Oedipal triangle is masked by what Kristeva calls ‘l'activité débordante de la mélancolie’, a perversion which consists in the implacable devotion to duty, destiny, fatality (Kristeva's second figure of female melancholy).

Melancholic imprisonment is the maxim governing this implacable narrative. After falling in love with Charles, Eugénie is unable to take the opening to metaphoric activity implicit in romance. Bound to her mother in melancholy, introjection is impossible for her and contemplation of the loved object precipitates feelings of inadequacy and reveals both the disturbance of self-regard intrinsic to inexpressible melancholy and the fantasmatic destruction of metaphoric activity on which that hinges.

Melancholic identification with her mother means that with the awakening of her desire for her cousin Eugénie feels terrorized by her father. He represents destruction: ‘Pour la première fois, elle eut dans le cœur de la terreur à l'aspect de son père, vit en lui le maître de son sort’. This terror is a measure of her imprisonment in the Oedipal triangle. Grandet's ‘arrêt paternel et souverain’ signifies patriarchy, capitalism, but also the law of the father necessary for her survival. This is the symbolic order she denies herself, locked in a semiotic world of maternal fusion, a dead-end. So when Eugénie looks at herself in the mirror, she is confronted with the image of her father looking at her. He is the master of her fate because she herself has no means of identification with this parent nor with the order he represents; she is defenceless because without what Kristeva calls those arms necessary for a daughter's survival, obtained through identification with the symbolic father. Nor, despite her infatuation with her cousin, does she have any desire for another than her mother, for ‘un partenaire imaginé capable de dissoudre la mère emprisonnée en moi en me donnant ce qu'elle a pu et surtout ce qu'elle n'a pas pu me donner … une nouvelle vie’.11 Eugénie's love for Charles is a form of idolatry. He is an angel, a phoenix, an unattainable ideal creature. Moreover, with the death of Charles's father, in Charles she loves an image of melancholy which corresponds to her self-image: ‘Il ne jouait pas la douleur, il souffrait véritablement, et le voile étendu sur ses traits par la peine lui donnait cet air intéressant qui plaît tant aux femmes. Eugénie l'en aima bien davantage’ (p. 104).

Melancholy is the province of femininity in this novel, and with various sententiae, Balzac underpins his representation.

la femme a cela de commun avec l'ange que les êtres souffrants lui appartiennent (…) En toute situation, les femmes ont plus de causes de douleur que n'en a l'homme, et souffrent plus que lui. L'homme a sa force, et l'exercice de sa puissance: il agit, il va, il s'occupe, il pense, il embrasse l'avenir et y trouve des consolations (…). Mais la femme demeure, elle reste face à face avec le chagrin dont rien ne la distrait, elle descend jusqu'au fond de l'abîme qu'il a ouvert, le mesure et souvent le comble de ses vœux et de ses larmes. Ainsi faisait Eugénie. Elle s'initiait à sa destinée. Sentir, aimer, souffrir, se dévouer, sera toujours le texte de la vie des femmes.

(p. 139)

Realism and the alienating powers of capitalism cannot be linked causally, in a simplistic way with the real preoccupation in Eugénie Grandet, ‘le texte de la vie des femmes’. It cannot be denied that, for as long as women remain objects of exchange between men in patriarchal societies, their access to the symbolic order remains severely limited. It may indeed be culturally expedient for men that women remain trapped in this position. Just where this problem overlaps with female melancholy is the crucial question here, for melancholy hinges on the denial of access to language as metaphor, to ‘l'exercice de la puissance’, to language as a transformative even healing power. This access depends on the figure of the mother, and furthermore it is the mother who for the child, and metaphorically for culture at large, embodies the interrelation of social and psychic structures to which I referred at the beginning of this essay. The mother must initiate the passage into culture, to the symbolic, represented by the father. Eugénie's lack of self-regard at the moment of her falling in love is a symptom of melancholy fostered by her melancholic mother and an indication of the impossibility for her of identification with the symbolic, with culture.

Eugénie Grandet's mother leaves her no access to symbolic activity. She dies from identifying literally with her daughter and her physical vulnerability before the blows of her terrible father. She leaves her daughter with the words, ‘Mon enfant, (…) il n'y a de bonheur que dans le ciel, tu le sauras un jour’ (p. 163). Eugénie endures her cousin's silence for nine years during which she is visited by predatory provincial neighbours anxious for her marriage and money. After her father's death and the loss of Charles to a marriage of convenience, with now the priest as master of her fate she is proposed two possible paths: marriage or voluntary celibacy, ‘obéir à votre destinée terrestre ou à votre destinée céleste’ (p. 180) and she makes no hesitation but with her mother's dying words as a measure of her destiny chooses death in life, ‘je vais dire adieu au monde et vivre pour Dieu seul dans le silence et la retraite (…) la mort promptement, monsieur le curé, dit-elle avec une effrayante vivacité’ (p. 181).

This is a mystical solution prefigured by her mother's dying words but after being given time for reflection she chooses a middle path between life and death, a boundary state proper to her melancholy. She chooses both marriage and voluntary celibacy. Naomi Schor has argued that this choice points to the evolution of Eugénie Grandet's narcissism for it enables her to remain poised between the imaginary—in which she is the heroine of undying love for her cousin Charles, and the symbolic—in which she submits, for her survival, to the social restrictions of marriage while nevertheless being able to guard intact her image of that undying love.12 So Eugénie chooses to carry on loving Charles and, I would argue, only enters into the symbolic order of marriage to enable this. We might describe her act, after Kristeva, as ‘entrer en [mariage] comme on entre au couvent’. She attaches her melancholy to a structure in the social order which is surely a means of ensuring its survival. She protects her libidinal position with this, in effect, homosexual gesture, and libidinal positions, as Freud notes in Mourning and Melancholia,13 are never willingly abandoned.

So Balzac has linked the bourgeois tragedy to a certain structure of femininity, a fantasmatic structure whereby the subject closes in on itself self-protectively against entering into culture:

Telle est l'histoire de cette femme qui n'est pas du monde au milieu du monde, qui, faite pour être magnifiquement épouse et mère, n'ai ni mari, ni enfants, ni famille.

(p. 189)

In ‘Rereading Irigaray’, which precedes her book Luce Irigaray,14 Margaret Whitford elucidates Irigaray's account of female melancholy. Whitford argues that Irigaray's work is a response to the masculinist bias of Western metaphysics which traps femininity in an unrepresentable, melancholic position and women as objects of exchange in the male imaginary. According to Irigaray the female imaginary has to be inscribed into culture, into the symbolic order because in Western culture women remain trapped in a pre-Oedipal mother-daughter relationship. The problem is that a language does not exist which adequately represents and mediates this relationship. Irigaray points out that many of the characteristics of melancholia are in Freud mapped on to his description of the little girl's psychic development. Whitford explains with reference to Irigaray:

The girl-child in certain respects remains in a state of melancholia; she can never accomplish the work of mourning, the loss of the object, because she has no representation of what has been lost. As a result, ‘the little girl's separation from her mother and her sex, cannot be worked through by mourning’.15

This is what Irigaray calls a state of ‘dereliction’ and Balzac has seized upon this emotional reality in his representation of Eugénie Grandet and her mother; but his novel cannot provide the female symbolic which Irigaray demands. The work of introjection, of primary metaphorisation, required to lift such melancholia, is a massive cultural task demanded of women, which will enable in turn the long reparative work of mourning. But the novel remains pinned to Balzac's sententiae, ‘sentir, aimer, souffrir, se dévouer, sera toujours le texte de la vie des femmes’. Eugénie Grandet is in no position to rescue herself from this. The irreducible melancholic texture of the text remains as a nostalgic reminder of and important return to a libidinal position we must relinquish, albeit symbolically, for a place in culture;

elle reste face à face avec le chagrin dont rien ne la distrait.

(p. 139)


  1. Balzac, ‘Avant-propos de la Comédie humaine’ (Paris: July 1842) in Préfaces (Paris: 1953), pp. 367-83.

  2. For a discussion of Balzac's strategies of realism cf. Michel Butor, ‘Balzac et la réalité’, Répertoires 1 (Paris: Minuit, 1960), pp. 74-93.

  3. The ‘semiotic’ is a key word in Kristeva's critical and psychoanalytic vocabulary. She first used it to describe the poetic text's pulsional infraction of the established order of language in La Révolution du langage poétique (Paris: Seuil, 1974). More recently it has been attached to the notion of the child's pre-Oedipal fusion with the mother, and most recently to the language of the ‘affect’, of rhythms, sounds and colours, which is in effect a return to that position, and which in different degrees, traverses the symbolic order of language.

  4. Balzac, Eugénie Grandet (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1964), all references are to this edition and are included in the text.

  5. cf. Kristeva, ‘Approche de l'abjection’ in Pouvoirs de l'horreur (Paris: Seuil, 1980).

  6. Kristeva, Soleil noir, Dépression et mélancolie (Paris: Gallimard, 1987).

  7. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, ‘Deuil ou mélancolie’, in L'Écorce et le noyau (Paris: Aubier-Flammarion, 1978), pp. 259-74.

  8. ‘Deuil ou mélancolie’, p. 261.

  9. ‘Mourning and Melancolia’ in the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. James Strachey (London, 1963-74), vol. 12, p. 246.

  10. ‘Figures de la dépression féminine’, Soleil moir, pp. 79-99.

  11. ‘Figures de la dépression féminine’, p. 89.

  12. Naomi Schor, Breaking the Chain, Women, Theory and French Realist Fiction (Columbia University Press, 1985), ‘Eugénie Grandet, mirrors and melancholia’, pp. 90-107. Schor's essay emphasizes the centrality of Eugénie Grandet's narcissism; it is the factor which permits her to decide her fate and the novel to imagine her survival. I think Schor valorizes the heroine's entry into a loveless marriage as a triumph for her narcissism, whereas I see it as a self-affirming gesture only insofar as it protects her melancholic position.

  13. Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. James Strachey (London, 1963-74), vol. 12.

  14. Margaret Whitford, ‘Rereading Irigaray’ in Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, ed. Teresa Brennan (Routledge, 1989), pp. 106-26.

  15. Margaret Whitford, Luce Irigaray, Philosophy in the Feminine (Routledge, 1991).

Susan Yates (essay date May-August 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7158

SOURCE: Yates, Susan. “Women in the Discourse of Balzac's Horace Bianchon.” Australian Journal of French Studies 36, no. 2 (May-August 1999): 173-87.

[In the following essay, Yates maintains that Balzac identifies with his character Dr. Horace Bianchon and examines the five texts in which he appears as narrator to expose the author's understanding of the social condition of women as well as his essential misogyny.]

One of the major vehicles used by Balzac to express his beliefs about women in the Comédie humaine is Dr Horace Bianchon.1 As a doctor, Bianchon is presented as a shrewd and dispassionate observer of human nature par excellence2 and moreover, by virtue of his special access to the private lives of his patients, as an expert on women. Seen in his role as physician, he is most often sympathetic and courteous in his attitude to women, covering up their secrets and defending their interests as patients against the outside world.3 In five of the thirty-odd texts featuring Dr Bianchon, however, he is seen above all in his social persona, as habitué of the fashionable Paris salons, and in the discussions on women which take place in these salons he appears to be much more representative of the traditional views of the male-dominated society around him. It is no coincidence that in three of these five texts he is also cast as narrator: Etude de femme, Echantillon de causerie française and Autre étude de femme; while in the fourth and fifth, La Muse du département and L'Interdiction, he plays a major role in the plot. In this article I will use these five texts to examine Bianchon's presentation of women, starting from the assumption that Balzac identifies strongly with Bianchon and often merges his own persona as narrator with that of Bianchon.4 I reject the interpretation encouraged by Balzac throughout the Comédie humaine, that Bianchon, as a brilliant physician, is a disinterested scientific observer. While admitting that Balzac, speaking through Bianchon, acknowledges the social condition of women with a sensitivity that is ahead of his time, I argue the case that the discourse on women in these five texts is fundamentally misogynistic.5

As Anne-Marie Lefebvre explains in her article “Visages de Bianchon”,6 Balzac originally conceived the first three of these texts as part of a series to be called “études de femme”, and when he abandoned the project in 1833 he began to rework the material, in many places replacing himself by Bianchon as “analyste de la femme”. When he first wrote these texts, he had not yet fully developed his concept of Bianchon's role and importance in the Comédie humaine; but by the time he came to rewrite and edit them several years later he had enlarged the role of Bianchon so much beyond that of simply a doctor that he identified him closely with his own role as storyteller. The narrative voice in these three texts is thus ambiguous, with constant oscillation between the “je” of Bianchon and the “je” of Balzac himself.7


The prestige surrounding the figure of the scientist and the medical man in nineteenth-century thinking8 makes Bianchon an ideal vehicle for Balzac's views about women.9 In his role at his patients' bedsides, he has become “un savant interprète de la nature humaine”10 whose perhaps simple human curiosity is dignified by Balzac and presented as “cette curiosité physiologique particulière aux gens de notre profession, quand ils prennent la science en amour”.11 In particular, because the majority of his patients are female, he has become a privileged observer of women.12 He is described, like Dr Larivière in Madame Bovary,13 as having a gaze like that of the surgeon, penetrating to the very depths of a woman's mind: in La Muse du département, Mme de La Baudraye finds his insight into her personal life unnerving,14 while in Autre étude de femme he has only to look at the maid Rosalie to know she is hiding something:

Je découvris, en l'examinant, les traces d'une pensée intime, malgré la santé brillante qui éclatait sur son visage potelé. Il y avait chez elle un principe de remords ou d'espérance; son attitude annonçait un secret, comme celle des dévotes qui prient avec excès ou celle de la fille infanticide qui entend toujours le dernier cri de son enfant.

(III, p. 255)

In accord with the idea of scientists of his time,15 Balzac shows the lives of women and men as reflecting a natural hierarchy of class and gender. Throughout the five texts we are considering, he argues implicitly for the difference model of the two sexes.16 Just as the working classes are different from and subordinate to the upper classes, so women, represented as different from and inferior to men on physical, intellectual and moral levels, are made by nature to serve them as wives and mothers.

In the same way as the Comédie humaine is based on the idea of cataloguing and describing all the different social species—the priest, the lawyer, the aristocrat, the peasant and so on—so too women are categorized as a separate group needing to be classified and analysed.17 They are presented as all sharing the same flaws which derive from their immutable nature as women: they are unable to resist the temptations of illicit love;18 no matter how innocent or pure they seem, they cannot be trusted;19 and all women, whatever their background, possess supreme skill in hiding their emotions:20 in Autre étude de femme, Bianchon notes that although she is taken aback by his question as to why she is not married, Rosalie “se remit promptement de son émotion intérieure, car toutes les femmes, depuis la grande dame jusqu'aux servantes d'auberge inclusivement, ont un sang-froid qui leur est particulier” (III, p. 256).

The five texts selected for discussion come in many ways straight from this age-old literary tradition of anti-woman rhetoric. All include the topic of women and love, all are seen from the perspective of a male narrator, and all contain familiar maxims on feminine “nature” which seem to offend many of the female listeners—because, it is implied, the maxims come uncomfortably close to the truth.21 The theme of women's duplicity figures largely. In particular, both Autre étude de femme and La Muse du département include a cycle of storytelling taking place in a salon on the theme of women's infidelity. The tales told in the salons do not feature infidelity committed by men, only by women, and the penalty paid by the women who transgress against their husbands or lovers is frightening. In both texts, an admiring audience begs Bianchon to exercise his talent as a conteur by telling the terrible story of La Grande Bretèche, in which an outraged husband, having made his wife swear on a crucifix that there is no one in her wardrobe, forces her to watch her lover walled up alive. For twenty days, the cruel M. de Merret remains in the bedroom with his wife in order to prevent her from going to the help of her lover. “Elle avait dû bien souffrir!” comments a notary who saw her a few months later on her deathbed.22 On both occasions, the story has considerable effect, especially on the women in the audience:

Après ce récit, toutes les femmes se levèrent de table, et le charme sous lequel Bianchon les avait tenues fut dissipé par ce mouvement. Néanmoins quelques-unes d'entre elles avaient eu quasi froid en entendant le dernier mot.

(p. 262)

There is no question that Bianchon, who prides himself on his reputation as a conteur, enjoys the impact of the story of La Grande Bretèche: we are told in La Muse du département that “Ce fut d'ailleurs la même perfection dans les gestes, dans les intonations qui valut tant d'éloges au docteur chez mademoiselle Des Touches quand il la raconta pour la première fois. Le dernier tableau […] produisit tout son effet. Il y eut un moment de silence assez flatteur pour Bianchon” (IV, pp. 105-106).

In Autre étude de femme, the story of La Grande Bretèche is merely one of several on the theme of women and adultery, but in La Muse du département the récit has a more significant role to play. Bianchon and his friend Lousteau, who have come on a short visit to Sancerre to stay at the château of M. and Mme de La Baudraye, suspect that their hostess may have taken one of her circle of admirers as her lover. Lousteau suggests a stratagem to find out the truth: “racontons, après le dîner, quelques histoires de femmes surprises par leurs maris, et qui soient tuées, assassinées avec des circonstances terrifiantes. Nous verrons bien la mine que feront madame de La Baudraye et monsieur de Clagny” (IV, p. 95). Bianchon acquiesces to his suggestion with pleasure. When they realize that Mme de La Baudraye has no lover, Bianchon then starts a campaign to push her into the arms of his friend. The attitude of both men is cold, arrogant and manipulative. For them, seduction of Mme de La Baudraye is a kind of game through which they can establish their superiority over this circle of naive provincials (“L'idée d'emporter en quelques instants une place qui résistait depuis neuf ans aux Sancerrois sourit alors à Lousteau”, IV, p. 117); the idea that their interference will radically alter the course of her life, introducing her to adultery and perhaps social ostracism, never enters their thoughts.


At the same time, almost in spite of themselves, the texts can be seen as revealing an intuitive understanding of, and compassion for, the social conditions in which women lived in nineteenth-century France. Bianchon, as physician to many female patients throughout the Comédie humaine, is well placed to observe the physical and emotional problems faced by women: he learns of and/or covers up adulterous affairs (Autre étude de femme, Un prince de la bohème), pregnancies and abortions (Echantillon de causerie française), nervous breakdowns (Etude de femme), and sexual disappointments (La Muse du département, Honorine). In Honorine, out of pity, he colludes with his patient in lying to her husband about the cause of her death: the doctors do not tell M. de Bauvan that she is dying of a broken heart, but claim it is of an obscure bone disease (II, p. 247). In the five texts we are examining, the stories Bianchon tells (or guesses) of women's lives can be read as covert recognition that women's characteristics and behaviour are determined not only by their biological nature but also by their situation of legal and moral inferiority to men; in particular, by the environment set by their relationships with husbands and lovers.

The texts often blend stereotypical anti-woman statements with underlying apparent sympathy. Etude de femme begins with what appears to be a satirical, rather cruel portrait of a shallow, conventional society woman written from the point of view of a traditionally critical male narrator. With heavy irony he reports that Mme de Listomère's fidelity to her husband is not so much a matter of virtue as of convenience: “En ce moment, elle est vertueuse par calcul, ou par goût peut-être”. However, the narrator continues, “Quelques femmes attendent pour la juger le moment […] où elle aura trente-six ans, époque de la vie où la plupart des femmes s'aperçoivent qu'elles sont dupes des lois sociales” (I, p. 1048, my italics). This allusion to women as trapped by the laws of society, whilst cast in irony, nonetheless shows an awareness of Mme de Listomère's confinement in the role of faithful wife in an arranged marriage. The mal mariée, or woman who is unhappy in her marriage and therefore a likely candidate for adultery, is of course a major theme in the Comédie humaine.

In La Muse du département, before the end of the first day of his visit to Mme de La Baudraye, Bianchon's “doctor's insight” has told him that she does not love her husband: “le médecin devina le secret de la vie intime de la châtelaine dont les rides prématurées le préoccupaient depuis le matin” (IV, p. 137). He also sees that, as for many women, sex with her husband has always been an ordeal,23 for M. de La Baudraye is not sensitive enough to have been “capable de déguiser ce que les sens ont d'odieux dans les premiers jours de la vie aux yeux d'une femme délicate” (p. 142).

Later in La Muse du département, after a story has been told of a woman who has murdered her husband, Bianchon, instead of condemning her, shows remarkable restraint. He reveals an awareness of the suffering of certain women within marriage which is unusual for men of his time:

Eh! sait-on, dit Bianchon, toutes les tragédies qui se jouent derrière le rideau du ménage que le public ne soulève jamais … Je trouve la justice humaine malvenue à juger des crimes entre époux; elle y a tout droit comme police, mais elle n'y entend rien dans ses prétentions à l'équité.

(p. 115)

Mme de La Baudraye perceives this comment as a justification of the woman's action. No one but Bianchon (and perhaps her husband) guesses that, from her position as a misunderstood wife, she identifies herself with the abused woman turned murderess: “Bien souvent la victime a été pendant si longtemps le bourreau, répondit naïvement madame de La Baudraye, que le crime paraîtrait excusable si les accusés osaient tout dire” (loc. cit.).


Apart from his authority as a man of science, another of the implicit reasons for Balzac's privileging Bianchon as an “objective” expert on women is his celibacy. As a man who is unmarried and without a mistress, he can be presented as less biased in his judgements of women than ordinary men. Of the thirty-odd novels in the Comédie humaine in which he appears, he is linked romantically with a woman only four times, and on each occasion the link is very weak indeed.

In La Muse du département, Bianchon's image of austerity and dedication to science make love seem an irrelevancy for him. Mme de La Baudraye, assessing him against his friend Lousteau as a potential lover—for both are urbane and charming men who shine like constellations in her narrow provincial salon—quickly decides that Lousteau would suit her better, for “Dinah se demandait si une femme pouvait jamais être autre chose qu'un sujet aux yeux d'un médecin qui voit tant de sujets dans sa journée!” (IV, p. 138). In L'Interdiction, Rastignac makes a teasing allusion to the fact that Bianchon is an admirer of the beautiful Mme Rabourdin: “Si madame d'Espard était une madame Rabourdin …” (III, p. 13),24 but the allusion is never taken any further; and in Les Employés, although Bianchon is mentioned as one of the habitués of Mme Rabourdin's salon, there is not a hint of his feelings for her. In Echantillon de causerie française, Bianchon is seen reminiscing, in the tone of a would-be lover, about a young woman patient who has haunted his imagination for twenty years (III, p. 476). Finally, in Autre étude de femme, for the first and last time, he actually admits to having had an affair, years ago, with a pretty chambermaid, Rosalie; but the act of seduction is passed over in silence, and as narrator he makes it clear that the seduction had an ulterior motive which he presents as closely connected with his “physiological” investigations. Examination of Echantillon de causerie française, along with Autre étude de femme, shows, however, that despite his pretence of scientific detachment, Bianchon can be as responsive to women's sexuality as any other male, and that his attitude to the women in these texts reflects the class and gender bias of the society around him.

In Echantillon de causerie française we are given a description of what constitutes ideal feminine beauty—the upper-class version—in Bianchon's eyes. A young woman came to see him, early in his career, to ask for an abortion to save her honour. Afraid to break the law, he refused, and she died the next day at the hands of a backstreet abortionist. He has never forgotten his encounter with this young noblewoman:

Je n'ai pas souvenance d'avoir rencontré dans le cours de ma vie une femme qui m'ait aussi fortement impressionné que je le fus par cette dame. Elle était jeune, simplement mise, médiocrement belle cependant, mais admirablement bien faite. Elle avait une taille très cambrée, un teint à éblouir et des cheveux noirs très abondants. C'était une figure méridionale tout empreinte de passions, dont les traits avaient peu de régularité, beaucoup de bizarrerie même, et qui tirait son plus grand charme de la physionomie.

(XII, 476)

The young woman's voluptuousness is clearly signalled by such phrases as “admirablement bien faite”, “une taille très cambrée” and “une figure tout empreinte de passions”. In a description which is restrained out of deference for her class, Bianchon presents her as proud, statuesque, untouchable, but nonetheless radiating sensuality.

On the other hand, Bianchon's description of the maid Rosalie in Autre étude de femme reveals an attitude towards working-class women which is far more casually exploitative and equally typical of middle- and upper-class male attitudes of the time. Rosalie is the classic maidservant, pert, pretty, flirtatious and available, and Bianchon, as narrator, takes the tone of the classic roué for whom seducing a woman is so automatic an action that the details are not worth discussing. In his pose as a rational observer who is above the influence of ordinary passions, he is perhaps embarrassed to admit that he desires Rosalie for her own sake, nor does he wish to accord any importance to an affair with a mere servant. Instead, he has the perfect excuse to offer his listeners: he needed to seduce Rosalie because she possessed a secret which he was desperate to extract from her:

Rosalie me paraissait située dans cette histoire romanesque comme la case qui se trouve au milieu d'un damier, elle était au centre même de l'intérêt et de la vérité; elle me semblait nouée dans le nœud.

(p. 256)

Bianchon's role as a scientific investigator relentlessly pursuing the truth, but, even more, his innate curiosity as a storyteller, make the decision for him: “Non, pensai-je, je ne quitterai pas Vendôme sans savoir toute l'histoire de la Grande Bretèche. Pour arriver à mes fins, je deviendrai l'ami de Rosalie, s'il le faut absolument” (p. 256). Here, his tone is not entirely that of the man of science nor that of the blasé seducer such as Rastignac or Marsay, but somewhere in between. He admits that it surprised him when, ex post facto, he began to appreciate the mistress he had seduced so casually, almost reluctantly:

Ce ne fut plus une séduction ordinaire à tenter, il y avait dans cette fille le dernier chapitre d'un roman; aussi, dès ce moment, Rosalie devintelle l'objet de ma prédilection. A force d'étudier cette fille, je remarquai chez elle, comme chez toutes les femmes de qui nous faisons notre pensée principale, une foule de qualités: elle était propre, soigneuse; elle était belle, cela va sans dire; elle eut bientôt tous les attraits que notre désir prête aux femmes, dans quelque situation qu'elles puissent être.

(p. 256)

Rosalie, for Bianchon, is not an individual but the creation of his imagination, as a mistress always is for a lover, he claims. Once she has served her purpose, she disappears entirely from the narrative. She is not even permitted to tell the story for which he seduced her in the first place; he retells it in his own words, commenting disparagingly that “S'il fallait reproduire fidèlement la diffuse éloquence de Rosalie, un volume entier suffirait à peine” (p. 257).


Of the 26 texts in the Comédie humaine which show Bianchon in relation to women, either as doctor, friend, sexual partner or observer, two novels stand out as revealing a particularly negative attitude to women: La Muse du département and L'Interdiction. It will be useful to examine each of these separately before drawing our conclusion.

In La Muse du départment Bianchon, described so often by Balzac as “[le] grand homme” (p. 144), “l'homme […] supérieur” (p. 138), comes across as abusing his position as a doctor in a quite startling manner. His loyalty to his friend, the journalist Lousteau, shallow, self-centred and lazy, a roué and an intellectual lightweight, is total, and their friendship is a good example of male bonding at the expense of women—in this case, of the woman who is offering them hospitality, Dinah de La Baudraye. Although the narrator implies criticism of Lousteau's behaviour, not once is there any indication of criticism of Bianchon's. For the narrator of La Muse du département, as throughout the Comédie humaine, Bianchon represents the essence of courtesy, dignity and good judgement; in short, a standard to be emulated.25

Lousteau and Bianchon's behaviour towards Mme de La Baudraye is selfish, dismissive and exploitative. For them, the seduction of Mme de La Baudraye is an entertaining way to relieve the tedium of a visit to the provinces, a challenge which only confirms their opinion of their superiority as men and as Parisians. Although the narrator occasionally makes ironic asides mocking their high opinion of themselves (“ces deux prodiges”, p. 118), in general their behaviour is presented as amusing. The night after the stories of women's adultery have been told in the salon as a way of entrapping Dinah and M. de Clagny, Bianchon and Lousteau, who have drawn a third admirer of Dinah into the conspiracy, are planning a booby trap to see if one of the two suspects leaves their room at night to join the other one in bed. The scene is described as if it were one of little boys carrying out harmless pranks at school:

Aussi lorsque l'heure du coucher fut arrivée, y eut-il un de ces conciliabules qui se tiennent dans les corridors de ces vieux châteaux où les garçons restent tous, leur bougeoir à la main, à causer mystérieusement. Monsieur Gravier apprit alors le but de cette amusante soirée où l'innocence de madame de La Baudraye avait été mise en lumière.

(IV, p. 116)

Once Lousteau knows that Dinah has no lover, he makes a cold-blooded decision to seduce her, aided and abetted by Bianchon. Amused by the whole process, Bianchon deploys an array of arguments to encourage his friend: on the one hand, he argues that love will enhance Dinah's sexual charm—“Elle deviendra charmante en aimant”—and on the other hand, that in becoming her lover Lousteau may very well be making his fortune: “Puis, après tout, ce sera un jour ou l'autre une riche veuve! Et un enfant lui vaudrait la jouissance de la fortune du sire de La Baudraye” (pp. 140-141). This is an example of extraordinary materialism, from a man whom Dinah believes to be “grand et délicat” (p. 147).

To push Mme de La Baudraye into Lousteau's arms, Bianchon uses a combination of his medical knowledge as a doctor and the image he cultivates of a wise, perceptive father-figure in whose presence it is useless to dissimulate. Throughout, he presents himself as having Dinah's best interests at heart. Telling her that he sees very well why she is unhappy in her marriage and why none of her admirers so far has appealed to her, he prescribes an affair with Lousteau as a remedy to her frustrations: “Aujourd'hui, pour vous, aimer devient une nécessité […] Si vous continuez à vivre comme vous vivez, dans trois ans vous serez affreuse, [dit] Bianchon d'un ton magistral” (p. 142). Speaking with Dinah privately, he takes the tone of a friend who knows Lousteau well, sees all his defects but wants to let Dinah know the recipe to be happy with him:

Etienne vous a plu […] il vous aime … Mais c'est un homme léger, difficile à fixer … faites de Lousteau votre ami, ne soyez pas exigeante, il viendra trois fois par an passer quelques beaux jours auprès de vous, et vous lui devrez la beauté, le bonheur et la fortune.

(IV, p. 143)

He concludes by once more asserting his medical authority: “Ne me dites pas un mot … J'ai lu dans votre cœur” (p. 143). It is no wonder that Dinah gives in under the pressure: “Madame de La Baudraye était sans défense […] devant un homme qui se posait à la fois en médecin, en confesseur et en confident” (p. 143).

While in La Muse du département it is above all through his role in the plot that Bianchon reveals his belief in male superiority, L'Interdiction is interesting because it is the one and only place in the Comédie humaine where Bianchon is given the opportunity to express his opinions on women at length. Here, his discourse turns out to be one of consistent, virulent hostility towards women.

L'Interdiction is the story of the efforts by the aristocratic Mme d'Espard, one of the queens of Paris salon society, to have her husband placed in a mental institution. As the rest of the novel shows, she is a ruthless schemer, but her salon is the gathering place of leading politicians and members of the court, and the ambitious Rastignac is pursuing her because “Dans la conquête de madame d'Espard il apercevait un ministère” (III, p. 44). At the beginning of the novel, he confides to his old friend Bianchon that his mistress Mme de Nucingen no longer serves his purposes and he is thinking of replacing her with Mme d'Espard. Bianchon responds with a violent four-page diatribe against her type of woman, the fashionable socialite or “femme à la mode”. The passage is an illuminating exposé of his class insecurities and of his underlying misogynistic view of women.

As a doctor, Bianchon has had bitter experience with such women, he tells Rastignac. They are narcissistic, cold-hearted, and totally unscrupulous in their pursuit of power and influence. As patients, they are guilty of the blackest ingratitude: when a doctor saves not only their health but, more importantly, their looks, the only thanks he gets is a protest that the fee is too high, and moreover

Loin de vous prôner, elles médisent de vous, en craignant de vous donner comme médecin à leurs bonnes amies. Mon cher, ces femmes de qui vous dites: “C'est des anges!” moi, je les ai vues déshabillées des petites mines sous lesquelles elles couvrent leur âme, aussi bien que des chiffons sous lesquels elles déguisent leurs imperfections, sans manières et sans corset: elles ne sont pas belles.

(III, p. 13)

Such women are in Bianchon's view not proper women at all. Woman, at her most natural, has “l'âme élevée, le goût pur, un esprit doux, le cœur richement étoffé” (p. 14). Unlike the attention-seeking “femme à la mode”, the truly feminine woman, or “femme aimante”, is content to remain modestly in the background, that is, devoting herself to home and family. Such a woman never challenges the superiority of men because she embraces the doctrine of separate spheres for male and female, where her role is that of helpmate and solace to man.

Within the class and gender hierarchy of the Comédie humaine, Bianchon generally feels quite secure in his position. Not only is he a male, but he is a middle-class male who is treated by the upper classes, in general, as one of themselves. His professional skills, intelligence and savoir-faire have gained him entrance to some of Paris's best salons, and he believes himself, by virtue of his intellect, to be the equal of anyone. Certain upper-class women, however, present a problem for Bianchon. According to his world view, aristocratic women are simultaneously superior to himself (by virtue of birth) and inferior (by virtue of gender). But some of them, looking only at his bourgeois origins and forgetting the respect that he feels is due to him as a man of science, exclude him from their salons or treat him with barely disguised contempt.

The type of aristocratic salon hostess represented by Mlle Des Touches in Autre étude de femme, the more intellectual type, pose no threat because they acknowledge the value of Bianchon. They receive him as a friend, flatter him, listen respectfully to his stories (including the stereotypical statements he makes about women), and encourage in their salons an egalitarian atmosphere that Bianchon finds very soothing: “[p]ar une convention tacite et bien observée, au souper chacun renonçait à son importance. Une égalité absolue y donnait le ton” (III, p. 210).26

Mme d'Espard's type, however, arouses Bianchon's hatred because she refuses to admit him as an equal. He confesses to Rastignac in L'Interdiction that he was “atteint jusqu'au fond du cœur par l'insultante politesse avec laquelle elle me faisait mesurer la distance idéale que la noblesse met entre nous” (pp. 14-15). He knows the type well, he warns Rastignac; under her charming exterior, she is a ruthless exploiter. Despite her graciousness, she has nothing but contempt for Bianchon, and would not admit him into her salon unless it were for a purpose:

Dans un an d'ici, elle n'écrirait pas un mot pour me rendre le plus léger service, et ce soir elle m'a criblé de sourires, en croyant que je puis influencer mon oncle Popinot, de qui dépend le gain de son procès. …

(p. 15)

Mme d'Espard has used her class to assert her superiority over him—a crime which he cannot forgive. Such a woman, motivated by the drive for worldly success, is a kind of monster in his eyes. She is condemned with the combined force of his outrage as a male and his authority as a doctor: “[elle] n'est plus une femme: elle n'est ni mère, ni épouse, ni amante; elle est un sexe dans un cerveau, médicalement parlant” (p. 14).

In La Muse du département and L'Interdiction, Bianchon is far from the dispassionate investigator which Balzac wants him to appear. His “science” is loaded with bias and his attitude to women is no less negative, simply more cleverly disguised, than that of his male friends Lousteau and Rastignac. In Bianchon's discourse in these two novels, despite occasional insights into the sufferings of women trapped by their social situation, the underlying masculinist rhetoric of the three “études de femme” comes out into the open.


  1. The texts of the Comédie humaine in which Bianchon is mentioned or makes an appearance (sometimes very brief) are as follows: Le Père Goriot, La Messe de l'athée, Les Employés, Pierrette, L'Interdiction, César Birotteau, La Maison Nucingen, La Peau de chagrin, Illusions perdues, Le Curé de village, Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan, Un prince de la bohème, La Rabouilleuse, Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées, La Fausse Maîtresse, Une double famille, Etude de femme, Autre étude de femme, La Muse du département, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, Echantillon de causerie française, La Cousine Bette, Honorine, Petites misères de la vie conjugale, Adam-le-chercheur, Les Héritiers Boirouge, La Bourse, Le Cousin Pons, La Femme auteur. Citations are from the Marcel Bouteron Pléiade edition of the Comédie humaine and are indicated in parentheses by a volume number followed by a page number.

  2. In L'Interdiction, Bianchon tells Rastignac that “les médecins sont habitués à juger les hommes et les choses; les plus habiles d'entre nous confessent l'âme en confessant le corps” (Paris, Pléiade, 1952, II, p. 13). In Illusions perdues, when Dr Bianchon is still very young, he is described as being fascinated by the “phénomènes curieux de la vie humaine” which he analyses in perceptive “observations physiologiques” (IV, p. 751).

  3. See for example Pierrette, where Bianchon takes the role, along with Dr Martener, of exposing evil to the light of day when the two doctors discover the tortures to which the innocent Pierrette has been subjected by her guardians. For further examples, see Section 3 of this article.

  4. In my identification of Bianchon with Balzac in these five texts, I am particularly indebted to Anne-Marie Lefebvre's article “Visages de Bianchon”, Année Balzacienne, 9, 1988, pp. 125-140. For analysis of the narrative voice, reading and “lisibilité” in the Comédie humaine, see critics such as Gérard Genette, Figures III, Paris, Seuil, 1972; Lucien Dällenbach, “La Comédie humaine et l'opération de lecture, I: Du fragment au cosmos, II: Le Tout en morceaux”, Poétique, 40, 1979, pp. 420-431 and Poétique, 42, 1980, pp. 156-169; Rose Fortassier, “Les narrateurs dans La Comédie humaine”, CAIEF, 36, 1984, pp. 7-20; and Franc Schuerewegen, Balzac contre Balzac: Les cartes du lecteur, Paris, SEDES, 1990. Of the five texts under examination here, the complex workings of what Genette calls the “vertige pronominal” of Autre étude de femme have aroused particular interest, inspiring the following three articles: Ross Chambers, “Gossip and the Novel: Knowing Narrative and Narrative Knowing in Balzac, Mme de Lafayette and Proust”, AJFS, XXIII, 1986, pp. 212-233; Lucienne Frappier-Mazur, “Lecture d'un texte illisible: Autre étude de femme et le modèle de la conversation”, Modern Language Notes, 98, 1983, pp. 712-727; and Franc Schuerewegen, “Le docteur est un bon lecteur: à propos d'Autre étude de femme”, Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire, 61, 1983, pp. 563-570.

  5. For a detailed discussion of the misogyny of Autre étude de femme, a narrative which Ross Chambers calls “one of the keys to the Balzacian universe”, see his article “Misogyny and Cultural Denial (Balzac's Autre étude de femme)”, L'Esprit Créateur, 31, no 3, 1991, pp. 5-14. The article analyses what Chambers calls “the combination of feminocentrism and misogyny—of fascination with women and an unwillingness to resolve their mystery—that is so characteristic of the male-authored fiction of the nineteenth century” (p. 19).

  6. Anne-Marie Lefebvre, “Visages de Bianchon”, Année Balzacienne, 9, 1988, pp. 125-140.

  7. In Autre étude de femme we find a clear example of what Genette calls “vertige pronominal”, where the narrative voice slips back and forth from the first person (Bianchon as narrator) to the third person (Balzac as narrator):

    Le souvenir d'une de ces soirées m'est plus particulièrement resté […]

    (III, p. 208)

    —Ah! madame, répliqua le docteur, j'ai des histoires terribles dans mon repertoire […]

    (p. 243)

    (my italics)

    In Echantillon de causerie française the complexity of narrative voice is such that at one point Balzac as narrator becomes an actor in the scene he is describing, joining in the conversation with his own character Bianchon:

    —Encore la civilisation! … répéta le médecin d'un air comi-tragique.

    —Mais, docteur, lui dis-je, je vous assure que je connais un petit pays de Touraine où les gens de la campagne font mentir vos observations. […]

    (XII, p. 486, cited from the Pierre-Georges Castex Pléiade edition, 1981)

  8. On the phenomenon of the glorification of the figure of the doctor in the nineteenth century, see Jacques Léonard, La France Médicale au XIXe siècle, Paris, Hachette, 1978, pp. 247-255; Yvonne Knibiehler and Catherine Fouquet, La Femme et les médecins, Analyse historique, Paris, Hachette, 1983, pp. 84-85; and Pierre Darmon, La Vie quotidienne du médecin parisien en 1900, Paris, Hachette, 1988, Introduction, pp. 7-11. A recent article by Lilian R. Furst, “Realism and Hypertrophy: A Study of Three Medico-Historical ‘Cases’”, Nineteenth Century French Studies, 22, 1993-1994, pp. 29-47, studies the historical reality of the role of the doctor in nineteenth-century society and the fictional presentation of that role in three major novels: Balzac's Le Médecin de campagne, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and Zola's Le Docteur Pascal.

  9. Horace Bianchon, whose initials are the same as Balzac's, is also a vehicle for Balzac's views in general. In La Cousine Bette he reveals himself to be a staunch conservative, a monarchist and a supporter of the Church (VII, p. 428), lamenting the selfishness, materialism and corruption of modern society. His language is sprinkled with literary and artistic allusions, and in La Muse du département he shows himself to be a competent and confident literary critic (IV, p. 132). He is also, like his creator, gifted with a highly developed dramatic sensibility which makes him a very popular after-dinner conteur: “Les histoires que conte le docteur”, says one of the guests in the salon of Mlle Des Touches, “font des impressions bien profondes” (Echantillon de causerie française, XII, p. 243). It is interesting that Horace Bianchon even resembles Balzac physically: in La Muse du département, in his late thirties, he is described as being “gros et gras comme un médecin en faveur” with “[une] physionomie assez peu poétique”, that is to say, “un front bombé, la carrure du travailleur, et le calme du penseur” (IV, p. 86).

  10. La Muse du département, IV, p. 94.

  11. Echantillon de causerie française, XII, p. 476.

  12. According to my calculations, Bianchon is shown in his role as doctor to at least 21 female patients in the Comédie humaine (of whom the majority are upper-class and married). In contrast, he is seen at the bedside of only eleven male patients. Note that these figures do not include the hundreds of working-class patients who are referred to him by his uncle, the magistrate Popinot, and whom he sees gratis (L'Interdiction, III, p. 17).

  13. Dr Larivière has “[un] regard, plus tranchant que ses bistouris, [qui] vous descendait droit dans l'âme et désarticulait tout mensonge à travers les allégations et les pudeurs.” Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1966, p. 339.

  14. “Le bon sens carré, les regards perspicaces de l'homme vraiment supérieur gênaient Dinah, qui ne s'avouait pas à elle-même sa petitesse” (IV, p. 138, my italics).

  15. For example, Pierre Roussel, author of Système physique et moral de la femme, 1775, and Dr Cabanis, in his Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme, 1803, both of whom use the vocabulary of biological determinism. See Knibiehler and Fouquet, La Femme et les médecins, p. 87.

  16. The difference model of gender, developed during the Enlightenment by philosophers such as Diderot and Rousseau and medical men such as Pierre Roussel, adopted the dictum of the ancient Greeks, “Tota mulier in utero”, or, in Napoleon's phrase, “L'anatomie est un destin”. The earlier or Galenic model emphasized the essential similarity of men and women, while still clearly designating women as inferior beings. The difference model did not totally supersede the Galenic model; rather, the two classificatory systems coexisted for a time, before the difference model came to the fore in the nineteenth century. For a detailed discussion of the development of the two models of gender, see Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1990. Also very useful in tracing medical thinking about women over the ages, within the French context in particular, is the study by Knibiehler and Fouquet, Les Femmes et les médecins.

  17. In the “Avant-Propos” to the Comédie humaine, Balzac writes that his intention is to study “les hommes, les femmes et les choses” (I, p. 5).

  18. See Autre étude de femme, where Marsay explains that the first experience of his youth, where a woman he adored betrayed him for reasons that were completely frivolous, has taught him to think of love as a war in which a man, if he wishes to come off as the victor, must be prepared to be ruthless (III, pp. 210-222).

  19. Again, see Marsay: “Il y a toujours un fameux singe dans la plus jolie et la plus angélique des femmes” (Autre étude de femme, III, p. 216).

  20. When Mme de Listomère sees Rastignac, whom she believes to be courting her, walking into her salon, she is thrown off her guard initially, but soon recovers:

    Une femme […] ne reste pas longtemps embarrassée, même dans la situation la plus difficile où elle puisse se trouver […] madame de Listomère […] [sut] voiler toutes ses pensées par un de ces sourires féminins plus impénétrables que ne l'est la parole d'un roi.

    (Etude de femme, I, p. 1054)

  21. The above comment by Marsay has a shaming effect on all the women in the audience: “A ce mot, toutes les femmes baissèrent les yeux comme blessées par cette cruelle vérité, si cruellement formée” (Autre étude de femme, III, p. 216, my italics).

  22. Ibid., III, p. 250.

  23. See, for example, La Femme de trente ans, where Julie d'Aiglemont suffers for years from “une inflammation assez ordinairement mortelle, que les femmes se confient à l'oreille”, caused by the brutality with which her husband deflowered her on their first night (II, p. 708). Similarly, in Le Lys de la vallée, Henriette de Mortsauf “met tout son art à rester jeune fille” within her marriage because her initiation into sex was botched by a clumsy husband (VIII, p. 873).

  24. For a full portrait of Mme Rabourdin, wife of the civil servant Xavier Rabourdin, see Les Employés. She is described as “une femme supérieure”, “gracieuse”, “grande et belle et admirablement faite” (VI, pp. 868, 1011, 866).

  25. My investigation of Bianchon across the 31 texts in which he appears shows that he is a figure surrounded by a halo of special prestige and authority, the respository of a dizzying array of virtues: integrity, wisdom, charity, courtesy, gentleness, understanding, compassion, and above all dedication to his profession and to the cause of science. Phrases such as “le savant médecin”, “le célèbre docteur”, “le grand homme” and “ce prince de la science” are associated with him throughout the Comédie humaine. (Departmental seminar, University of Queensland, 14 May, 1997)

  26. The narrator, whose identity in Autre étude de femme oscillates constantly between that of Bianchon and that of Balzac, is full of praise for the salon of Mlle Des Touches,

    le dernier asile où se soit réfugié l'esprit français, avec sa profondeur cachée, ses mille détours et sa politesse exquise. Là vous observerez encore de la grâce dans les manières malgré les conventions de la politesse, de l'abandon dans la causerie malgré la réserve naturelle aux gens comme il faut, et surtout de la générosité dans les idées.

    (III, p. 208)

    In Echantillon de causerie française, the narrator is again in raptures over the free, relaxed and yet stimulating atmosphere of the salon, “le seul peut-être où maintenant, le soir, la conversation échappe à la politique et aux niaiseries de salon”. For the narrator, as for Balzac no doubt, an evening in such a salon, where class distinctions are forgotten, presents “[une scène] à laquelle aucune séduction ne manqua, pour moi, du moins” (XII, p. 471).

Linzy Erika Dickinson (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Dickinson, Linzy Erika. “Theatre as Metaphor in La Comédie humaine.” In Theatre in Balzac's La Comédie humaine, pp. 169-229. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi B. V., 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Dickinson analyzes terminology and imagery in La Comédie humaine to illustrate how the theatre metaphor is used in various ways.]

The theatre features strongly throughout La Comédie humaine as a major social institution and as an industry, often providing the novels with characters, locations and intrigues firmly anchored in an accurate historical context. It is also a rich source of imagery which is fundamental to Balzac's mode of expression and closely linked to the theatrical character of Balzac's narrative technique. In discussing Balzac's use of melodrama in his novels, critics refer not only to the dramatic features of Balzac's writing but also to the tissue of images borrowed from the theatre, and through which the melodrama of the Balzacian plot with its relentless development of catastrophe, intrigue and peripeteia is often expressed.1 Peter Brooks states in his discussion of melodrama in Illusions perdues:

The model of representation in life and personal style refers us inevitably to the theatre, a principal milieu, and perhaps the dominant metaphor, of the novel. The theatre, object of Balzac's repeated ambitions and possibly the key metaphor of the nineteenth century experience of illusion and disillusionment, is also the metaphor of Balzac's methods of melodramatic presentation.2

Brooks goes on to explain that this second sense of metaphor consists in the persistent tension in Illusions perdues between the light and fascination of the theatre stage, and the obscurity and disenchantment of the backstage. This tension in turn functions as an expression of the superstructure and substructure which Balzac perceived in society at large, and which is at work not only in Illusions perdues, but, as will be seen later in this chapter, throughout La Comédie humaine. Donald Adamson also defines the theatre as a dominant metaphor in Illusions perdues in his discussion of chance and necessity in this novel, in which he states:

The theatrical world in which Lucien and Coralie meet is perhaps the greatest metaphor of chance and necessity. Again, apart from a brief reference to the provincial theatre on the last page of the novel, this is a world which does not exist in or near Angoulême. It is the microcosm of Paris as the great theatre of chance, a world in which Lucien, with his fine costumes and journalistic assumption of masks, becomes one of the most colourful actors.3

The preceding chapters of the present work have already sought to show how the theatre facilitates the chance encounters and generates the economic necessities which Adamson speaks of here, and the issues suggested by his comment on Lucien as an actor will be treated in the course of this chapter. Indeed this chapter aims to amplify the ideas put forward by both Brooks and Adamson by showing, through a systematic analysis of imagery and terminology, how Balzac's use of theatrical metaphor applies not just to the Parisian milieu but to the whole society represented in La Comédie humaine, how it serves Balzac's wider narrative purposes in a variety of ways, and how ultimately, and most interestingly, it expresses Balzac's own dramaturgy.

In 1864 Victor Hugo noted the relationship between realism and metaphor when discussing dramatic style, and although his comments refer indirectly to his own work, his praise of abundant metaphor in literature indicates that in using all types of metaphor Balzac is to some extent subscribing to contemporary literary vogue.4 Balzac's use of theatrical metaphor in particular, however, seems to have as much to do with his own distinct vision of life, and of theatre, as with the literary trend of his period. Indeed, the overall title of La Comédie humaine already indicates that Balzac sees the whole of human existence as a stage play, and the content and structure of the novels would seem to indicate that Balzac is perhaps less indebted to Dante for his title than he is to the notion of role-playing. Moreover, it is through the notion of life as theatre, rather than in the separate structure of the texts, that the individual novels participate in the unity of the total work.

There is some debate surrounding the exact date of Balzac's conception of his collective title.5 However, after 1842, when this title was used for the first time in print, a surge in Balzac's use of explicit theatrical metaphor can be discerned, particularly in the third part of Béatrix (1844-45), where there are thirteen examples, and in Modeste Mignon (1844), where there are fifteen examples. … Although there are sixteen examples of explicit theatrical metaphors in Les Chouans (1828-29), this early plethora of imagery borrowed from the theatre diminishes in works written during the 1830s, even in novels such as Le Père Goriot (1834-35, seven examples) and La Fille aux yeux d'or (1834-35, one example), which rely heavily on dramatic technique, and in Une fille d'Eve (1838-1839, four examples), which is set largely in the theatre world. It seems therefore, that in applying the broad metaphor of comédie to all the human life represented in La Comédie humaine, at a stage when some of his major works remained to be written or completed, Balzac renewed his awareness of the expressive possibilities of theatrical imagery.

Balzac's persistent borrowing of images from the theatre reveals more, however, than a generalised notion of all of human life as a great comédie. Indeed, Balzac appears to strive towards a systematic employment of theatrical metaphors which divide into five key areas and make up a strict scheme of images with distinct purposes. The five categories into which Balzac's theatrical metaphors may be divided are: the character as an actor or director; social role-play as comédie; the theatre as a microcosm of visible society; the hidden area of the backstage as a microcosm of the social substructure; and finally, the private drama, which functions as an expression of the dramaturgy which Balzac would attempt to bring to the stage towards the end of his career in La Marâtre. Each of these categories of metaphor will be treated in turn in the course of this chapter and is supported by an index of examples drawn from La Comédie humaine which appears at the end of the present study. Some 600 explicit references to actual playwrights, characters and actors are listed in this index and are treated in the next section of this chapter, while a further 240 theatrical metaphors not containing comparison to any named person or character are treated in the subsequent sections.


Balzac's vision of the drama of life, or of the human comedy, is largely intelligible to his reader because it is conveyed through characters who are recognisable types and who are capable of engaging the reader's sympathies. As is well known, Balzac, in his Avant-Propos to La Comédie humaine, had specifically declared his intention to create an extensive typology.6 Although the nature and function of Balzac's typology have been the source of much criticism,7 it has not been noted in more than a superficial way, that the creation of this typology is partly dependent on a system of theatrical imagery, according to which Balzac's characters are defined by reference to a catalogue of characters from the theatre.

The source and extent of Balzac's familiarity with his theatrical antecedents has been noted in the introduction to this study, where it is shown that his correspondence is replete in particular with expressions of admiration for Racine, Corneille, and Molière. Balzac's citations of the French classical tragedians in La Comédie humaine, however, tend more to the admiration of their style than to the borrowing of their characters in the creation of his own typology. This is particularly so with Racine, who is for Balzac ‘le désespoir des poètes’,8 since he cannot be matched, and, as seen in the introduction to the present study, is admired for his language and poetry rather than for his characterisation.9 There are, of course, also many references in La Comédie humaine to contemporary plays and to the actors and actresses who played in them. These references tend not to be used in a metaphorical sense, however, but rather as part of what Barthes defines as ‘l'effet de réel’. Balzac's fictional characters attend plays such as L'Auberge des adrets, and the Danaïdes10 and his actresses are often listed alongside actual actors and actresses of the day such as Talma, Mlle Mars, Mlle Georges, and Frédérick Lemaître. … All these references to the current celebrities are fleeting and superficial and are used to recreate the authentic atmosphere of the period around Balzac's fictional characters. A brief glance at the number of citations of contemporary playwrights in La Comédie humaine compared with those of playwrights from previous centuries illustrates their relative importance in Balzac's fiction. …

Earlier tradition
Author Works Total
Molière 67 151 218
Shakespeare 26 93 119
Beaumarchais 23 56 79
Racine 20 32 52
Corneille 18 26 44
Total 412
Contemporary theatre
Author Works Total
Hugo 20 5 25
Nodier 20 1 21
Scribe 10 10 20
Pixerécourt 2 3 5
Picard 3 0 3
Total 74

The table above shows the five most frequently cited dramatists in each category. Further examination of the index to this study reveals that references to contemporary works are fleeting and that few works are referred to on more than one occasion. In almost all cases the references to contemporary works are to the name of the play and not to its characters. Conversely, the references to dramatic works from previous centuries are not only more abundant but repeatedly refer to the same work, and, with the exception of Racinian tragedy, these references apply more often to the characters within the plays than to the plays themselves. Clearly, the dramatists of previous centuries emerge as the more important points of reference for Balzac, and of these Molière and Shakespeare are the most important for the creation of Balzac's typology. Since metaphor depends for its effect on the reader's ability to interpret the transaction between contexts, to see the signified behind the signifier, any catalogue of characters used metaphorically in the creation of Balzac's typology must be recognisable to his reader and form part of what Barthes defines in S/Z as the code culturel. Perhaps it is for this reason that Balzac relied primarily on the plays of Shakespeare and Molière, which would be known to his readers both through performance and reading, rather than on ephemeral contemporary productions. … It is noteworthy that although Balzac's plots and mode of expression tend towards the melodrama, he does not borrow characters from the stage melodrama any more than from other kinds of contemporary play, to characterise his own creations.

A full index of Balzac's citations of dramatic works in La Comédie humaine can be found at the end of the the present work, and the points made here will be illustrated by reference to the most frequently cited dramatists only: Shakespeare and Molière.11 The success of Shakespeare with Parisian audiences in the late 1820s12 seems to have greatly influenced Balzac in his practice of giving brief character sketches by cross-reference to the theatre. There are 93 references to Shakespeare's plays and characters in La Comédie humaine, far outnumbering the references to any contemporary productions, and creating the impression that Balzac was very familiar with the English playwright. Most references are taken from a small selection of major works, however, and focus on Shakespeare's most memorable characters who in Balzac's interpretation have been reduced to a single dominant character trait. These references cover the whole chronological period of La Comédie humaine and very few contain any judgment of the dramatist. The abundance of these allusions and the remarkable absence of comment from Balzac, seems to suggest that the references reflect literary vogue rather than Balzac's personal literary preference. The 93 citations observed in this analysis divide as follows:

Othello 30
Macbeth 11
Richard III 6
The Merchant of Venice 4
Henry V 1
The Merry Wives of Windsor 1
Hamlet 13
Romeo and Juliette 15
The Tempest 9
Henry IV 1
Much ado about nothing 2

It is clear that Balzac's exploitation of Shakespeare's work rests in particular on the characters of Othello, Hamlet and Macbeth.

Balzac seems to be aware of the complexity of Shakespeare's characters who, for him, are imposing, contradictory and disconcerting, but this manifests itself only in general statements about the author. This awareness is evident in Une fille d'Eve in the description of Nathan, ‘qui connaissait son Shakespeare, déroula ses misères, raconta sa lutte avec les hommes et les choses, fit entrevoir ses grandeurs sans base, son génie politique inconnu, sa vie sans affection noble’,13 and also in writings outside La Comédie humaine.14 When Balzac defines his own characters by comparison with individual characters of Shakespeare, however, he rarely takes into account the psychological complexity of what Genette defines in Figures III as the comparant. Rather, the references which Balzac makes to individual Shakespearian characters seem to confirm that he is aware of their principal character traits and of the main intrigue in the plays in which they appear, but that a knowledge which may appear extensive is actually based on the same few characters who are reduced to a recognisable pattern of characteristics. Balzac seizes upon one characteristic and insists upon this alone so that it becomes the dominant trait which can be recognised in all examples. This practice is consistent with Balzac's declared intention to portray humanity through the study of types and to enlarge particular aspects of character. Indeed only if he does this are these referential characters borrowed from Shakespeare useful in the creation of Balzac's typology, for only through this simplified treatment can they function as a clear signifier to the reader. Such references to Shakespeare's characters define recognisable types, link Balzac's own work to the fashionable literary trend, and often predict the character's actions and the novel's outcomes.

Othello is by far the most frequently quoted character in Balzac's figurative exploitation of Shakespeare and is used exclusively to represent dark and savage jealousy. The wildness and irrationality of Othello are not appropriate to the major characters of Balzac's fiction, however, for such a character could not survive for long in the Parisian social spheres of La Comédie humaine. The image of Othello can be effectively exploited only to describe single jealous actions in characters who are otherwise rational, or to describe minor characters who appear only briefly in La Comédie humaine. Balzac uses the image of Othello to describe the actions of Charles Mignon, the prince de Cadignan, Montriveau and de Marsay, and in each case it is the common characteristic of jealousy which prompts the comparison, although there is not the same internal conflict in Balzac's characters as there is in the Othello of Shakespeare. In each case the metaphor serves exclusively to highlight the motive of a jealous action which is highly melodramatic. For example, Montriveau's violent kidnapping of the duchesse de Langeais and his sinister threats are prompted by an unfounded jealousy in comparison to which ‘Othello n'est qu'un enfant’.15 In this way the Shakespearian metaphor becomes assimilated into Balzac's melodramatic mode of expression.

Christémio in La Fille aux yeux d'or is an Othello both in appearance and in temperament, but he is a minor character who appears only in this novel and is not the perpetrator of the final jealous murder:

Jamais figure africaine n'exprima mieux la grandeur dans la vengeance, la rapidité du soupçon, la promptitude dans l'exécution d'une pensée; la force du Maure et son irréflexion d'enfant.16

Perhaps the most striking example of a character defined by Balzac as an Othello, in both appearance and temperament, is Montès de Montéjanos in La Cousine Bette. Montès is ‘doué par le climat équatorial du physique et de la couleur que nous prêtons tous à l'Othello du théâtre’,17 but, unlike his model, is an ‘Othello qui ne se trompe pas’.18 When his suspicions are aroused, Montès demands visible proof of his mistress's fidelity as does Shakespeare's Othello.19 Just as Iago in the play suggests to Othello that he should kill Desdemona, so Carabine in the novel gives Montès the same idea.20 The final outcome of the novel, the murderous poisoning of Valérie Marneffe motivated by savage jealousy, is thus predicted in the narrative from the point where Montès is introduced as a metaphorical Othello. The reader who is familiar with Shakespeare is able to recognise the type of jealousy incarnated by Montès and to expect this outcome.

Other Shakespearian characters are used by Balzac in a similar way, as brief reference points for his own, and each is reduced to a dominant feature. Comparisons with characters from Macbeth, for example are linked with the supernatural, with hallucinations, and with violence. Thus in the publication of Le cousin Pons in Le Constitutionnel from 18 March to 10 May 1847, Balzac added to his original manuscript the description of Mme Cibot as ‘cette affreuse lady Macbeth de la rue’,21 in order to render the character more sinister and threatening. In a similar simplification, Romeo and Juliette represent ideal love. In Modeste Mignon Canalis, when pretending to be a sincere lover, compares himself to Romeo,22 and Modeste to Juliette. In such comparisons the tragic aspect of Romeo and Juliette is usually neglected by Balzac in favour of his simple reduction of the play's principal characters. In the same way, Hamlet is the incarnation of the nordic type with which Balzac compares Wilfrid in Séraphîta, saying that he ‘était beau comme Hamlet résistant à l'ombre de son père, et avec laquelle il converse en la voyant se dresser pour lui seul au milieu des vivants.’23 Shylock is the incarnation of the Jewish moneylender. Gigonnet, identified twice with Shylock, is just as pitiless as his model in César Birotteau. Balzac does not take account of Shylock's love for his daughter, Jessica, for his own Jewish moneylenders are too hardened to be fathers and are only capable of the love of gold. Iago and Richard III are both seen as the incarnation of unscrupulous ambition. Cousine Bette is compared to both of them at the same time and it is difficult to see what difference Balzac perceives between them.24 Reduced in this way the characters of Shakespeare form part of the overall system of metaphor borrowed from the theatre through which Balzac conveys his own vision of the world.

Unlike these references to Shakespeare which reflect literary vogue rather than Balzac's personal preference, the abundant references to Molière in La Comédie humaine are a reflection of Balzac's profound admiration for his theatrical ancestor. The 151 references to Molière's works clearly indicate the dominant influence of Le Misanthrope and Tartuffe in the creation of Balzac's own typology. The range of allusions is as follows:

Le Misanthrope 46
L'Ecole des femmes 19
L'Avare 9
Don Juan 8
L'Amour médecin 4
Le Malade imaginaire 1
Tartuffe 44
Les Fourberies de Scapin 12
Les Femmes Savantes 9
Le Médecin malgré lui 6
Le Bourgeois gentilhomme 3

Most of Balzac's references to Le Misanthrope occur in novels written between 1835 and 1847, the period of Balzac's most mature work and the period in which, as has been noted above, he seems to have most consciously and systematically exploited the theatrical metaphor suggested by the overall title of his work.

Balzac uses the character of Célimène from Le Misanthrope as an image of ‘la femme du monde de toutes les époques’.25 She is the coquette who is fleetingly alluded to as a type to characterise the vain and worldly Emilie de Fontaine,26 Mme d'Espard,27 Mme Firmiani28 and Mme Evangelista.29 Only in Le Cabinet des antiques (1836-38) is there a full description of how Balzac perceives Célimène:

Parmi les organisations diverses que les physiologistes ont remarquées chez les femmes, il en est une qui a je ne sais quoi de terrible, qui comporte une vigueur d'âme, une lucidité d'aperçus, une promptitude de décision, une insouciance, ou plutôt un parti pris sur certaines choses dont s'effraierait un homme. Ces facultés sont cachées sous les dehors de la faiblesse la plus gracieuse. […] L'une des gloires de Molière est d'avoir admirablement peint, d'un seul côté seulement, ces natures de femmes dans la plus grande figure qu'il ait taillée en plein marbre: Célimène! Célimène, qui représente la femme aristocratique.30

Here the description of Célimène is used to illustrate the character of the duchesse de Maufrigneuse, and shows that Balzac not only sees Célimène as a coquette but also as a woman who does not allow herself to be ruled by emotions, who is capable of facing adversity, and who is even cruel and egotistical. This is the only example in which the figure of Célimène is used as more than a very rapid image of comparison. In the other twelve instances in which Balzac alludes to her she is referred to only by her one dominant characteristic.…

The other characters from Le Misanthrope quoted frequently by Balzac are Alceste and Philinte. In the previous century Alceste's uncompromising virtue had been seen as a mocking satire by comparison to the perceived reason and flexibility of Philinte. In the nineteenth century, however, Alceste, the victim of a fatal passion, came to be seen as a romantic hero and Philinte as a cynical hypocrite,31 and it is in this context that they are used by Balzac as metaphors for the moral stances and motives of his own characters. The first mention of Alceste occurs in Le Père Goriot (1834-35), where he is defined alongside Walter Scott's Jenny Deans and her father as ‘magnifiques images de la probité’.32 The comic element of Molière's character has been suppressed and from now on in La Comédie humaine Alceste is used to define the type who is honest, loyal and upstanding. The contrast between Molière's Alceste and Philinte is maintained by Balzac in his characterisation and the two are often used in juxtaposition, with Philinte as the incarnation of lâcheté and inconsistency. In Une fille d'Eve (1838-39), Nathan the dramatist, who is also metaphorically compared to a Shakespearian drama, is further defined through this image of contrast taken from the dramatic tradition:

Nul ne sait mieux jouer les sentiments, se targuer de grandeurs fausses, se parer de beautés morales, se respecter en paroles, et se poser comme un Alceste en agissant comme Philinte.33

In repeatedly referring to Nathan as an actor, and in describing his character by reference to Shakespeare's dramas and to Molière's characters, Balzac seems to be consciously reinforcing Nathan's position in La Comédie humaine as an homme de théâtre. Nathan fails as statesman and businessman because he steps outside his correct milieu and the sense of this is translated to the reader through the images which constantly link him to the theatre.

The contrast between Alceste and Philinte is also used in La Muse du département (1843), to describe the way in which Mme de la Baudraye desires to be loved:

[L]e digne magistrat aimait à la manière d'Alceste, quand Mme de La Baudraye voulait être aimée à la manière de Philinte. Les lâchetés de l'amour s'accommodent fort peu de la loyauté du Misanthrope.34

It can be seen from these examples that Balzac has lost all sense of the comic in Molière's Misanthrope and has ignored Molière's subtle satire to reduce his characters to one characteristic. Reduced in this way, the characters of Le Misanthrope are also made to serve Balzac's wider purpose of exposing the process of social disillusionment. In Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes35 the process of disillusionment which takes place when the individual uncovers the backstage causes lying behind the false appearance of society is described in this way: ‘[L]es Alcestes deviennent des Philintes, les caractères se détrempent, les talents s'abâtardissent, la foi dans les belles œuvres s'envole’.36

The same reduction of Molière's characters can be seen in all the examples in which Balzac takes them to define his own ‘actor’. In an article in Le Constitutionnel in 1846, Balzac writes:

Quand Molière introduisit un Monsieur Loyal dans Tartuffe il faisait l'Huissier et non tel huissier. C'était le fait et non un homme.37

Molière's types are so well-known that Balzac can use them as terms of comparison for his own characters, confident in the knowledge that his reader will understand the image. The allusions are often fleeting and accompanied by little explanation. In Le Cousin Pons (1846-1847), Madame Cibot's machinations to infiltrate Pons's household are likened to ‘les séductions à la Dorine’,38 the doctor Poulain thanks Mme Cibot with ‘une moue digne de Tartuffe’,39 and has ‘les yeux ardents de Tartuffe’.40 In La Cousine Bette (1846), Crevel looks at Mme Hulot with ‘un regard comme Tartuffe en jette à Elmire’41 and in the final part of Illusions perdues (1843), Petit-Claud practises ‘une de ces audaces que Tartuffe seul se serait permise’.42

Through these brief references Balzac consistently links his work with the established theatre, and sums up characters and actions in an instant, dispensing with the need for lengthy descriptions. The references compare both the physical and the moral aspect of the characters so that the new character presented by Balzac is described by reference to a known character who has already been morally classified. Balzac's characters are not just stereotypes, however; many are exceptional, and the theatrical references add small details to their full portrayal.43 Through theatrical metaphor Balzac not only reinforces the sense of his characters as actors, but achieves a theatrical economy of form in their characterisation and links them to a known literary tradition.


The metaphors of comédie, scène and vaudeville may broadly be treated together, since they are all used figuratively to denote the play of masks and roles within society and the deliberate development of intrigue by certain characters. Together these three terms number 35 examples in the appendix, among which the metaphor of the comédie is the most frequent. The metaphor of the comédie is usually satirical, and is used as a vehicle to denote situations of intrigue, social interaction, posturing and falsehoods deliberately perpetrated by certain characters. Through these metaphors the reader is constantly invited to penetrate beneath the mask of the comedy and discover the underlying truth. The most frequent examples are to be found in Illusions perdues (1836-1843),44 not surprisingly, since this novel depends for much of its action on the social charades played out in the theatres and salons of Paris; and in Modeste Mignon (1844,)45 and Ursule Mirouèt (1840-41),46 in which the provincial settings are perhaps less likely scenes for the satirical exposure of social posturing and role-play.

In all of the situations which Balzac metaphorically describes as comédies in his novels, there is at the basis either a love interest or the play of money and ambition, which are associated with the classical tradition of comedy in the theatre, and in particular with the plays of Molière and Beaumarchais. Balzac seems to have deemed it less necessary to intervene in the narrative in order to explain and justify his metaphorical use of the comédie than will be seen to be the case in his use of the drame, and it seems likely that this is because the comédie was part of a more established theatrical tradition.

Balzac's metaphor of comédie in all cases denotes situations in which certain characters are duped by others as in Classical stage comedy. This receives its most ironic treatment in Une fille d'Eve (1838-39), in which the dramatist Nathan becomes the dupe of a series of charades and social trickeries engineered by his rivals and his social superiors:

Nathan se mit à rire de lui-même, de lui, faiseur de scènes, qui s'était laissé prendre à un jeu de scène.

—La comédie n'est plus là, dit-il en montrant la rampe, elle est chez vous.47

When engaged in the role-plays of faubourg St. Germain society, Nathan, who is successful in creating convincing intrigues for the stages of the boulevard theatres, is out of his depth, for the social charade is constructed more finely and played more adeptly than any of his vaudevilles or melodramas. Nathan comes to realise this in a scene which Balzac, in a skilful mirroring of stage and public, locates in Mme d'Espard's box at the theatre. The metaphor is amplified and given wider significance by the mirroring of the intrigue played out on the theatre stage, in the intrigue played out in the boxes of the auditorium. The fact that Nathan, who deals every day in jeux de scène and comédies, cannot recognise the intrigue of which he is the victim, shows that the social comédie, which Balzac would have his reader believe is real, is both more contrived and, paradoxically, more convincing than any fictitious comédie of the stage.

The same inability of the central character to detect the social comedy played around him despite familiarity with the scenarios of the stage can be seen in Le Cousin Pons (1846-1847). Given his essentially naive character, this is perhaps less surprising in Pons than in Nathan, but Balzac suggests that the daily spectacle of stage intrigues had made Pons ‘blasé’ and perhaps this over-familiarity could also explain Nathan's apparent naivety:

Ce bonhomme qui, depuis douze ans, voyait jouer le vaudeville, le drame et la comédie sous ses yeux, ne reconnut pas les grimaces de la comédie sociale sur lesquelles sans doute il était blasé.48

Similar instances of the social comedy being juxtaposed to one on stage take place in Illusions perdues (1836-1843), where Lucien in the first instance witnesses the comédies played out in the various boxes by du Châtelet, Rastignac, de Marsay, Félix de Vandenesse and other great actors of the social stage,49 and in the second instance becomes himself the unwitting subject of the comédie played out in Mme d'Espard's box.50 In both instances there is no explicit use of the term comédie or scène in the metaphor but Balzac's satirical intentions nevertheless are clear, and as in Une fille d'Eve, the intrigue enacted in the boxes is more subtle, more refined and therefore more dangerous to its victims than the stage intrigue which it mirrors. Explicit use of the terms comédie and scène is only made in the third part of the novel, which is located in the provincial town of Angoulême. A possible explanation for this is that it was only after giving the title of Comédie and subtitles of scènes to the total work in 1841, by which time the first two parts of the novel had been completed,51 that Balzac began systematically to exploit the metaphorical use of these terms. This assumption is further supported by the fact that the other two novels in which there is equally abundant metaphorical use of scène and comédie, Modeste Mignon (1844),52 and Ursule Mirouèt (1840-41),53 were also written after the publication of the collective title.

Another, and perhaps more convincing, reason for Balzac's explicit insistence on the metaphor of the comédie or scène only in the last part of Illusions perdues, might be that in the preceding Parisian episodes, appropriately located in the boxes and salons of a high society which places great emphasis on appearance, nuances of gesture and subtleties of manners, the abstract metaphor and its underlying satire can easily be understood by the reader, whereas in the provinces, where the social stage is not so easily seen to mirror the theatre world, explicit metaphor is necessary to enable the reader to discern the transaction between contexts. Lucien's repentance on his return to Angoulême is a ‘scène parfaitement jouée’,54 which has no more solid a foundation than his social posturings in Paris; the demise of David Séchard is a ‘scène’ which ‘se joue assez souvent au fond du cabinet des avoués’,55 and of which he is the victim just as Lucien had been the victim of similar intrigues in Paris; Lucien's fake triumph in Angoulême is ‘mis en scène […] par un machiniste passionné’,56 in the same way that his demise is engineered by his enemies in Paris; and on the novel's final page Cérizet is said to have sought a new outlet for his capacity for intrigue and role-play ‘sur la scène de province’,57 which Balzac has shown to be no less fraught with dissimulations than the more visible metaphorical stage of Paris.

The message conveyed by the explicit metaphor of the scène in the provincial setting of Illusions perdues is exactly the same as that conveyed by the implicit metaphor in the Parisian settings. Behind the deceptive façade of these sleepy provincial towns, certain characters are just as inclined to role-playing, dissimulation and intrigue as their Parisian counterparts, for human nature, as the reader is told by Vautrin in Le Père Goriot, is the same ‘en haut, en bas, au milieu’.58 The metaphor of the scène thus becomes not only the site of a satirical comment which punctuates the narrative, but part of the underlying and unifying philosophy of the narrative, which indicates the universal human propensity to corruption and the ultimate unknowability of truth.

The same can be said of Ursule Mirouèt (1840-41), in which the metaphorical uses of the terms scène and comédie convey the same observations of human nature. Again, the location of the action is in a provincial town and again the metaphor is made explicit to show that the propensity to role-play and intrigue is endemic throughout society and not just in Paris. In Ursule Mirouèt, perhaps more clearly than elsewhere, the play of money and ambition is at the root of the intrigue enacted by the extended Minoret family. Ursule is warned by Dr. Minoret of the ‘comédies que les Minoret, les Crémière et les Massin vont venir jouer’.59 Familiar with the nature of his heirs, Dr. Minoret is well aware that after his death ‘la comédie des héritiers commencera’.60 In preparing Ursule for the deceptions and intrigue she will have to face, Balzac, through Minoret, also prepares the reader and makes him ready to accept the contortions and complexities of the intrigue which follows.

In the process of exposing through metaphor the endemic nature of social falsehood, Balzac also shows that the metaphorical comédie has its perpetrators and its victims. Whereas the metaphor of the drame in La Comédie humaine will be seen to indicate a tragic and often unavoidable set of circumstances in which characters become caught up, or which invade their lives without invitation, or which are dictated by their own essential nature, the metaphor of the comédie or scène, shows certain characters as perpetrators of scenarios which are enacted in full consciousness of their self-appointed roles, and other characters as unwitting or powerless victims of these intrigues and machinations. While the drame usually has its roots in a complex web of abstractions, the comédie can usually be traced to a particular individual or set of individuals with specific objectives in mind. This is certainly the case with the examples cited so far in which the comédie of the Minoret heirs in Ursule Mirouèt, of Cérizet and Lucien's enemies in Illusions perdues, and of Nathan's enemies in Une fille d'Eve, is motivated by the connected issues of money and ambition.

Similarly, it is financial interest and not love which Balzac describes as a comedy in Le Contrat de mariage:

Les événements et les idées qui amenèrent le mariage de Paul avec Mlle Evangélista sont une introduction à l'œuvre, uniquement destinée à retracer la grande comédie qui précède toute vie conjugale. Jusqu'ici cette scène a été négligée par les auteurs dramatiques quoiqu'elle offre des ressources neuves à leur verve. […] Ces comédies jouées par-devant notaire ressemblent toutes plus ou moins à celle-ci.61

Even here, as early as 1835, Balzac is conscious of the potential of the comédie as a metaphorical way of referring to episodes of intrigue and scheming, and does not miss the opportunity to point out how his novel not only matches the stage comedy but surpasses it in its novelty.

In Modeste Mignon (1844), the motive of love rather than financial interest prompts the abundant use of theatrical metaphor, and here Balzac develops the imagery to the point of excess. There are no fewer than sixteen examples of explicit theatrical metaphor in the 255 pages of this novel, four of which relate to the comédie of which Modeste is the deliberate instigator, and there are a further 17 examples which compare certain characters to well-known characters from the established theatrical tradition. Modeste's situation is described from the outset as the ‘comédie de La Fille mal gardée’,62 and the ‘répétition de la première scène jouée au lever du rideau de la Création’;63 the intrigue mounted by Charles and Dumay is referred to by Balzac as ‘la comédie qui devait se jouer au Chalet’;64 and as the intrigue develops beyond her control Modeste decides to ‘assister, en personne désintéressée, à ce qu'elle nommait le vaudeville des prétendus’.65

Theatrical metaphor in this novel pervades the entire narrative so that it becomes an expression of the central issues of the plot. From the outset Modeste has the impression of being able to control and direct the comédie which she has set in motion, and to some extent her misconception is justified. However, Modeste becomes the dupe of a further comédie, and throughout the first half of the novel she is a deceiver who is also deceived. The whole intrigue is expressed through theatrical metaphors which lead the reader deeper into a complex web of different levels of deception which hinge on the contrast between reality and appearance. While the intrigue deepens, Modeste and La Brière write to each other under assumed names which could be interpreted as metaphorical masks, suggestive of the masks of the commœdia dell'arte. In this way, not only through its explicit uses of terminology, but also through the role-play upon which the entire narrative depends, the comédie becomes a wider metaphor for all the false appearances portrayed by the characters, and is underpinned at every turn by literary references and comparisons to theatrical characters. In turn these references are justified by the fact that Modeste consumes huge numbers of literary works. Modeste's life comes to imitate and ultimately to surpass the theatre in the complexity and extent of its intrigues and the theatrical metaphor is fundamental to the expression of this process:

A la période affamée de ses lectures succéda, chez Modeste, le jeu de cette étrange faculté donnée aux imaginations vives de se faire acteur dans une vie arrangée comme dans un rêve, […] de jouer enfin en soi-même la comédie de la vie, et, au besoin celle de la mort. Modeste jouait, elle, la comédie de l'amour. Elle se supposait adorée à ses souhaits.66

By her own invention and by others' intervention Modeste's entire life becomes a metaphor for the ‘comédie de l'amour’.

Although the metaphor of the comédie, here and in the examples cited previously, often announces situations which have the potential to become disastrous for the individuals concerned, the final dénouement of the intrigue usually sees some sort of order restored. Modeste marries La Brière, Ursule marries Savinien, and in Illusions perdues Lucien is saved from suicide and David Séchard pursues his inventions in tranquillity. It is true that there are single examples of the explicit metaphorical use of the terms comédie, scène or vaudeville in such novels as Le Cousin Pons, Eugénie Grandet, La Fille aux veux d'or, Le Père Goriot and La Cousine Bette, which culminate in tragic endings. However, on the whole, the sustained use of one category of metaphor seems virtually to preclude the use of the other and announces the nature of the final outcome of the plot from its very beginning. Consistent with this theory, in the novels in which there is an abundant use of the term comédie there are very few examples of the term drame—none in Le Contrat de mariage, one in Illusions perdues,67 one in Modeste Mignon,68 and none in Ursule Mirouèt. Equally, there are few or no examples of the term comédie in most of the novels in which the metaphor of the drame dominates—none in Les Chouans, one in Le Père Goriot,69 none in Une ténébreuse affaire, and none in Pierrette. In each novel the mode of the metaphor tends to one form or the other, to tragedy or to comedy.

In the case of the comédie, it has been shown that the metaphor is primarily used to effect the satirical exposure of the hypocrisies of a society in which social interaction at all levels and in all spheres is subject to dissemblance, false appearance, role-play and the propensity for intrigue. The image extends beyond a simple description of social role-play to work at a more abstract level in order to become part of Balzac's uncovering of all the falsehoods of his society and is a fundamental mode of expression for his ‘histoire des mœurs’. The metaphor of the comédie is also, of course, a subtle satire on Balzac's own contemporary reader, for only a provisional and arbitrary privilege distinguishes the reader from the characters, since they are all part of the same human and social condition.


Whether the events of the novel are metaphorically denoted as a comédie or as a drame, a stage is required for their enactment and it is in this context that the terms of théâtre and spectacle are used by Balzac. These two groups of metaphors together number forty-nine examples and constitute approximately 20٪ of the total number of uses of theatrical metaphor in La Comédie humaine cited in the appendix. If life is a drama then the world, as Balzac reminds the reader of Splendeurs et misères, is the theatre stage where that drama is acted out: ‘Le monde, n'est-il pas un théâtre?’70 The image of the world as a theatre is a familiar one which suggests both stage and auditorium, action and observer. The streets of Paris are presented in the opening scenes of Ferragus (1833) as a continual parade, and in Une double famille (1830), Caroline's view of the street gives her a hidden vantage point like that of actors behind the closed curtain in the theatre, from which she can witness the spectacle offered by Paris:

Cette échappée de vue, que l'on comparerait volontiers au trou pratiqué pour les acteurs dans un rideau de théâtre, lui permettait de distinguer une multitude de voitures élégantes et une foule de monde emportées avec la rapidité des ombres chinoises.71

Occasionally the image of the theatre in Balzac's novels is that of a stage on which events are acted out only for the privileged viewing of the reader, and the first example of this can be found in Les Chouans (1828-29), where the vast Breton landscape, already noted as ‘si dramatique’,72 is described as a theatre where the actions of war will be played out against a detailed backdrop: ‘Une imagination exercée peut, d'après ces détails, concevoir le théâtre et les instruments de la guerre’.73 In order to assume its full signification the image of the theatre requires the engagement of the reader's imagination.

With the reader's participation the image of the theatre in Les Chouans is used to denote the location and background of a dramatic action. There is only one other instance in La Comédie humaine in which Balzac uses the theatre to suggest a battle-ground or scene of large-scale political events and this occurs in the first part of Béatrix (1838), where the events of the Cent-Jours are described as a ‘magique spectacle’ and as a ‘pièce de théâtre en trois mois’.74 Both images suggest a vast perspective, and an action which takes place over a wide geographical area, and which reaches beyond the literal stage. In Les Chouans the geographical area is an empty theatre stage waiting for the actors to appear. A similar image of the background setting as a vast and empty stage can be seen much later in Balzac's work in Une ténébreuse affaire (1838-40), where the Gondreville estate is described as a ‘magnifique théâtre’75 where the events of the novel will be played out for the reader.

In Béatrix, the main characters of the novel, in which the plot will largely depend on theatrical role-play, are placed from an early stage against a setting which is described as a theatre, and the sense of this comes to pervade the entire novel and to influence the characters' actions as they become aware of the sense of drama which surrounds them. The sudden revelation of Béatrix's feelings for Calyste is played out against the vista of the des Touches estate:

En ce moment, elle était arrivée au faîte du rocher, d'où se voyait l'immense Océan d'un côté, la Bretagne de l'autre avec ses îles d'or, ses tours féodales et ses bouquets d'ajoncs. Jamais une femme ne fut sur un plus beau théâtre pour faire un si grand aveu.76

The metaphor of the theatre then, when used as an image of the outdoor world, denotes the geographical location of an action or intrigue which goes beyond the spatial confines of an actual theatre stage. In these instances the location is a metaphorical stage for the reader only, since the scene is not viewed by characters other than those who are directly involved.

In the social domain of Paris, however, the image of the theatre comes to denote not simply a pictorial background against which events are set for the reader to view from his privileged position, but spheres of activity in which the characters operate and from which they can be seen both by the reader and by the other characters of the novel. In this way the two distinct spheres of Cardot's social and domestic life in La Muse du département (1843), are described as stages on which he is active and on which he is observed by Lousteau:

L'ennui siégeait sur tous les meubles. Les draperies pendaient tristement. La salle à manger ressemblait à celle d'Harpagon. Lousteau n'eût pas connu Malaga d'avance, à la seule inspection de ce ménage il aurait deviné que l'existence du notaire se passait sur un autre théâtre.77

The image of the dull, bourgeois dining room of Molière's L'Avare is starkly contrasted with the image of Cardot's alternative life taking place on a different stage, and suggests, by implication of the contrast, that in this second sphere his life is full of event and intrigue. The image is doubly effective in that Cardot's social life is not only acted out in full view of society far from the strict confines of his dull home, but is acted out with a second-rate actress, Malaga, in the actual theatre environment.

In Une fille d'Eve (1838-39), the three spheres of Nathan's public activities are represented by the same image of the theatre stage as an area within which certain characters operate in full view of society. In order to sustain his position is society, Nathan must find the strength to be ‘à la fois sur trois théâtres: le Monde, le Journal et les Coulisses’.78 On each metaphorical stage Nathan must act out the role of dandy, journalist and dramatist accordingly, and consistently subject himself to society's critical gaze. In the Parisian setting the spectacle of the characters operating as if on a theatre stage is not offered exclusively to the reader, but is open to the whole of the society represented in La Comédie humaine, and that society is shown to be as harsh and as critical of any new actor as the most discerning theatre audience. Nathan's attempts to mount the political stage are as public as the staging of his vaudevilles and are thwarted because, while he is playing in centre stage and leaving himself open to public judgment, his enemies are engineering his demise from the wings.

In the same novel Marie de Vandenesse is attracted by the lights of the social stage, not just in order to witness its dazzling spectacle, but to become part of that spectacle, dreaming of the pleasure of moving ‘sur un vaste théâtre, […] devant un monde observateur’.79 The whole of Parisian society is repeatedly portrayed by Balzac as a vast theatre in which characters move symbiotically from auditorium to stage, to see and be seen. In this respect the general image of the Parisian social realm as a theatre, like that of the external geographical setting, far exceeds the spatial constraints of the actual theatre since it also implicitly encompasses the salons, supper-parties, and excursions which constitute social life. However, the image frequently becomes exemplified and intensified by scenes which take place in the actual theatres which are the hub of social life in the Paris of La Comédie humaine. Here the image works as a two-way mirror in which social life is likened to theatre and the theatre is the place of social interaction. The image of the vast social scene thus becomes contained within a confined area which is not much larger than the actual stage. This continual mirroring of stage action and social action in the Parisian theatres in Un grand homme (1839), and the first two parts of Splendeurs et misères (1839-1844), shows in particular how the metaphor of the ‘théâtre du monde’ consists in the fact of characters being observed by each other.

On the occasion of Esther's first visit to the Opéra in the company of Nucingen in Splendeurs et misères, the action on the stage is of little consequence to the members of the theatre audience, who are far more concerned by the reappearance of Esther, who becomes the sole object of their attention:

Le lendemain, à l'Opéra, l'aventure du retour d'Esther fut la nouvelle des coulisses. Le matin, de deux heures à quatre heures tout le Paris des Champs Elysées avait reconnu la Torpille, et savait enfin quel était l'objet de la passion du baron de Nucingen. […] A Paris, comme en province, tout se sait. La police de la rue de Jérusalem n'est pas si bien faite que celle du monde, où chacun s'espionne sans le savoir.80

Fully conscious of the fact that society's eyes are observing at all times, certain characters are unable ever to step out of their role and abandon the sense of being on a public stage. Esther began her career as a petit rat at the Opéra and although she may never have attained the position of premier sujet, she is no less capable of holding the centre stage.

The same message is conveyed in Illusions perdues, where, as has already been noted, the juxtaposition of action on stage and in the boxes perpetuates the sense of the auditorium as the real object of observation for both the reader and the fictional characters. Even from the outset in Angoulême, Lucien has the sense that the highest social sphere is ‘le seul théâtre sur lequel il devait se tenir’,81 and Louise de Bargeton encourages him to feel that Paris will be ‘le théâtre de vos succès!’82 The sense of the image is that the high society of Paris is a showcase, rather than necessarily the scene of a drama, and this is borne out when Lucien makes his appearance as an observer of the ‘spectacle unique’83 offered by the audience at the Opéra, becoming absorbed in turn by the ‘pompeux spectacle du ballet du cinquième acte’ and the ‘aspect de la salle dans laquelle son regard alla de loge en loge’.84 Ultimately, however, Lucien's attempts to ‘franchir l'espace’,85 which separates him from the stage and keeps him on the outside looking in, are thwarted and the streets of Paris become the ‘théâtre de sa défaite’.86 Lucien's failed attempts to achieve social eminence are also expressed in the abstract metaphor of his restriction to the coulisses of the small theatres, for he is never able in Illusions perdues to make the transition from this area of obscurity, in which he associates only with actresses and journalists, to the brightly-lit stage of high society.

While the external, geographical landscape is represented as a theatre stage on which events and actions take place, and the social landscape of Paris is represented as a theatre which is above all a show-case or spectacle, a third aspect of the metaphor emerges in the internal locations of Balzac's provincial settings. Here, the claustrophobic interiors of dark and sleepy provincial houses become the closely confined stages of sinister dramas and intrigues, and the image comes closer to the actual theatre stage in which actions are confined within small spaces enclosed by scenery. Thus the ‘théâtre étroit de la province’, which is a recurring image in La Comédie humaine,87 comes to denote the drawing rooms, kitchens and interiors where the characters come into contact. For example, in Pierrette the salon of Denis and Sylvie Rogron ‘allait devenir le centre d'intérêts qui cherchaient un théâtre’;88 and in Eugénie Grandet the salle is described as having the combined function of a variety of settings in which characters might typically be brought together on the stage:

La salle est à la fois l'antichambre, le salon, le cabinet, le boudoir, la salle à manger; elle est le théâtre de la vie domestique.89

The provincial towns need their stage as much as Paris does, and in this way the salle provides both their stage and their auditorium since it is the site of the provincial dramas and the focal point of the characters' interaction, fulfilling the same function as the planches, foyers and loges of the Parisian theatres. The room which has been established as the theatre of domestic life at the beginning of Eugénie Grandet is the scene of the novel's final tragic dénouement. Here the characters gathered for their usual card games are both actors and spectators, just as in the theatres of Paris. In front of her familiar guests, Eugénie asks M. de Bonfons to remain behind after the others have left, thereby indicating that she has accepted to marry him. This simple event causes as much of a furore in the ‘théâtre étroit de la province’ as does Esther's appearance at the Opéra with Nucingen in Splendeurs et misères:

Au moment où l'assemblée se leva en masse pour quitter le salon, il y eut un coup de théâtre qui retentit dans Saumur, de là dans l'arrondissement et dans les quatre préfectures environnantes.90

If the image of the theatre becomes more spatially confined in the provincial setting, its effects are no less far-reaching than those brought about in the Parisian setting.

The image of the theatre as the confined location of an action becomes further intensified in situations where it is used to describe the staging of the legal process. For example, in Le Curé de village, the ‘drame judiciaire’ brings Mme Graslin ‘sur le théâtre où ses vertus brillèrent du plus vif éclat’;91 and in Modeste Mignon Canalis describes the courtroom as ‘le plus grand théâtre du monde’.92 The suggestions of the image require little explanation, being evocative of both the clash of interests and of the enclosed but nevertheless public nature of the setting, in which characters speak in turn according to a prescribed procedure.

More intensely still, the metaphor of the théâtre is also occasionally used to denote the play of conflict or disturbing emotion within the mind of the individual, as in the case of Eugène in Le Père Goriot, who is described by Vautrin as ‘un théâtre où s'émeuvent les plus beaux sentiments’.93 More often, however, the term is used, in the absence of more concrete medical or scientific terminology, to describe psychological malfunction, for example in the case of Louis Lambert who cannot be cured because ‘sa tête est le théâtre de phénomènes sur lesquels la médecine n'a nul pouvoir’,94 and the daughter of M. Bernard in L'Envers de l'histoire contemporaine, whose ‘âme a été le théâtre de tous les prodigues du somnambulisme, comme son corps est le théâtre de toutes les maladies’.95 Here the theatrical imagery denotes psychological conflict and the interaction of heightened emotions. The description of madness through theatrical imagery also perhaps reflects the contemporary fashion for Shakespeare on the Parisian stage and for Macbeth, which is often quoted by Balzac in La Comédie humaine.

It is possible to see from the examples cited that Balzac's figurative use of the terms théâtre and spectacle falls into four principal metaphorical senses none of which is confined to a specific period of his work, or to a particular type of novel. Used metaphorically the theatre may denote any place of action, and covers a wide area of reference from the open vistas of the external geographical location to the most confined area of the mind of the individual. Applied to the landscape, the image of the theatre primarily describes a backdrop or location in which events and actions take place; when applied to Paris it denotes the sense of spectacle offered by society and the desire of that society to be observed; in the provincial setting it denotes the home and fulfils the same functions as the actual Parisian theatre, being both the centre of its social activity and the site of its dramas; finally, when used to describe the mind and body of the individual the metaphor describes the play of excessive emotions.


Just as the metaphor of the front of the theatre suggests the light of the stage and an action played out in full view, the metaphor of its wings and backstage suggests obscurity, the manipulation of machinery and the passageways which lead from light to darkness. There are relatively few examples of explicit use of theatrical terminology in these images and it is rather implicitly, depending largely on the reader's interpretation, that this group of metaphors functions in La Comédie humaine. In this respect the examination here, particularly in so far as it applies to the Rubempré cycle, can only expand certain points already made by Peter Brooks who has explored in some depth the broad metaphor of the theatre as a signifier of the false appearance and hidden machinations of society.96

Brooks's own comments on Illusions perdues can be used to summarise his analysis of the theatrical metaphor of the whole of the Rubempré cycle. In turn these points may also be applied to the total theatrical metaphor of La Comédie humaine:

The theatre is the fascination, light, erotic lure of the scene; and also the wings, the world of backstage, which is both disenchanting and more profoundly fascinating […]. In its double aspect, the theatre seems to offer the possiblity of both representation and machination, of play on the great stage and manipulation of the roles represented from the wings.97

As Brooks notes, the notions of stage and backstage, illusion and disillusionment, appearance and machination apply not only in the literal theatre where much of the action of Illusions perdues takes place, but to the whole of life represented by the novel, for even in the provinces events are manipulated from the backstage by the Cointet brothers. The metaphor can be applied to all the novels of La Comédie humaine in which Balzac's concepts of plot and semi-omniscient narration are based on the notion of a social reality that is only appearance and where more sinister truths lurk behind the scenery. Balzac's ‘dramatisation’ of his text consists in communicating the truths lurking below the surface realities, in the wings and the backstage from where actions are manipulated.

Frequently the stage and backstage are seen to converge so that it becomes impossible for characters to distinguish between the two, to know who is ‘in role’ and who is not. Like the masked ball which opens Splendeurs et misères, Paris is a landscape of swirling travesties and false appearances behind which lie the real causes of events, but which can only be penetrated by rare characters such as Jacques Collin. It is only at the ball, disguised in a mask and cloak, that Collin can appear on the social stage, for his criminal status ordinarily confines him to the backstage whence he directs and manipulates. The masked ball, appropriately situated in the milieu of the Opéra, is theatrical both in the spectacle which it offers and in the function of exposition which it performs in the narrative. It is described as the occasion on which ‘les différents cercles dont se compose la société parisienne se retrouvent, se reconnaissent et s'observent’,98 and foreshadows symbolically the interaction of different social groups that will take place in the subsequent narrative. It also suggests from the outset the play of masks and falsehoods, and interpenetration of stage and backstage which will characterise almost every encounter between the novel's characters.

Theatrical metaphor is implicit in this opening scene in which the characters at the ball seek to discover the identities, truths and intrigues which lie behind the various masks. The uncovering of hidden identity becomes the central preoccupation of the plot, as false appearances increasingly become manipulated from the hidden backstage of society by Jacques Collin. Only towards the end of the novel does Balzac concretise this image of hidden machination through an explicit theatrical metaphor which he explains to his reader. The different levels of society are likened to a theatre in which the criminal class is described as:

[C]e monde souterrain qui, depuis l'origine des empires à capitale, s'agite dans les caves, dans les sentines, dans le troisième dessous des sociétés, pour emprunter à l'art dramatique une expression vive et saisissante. […] Le Troisième Dessous est la dernière cave pratiquée sous les planches de l'Opéra, pour en recéler les machines, les machinistes, la rampe, les apparitions, les diables bleus que vomit l'enfer, etc.99

The reader is constantly invited in Balzac's theatrical metaphors to look for greater signification beyond and behind the representation. Here this is achieved by Balzac's conscious explanation of his image. The area beneath the theatre stage is not only an image of depth, and darkness denoting the lowest social level, that of the criminal class, but is also an image of the power of that class to manipulate what takes place on the front of the stage, in the visible social realm. The wider implication of the image is that the true causes of events are always to be found in the ‘backstage’ of society. This manipulation from the backstage is only possible because the troisième dessous is not an underworld which is restrained behind the façade of society, but rather is connected to that society by passageways and by the wings, and possesses the machinery to control the visible environment from behind and beneath.

In an extension of the metaphor, which is left to the reader's interpretation, Lucien's apartment and Vautrin's garret are also part of the backstage of the social theatre. Vautrin's garret is the troisième dessous from which he directs events and Lucien's rooms are the wings in which he waits to make his entrances into the gaze of the outside world. Through the theatrical metaphor which pervades the whole of Splendeurs et misères, the model of life becomes double-tiered, so that acts on the surface of society are explainable only in terms of what is going on behind and beneath, in the bagne, in Vautrin's garret and in Lucien's rooms. This point has already been made by Brooks who notes that, ‘what is represented on the public social stage is only a figuration of what lies behind, in the domain of true power and significance’.100

Brooks has not noted, however, that the explicit image of the troisième dessous occurs in two other novels of La Comédie humaine. In La Cousine Bette (1846) the image is clearly linked to the definition given in the final part of Splendeurs et misères, which was published for the first time in the same year. In what appears to be a conscious exploitation of the same image, Balzac describes how the sister of Jacques Collin is brought up from the underworld by the scheming of the novel's conspirators:

Il [Victorin] reconduisit cette horrible inconnue, évoquée des antres de l'espionnage, comme du troisième dessous de l'Opéra se dresse un monstre au coup de baguette d'une fée dans un ballet-féerie.101

The appearance of Jacqueline Collin may seem merely accidental to those characters of the novel who are taken in by the illusion, but the image of the troisième dessous clearly signifies to the reader that Jacqueline belongs to the criminal underworld and that her sudden appearance has been secretly engineered. The image also occurs in Sarrasine (1830), where the mysterious old man ‘semblait être sorti de dessous terre, poussé par quelque mécanisme de théâtre’.102 The use of the image here differs somewhat from the later instances in La Cousine Bette and Splendeurs et misères since it contains only a sense of mystery, illusion and the paranormal, rather than the machinations of the social underworld. It seems that the fullest implications of the image only occurred to Balzac towards the end of his career, in those novels where the play of social falsehood and backstage manipulation and corruption is the central concern of the plot.

The troisième dessous and backstage areas of the actual theatre, as Lucien finds on his first visit to the Panorama-Dramatique, are connected to the front of the stage by the passageways and wings and this is the same in Balzac's imagery. The actual theatre represented in La Comédie humaine has its loges, baignoires, parterre, coulisses and troisième dessous, and directly mirrors Balzac's representation of Restoration society at large, which has its hierarchy of high-society,103 bourgeoisie, students, artists and underworld. In both hierarchies the apparently distinct parts are connected by a labyrinthine series of dark, hidden passageways. In the opening pages of Ferragus Balzac tells at length of the different types of interconnecting streets which make up Paris,104 of the ‘rues de mauvaise compagnie où vous ne voudriez pas demeurer, et des rues où vous placeriez volontiers votre séjour’;105 and the beginning of Splendeurs et misères, tells how the maze of dark streets surrounding Esther's home connects with and winds around the fashionable boulevards:

Ces rues étroites, sombres et boueuses, où s'exercent des industries peu soigneuses de leurs dehors, prennent à la nuit une physionomie mystérieuse et pleine de contrastes. En venant des endroits lumineux de la rue Saint-Honoré, de la rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs et de la rue de Richelieu, où se presse une foule incessante, où reluisent les chefs-d'œuvre de l'Industrie, de la Mode et des Arts, tout homme à qui le Paris du soir est inconnu serait saisi d'une terreur triste en tombant dans le lacis de petites rues qui cercle cette lueur reflétée jusque sur le ciel. Une ombre épaisse succède à des torrents de gaz. De loin en loin, un pâle réverbère jette sa lueur incertaine et fumeuse qui n'éclaire plus certaines impasses noires.106

If the brightly lit social world of the fashionable boulevards is society's stage, then the dark, interconnecting passageways hidden behind can be seen as its coulisses. Although Peter Brooks has not noted this relationship between the streets and the coulisses he has said that, ‘the streets and walls of Paris, under pressure of the narrator's insistence, become the elements of a Dantesque vision, leading the reader into infernal circles’.107 In this sense the physical context of the novel's setting relates to the moral context of its theme, for all levels of society are connected by the obscure backstage of society, which is where the true causes of events are shown to lie. Thus throughout La Comédie humaine, the same motivating forces can be seen at work in the coulisses of society, as operate in the coulisses of the theatre itself: the imperatives of sex, money and personal ambition, and the secret machinations of certain groups. This mirroring function of the theatrical metaphor is all the more effective because it is brought into relief by the exposure of the corrupt and materialistic forces governing the actual theatre world, which, as has been shown in the two previous chapters, has its basis in historical reality. The actual backstage of the theatre reveals not only hidden machinery, but groups such as the claque and the journalists and the protectors who engineer success. Balzac exposes the hidden forces governing the actual theatre world and at the same time uses that exposure as an image with which to describe society at large. In this way the imagery is underpinned by historical reality. As a result the reader is more readily able to accept the existence of similar, hidden groups which Balzac shows to be operative in the world at large.

Any reader of Balzac, as Peter Brooks has noted,108 is struck by the prevalence of secret societies and occult powers. There are organizations such as the Confrérie de la Consolation, Les Grands Fanandels, the Dévorants, the Chevaliers de la Désœuvrance, and looser organizations of plotters, such as the bankers in César Birotteau, the Cointet brothers in Illusions perdues, the secret police in Splendeurs et misères. The sphere of activity of these groups is behind the visible stage of society, yet their actions which take place in the wings and backstage decisively govern the play of the actors in the world at large. Life is controlled, manipulated, given its true explanation and significance from behind, most often in a secret and conspiratorial realm.

In order to succeed in the society represented in La Comédie humaine, the individual must act on the social stage in full awareness of these powers which lie behind the scenes, and must be able to move with ease between the two spheres. Crevel in La Cousine Bette (1846), when discovered in Valérie's room by Marneffe ‘aurait voulu descendre dans la cave par une trappe, comme cela se fait au théâtre’,109 but he is already in the coulisses of vice, plotting revenge against Hulot with Valérie, and his daily manoeuvres from his bourgeois home and business to the rue du Dauphin where he has his secret rendezvous with Valérie, are facilitated by just such a metaphorical social trappe. Crevel, like all the bourgeois businessmen of La Comédie humaine who have mistresses, has mastered the manœuvre between realms, between the front and backstage of society.

In La Femme de trente ans (1829-1834), the reader is told that suffering makes the individual aware of this distinction between the front and backstage of society and that once he has experienced this, ‘il rentre dans le monde pour mentir au monde, pour y jouer un rôle; il connaît dès lors la coulisse où l'on se retire pour calculer, pleurer, plaisanter’.110 The social education of the individual lies in the experience of this distinction, and his social success lies in his ability to apply that education and to move freely and at will between the two spheres. While for the reader the experience of the backstage reveals the novel's greater signification, for the characters it constitutes the loss of all their illusions about life, as Balzac explains through the duchesse de Carigliano:

Nous autres femmes, nous devons admirer les hommes de génie, en jouir comme d'un spectacle, mais vivre avec eux! jamais. Fi donc! c'est vouloir prendre plaisir à regarder les machines de l'Opéra au lieu de rester dans une loge, à y savourer ses brillantes illusions.111

The experience of the social backstage results in the loss of illusions of both Eugène de Rastignac and Lucien de Rubempré. In Le Père Goriot (1834-35), there is no explicit use of the metaphor of the dessous, trappe or coulisses of the theatre, but Eugène's journeys from the social stage of the faubourg St Germain to the ‘dessous’ of the Pension Vauquer take him through the muddy streets which can be seen as the coulisses and passageways of the Parisian social theatre. The light, open spaces, in which he moves in full view of society, are starkly contrasted with the dark obscurity of the Pension Vauquer and the stairways and entrances where Eugène begins to uncover the mysterious causes of events. Eugène's first social call takes him on to the centre stage of the de Restaud household where he stumbles by accident into a dark passageway. It is here, in the wings, that he sees Goriot leaving the house and makes his first discovery of what lies behind Goriot's drama. This awareness later increases as Eugène spies on Goriot and Vautrin from the dark hallways of the Pension Vauquer. Eugène's indiscretion in the de Restaud household about what he has learned from the backstage causes him to be banished back there and for his metaphorical passageway to be blocked. His success, however, lies in his ability to overcome this setback and learn to move between the two areas of stage and backstage and to assimilate the principles of distinction.

While Eugène is able to grasp the essential nature of what goes on in the backstage of society, Lucien is not. Lucien is not able sufficiently to distinguish between the two areas and allows himself repeatedly to be pushed back behind the curtain into the coulisses. In Illusions perdues this is exemplified by the scene in which he is forced by Bérénice to hide behind the curtain when Camusot arrives suddenly to visit Coralie.112 The metaphorical importance of this scene has not so far been noted by critics, yet it is vital to the reader's understanding of Lucien's social position. Lucien will remain behind the curtain in the metaphorical backstage for as long as he lacks the wealth to compete for centre stage on equal terms, for it is wealth more than talent or beauty which gains the individual his place in the social spotlight. Only by joining himself to Jacques Collin, in the troisième dessous of society, can Lucien gain wealth and attain any significant social status, but again, unlike Rastignac (who moves increasingly infrequently in the social wings and whose journeys between metaphorical stage and backstage become increasingly easy until the point where he is just behind the scenery waiting to emerge at the whim of Mme de Beauséant or Delphine de Nucingen), Lucien in Splendeurs et misères is in the lowest depths of the social theatre, and his movements between the two spheres become so encumbered by the Parisian labyrinth that he can no longer make the journeys to and fro. Exhausted by the contrasts between stage and backstage, between a visible world which is based on appearance and an invisible world which is based on machination, Lucien can see no way out from his prison cell back into the social footlights and must kill himself. The problem for Lucien is that the ‘truth’ which lies behind the stage of society is even more hideous than the false appearance which conceals it.

The metaphor of stage and backstage in Illusions perdues is applied not only to life but to the literature which represents life. Lousteau explains this to Lucien in the course of the latter's initiation into the ways of Paris:

La vie littéraire a ses coulisses. Les succès surpris ou mérités, voilà ce qu'applaudit le parterre; les moyens, toujours hideux, les comparses enluminés, les claqueurs et les garçons de service, voilà ce que recèlent les coulisses. Vous êtes encore au parterre. Il en est temps, abdiquez avant de mettre un pied sur la première marche du trône que se disputent tant d'ambitions, et ne vous déshonorez pas comme je le fais pour vivre.113

As this image makes clear, the literary coulisses do not simply denote the period of waiting for success, and of preparation; they denote the machinations and manipulations necessary to bring that success about. The machines, fire-men, backstage equipment and old scenery, which Lucien has seen in operation on his first visit to the Panorama-Dramatique,114 in this way become a metaphor for the commercial aspects of the literary process itself and which literally manufacture success. The image is quoted directly by Félix Davin in his preface to the second edition of Les Comédiens sans le savoir in 1847 (published on this occasion as Un provincial à Paris), as an example of how Balzac's narrative is pervaded by his own ‘combats’ and ‘luttes’ with the ‘misérables réalités de la vie’, in order to establish his literary reputation. Davin's image is all the more effective because the literary coulisses are exposed in detail in the subsequent narrative.

The theatrical metaphor of stage and backstage is central to the full understanding of La Comédie humaine and of its complex system of super-structure and sub-structure, signifier and signified, false appearance and hidden cause. Through the theatrical metaphor Balzac not only represents the comédie of the social code, and the interplay of individual destinies on the social stage, but also aims at uncovering the structures of society to reveal what lies behind and beneath. The surface of life represented in La Comédie humaine can only be explained through the examination of what takes place in its backstage area.


While the events of life are described as dramas, the role-plays of society as comedies and the world as a theatre with its stage and backstage, the characters who move within this world are frequently described as actors, players, extras, directors, and authors. … The world represented by La Comédie humaine is one in which characters are both actors and spectators simultaneously, some conscious of their roles and others less so. On the whole, only the narrator, reader and rare, semi-omniscient characters such as Vautrin and Gobseck know who is playing which role at any given moment. The roles are those of extras and puppets who are caught up in the novel's drama, actors, and particularly actresses, who play the social comedy, and more able actors who are simultaneously directors controlling the actions of others.

Along with other uses of theatrical imagery, the explicit metaphor of the character as an actor spans the whole of La Comédie humaine. The most frequent examples are to be found in Les Chouans (1828-29),115Modeste Mignon (1844),116 and Splendeurs et misères (1838-1847).117 In each case the metaphor underpins the central themes of the novel, so that in Les Chouans the characters are actors caught up in a historical drama, in Modeste Mignon they are players who assume their roles in the social comedy, and in Splendeurs et misères they are the masked villains of a sinister melodrama. Balzac's use of the metaphor in Les Chouans relates to his conception of this novel as a series of dramatic events in which his characters are carried along. The references are casual and often descriptive of large groups playing out certain actions or anticipating the actions to come. The metaphor above all clarifies where the characters stand in relation to one another. From the outset the minor characters are ‘les muets acteurs de cette scène, semblable à mille autres qui rendirent cette guerre la plus dramatique de toutes’,118 and the action is centred around Montauran who is the ‘acteur principal […] vu par tous, quoique absent’,119 who has willingly accepted ‘un rôle dans cette tragédie’.120 Later, the assembled opposing sides are again referred to as ‘les acteurs de cette scène’,121 and in the course of the novel's tragic dénouement Marie is ‘comme un acteur sublime’,122 and Montauran acts ‘à la manière de grands acteurs’.123 These images of his fictional characters as actors are consistent with Balzac's insistence that the events of Les Chouans constitute a drama in both the popular and more strictly theatrical sense of the term.124

Occasional metaphorical references to characters as actors caught up in the large-scale dramas of historical events can be seen throughout La Comédie humaine, up to the final part of Splendeurs et misères (1847), where Corentin is referred to as ‘ce grand acteur du drame historique de notre temps’.125 In other works, which again span much of Balzac's career, the image of the character as an actor is used to denote specific gestures which are described by comparison to the movements and habits of actors. For example,126 in Une fille d'Eve (1838-39), Nathan begins to ‘écouter comme ces acteurs qui regardent la salle au lieu d'être en scène’;127 in La Cousine Bette (1846), Crevel ‘attendait pendant un moment, comme un acteur qui marque un temps’;128 and in Ursule Mirouèt (1840-41), the curé ‘se caressait le menton par ce geste commun aux valets de théâtre’.129 The movements of the stage actor provide Balzac with a gestural code through which he can more graphically describe the actions of his own characters.

Throughout La Comédie humaine, however, it is possible to see that Balzac's use of theatrical imagery in describing his characters is more than an expression of their relative positions in the action, as ‘acteurs muets’,130 and ‘acteur principal’,131 for example, and of the gestures which accompany their actions, but is an integral element of the expression of his world view. In Les Chouans there is only one such instance, which occurs towards the end of the novel, and foretells the way in which the metaphor of the actor will be developed from now on in La Comédie humaine. The image here is of the abbé Gudin, who, in his address to his congregation, has ‘à la manière des grands acteurs, manié tout son public comme un seul homme, en parlant aux intérêts et aux passions’.132 In the drama of history, an individual such as Gudin has little power to control the enormity of the events which are overtaking the Breton peasants, but his particular role is subject to his own power of interpretation and enables him to influence the reactions of the peasants. This distinction between characters who are able to exercise some control over others, and characters who are merely puppets and dupes, becomes central to the interaction of Balzac's characters in later novels and is frequently expressed through images of their relative acting and directing capacities.

The social comedy in La Comédie humaine, as has been noted, is primarily one in which characters knowingly and deliberately adopt roles and play out intrigues in which other characters are merely puppets or dupes. Vautrin points this out in Le Père Goriot to Eugène:

Mon petit, quand on ne veut pas être dupe des marionnettes, il faut entrer tout à fait dans la baraque, et ne pas se contenter de regarder par les trous de la tapisserie.133

The metaphorical terms used to describe the characters engaged in this comédie include acteur, comédien, charlatan, valet de comédie, and frequent reference is made to the metaphorical masks which they wear. It is remarkable how often these terms are used in the feminine form of actrice and comédienne, conveying a sense of what Balzac perhaps sees as a natural female acting capacity, or perhaps a female imperative to subscribe to the rules of the social comedy.

The characters who engage in the social comedy are at least semi-omniscient and are spectators as well as actors, for it is only in relation to the roles played by others and in awareness of the social code that they are able to judge their own performance. Valérie Marneffe in La Cousine Bette, always alternating between her positions as wife and mistress, acts in full awareness of her roles: ‘Mme Marneffe, se sachant étudiée, se comporta comme une actrice applaudie’,134 and plays a scene of the self-sacrificing, virtuous woman with such credibility that it reduces Crevel to tears, as she quickly shifts from actress to spectator to mock both the role and Crevel's gullibility. Valérie's power lies in her semi-omniscience and her ability to distinguish between her different roles without ever losing sight of her material aims.

Some of Balzac's less well-known female characters are equally remarkable for their acting capacities, for example Honorine is a ‘comédienne de bonne foi’, who is capable of giving ‘regards qui feraient la gloire d'une actrice’,135 and later confesses ‘J'ai bien joué mon rôle de femme: j'ai trompé mon mari’,136 again like Valérie she is fully aware of the role she is playing. Similarly, the duchesse de Carigliano hides her true feelings with calm words ‘dont la richesse d'intonation et l'accent inimitable eussent fait envie à la plus célèbre actrice de ce temps’.137 Honorine and the duchesse de Carigliano act out a role which is predetermined by their sex and status, and in which the gestures, speech, and facial expressions are determined by social convention. In this sense the image of women as actresses can be applied to all of the women in La Comédie humaine who move in the salons, drawing-rooms, ball-rooms and theatres of Parisian society, for on the social stage along with Mmes d'Espard, de Langeais, de Beauséant, de Restaud and de Nucingen, they play out the roles which they have been born and married into, aware that a critical public is watching their every move. Permanent respite from the gaze of society is achieved by total withdrawal from the social stage, as in the case of the duchesse de Langeais and Mme de Beauséant, who, tired of wearing metaphorical masks, withdraw to provincial convents.138

The wearing of the social mask is exemplified at an early stage in Balzac's work in the figure of the estranged wife of Chabert in Le Colonel Chabert (1832). The demands of Mme Ferraud's roles as wife and mother and her own material interests cause her to display her acting talents:

Il fallait être comédienne pour jeter tant d'éloquence, tant de sentiments dans un mot. […] Pour se trouver un moment à l'aise elle monta chez elle, s'assit à son secrétaire, déposa le masque de tranquillité qu'elle conservait devant le comte Chabert, comme une actrice qui, rentrant fatiguée dans sa loge après un cinquième acte pénible, tombe demi-morte et laisse dans la salle une image d'elle-même à laquelle elle ne ressemble plus.139

For Mme Ferraud, as for the duchesse de Langeais and Mme de Beauséant, the wearing of the social mask is as morally and physically exhausting as the parts played in the theatres of Paris by Balzac's fictional actresses Coralie and Florine.140 As with other uses of theatrical imagery, the metaphor gains its fullest signification when considered in relation to the historicity of Balzac's portrayal of the theatrical world in La Comédie humaine as a whole.

The most frequent examples of Balzac's characters metaphorically defined as players of the social comedy can be found in Béatrix (1838-1845), and in Modeste Mignon (1844), in which novels the entire plot depends on intrigue and role play. Béatrix and Modeste, however, are not just actresses playing out the roles governed by their sex and status, but are also in some sense directors of the drama in which other characters act out their given roles. The intrigue of Modeste Mignon centres on Modeste's self-appointed ‘rôle de la jeune première’,141 and the mounting of a sub-plot in which there are to be ‘deux personnages pour un rôle’.142 Each of the characters in the subplot deploys ‘le talent d'un grand acteur’,143 and Modeste's undoing is that while she believes she is playing a self-appointed role, that role is ultimately written by another hand.

Béatrix's undoing similarly results from a series of events in which she poses as an actress but which escapes her control. Béatrix's problem is that her rival, Camille Maupin, is a more accomplished, and indeed actual, dramatist who engineers the drama between herself and the other characters much as if she were literally creating a piece of theatre. Béatrix becomes aware of this in the second part of the novel where on the arrival of Conti, she declares to Camille, ‘je reconnais là votre infernal talent d'auteur: la vengeance est complète, et le dénouement est parfait’.144 The controlling position is then usurped by Conti who creates a scenario in which he plays ‘l'homme soupçonneux et jaloux’ and gives to Calyste ‘le rôle d'un amoureux contrarié’.145 In accepting this role Calyste becomes not only an actor but also the dupe or puppet of Conti who is both actor and director in this phase of the intrigue. When Béatrix has fled with Conti, Camille refers to her rival as ‘une actrice de second ordre’,146 because she had been unable to play her role convincingly to the last. In the rivalry between Camille and Béatrix the skill of Camille as a dramatist, proves far superior in directing events to the skill of Béatrix as an actress.

In Balzac's metaphorical theatre of life the actor may only avoid becoming a puppet if he is fully aware of the role that he is playing, has learned it to perfection and is able to control the reactions of his audience. It is primarily the lions of the Comédie humaine, such as de Marsay, de Trailles, du Tillet, and du Châtelet, in their roles as dandies, financiers and politicians, who have this capacity. The individual's ability to achieve this position, Balzac explains in Modeste Mignon, depends on his ability to satisfy a new audience:

Ce détail indique les dangers que court le héros d'un salon à sortir, comme Canalis, de sa sphère; il ressemble alors à l'acteur chéri d'un certain public, dont le talent se perd en quittant son cadre et abordant un théâtre superieur.147

In La Comédie humaine the transition of the young man from provincial arriviste to Parisian dandy, can be interpreted as that of the actor who must learn to dominate a new public. It is this ability to convince their public which marks the distinction between Eugène de Rastignac and Lucien de Rubempré as actors on the Parisian stage. While Eugène is able to control the reactions of his public by adapting to the demands of Paris, Lucien is never able adequately to do this. Eugène is never explicitly referred to as an actor, and this is indicative both of the sincerity which remains with him until his final defiant cry to society in Le Père Goriot, and the fact that he does not submit to the directing influence of Vautrin. In an abstract sense, however, Eugène becomes an actor as soon as he gets engaged in the social code after his first visit to the de Restaud household, immediately equipping himself with the necessary costumes and gestures to play his role, and his actions become subject to a greater director than Vautrin, to the general economic determinism which governs Parisian society. Eugène's greatest moment of awareness comes when he sees the miserable death bed of Goriot ‘sous les diamants des deux sœurs’,148 and from that moment he can be seen as an actor who can make the distinction between the superficial appearance and the underlying truth. Eugène's final defiant declaration in the novel is a demonstration of his ability to play in the Parisian drama with sufficient awareness of what lies behind and beneath.

Lucien, on the other hand, believes himself to be an actor but is little more than a puppet, who is not aware that his actions are always being directed from beyond the immediate scene. Even Lucien's success on the narrow, provincial stage of Angoulême is engineered in the first place by Mme de Bargeton and after his return from Paris by Cérizet. Peter Brooks notes:

Lucien experiences melodrama—the manichaestic extremes, the unbearable contrasts, the struggle of light and darkness, the accumulation of menace—without ever mastering it, without himself becoming the dramatist of experience.149

Lucien is always the actor who follows the directions of others and is never able to take control and direct his own actions. He is described as ‘un homme à la fois prince et comédien’,150 and ‘une femmelette qui aime à paraître’,151 but he is unable to distinguish his roles from his real self and continues acting in the coulisses of life, switching social and political allegiances, as he does in the coulisses of the Panorama-Dramatique. Lucien's inability to interpret and direct his own actions is a weakness which is quickly identified by Vautrin, who upon saving Lucien's life declares, ‘Je suis l'auteur, tu seras le drame’. Just as he has been the dupe of du Châtelet, his enemies in the press, and the Cointet brothers, Lucien is now to be the puppet of Vautrin. Unlike Eugène who plays out his chosen role according to the general rules prescribed by society, Lucien flouts society's laws, does not adhere to the social comedy, and without a director his posturings are futile. Vautrin points out to Lucien that had he hidden his relationship with Coralie, he would have been able to marry Mme de Bargeton and achieve social respect and success:

Les grands commettent presque autant de lâchetés que les misérables; mais ils les commettent dans l'ombre et font parade de leurs vertus. […] Vous avez eu publiquement pour maîtresse une actrice, vous avez vécu chez elle, avec elle; vous n'étiez nullement répréhensible, chacun vous trouvait l'un et l'autre parfaitement libres; mais vous rompiez en visière aux idées du monde et vous n'avez pas eu la considération que le monde accorde à ceux qui obéissent à ses lois. […] Dès lors vous ne serez plus coupable de faire tache sur les décorations de ce grand théâtre appelé le monde.152

Lucien can only master the stage when he has been fully initiated into the social comedy and his every move is calculated and minutely directed by Vautrin.

Vautrin is the semi-omniscient director of all the subsequent dramas which take place in Splendeurs et misères. From the sphere of the underworld Vautrin functions both as actor and director. Vautrin appears on the social stage in his successive disguises, which are necessary for his transition from the troisième dessous to the light of the social stage. He is in no sense a puppet or even an actor fulfilling a role, rather he is one of the metaphorical actor/directors who, prompted by material interests and individual ambitions, write both their own roles and those of the characters around them. Vautrin only briefly puts himself at risk by abandoning his role:

Aussi Jacques Collin, en garde contre lui-même, avait-il jusqu'alors admirablement bien joué son rôle d'innocent et d'étranger, soit à la Force, soit à la Conciergerie. Mais abattu par la douleur, écrasé par sa double mort, car, dans cette fatale nuit, il était mort deux fois, il redevint Jacques Collin. Le surveillant fut stupéfait de n'avoir pas à dire à ce prêtre espagnol par où l'on allait au préau. Cet acteur si parfait oublia son rôle, il descendit la vis de la tour Bonbec en habitué de la Conciergerie.153

Like Mme de Beauséant and the duchesse de Langeais, who in the face of suffering abandon their social roles, Vautrin's submission to personal grief and to the irreversible, indomitable fact of Lucien's death, lies in the temporary abandoning of his roles.

The power to direct the drama of life in any way is given only to some in La Comédie humaine, to the lions and to the secret societies, while the rest remain at best conscious actors performing according to the social rules and at worst unwitting dupes or puppets. Even those who seem to hold the strings are driven by a superior force, however, for the drama represented in La Comédie humaine is directed by the new gods of this era, by money, passion and personal ambition. The lives and actions of all the characters of La Comédie humaine who are explicitly referred to as actors, or who in the context of the overall theatrical metaphor can be interpreted as actors, are governed or affected by the forces of material determinism and individual interests.

It is possible to see from these examples that the metaphor of the character as an actor serves three main narrative purposes throughout La Comédie humaine. Firstly, the image of the actor is used to indicate the relative importance of the characters in the action and also to describe their gestures and expressions. Secondly, the image describes the characters as players of the social comedy who adopt the roles prescribed by social convention, and as well as actors may also be puppets or directors. Finally, the metaphor becomes an expression for the overall moral and ideological concerns of La Comédie humaine, since all characters are in some sense actors who portray false appearances and whose movements and speeches are directed not only by social conventions but by economic determinism and individual interests.


In La Comédie humaine, while the term comédie is reserved for the play of masks and roles which Balzac perceives to be prevalent in both Paris and the provinces, the term drame usually indicates the process by which the mask and the surface appearance are penetrated to reveal the realities or further transgressions which lie beneath. The drame is the most prolific theatrical metaphor of La Comédie humaine, numbering 64 examples in the appendix to this chapter and constituting almost 27٪ of the total identified.154 These examples include use of the term both in its secondary, popular sense to denote situations or sequences of events which are highly emotional, tragic, or turbulent, and in its primary, more strictly theatrical sense, as a work to be performed by actors on stage.155 In its contemporary theatrical sense the term drame denotes the highly emotional and spectacular representations of the Romantic drama and may be distinguished from its original definition by Diderot in the previous century as a serious and, above all, realistic dramatic genre which was neither tragedy nor comedy.156

In many instances, Balzac appears to use the metaphor of the drame in its merely popular, secondary sense which is connected to the contemporary theatre only by association. There is, for example the ‘drame de la Révolution’157 referred to in Les Chouans, the ‘drame commercial’158 of César Birotteau, and the ‘drame terrible d'une instruction criminelle’ of Splendeurs et misères.159 Of course, it is easy to equate Balzac's use of the drame as a metaphor in these instances, and particularly in Splendeurs et misères, with an impulse towards the contemporary melodrama which was reliant on the kind of turbulent and sensational events featured in the plots of these novels.

In certain other, more remarkable instances, Balzac's use of the metaphor of the drame stands in a much stricter relationship to the theatre. In these cases the drame in its contemporary stage sense functions as a contrast with Balzac's writing through which he defines how he believed the theatre should be. Critics have not remarked upon this phenomenon in La Comédie humaine, and indeed Balzac's own failure in the theatre is partly attributed160 to the supposed fact that he had no clearly defined dramaturgy to offer other than the vague notion of the need to ‘faire vrai’. … It is true that, unlike Hugo, Balzac at no stage explained his dramatic theory in any kind of separate treatise, but it is not true that this is because he had no theory. It has perhaps been the mistake of some critics of Balzac's theatre to study his dramatic works in isolation from his novels, for Balzac's dramaturgy is to be found in La Comédie humaine in his usage and explanations of the metaphor of the drame, and particularly in Le Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet.

The opening pages of Le Père Goriot contain perhaps the best known example of Balzac's metaphorical use of the term drame with which to define his novel:

Néanmoins, en 1819, époque à laquelle ce drame commence, il s'y trouvait une pauvre jeune fille. En quelque discrédit que soit tombé le mot drame par la manière abusive et tortionnaire dont il a été prodigué dans ces temps de douloureuse littérature, il est nécessaire de l'employer ici: non que cette histoire soit dramatique dans le sens vrai du mot; mais, l'œuvre accomplie, peut-être aura-t-on versé quelques larmes intra muros et extra.161

It is clear from Balzac's reference to ‘douloureuse littérature’ that he understands the ‘sens vrai du mot’ of the drame here in its literary and therefore theatrical sense rather than in a merely popular sense. For Balzac, according to these opening statements, the events of his novel do not constitute the type of highly emotional drama which could be found on the contemporary stage, but he claims that they may nevertheless produce a kind of theatrical pathos. Balzac's own sense of drama here is contrasted with the contemporary stage drama (which is seen to devalue the term drame), and is equated with truth which he believed to be lacking from the theatre of his day: ‘Ah! sachez-le: ce drame n'est ni une fiction, ni un roman. All is true.’162

On first sight it seems as though Balzac might merely be making the point through metaphor that life itself is more dramatic in a popular sense than anything which is represented on the literal theatre stage. This is seen particularly in the description of the boarders, who, as part of this drama of real life, are themselves living dramas:

Ces pensionnaires faisaient pressentir des drames accomplis ou en action; non pas de ces drames joués à la lueur des rampes, entre des toiles peintes, mais des drames vivants et muets, des drames glacés qui remuaient chaudement le cœur, des drames continus.163

Again, Balzac emphasises the distinction between his own definition of drama and the bright lights and spectacle of the current stage tradition. The most significant aspect of this image is that the boarders are described not as dramas which are highly visible and played out on the stage of society, but as silent and hidden dramas. It is the drama of the hidden, private and domestic realm which most interests Balzac. By insisting that the characters contain their dramas within them, Balzac strives to awaken interest and curiosity in the banality of the boarding house and in mean characters at the bottom of the social scale.164 Of course, Vautrin, Goriot and Rastignac are singled out for amplification, but the other boarders also remain interesting because they too have their hidden dramas which Balzac seeks to uncover.

Balzac's declared intention in these opening metaphors is of course belied by the subsequent events of the novel, which turn out to be highly emotional and melodramatic. Balzac is more successful in carrying out his declared intention in Eugénie Grandet, where he resists the impulse towards melodrama. Here too Balzac borrows the vocabulary of the theatre to analyse and mark the stages of his creative process and to justify these to the reader, and it is in contrast to the prevailing form of the drama that he justifies to the reader the possibly disappointing ending of Eugénie Grandet:

Ce dénouement trompe nécessairement la curiosité. Peut-être en est-il ainsi de tous les dénouements vrais. Les tragédies, les drames, pour parler le langage de ce temps, sont rares dans la nature. […] Ici, nulle invention.165

Balzac is insistent here upon the truth of the outcome of his novel which stands in opposition to the contemporary stage drama, which he claims does not represent reality.166 Certainly, Eugénie's ultimate resignation to the slow passage of the remainder of her provincial life is more poignant and more credible than the expedient and more melodramatic endings of other of Balzac's novels which are brought about by sudden deaths and unexpected revelations.167 Nevertheless, in his preface to this novel, Balzac does refer metaphorically to the events which are to unfold as a drame, but here he seems to be hinting not at the stage drama as understood in ‘le langage de ce temps’, which he refers to in the epilogue, but rather at something distinct from that:

Si tout arrive à Paris, tout passe en province: là ni relief, ni saillie; mais là, des drames dans le silence; là, des mystères habilement dissimulés; là des dénouements dans un seul mot; là, d'énormes valeurs prêtées par le calcul et l'analyse aux actions les plus indifférentes.168

What Balzac appears to be formulating here, and in the opening of Le Père Goriot, is a notion of renewal of the drame bourgeois which had been defined and advocated in the previous century by Diderot.

Balzac continues in his preface to Eugénie Grandet with metaphors borrowed from painting, speaking of ‘touches de pinceau’, ‘tableaux’ and ‘clair-obscur’. This strengthens rather than detracts from the impression that through metaphor Balzac is expressing a dramaturgy after the manner of Diderot, for in his Entretiens sur Le Fils naturel Diderot had drawn close analogy between his vision of the drame bourgeois and the Flemish school of painting which depicted detailed interiors with dramatic use of light.169 Certainly Balzac's intention to write a type of realistic, almost anti-dramatic drame in Eugénie Grandet, is carried out in the text of the novel which progresses by a series of interior scenes largely devoid of coups de théâtre.

That Balzac intends his metaphorical use of the drame to be understood in a specifically theatrical context, rather than as merely denoting a series of turbulent events, can be seen in a passage from Facino Cane (1836). Here Balzac intervenes in the narrative to tell of the plethora of dramas which he claims can be perceived beneath the surface of society:

Vous ne sauriez imaginer combien d'aventures perdues, combien de drames oubliés dans cette ville de douleur […] il faut descendre trop bas pour trouver ces admirables scènes ou tragiques ou comiques, chefs-d'œuvre enfantés par le hasard.170

Balzac's references to scènes and chefs-d'œuvre ground his metaphor in the theatre rather than in merely popular terminology. Again in Le Cousin Pons (1846-47), Balzac emphasises by use of complementary theatrical vocabulary that the ‘drame de cette vie obscure’171 is not merely a metaphor for a series of turbulent events:

Ici commence le drame, ou, si vous voulez, la comédie terrible de la mort d'un célibataire livré par la force des choses à la rapacité des natures cupides qui se groupent à son lit, et qui, dans ce cas, eurent pour auxiliaires la passion la plus vive, celle d'un tableaumane, l'avidité du sieur Fraisier, qui, vu dans sa caverne, va vous faire frémir, et la soif d'un Auvergnat capable de tout, même d'un crime, pour se faire un capital. Cette comédie, à laquelle cette partie du récit sert en quelque sorte d'avant-scène, a d'ailleurs pour acteurs tous les personnages qui jusqu'à présent ont occupé la scène.172

The juxtaposition and substitution of comédie and drame in particular call to mind Diderot's definition of the drame as a form which would be unhampered by restrictive, established definitions of genre. This, combined with words which might be seen to evoke theatrical pathos, such as terrible, frémir, passion, and more specific theatrical terms such as avant-scène and acteurs, seems to indicate that Balzac sees this private drama in relation to the actual theatre stage.

The point is noted by Félix Davin who remarks in his introduction to the Etudes philosophiques (1834), that it is above all the dramas of private and hidden passion which interest Balzac:

Il est allé les chercher [ces passions et ces types] dans la famille, autour du foyer; et fouillant sous ces enveloppes en apparence si uniformes et si calmes, il en a exhumé tout à coup, des caractères tellement multiples et naturels en même temps, que tout le monde s'est demandé comment des choses aussi familières, aussi vraies, étaient restées si longtemps inconnues.173

Part of Balzac's gift as a novelist, and as the historien des mœurs is that, as the Davin text says, he is able to wrest the interesting and the dramatic from within the familiar and the real. Just as Diderot had advocated almost a century earlier, Balzac is penetrating the private sphere to show a drama enacted by the people who actually lived it, and through close alignment with the real strives to make his audience forget that it is witnessing a fiction and believe that it is party to real events.174

Balzac's purpose in describing hidden events and private circumstances as dramas is of course consistent with his overall process of uncovering what lies beneath social norms and apparently calm exteriors. The oxymoron of the silent drama is the means by which he makes the intangible tangible and brings in to the public arena conflicts which are not normally visible. Throughout La Comédie humaine Balzac uncovers the private, inner dramas which are played out both within the small theatre of the family and, more secretly still, within the heart of the individual. There is the ‘[…] drame se jouant dans l'âme’175 of Colonel Chabert whose private tragedy is played out in the sombre law offices of Derville, where such scenes are described as the ‘drames de la Morgue’;176 in Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées love is described by Louise to Renée as a tragedy or a ‘drame joué au fond des cœurs’;177 in Honorine Octave describes his unhappy state as ‘le drame de mon âme’;178 and the love intrigue of Béatrix is described as a ‘drame diabolique’ and as a ‘drame tragique’ which unfolds ‘dans toute son étendue au fond des cœurs’.179 Similarly, the central love interest of La Muse du département is described as ‘une de ces longues et monotones tragédies conjugales qui demeureraient éternellement inconnues’. ‘Inconnues’ that is, until Balzac chooses to expose them by penetrating the private domain, metaphorically to ‘stage’ those hidden dramas for his public.

In all of these examples, and there are many more,180 love is the metaphorical drama which is played out silently in the souls of the characters. The notion that the drama is silent or stifled makes the violently contrasting emotions and extreme suffering engendered by that love all the more intense. The drame thus attains a claustrophobic pressure when contained within the heart of the individual. The tragedy of Eugénie Grandet, of Octave and of Chabert is that this drama of love remains hidden within them forever, known only to themselves, the narrator and the reader. Conversely the events of the second part of Béatrix, which is entitled Le Drame, come about because the hidden drama must be known, and the reader is prepared for this by the mounting tension of contrasts which must escape beyond the innermost confines of each individual. The drama announced by the title is borne out by the explosion of real feeling which the protagonists can no longer contain beneath a veneer of social convention.181

The metaphor of the hidden drama which surfaces in the life of an otherwise ordinary individual is perhaps best exemplified in Pierrette (1839-40). A little studied work, Pierrette is the embodiment of the private drama, of terrible events played out behind the closed doors of a provincial town. It is in every sense the drama of a character whose life would appear to be anti-dramatic. The metaphor of the drame occurs in Pierrette at five intervals throughout the novella's 143 pages. In the first instance the metaphor is employed self-consciously by Balzac to awaken the reader's interest in his subject, which he describes as:

Un de ces drames obscurs qui se passent en famille et qui, pour demeurer secrets, n'en sont pas moins terribles, si vous permettez toutefois d'appliquer le mot de drame à cette scène d'intérieur.182

As in the opening of Le Père Goriot, Balzac justifies his use of dramatic metaphor to his reader and acknowledges that the events described in the novel may not be what the reader would recognise as dramatic either in the contemporary theatrical or popular sense. Again Balzac juxtaposes dramatic metaphor with the image of the ‘scène d'intérieur’ borrowed from painting, as he had done in the preface to Eugénie Grandet, apparently unconsciously approximating his definition of the drama to that of Diderot. Through the metaphor of the private, hidden drama Balzac leads his reader to expect a similar set of tragic circumstances to that which had brought him great commercial success in Eugénie Grandet, and in this the reader is not to be disappointed.

As will be seen in the next chapter, the metaphor of the drama surrounding Pierrette is integrated into the narrative through theatrical presentation of the text as her life becomes ‘le drame domestique que la venue de Brigaut détermina dans la maison Rogron’.183 Pierrette's personal tragedy, like that of Eugénie Grandet, lies in the fact that the drama of her suffering and her lover's desperation, goes unheard and undiscovered until it is too late: ‘Le bavardage d'un amant au désespoir éclaira ce drame domestique au médecin, sans qu'il en soupçonnât l'horreur ni l'étendue’.184 Balzac's insistence on the term ‘drame domestique’ in Pierrette not only foretells the type of stage drama which he was later to develop in his play La Marâtre in 1848, but is entirely necessary for the outcomes of the plot. It is precisely because the drama is enacted behind the closed shutters of the provincial house and not in a public, Parisian setting, that its tragedy remains undetected and unavoidable, eventually culminating in what Balzac successively describes as a ‘drame fatal’ and a ‘drame horrible’.185

Through this examination of the metaphor of the drame in Balzac's novels, it is possible to see that he had been developing since the early 1830s, and in conscious opposition to the Romantic drama, his own idea of a sort of intimate or domestic drama. Balzac eventually transferred this dramaturgy from metaphorical representation in his novels to actual stage representation in La Marâtre, which he called a ‘tragédie bourgeoise’186 and a ‘drame comme on en peut trouver à tout moment en fouillant les mystères de la vie privée,’187 and through which, according to his claims in a letter to Madame Hanska in May 1848, he hoped to revive the French stage: ‘Ce que je voulais je l'ai obtenu: une rénovation, et la littérature dramatique reconnaîtra que je vais me faire une large part.188 Unfortunately, after the second act the play errs on the side of melodrama, but even the harshest of critics saw La Marâtre as a literary revolution and agreed that through it Balzac had succeeded in transferring from the novel to the stage his primary dramatic principle: ‘faire vrai’.189

Despite the overwhelming prevalence of melodrama in many of the plots of Balzac's novels, it is possible to conclude from the examples given here that, through his use of the drame as a metaphor with which to describe and distinguish his novels, Balzac expresses his own dramaturgy which is that of a realistic and intimate drame bourgeois. It is not only the realism and intimacy of his novels, but also the specific dramaturgy which Balzac expresses in his novels and puts into practice in La Marâtre, which establishes him at a midpoint in the development of the modern theatre, between Diderot's theories in the previous century and the Naturalist theatre of Zola and the Théâtre Libre towards the end of the century.190 The fact that when Balzac uses the drame as a metaphor, he more often than not intends the term to be understood in its theatrical sense will be underpinned in the next chapter which examines the way in which Balzac presents the text using dramatic techniques and elements of stagecraft.


From the examination in this chapter it is possible to see that Balzac's exploitation of the theatre as a descriptive resource is not simply the product of an indeterminate notion of the world as a theatre or of an impulse towards melodrama, but corresponds to a strict system, in which images are used to express the novels' central concerns. Within this scheme the drame is an image of the private, domestic realm through which Balzac formulates and expresses his dramaturgy, the comédie or scène is an image of social role-play, the théâtre is the image of the location of action often played out in full view of society, and the dessous and coulisses are images of the true causes of events. In accordance with this system Balzac's characters are defined as actors who are described by reference to established theatre characters, and who emerge either as puppets, comédiens or actor/directors, whose actions are determined by materialism and individualism.

From the analysis of this scheme it has been possible to expand the observations made by Brooks and Adamson and it is now possible to conclude that the theatrical metaphor is not only relevant to those novels situated in the labyrinth of Paris and which stand in close relationship to theatrical melodrama, such as Illusions perdues, Splendeurs et misères and La Cousine Bette, but is also fundamental to the mode of expression of other novels such as Pierrette, Eugénie Grandet and Les Chouans. Balzac's use of theatrical metaphor is both systematic and all-embracing and is an expression of the most melodramatic series of peripeteia in Splendeurs et misères, and of the most lingering and silent tragedy in Eugénie Grandet.

Furthermore, it is important to consider Balzac's use of theatrical metaphor in relation to the historicity of his treatment of the actual Parisian theatre in La Comédie humaine. It is only in relation to Balzac's revelations concerning the actual theatre world that his imagery attains its fullest signification, for through theatre Balzac's fictional world becomes self-contained. Balzac does not rely on assumed knowledge of the external reality to which the theatrical metaphor refers his reader, but provides that knowledge in the texts. The images of characters as actors are amplified by Balzac's exposure of life in the theatre with its physical, mental and financial demands and moral compromises. Similarly, the image of society as a theatre with its wings and backstage areas is amplified by the exposure of backstage practices in the actual theatre, by the corrupt dealings of the feuilletons and the claque and the machinations of actors, directors and dramatists, and by the economic forces which govern the theatre. The historical treatment of the theatre and the exploitation of the theatre as a source of imagery are to some extent interdependent in Balzac's vision.

It has also been shown here that Balzac's use of theatrical metaphor covers the whole thematic, locational and chronological period of La Comédie humaine. From the mid 1830s onwards, however, a more abundant and systematic exploitation of theatrical imagery can be seen, particularly in the allusions to established dramatic characters, and this seems to indicate Balzac's increasing preoccupation with the notions of role-play and false appearance which characterise his mature work. It would be erroneous to suggest that Balzac's use of theatrical metaphor is a direct consequence of his own attempts to write for the stage, since he did not devote himself to the theatre in any serious way until the 1840s, and the theatrical metaphor is already well-developed in novels written in the mid and late 1830s. Rather the metaphor derives from the combined effect of Balzac's vision of life and of his awareness of the need to ‘dramatise’ the novel in order to awaken and sustain the reader's interest.

The theatre provides Balzac with an established vocabulary and typology with which to describe his novels and characters. To some extent the borrowing of theatrical vocabulary to describe the novel at the beginning of the nineteenth century was essential to Balzac since the novel had no such vocabulary of its own. While the theatrical tradition had a familiar and established terminology, the novel had no means to describe its processes. As a highly self-conscious author, Balzac borrows metaphors and vocabulary from the established literary form both in order to analyse and justify his own process of creation and in order to communicate effectively with the reader. Only through recognisable images can the reader see behind the metaphor to what is signified, and these images are to be found in what has been shown to be the dominant social institution of Balzac's period, in the theatre. It is precisely through a metaphor which has its basis in showing and seeing that Balzac reveals his process of uncovering society to the reader. The process of this exposure is expressed by Balzac in a letter to Madame Hanska by means of a theatrical metaphor which summarises his creation of La Comédie humaine: ‘Les mœurs sont le spectacle, les causes sont les coulisses et les machines, les principes, c'est l'auteur.191


  1. See: Peter Brooks. The Melodramatic Imagination, and ‘Balzac, Melodrama and Metaphor’ in The Hudson Review (Summer, 1969), pp. 213-228; Donald Adamson ‘Chance and Necessity’ in Balzac, ‘Illusions perdues’, pp. 72-74.

  2. Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, pp. 122-123.

  3. Donald Adamson, Balzac, Illusions perdues, pp. 72-73.

  4. Hugo, ‘William Shakespeare’, in Œuvres complètes, ed. Albin Michel (Paris: Ollendorf), vol. I, pp. 117-118: ‘Etre fécond, c'est être agressif. Un poète comme Isaïe, comme Junénal, comme Shakespeare, est en vérité, exorbitant. Que diable! On doit faire un peu attention aux autres, un seul n'a pas droit à tout, la virilité toujours, l'inspiration partout, autant de métaphores que la prairie, autant d'antithèses que la chère, autant de contrastes et de profondeur que l'univers, sans cesse la génération, l'éclosion, l'hymen, l'enfantement, l'ensemble vaste, le détail exquis et robuste, la communication vivante, la fécondation, la plénitude, la production, c'est trop, cela vide le droit des autres’.

  5. Pierre Citron, ‘Du nouveau sur le titre de la Comédie humaine’ in RHLF (1959), pp. 91-93, argues for 1839-1840, and F. Baldensperger, ‘Une suggestion anglaise pour le titre de la Comédie humaine’ in RLC (Oct-Dec 1921), makes a claim for 1835.

  6. AP, vol. I, pp. 11-17.

  7. See: Peter Demetz, ‘Balzac and the zoologists: A concept of the Type’ in The Discipline of Criticism (Yale University Press, 1968), pp. 397-418; Guzine Dino, ‘L'Aspect historique et social des types chez Balzac’, in Europe, revue mensuelle, no. 429-430 (Jan-Feb, 1965), pp. 295-302; Willi Jung, Theorie und Praxis des Typischen bei H. de Balzac (Tübingen: Stauffenberg, 1983).

  8. Corres., vol I, p. 35, à Laure 1819.

  9. … Balzac's admiration of Racine can be seen in much of his early correspondence. See: Corres., vol. I, pp. 35, 36, 52, 58, 60, 61, & 65.

  10. See appendix II section a [of Theatre in Balzac's La Comédie humaine, 2000], for full index of contemporary plays referred to in LCH.

  11. In the overall context of this chapter the analysis here will be restricted to explicit instances of metaphor and simile and will not include any examination of perceived models of characterisation which Balzac may have borrowed from Shakespeare and Molière. Such an examination has already been conducted by P. J. Tremewan with regard to Shakespeare, and by P. Barrière and Geneviève Delattre with regard to Molière. See: P. J. Tremewan, ‘Balzac et Shakespeare’, AB (1967), pp. 259-303. Tremewan looks in particular at King Lear as a model for Le Père Goriot, pp. 287-293. Goriot is never directly compared to Shakespeare's Lear in the course of the narrative, however. Tremewan notes that Goriot is referred to as a ‘colimaçon’ and a ‘mollusque’ and that these images are applied to Lear in Act I, scene v. These images are not considered relevant to the present analysis. See also: P. Barrière, ‘Les Sources classiques de la Comédie humaine’, in Honoré de Balzac et la tradition littéraire classique, pp. 74-98. Barrière examines an extensive range of possible classical sources which may have provided Balzac with the inspiration for plots and characters. He treats in particular Molière's L'Avare as a model for Grandet. There is no explicit reference to Harpagon in Eugénie Grandet, however. Harpagon, like Lear, seems to have interested Balzac as an exception rather than as a type. In relation to Molière, see also: Geneviève Delattre, Les Opinions littéraires de Balzac, pp. 51-83.

  12. See: J. Bochner, ‘Shakespeare en France, 1733-1830’, in RLC (Jan.-Mar., 1965), pp. 44-65; J. L. Borgerhoff, Le Théâtre anglais à Paris sous la Restauration (Paris: Hachette, 1912); M. Guizot, ‘Shakespeare et son temps’, in Œuvres complètes de Shakespeare (Paris: Didier, 1821).

  13. FE, vol. II, p. 313.

  14. See for example LMH, vol. IV, p. 221, 29 February 1848, in which Balzac describes the revolution: ‘Il y a eu un mélange de gaminerie, de sublimité, de force, qui a fait du jeudi un drame de Shakespeare’, and Études sur M. Beyle where Balzac describes the duchesse de Sanseverina in La Chartreuse de Parme as, ‘franche, naïve, sublime, résignée, remuée comme un drame de Shakespeare’, L'Œuvre de Balzac, 16 vols. (Paris: Formes et Reflets, 1950-1953), vol. XIV, p. 1171.

  15. DL, vol. V, p. 984.

  16. FYO, vol. V, pp. 1075-1076.

  17. Be., vol. VII, p. 210.

  18. Be., VII, p. 413.

  19. Act III scene iii.

  20. Be., vol. VII, p. 413-414.

  21. CP, vol. VI, p. 667. See Donald Adamson's article on Le Cousin Pons in Modern Language Review, (April 1964).

  22. MM, vol. I, p. 548.

  23. S, vol. XI, p. 763.

  24. Be., vol. VII, p. 152.

  25. MJM, vol. I, p. 324.

  26. BS, vol. I, p. 120.

  27. IP, vol. V, p. 282.

  28. Fir., vol. I, p. 153.

  29. CM, vol. III, p. 592.

  30. CA, vol. IV, p. 1036.

  31. D. B. Wyndham Lewis, Molière, The Comic Mask (London: Eyre, 1959), pp. 89-95.

  32. PG, vol. III, p. 158.

  33. FE, vol. II, p. 304.

  34. MD, vol. IV, p. 785.

  35. Hereafter referred to as Splendeurs et misères.

  36. SetM, vol. VI, p. 437.

  37. Le Constitutionnel, 18 Nov. 1846.

  38. CP, vol. VII, p. 577.

  39. CP, vol. VII, p. 571.

  40. CP, vol. VII, p. 624.

  41. Be, vol. VII, pp. 57.

  42. IP, vol. V, p. 637.

  43. The brief character portrait also, of course, demonstrates the influence not only of the theatre but of other visual art forms, for example, the contemporary trend for caricature exemplified by the works of Henry Monnier, which rely on the concentration of essential characteristics. In this sense Balzac is a caricaturist in words.

  44. IP, vol. V, pp. 557, 600, 653, & 732.

  45. MM, vol. I, pp. 500, 600, 612, & 648.

  46. UM, vol. III, pp. 799, 850, 883, & 914.

  47. FE, vol. II, p. 331.

  48. CP, vol. VII, p. 549.

  49. IP, vol. V, p. 265.

  50. IP, vol. V, pp. 274-283.

  51. Les Deux Poètes appeared for the first time in 1837, and Un grand homme de province à Paris in 1839. The third part, Les souffrances de l'inventeur, was not written and published until 1843. See: Histoire du texte, IP, vol. V, pp. 1119-1126.

  52. MM, vol. I, pp. 500, 600, 612 & 648.

  53. UM, vol. III, pp. 799, 850, 883, & 914.

  54. IP, vol. V, p. 557.

  55. IP, vol. V, p. 600.

  56. IP, vol. V, p. 653.

  57. IP, vol. V, p. 732.

  58. PG, vol. III p. 141.

  59. UM, vol. III, p. 850.

  60. UM, vol. III, p. 914.

  61. CM, vol. III, p. 551.

  62. MM, vol. I, p. 500.

  63. MM, vol. I, p. 501.

  64. Ibid., p. 600.

  65. Ibid., p. 612.

  66. MM, vol. I, pp. 505-506.

  67. IP, vol. V, p. 711.

  68. MM, vol. I, p. 480.

  69. PG, vol. III, p. 142.

  70. SetM, vol. VI, p. 828.

  71. DF, vol. II, p. 36.

  72. Ch., vol. VIII, p. 913.

  73. Ch. vol. VIII, pp. 919-920.

  74. B, vol. II, p. 692.

  75. TA, vol. VIII, p. 503.

  76. B, vol. II, p. 819.

  77. MD, vol. IV, p. 740.

  78. FE, vol. II, p. 349.

  79. FE, vol. II, p. 285.

  80. SetM, vol. VI, p. 623.

  81. IP, vol. V, p. 174.

  82. Ibid., p. 249.

  83. Ibid., p. 283.

  84. Ibid., p. 284.

  85. Ibid., p. 249.

  86. Ibid., p. 271.

  87. MJM, vol. I, p. 222 & CV, vol. IX, p. 810.

  88. P, vol. IV, p. 69.

  89. EG, vol. III, p. 1040.

  90. EG, vol. III, p. 1192.

  91. CV, vol. IX, p. 699.

  92. MM, vol. I, p. 628.

  93. PG, vol. III, p. 186.

  94. IP, vol. V, pp. 419-420.

  95. EHC, vol. VIII, p. 339.

  96. Peter Brooks, ‘Balzac, Melodrama and Metaphor’ in The Hudson Review, XXII (no. 2, Summer 1969), pp. 213-228; and The Melodramatic Imagination, pp. 2-11, & pp. 118-130.

  97. Ibid., pp. 122-123.

  98. SetM, vol. VI, p. 431.

  99. Ibid., p. 828.

  100. Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, p. 121.

  101. Be., vol. VII, p. 388.

  102. S, vol. VI, p. 1050.

  103. Composed of the Ancien régime and of the ‘new’ aristocracy represented by characters such as Goriot's daughters.

  104. F, vol. V, pp. 793-796.

  105. Ibid., p. 793.

  106. SetM, vol. VI, p. 446.

  107. Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, pp. 2-3.

  108. Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, pp. 119-120.

  109. Be., vol. VII, p. 228.

  110. F30, vol. II, p. 1106.

  111. MCP, vol. I, pp. 88-89.

  112. IP, vol. V, p. 410.

  113. IP, vol. V, p. 342.

  114. Ibid., p. 373.

  115. Ch, vol. VIII, pp. 925, 974, 975, 992, 1043, & 1120.

  116. MM, vol. I, pp. 593, 600, 612, 649-650, 673, 681, & 682.

  117. SetM, vol. VI, pp. 585, 735, 835, 837, & 886.

  118. Ch., vol. VIII, p. 925.

  119. Ibid., p. 974.

  120. Ibid., p. 970.

  121. Ibid., p. 975.

  122. Ibid., p. 992.

  123. Ibid., p. 1120.

  124. The question of what Balzac means by ‘drama’ will be addressed in the final section of this chapter.

  125. SetM, vol. VI, p. 886.

  126. See also: DF, vol. II, p. 114; Be., vol. VII, p. 304, TA, vol. VIII, p. 648; PG, vol. III, p. 161; CM, vol. III, p. 582.

  127. FE, vol. II, 334.

  128. Be., vol. VII, p. 68.

  129. UM, vol. III, p. 860.

  130. Ch., vol. VIII, p. 925.

  131. Ch., vol. VIII, p. 974.

  132. Ch., vol. VIII, p. 1120.

  133. PG, vol. III, p. 119.

  134. Be., vol. VII, p. 258.

  135. H, vol. II, pp. 570-571.

  136. Ibid., p. 593.

  137. BS, vol. I, p. 156.

  138. The playing of the social comedy is a female imperative for the maintenance of reputation and virtue. See Marie-Henriette Faillie, La Femme et le code civil dans La Comédie humaine de Honoré de Balzac (Paris: Didier, 1968), pp. 91-164.

  139. Col., vol. III, pp. 359-362.

  140. For example FE, vol. II, pl 320 ‘Pendant chaque représentation, Florine change deux ou trois fois de costume, et rentre souvent dans sa loge épuisée, demi-morte’. …

  141. Ibid., p. 612.

  142. MM, vol. I, p. 600.

  143. Ibid., p. 593.

  144. B, vol. II p. 823.

  145. Ibid., p. 826.

  146. Ibid., pp. 827-828.

  147. MM, vol. I, pp. 649-650.

  148. PG, vol. III, p. 266.

  149. Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, p. 124.

  150. IP, vol. V, p. 554.

  151. Ibid., p. 578.

  152. IP, vol. V, p. 700.

  153. SetM, vol. VI, p. 835.

  154. The terms of drame and tragédie have been listed together in the appendix since in Balzac's novels they are often juxtaposed and treated as synonymous. The term tragédie, by far the more infrequent of the two, is usually used in a popular rather than strictly dramatic sense to complement the metaphor of the drama of life which in many instances becomes a drame tragique. See, for example: Ch., vol VIII, pp. 970, 1007, 1015, & 1186.

  155. The term drame had been accepted by the Académie Française for inclusion in the dictionary only in 1762, subsequent to Diderot's definition of the drame in his Entretiens sur le Fils naturel (1757) and De la poésie dramatique (1858). See: Jean-Pierre Sarrazac, ‘Genres anciens, genre nouveau’, in Le Théâtre en France, ed. Jacqueline de Jomaron, 2 vols. (Paris: Armand Colin, 1992), vol. I, p. 310.

  156. See: Denis Diderot, ‘De la poésie dramatique’ in Œuvres complètes, 20 vols. (Paris: Garnier, 1875). ‘J'ai essayé de donner dans Le Fils naturel l'idée d'un drame qui fût entre la comédie et la tragédie’.

  157. Ch., vol. VIII, p. 970.

  158. CB, vol. VI, p. 272.

  159. SetM, vol. VI, p. 700.

  160. W. S. Hastings, The Drama of H. de Balzac, p. 143; René Guise, Introduction to Balzac's theatre, p. XI; Milatchitch, Le Théâtre de H. de Balzac, p. 324.

  161. PG, vol. III, p. 49.

  162. PG, vol. III, p. 50.

  163. PG, vol. III, p. 57.

  164. Ian Watt prescribes two important general conditions for the novel successfully to portray the lives of ordinary individuals: ‘The society must value every individual highly enough to consider him the proper subject of its serious literature; and there must be enough variety of belief and action among ordinary people for a detailed account of them to be of interest to other ordinary people, the readers of novels.’ The Rise of the Novel (London: Chatto & Windus, 1957), p. 60. The second of these conditions is partly fulfilled by Balzac in the creation of his fictional characters through his own idea of the dramatic.

  165. EG, vol. III, p. 1201.

  166. … ‘Victor Hugo n'est pas vrait’, LMH, vol. II, p. 177.

  167. La Cousine Bette, for example, in which Balzac deems no less than seven deaths to be necessary to the resolution of the plot, or La Fille aux yeux d'or, in which Paquita is murdered and her lover and keeper sensationally find themselves to be brother and sister.

  168. EG, vol. III, p. 1025.

  169. Diderot, Entretiens surLe Fils naturel’: ‘je pense pour moi que si un ouvrage dramatique était bien fait et bien représenté, la scène offrirait aux spectateurs autant de tableaux réels qu'il y aurait dans l'action de moments favorables au peintre’, and ‘Le spectateur est au théâtre comme devant une toile où des tableaux divers se succéderaient comme par enchantement’.

  170. FC, vol. VI, p. 1020.

  171. CP, vol. VII, p. 489.

  172. CP, vol. VII, p. 630.

  173. LCH, vol. X, p. 1208.

  174. The republication of Diderot's Le Fils naturel in 1857 included a prologue and epilogue in which Diderot claimed to have been invited by a character named Dorval to watch this family drama from a hiding place within the family home: ‘J'entrai dans le salon par la fenêtre, et Dorval, qui avait écarté tout le monde, me plaça dans un coin, d'où sans être vu, je vis et j'entendis ce qu'on va lire’. Diderot strives to create the impression that he is penetrating the real, private realm, just as Balzac does in his novels.

  175. Col., vol. III, p. 315.

  176. Ibid., p. 369.

  177. MJM, vol. I, p. 292.

  178. H, vol. II, p. 554.

  179. B, vol. II, pp. 856 & 821.

  180. See, for example, Cath., vol. XI, p. 388: ‘Le drame profondément caché’; EG, vol. III, p. 1193: ‘Le drame commencé depuis neuf ans’, PMV, vol. XII, p. 169: ‘ce drame conjugal’.

  181. B, vol. II, pp. 823-824.

  182. P, vol. IV, p. 34.

  183. Ibid., p. 98.

  184. P, vol. IV, p. 141.

  185. Ibid., pp. 106 & 152.

  186. LMH, vol. IV, p. 299.

  187. Corres., vol. V, p. 315.

  188. LMH, vol. IV, p. 365.

  189. See: Gautier La Presse, 29 May, 1848; Pontmartin, Revue des Deux Mondes, 29 May 1848; Janin, Les Débats, 29 May, 1848, all of whom saw in the play's realism and originality a desirable renovation of the drama. When the play was restaged in 1859 Sarcey saw it as a ‘révolution’ and ‘le premier essai d'une comédie nouvelle’. See: ‘La Marâtre’ in L'Opinion Nationale, 12 September, 1859.

  190. Émile Zola, Le Naturalisme au théâtre: ‘Un fait se déroulant dans sa réalité et soulevant chez les personnages des passions et des sentiments, dont l'analyse exacte serait le seul intérêt de la pièce. Et cela dans le milieu contemporain avec le peuple qui nous entourne’. Zola's theories were finally put into practice by André Antoine at the Théâtre Libre, which opened on 30 March 1887. In his Causerie sur la mise en scène (1903), Antoine clearly expressed the idea of the ‘quatrième mur’ through which the private drama could be seen, as suggested by Diderot and Zola and practised by Balzac in his novels.

  191. LMH, vol. I, p. 270.

List of Abbreviations

Titles of works by Balzac given in the footnotes and appendices to this thesis are abbreviated as indicated below, and, unless otherwise stated, refer to these editions.

Corres Correspondance, Textes réunis, classés et annotés par Roger Pierrot, 5 vols. (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1960-1969).
LMH Lettres à Madame Hanska, Textes réunis, classés et annotés par Roger Pierrot, 4 vols. (Paris: Delta, 1967-1971).
LCH La Comédie humaine, édition publiée sous la direction de Pierre-Georges Castex, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 12 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1976-1981).

The titles of individual works within La Comédie humaine are abbreviated according to the list below. The dates following each title are the dates of composition according to the new Pléiade edition, and, unless stated otherwise, are those which are used for the purpose of chronology throughout the present thesis.

Ad. Adieu (1830)
AEF Autre étude de femme (1832-39)
AP Avant Propos (1842)
AR l'Auberge rouge (1831)
AS Albert Savarus (1842)
Ath. La Messe de l'athée (1836)
B Béatrix (1838-45)
Be. La Cousine Bette (1846)
Bo. La Bourse (1832)
Boi. Les Héritiers Boirouge (1836)
Bou. Les Petits Bourgeois (1843-44)
BS Le Bal de Sceaux (1829)
CA Le Cabinet des antiques (1836-38)
Cath. Sur Catherine de Médicis (1837-41)
CB César Birotteau (1833-37)
Ch. Les Chouans (1828-29)
Ch-O Le Chef-d'œuvre inconnu (1831; 1837)
CM Le Contrat de mariage (1835)
Col. Le Colonel Chabert (1832)
Com. sal. La Comédienne de salon (1841)
Cor. Maître Cornélius (1831)
CP Le Cousin Pons (1846-47)
CSS Les Comédiens sans le savoir (1844-46)
CT Le Curé de Tours (1832)
CV Le Curé de village (1838-39)
DA Le Député d'Arcis (1839-47)
Dés. Une passion dans le désert (1830)
DF Une double famille (1830)
DL La Duchesse de Langeais (1833)
Do. Massimilla Doni (1837)
Dr. Un drame au bord de la mer (1834)
DV Un début dans la vie (1841-42)
DxA Les Deux Amis (1830-31)
E Les Employés (1837-38)
EF Etude de femme (1830)
EG Eugénie Grandet (1833)
EHC L'Envers de l'histoire contemporaine (1842-44; 1847)
ELV L'Elixier de longue vie (1830)
EM L'Enfant maudit (1831-36)
Ep.T Un épisode sous la Terreur (1829)
F Ferragus (1833)
FA La Femme abandonnée (1832)
FC Facino Cane (1836)
FE Une fille d'Eve (1838-39)
Fir. Madame Firmiani (1832)
FM La Fausse Maitresse (1841)
F30 La Femme de trente ans (1829-34)
FYO La Fille aux yeux d'or (1834-35)
Gam. Gambara (1837)
Gau. Gaudissart II (1844)
Gb. Gobseck (1830)
Gr. La Grenadière (1832)
H Honorine (1842)
HA Un homme d'affaires (1844)
IG L'Illustre Gaudissart (1833)
In. L'Interdiction (1836)
IP Illusions perdues (1836-43)
Lys. Le Lys dans la vallée (1834-35)
Ma. Les Marana (1832-33)
MC Le Médecin de campagne (1832-33)
MCP La Maison du chat-qui-pelote (1829)
MD La Muse du département (1843)
Mes. Le Message (1832)
MJM Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées (1838-41)
MM Modeste Mignon (1844)
MN La Maison Nucingen (1837)
P Pierrette (1839-40)
Pay. Les Paysans (1838-45)
PCh. La Peau de chagrin (1830-31)
PG Le Père Goriot (1834-35)
PGr. Pierre Grassou (1839)
Phy. Physiologie du mariage (1826-29)
PM La Paix du ménage (1829)
PMV Petites misères de la vie conjugale (1830-45)
Pr.B Un prince de la Bohème (1840)
Pro. Les Proscrits (1831)
R La Rabouilleuse (1840-42)
RA La Recherche de l'Absolu (1834)
S Sarrasine (1830)
Sér. Séraphîta (1833-35)
SetM Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838-47)
SPC Les Secrets de la Princesse de Cadignan (1839)
TA Une ténébreuse affaire (1838-40)
Th. Le Théâtre comme il est (1847)
UM Ursule Mirouèt (1840-41)
ZM Z. Marcas (1840)

The titles of commonly cited periodicals are abbreviated as follows:

AB Année balzacienne
RLC Revue de littérature comparée

Rachel Shuh (essay date winter 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5356

SOURCE: Shuh, Rachel. “Madness and Military History in Balzac's ‘Adieu.’” French Forum 26, no. 1 (winter 2001): 39-51.

[In the following essay, Shuh argues that in his short story “Adieu,” Balzac comments on historical narrative and indeed competes with the genre in his fictional account, maintaining too that the madness in the novel represents historical trauma.]

The distinctiveness of Honoré de Balzac's Comédie humaine has often been linked to its representation of contemporary society. For both Erich Auerbach and George Lukács, for instance, Balzac inaugurates a new style of realism by portraying the present. Auerbach maintains that Balzac is one of the founders of “modern realism” for having “seized upon the representation of contemporary life as his own particular task” (468). And Lukács writes that Balzac transcends the historical novel of Walter Scott by passing “from the portrayal of past history to the portrayal of the present as history” (83). While Balzac does abandon the overtly historical mode of his romans de jeunesse in La Comédie humaine, certain works, such as the 1830 short story “Adieu,” continue to grapple with the past. Through its use of historical reference, “Adieu” problematizes the representation of history and the integration of the past into the present. Balzac reworks historiography in the nouvelle, and transforms it, with an eye, perhaps, to competing in La Comédie humaine with the rival genre of history.

In “Adieu” this preoccupation with history, specifically figured as an episode from Napoleonic Empire, belies the idea that Balzac has moved beyond the past and that its representation is no longer of compelling interest to him. On the most basic level, Balzac uses historical material to construct the plot. But the historical events go beyond mere backdrop or catalyst for the story since Balzac raises issues that the historians of the period themselves are confronting: what kind of relation does the Restoration have to the past, and how can the past be represented, with all the attendant horrors of the Revolutionary and Imperial period?

“Adieu” presents the story of a veteran of Napoleon's Russian Campaign, Philippe de Sucy, who happens upon his beloved Stéphanie de Vandières after having given her up for dead at the crossing of the Berezina years before. She has gone mad, is incapable of recognizing her lover, and unable to utter anything other than a blank and meaningless “adieu.” The text describes Philippe de Sucy's attempt to get her to recognize him and the ambiguity of his eventual success. In telling this story, Balzac presents a historical narrative, “Le Passage de la Bérésina,” as the traumatic scene at the source of the plot. The account of the crossing of the Berezina River by the remnants of the Grande Armée in 1812 comprises 25 pages of this 65-page text, set off as a separate chapter.

This section is striking for the way in which Balzac molds it into a historical set-piece. Balzac's narrative technique recalls historiographical accounts of the event, suggesting that “Adieu” is explicitly commenting on the genre of history. For example, Balzac oddly shifts the tale into the third person. The story of Philippe's attempt to cross the river with Stéphanie is told by Stéphanie's uncle and doctor who has heard the tale from someone else. This third-person perspective seems out of place since Philippe is in fact in the best position to tell the tale. It is also curious that the tale is told by Stéphanie's uncle as her story, while the narrative is focalized through the character of Philippe. The personal character of the tale becomes further reduced by the Balzacian narrator's elimination of dialogue and digression in the presentation of the narrative:

[L'oncle de Stéphanie] raconta longuement au magistrat l'aventure suivante, dont le récit a été coordonné et dégagé des nombreuses digressions que firent le narrateur et le conseiller [d'Albon].


Here, the Balzacian narrator highlights the fact that the situating marks of the discourse have been excised and the narrative has been taken out of the realm of casual storytelling. The opening of the aventure emphasizes as well a wide-angle, distanced view of the episode by describing the movements of the troops and giving an overview of the encampment on the banks of the Berezina. These features, along with Balzac's placement of the ressort of the story at the critical juncture of Napoleon's Russian Campaign, invoke the genre of history writing.

Philippe de Ségur's Histoire de Napoléon et de la Grande-Armée pendant l'année 1812, published in 1824, exemplifies the kind of work that Balzac evokes with his portrayal of the military scene.1 This particular history is especially apt as a reference for Balzac given its popularity and literary ambitions. The prominence of Ségur's work is emphasized by none other than Stendhal, who reviews the book several times in the 1820s and repeatedly expresses his admiration for the work. In Stendhal's view, Ségur's history manifests the stirring powers of historiography and even ushers in a new literary era:

D'ici à la fin des deux ou trois années à venir, toutes les vieilles niaiseries littéraires vont périr dans une Saint-Barthélemy générale. La Révolution est sur le point de produire son effet sur la littérature. L'immense succès de l'Histoire de Napoléon et de la Grande Armée pendant l'année 1812, par le général comte Philippe de Ségur, porte un coup mortel aux anciennes idées littéraires. De tels ouvrages rejettent complètement dans l'ombre les anciennes gloires de la littérature française. … La littérature est à la veille d'un changement complet et d'un renouvellement que vont opérer sous nos yeux les hommes qui, comme M. de Ségur, ne sont écrivains que parce que leurs fonctions politiques leur ont échappé.

(5: 43)

While Stendhal's prediction about the massacre of the old literary tradition may be premature in 1824, it is clear that the power of history writing is making itself felt and that history is seen as a rival to genres like the novel. In his commentary Stendhal emphasizes the force and daring of Ségur's narrative, especially the scenes that represent the horrors of the Retreat from Moscow. The courage to represent graphically the unpleasant truth about the disastrous Retreat is what Stendhal applauds in Ségur. In his excerpts from Ségur's work that appear in the London Magazine, Stendhal even quotes a particularly grisly episode of cannibalism among the soldiers of the Grande Armée:

Des soldats accoururent en furieux et avec des grincements de dents et des rires infernaux, ils se précipitèrent dans ces brasiers [des maisons incendiées], où ils périrent dans d'horribles convulsions. Leurs compagnons affamés les regardaient sans effroi; il y en eut même qui attirèrent à eux ces corps défigurés et grillés par les flammes, et il est trop vrai qu'ils osèrent porter à leur bouche cette révoltante nourriture.

(4.2: 315-78)

This scene was decried by certain of Napoleon's supporters as the blackest defamation of the army, pure invention, and a transgression of the codes of history writing. Indeed, Ségur's depiction destroys the idea of the Grande Armée as an example of brilliant heroism even in defeat. The descent into cannibalism is the surest proof of its total ignominy at the end of the Campaign. Ségur's account of the moral degradation of the army at the crossing of the Berezina even shows a certain progression: first the soldiers cut up, cook, and eat the weak horses; then they cut down the healthy ones; and finally they do not even bother to cook the meat. The symbolism of the move from the cooked to the raw and ultimately to cannibalism itself is clear—by the end of the Retreat, the dehumanization process is complete. From its pinnacle of glory and masculine valor, the army ends up exemplifying the utter loss of human attributes. Thus, in his military history Ségur has dared to approach the limits of representation: the unspeakable horror of cannibalism.

Balzac, perhaps much like Stendhal, is inspired by this kind of history writing, and he re-imagines the historical trauma represented by Ségur. Balzac describes this same critical juncture of the Russian Campaign in the section entitled “Le Passage de la Bérésina.” He gives us a version of the process of dehumanization, a version that ends in madness, but of a particular female kind. Balzac does not include Ségur's cannibalism scene; however, the other stages of the dehumanization of the army are described. We follow them through the eyes of Philippe as he tries to save Stéphanie and guard his horse. The horse is crucial insofar as it represents the hope of escaping death by trampling at the crossing. But we see Philippe's horse hacked to pieces and eaten barely charred in a campfire. Philippe cries out “Cannibales!” as the soldiers slaughter his mare (171), and the narrator describes how the numb and frozen soldiers roll into the bonfires without anyone's moving to save them (174): elements that have parallels in Ségur's account. However, the ultimate horror of cannibalism is not portrayed in Balzac. Rather than this more outward side of absolute dehumanization, we have Stéphanie herself who, in her madness that is the legacy of the Campaign, is reduced to an animal.

The text makes clear that Stéphanie's madness is due to the Retreat from Moscow and the trauma of the disaster at the Berezina. This is indeed her uncle's purpose in telling the story of the crossing to Philippe's friend d'Albon. However, the narrative at first seems to be setting the scene for a Romantic version of madness, an elevated and poetic disorder of the spirit. A highly stylized Romantic landscape introduces Stéphanie, who appears as a kind of diaphanous vision. References to Sleeping Beauty evoke the genre of the fairy tale. But the merveilleux is a mirage in the text—Stéphanie does not “wake” from her madness at the sight of Philippe. Her lack of awareness results not from a curse, but rather from precise historical circumstances. And finally, the stroke of the magic wand at the end of the story can hardly be considered positive, as we will see. The conventions of both Romanticism and the merveilleux are subverted by the historical grounding.

Stéphanie's insanity is relentlessly described in the text as her animal-like behavior. The process of dehumanization or “defeminization” is already present in Russia when Philippe remarks on Stéphanie's loss of human qualities. But, at the monastery of Les Bons-Hommes where Philippe and d'Albon re-encounter her, it is her entire way of being that has become inhuman and unfeminine. The description of her behavior as an animal is unremitting from the start, and the identification d'Albon and Philippe as “les deux chasseurs” further demarcates the human from the animal:

Son geste avait d'ailleurs, comme celui d'un animal, cette admirable sécurité de mécanisme dont la prestesse pouvait paraître un prodige dans une femme. Les deux chasseurs étonnés la virent sauter sur une branche de pommier et s'y attacher avec la légèreté d'un oiseau. Elle y saisit des fruits, les mangea, puis se laissa tomber à terre avec la gracieuse mollesse qu'on admire chez les écureuils.

(My emphasis, 156-57)

Stéphanie's behavior, portrayed through this multitude of animalistic comparisons, leads to d'Albon's immediate conclusion that she is mad. The transformation of the woman into an animal appears to be on a less violent level than the social disintegration described in Ségur's account of the Retreat. After all, the animals she resembles are for the most part benign. But even though these more positive bestial descriptions would seem to make Stéphanie's madness less threatening, in fact, the animalistic comparisons strike at the center of the categories of identity in much the same way as cannibalism.

In the third section of the story, after “Le Passage de la Bérésina,” Philippe moves into the abbey with Stéphanie and her uncle, M. Fanjat, determined to bring about her cure. Philippe learns from Fanjat how to tame her by giving her sugar lumps. This method horrifies him at first and he observes, “Quand elle était femme, elle n'avait aucun goût pour les mets sucrés” (196). Here already, Stéphanie's madness has made her something other than a woman. And when Philippe tries feeding her sugar, the spectacle of her animal-like behavior appalls him. However, what is most shocking and painful to both Philippe and Fanjat is her loss of pudeur. In the end, the unacceptable essence of her madness is what Philippe calls her loss of “caractère féminin”:

Ah! mon ami [Fanjat], s'écria Philippe en reprenant ses sens, je meurs tous les jours, à tous les instants! J'aime trop! Je supporterais tout si, dans sa folie, elle avait gardé un peu du caractère féminin. Mais la voir toujours sauvage et même dénuée de pudeur, la voir …


Stéphanie's state goes beyond the loss of “caractère humain,” beyond the animal-like behavior, to something that approximates the cannibalism described by Ségur: an absolute loss of culture, of place within the human community.

Fanjat responds to Philippe's comment above by observing, “Il vous fallait donc une folie d'opéra” (202). With his reproach, Fanjat accuses Philippe of being governed by “préjugés” in his love. Nothing could be more true, insofar as Philippe expects Stéphanie to fit into the culturally defined category of “woman.” Nevertheless, Fanjat, the doctor, is no less bound by that same understanding, even if he claims to be able to love Stéphanie in her wild state, for he too seeks to cure her and thinks that he has made progress when she starts to wear clothes again. Stéphanie represents a madness that Philippe and others fear as much as cannibalism; she is a non-woman, an animal in female form, inasmuch as she has lost her femininity.

Thus, the Retreat from Moscow, the disaster of the crossing of the Berezina, the cannibalism of the French soldiers—these elements of Imperial history are transposed in Balzac to a more intimate, psychological level. The larger event is recast in the form of madness, figured as the collapse of the gender category of “woman.” In this instance, then, Balzac's text represents cannibalism, which in Western thought breaks down the distinction between human and non-human, by the loss of modesty characteristic of Stéphanie's brand of madness, which destroys the category of the feminine.

Shoshana Felman has vividly illuminated how Balzac's text links madness and the feminine in her 1975 ground-breaking article “Women and Madness: The Critical Phallacy.” In this classic feminist and deconstructive critique,2 Felman illustrates how female madness in the text is constructed as Stéphanie's failure to recognize Philippe and to enter into a specular relationship with him. She argues that “Adieu” exemplifies the systematic Western reduction of female otherness to madness:

The Masculine thus turns out to be the universal equivalent of the opposition: Masculine/Feminine. It is insofar as Masculinity conditions Femininity as its universal equivalent, as what determines and measures its value, that the textual paradox can be created according to which the woman is “madness,” while at the same time “madness” is the very “absence of womanhood.” … What the narcissistic economy of the Masculine universal equivalent tries to eliminate, under the label “madness,” is nothing other than feminine difference.


For Felman, the text plays out the repressive order of representation and Western thought's subjugation of women. Yet this same type of category loss is what constitutes the horror of cannibalism. So, if Balzac's text converts the elements of the disastrous military campaign, or the collapse of the category of the “human,” into a more reassuring female madness, one could argue that the text executes another phallocentric move. Consideration of the historical intertext would not, then, deny the narrative's participation in a repressive ideology.

Yet Felman criticizes the editors of the Gallimard Folio edition for privileging the section on the crossing of the Berezina. She argues that this is further proof of the suppression of women: here the madwoman Stéphanie who is denied her place in the story. Felman maintains that the author of the “Notice,” Patrick Berthier, reads “Adieu” as the story of a man.

In line with the academic tradition of “selected passages,” he [Berthier] proposes, simply and “innocently,” literally to cut up the text, to extract the second chapter, and truly materialize the operation of ideological extirpation with a serene pedagogical confidence: “the second chapter, which can be isolated from the work … marks the appearance in Balzac's work of the theme of the wartime disappearance of an officer who comes back many years later.” The story is here explicitly summed up as being exclusively that of a man: that of “the wartime disappearance of an officer who comes back many years later.” (Felman's emphasis and ellipsis, 5) However, Berthier's remark is drawing a parallel between the two stories in the edition: Le Colonel Chabert and “Adieu.” Felman does not reproduce the full text that makes this clear. Berthier's paragraph reads as follows:

Le second chapitre, que l'on pourrait isoler de l'œuvre comme le récit de Goguelat l'a été du Médecin de campagne (cf. notre édition de ce roman dans Folio), montre l'apparition dans l'œuvre de Balzac du thème de la disparition à la guerre d'un officier qui revient bien des années après. Nous avons vu (notice du Colonel Chabert) que Balzac avait connu au moins une victime de ce genre d'aventure, aventure survenue précisément pendant la campagne de Russie; par ailleurs un roman récent d'Emile Debraux (Le Passage de la Bérésina, 1826) avait montré un colonel, blessé près du pont, et restant fou pendant deux ans; ici comme souvent Balzac a pu s'inspirer de ce sujet au prix d'un transfert: c'est la comtesse, dans Adieu, qui est folle.


Given the larger context of his remarks, it is clear that Berthier does take into account the female character, insofar as he sees Stéphanie as a transposition of the lost and wounded colonel gone mad. Felman chooses not to emphasize the links between Le Colonel Chabert and “Adieu,” even though the case of Chabert's perceived madness and eventual loss of reason might be of instructive contrast to the question of female madness.

Felman reads the “officier” in Berthier's comment to be Philippe. In fact, Berthier seems to be referring equally to Chabert. Moreover, the colonel in Chabert does not resemble the colonel of “Adieu” as much as he resembles Stéphanie. Both characters end up broken and mad after their Imperial ordeal. For both characters, the path to reinstatement in society is recognition and memory. In both cases, the operation of recognition fails and succeeds at the same time. For Stéphanie, as we shall see, her recognition of the banks of the Berezina and Philippe brings her back to “her senses,” but causes her immediate death. In Chabert and “Adieu” it is the female characters who must recognize and reflect the male characters. So, even if Stéphanie seems to be the flip side of Chabert, Balzac's texts uphold the conceptual structure in which women affirm the identity of men.

Chabert's tale more closely matches the theme brought out by Berthier, “la disparition d'un officier qui reparaît longtemps après” (“Adieu,” 255), than “Adieu.” But insofar as Stéphanie represents that long lost veteran, Balzac inverts the standard military narrative, as Berthier suggests. The move from the focus on the soldiers of the Grande Armée to this female version can be read, as I have argued, as a way of displacing an unrepresentable, unspeakable male madness.3 Thus, Balzac takes up themes in Ségur's historical work, such as the unrepresentable loss of human attributes, and yet pushes further to interrogate the sense of the horror of female “inhumanity.” In view of these points of contact between “Adieu,” Chabert, and Ségur's history, to de-emphasize the relation between these texts and the importance of the second chapter of “Adieu” is to lose a vital part of the story.4

In “Adieu” Balzac appropriates the daring and power of history writing in the mode of Ségur and incorporates it into his fiction. He transposes the historical epic, with its almost exclusive portrayal of men, to post-Imperial civilian society and to the realm of the novel. By this shift to a more femininized space, Balzac would be staking out the territory of his fiction, of La Comédie humaine, as a form surpassing the historical epic. The more intimate and psychological level of “Adieu” would in some ways figure this new space, one in which women indeed have more of a place.

The last section of the text, entitled “La Guérison,” pursues this relation to historiography. What is to be cured is, of course, Stéphanie's madness, but in a larger sense the text is testing the possibility of integrating the traumatic events of the Revolution and Empire into the present of the Restoration and beyond.5 Stéphanie's transformation at the end of the story opens up the possibility that representation might be able to close the gap between the past and the present.

The dénouement of the plot and the final moment of the “cure” is Philippe's re-creation of the scene of the crossing of the Berezina. Philippe believes in the ability of this reproduction to spark Stéphanie's memory and reconnect her to the present. Philippe transforms his estate into the closest image of the traumatic scene that he can manage. Working with a site that already includes features of the Russian landscape, Philippe has a canal dug to represent the Berezina, has bridge supports built and burned to resemble the destroyed bridge, and lays waste to his grounds to duplicate the Russian scene. He even costumes hundreds of peasants to look like the dilapidated army. His effort, much akin to the creation of a film scene, leads him and others to “recognize” the episode from the past:

Enfin, il n'oublia rien de ce qui pouvait reproduire la plus horrible de toutes les scènes, et il atteignit à son but. Vers les premiers jours du mois de décembre, quand la neige eut revêtu la terre d'un épais manteau blanc, il reconnut la Bérésina. Cette fausse Russie était d'une si épouvantable vérité, que plusieurs de ses compagnons d'armes reconnurent la scène de leurs anciennes misères.


The text is thus playing out how representation, here in protocinematic form, might bridge the gap between the past and the present. The reproduction of the past is successful as such. As Sandy Petrey observes, “Balzac's prose is lyrically specific about representation's vivifying effects. When she enters Philippe's artificial world, Stéphanie sees, feels, and speaks once again” (34). She reconnects to her past, closing the gap that had existed between her erased past and meaningless present.

In light of the theme of “bridging the gap” between past and present, Balzac's choice of the historical reference seems particularly significant. It is the desperate need to make the crossing, once the bridge has been burned by the French army, that animates the historical flashback. Given the anguish that post-Revolutionary society experiences in its alienation from the past and in the collapse of continuity, one can read the disaster of the Berezina as a symbol of the destruction of the ties to the past, the closing off of the familiar, and the despair of being set adrift in the present. By restaging this traumatic moment, Philippe and Balzac would be attempting to effect a cure for Stéphanie and for the post-Revolutionary society.

Nevertheless, despite the possibility afforded by the “representational cure,” the result is not a happy one:

—Stéphanie, cria le colonel.

—Oh! c'est Philippe, dit la pauvre comtesse.

Elle se précipita dans les bras tremblants que le colonel lui tendait, et l'étreinte des deux amants effraya les spectateurs. Stéphanie fondait en larmes. Tout à coup ses pleurs se séchèrent, elle se cadavérisa comme si la foudre l'eût touchée, et dit d'un son faible:

—Adieu, Philippe. Je t'aime, adieu!

—Oh! elle est morte, s'écria le colonel en ouvrant les bras.

(“Adieu,” 207)

This outcome is exactly what Felman terms the “paradox” of the ending, since the faith in representation as reproduction and recognition is shown to be disastrous. However, the representation itself “works.” The elaborate set of the Berezina does resuscitate Stéphanie, and the reproduction is so real and so effective that what should have happened years ago actually takes place: Stéphanie turns into a cadaver. Instead of regaining the past and restoring its continuity with her present, Stéphanie merely returns to her past. The power of representation is not cast into doubt, but rather affirmed, albeit without positive results.

Representation would thus be capable of restoring a historically damaged memory. “Adieu” stages the possibility of regaining the connection to the past, allowing the exiles to recuperate their past, their memory, their identity and finally, their humanity. Stéphanie's momentary recovery suggests that representation has a god-like power to resurrect, but also to extinguish. The plot shows the high cost of this recovery of the past. Not only is Stéphanie's recovery extremely brief, but Philippe does not truly survive the experience either; his eventual suicide puts a further negative cast on the effort of representation. The perils of the “representational cure” prove to be great indeed.

Felman reads the violence of the last scene of “Adieu” as showing that once Stéphanie's madness has been “cured,” the text itself, as literature, collapses into silence.

Through this paradoxical and disconcerting ending, the text subverts and dislocates the logic of representation which it has dramatized through Philippe's endeavor and his failure. Literature thus breaks away from pure representation: when transparency and meaning, “reason” and “representation” are regained, when madness ends, so does the text itself.


While Philippe's suicide does conclude the plot, the final paragraphs of the story introduce a new “character” to the work. The narrator portrays an exchange between Philippe and a society woman who has several daughters to marry off. The appearance of this new discourse creates a continuity which keeps the story from lapsing into silence. The thrust of the exchange between the “dame du monde” and Philippe is the question of the future. In her attempt to sound out Philippe on his marital availability, the unnamed matron raises the issue of his prospects. The narrator tells us that, from the point of view of “le monde,” Philippe has everything, including a bright future. His suicide that night proves that view wrong, but the talk of high society continues nonetheless:

Le lendemain la dame apprit avec étonnement que monsieur de Sucy s'était brûlé la cervelle pendant la nuit. La haute société s'entretint diversement de cet événement extraordinaire, et chacun en cherchait la cause. Selon les goûts de chaque raisonneur, le jeu, l'amour, l'ambition, des désordres cachés, expliquaient cette catastrophe, dernière scène d'un drame qui avait commencé en 1812.


Rather than the silence of a literature bonded to madness, the text ends in the chatter of society which takes up all the standard explanations for a suicide. The discourse briefly represented here is exemplary in its conventionality and display of social norms. The mother's desire to find a suitable husband for her daughter introduces a theme of female attachment to convention that is entirely new in the story. It is as if the scandal of the text, Stéphanie's madness/lack of femininity, is replaced by the mundane topos of the proper marriage. What persists in the story is a kind of bewildered, but bustling, present.

The present that surfaces in the concluding paragraphs appears to be that of 1830, insofar as the narrator employs the present tense and the story's composition date is given as March 1830. Balzac seems to be suggesting that the neglect of history will soon ambush the “haute société” ignorant of the historical causes of current events and unaware of the ties between the Revolutionary and Imperial past and the present.

So, while Balzac's text concludes resolutely in the present, the past, including the past represented as history, plays a determinant role in the story. Indeed, “Adieu” stages the difficulty of productively integrating the past. In Philippe's case, the attempt to recapture the past leads to its pernicious hold on the present. And yet, the nouvelle also shows how the inability to recollect the past destabilizes the present and results in dementia, for Stéphanie, or revolution—the impending July Revolution—for the society as a whole. The madness in the story is thus clearly linked to historical trauma. Far from using the historical mode to evoke conventional topoi or to ground a “realistic” style, Balzac seizes on the critical moment where military history approaches the unspeakable and transforms it into the female madness at the center of the plot. In this way, Balzac competes with the genre of history and sets up his fiction—especially as incarnated in the project of La Comédie humaine—as the locus of the epic in a non-heroic age.


  1. Sandy Petrey suggests that the Bulletins de la Grande-Armée would be another possible historical intertext here (39).

  2. Felman's article serves, for example, as the lead piece in the 1997 edition of the anthology Feminisms by Robyn Warhol and Diane Price Herndl for its interrogation of the positing of woman as “Other” in literature and in the institution of literary criticism. “Women and Madness” also remains exemplary for its deconstructive approach, as Sandy Petrey demonstrates in a 1993 article on the competing claims of historical and deconstructive criticism.

  3. Chabert's madness is merely putative at the beginning of the text. He is sane enough through most of the novel to tell his own story in a compelling and convincing fashion, but at the close of the story he seems to have fallen into senility.

  4. In “Balzac's Empire: History, Insanity and the Realist Text,” Petrey focuses on ways of integrating historical and deconstructive criticism, with Felman and the editors of “Adieu” as his examples. He too argues that Felman's approach need not jettison historical specificity. His emphasis differs from mine here in that he proposes that Stéphanie's madness be read in the context of the oppressively patriarchal Napoleonic Code (31).

  5. The integration of the Revolutionary and Imperial past is clearly a major concern for the July Monarchy. Unlike the Restoration regime, which merely denied this past, the Orleanist regime must devise a strategy to come to terms with it. For a discussion of this project in the realm of official painting, see Michael Marrinan (77-200).

Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1953.

Balzac, Honoré de. “Adieu.” Le Colonel Chabert suivi de El Verdugo, Adieu et de Le Réquisitionnaire. Paris: Gallimard, 1974.

Berthier, Patrick. Notice. Le Colonel Chabert suivi de El Verdugo, Adieu et de Le Réquisitionnaire. By Honoré de Balzac. Paris: Gallimard, 1974.

Felman, Shoshana. “Women and Madness: The Critical Phallacy.” Diacritics Winter (1975): 2-10.

Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Marrinan, Michael. Painting Politics for Louis-Philippe: Art and Ideology in Orleanist France 1830-1848. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1988.

Petrey, Sandy. “Balzac's Empire: History, Insanity and the Realist Text.” Historical Criticism and the Challenge of Theory. Ed. Janet Levarie Smarr. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1993. 25-41.

Ségur, Philippe de. Histoire de Napoléon et de la Grande-Armée pendant l'année 1812. 6th ed. 2 vols. Brussels: de Mat, 1825.

Stendhal. Chroniques pour l'Angleterre. Ed. K. G. McWatters. Trans. Renée Dénier. 5 vols. Publications de l'Université des langues et lettres de Grenoble, 1988.

Warhol, Robyn R. and Diane Price Herndl, eds. Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1997.

Allan H. Pasco (essay date fall 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6269

SOURCE: Pasco, Allan H. “The Allusive Complex of Balzac's Pierrette.French Forum 26, no. 3 (fall 2001): 27-42.

[In the following essay, Pasco explores the use of allusion in the neglected novel Pierrette, focusing on references in the work to the eighteenth-century novel Paul et Virginie and to the case of Beatrice Cenci, the young girl who was abused by her father, whom she later killed.]

Despite its popularity, if one can consider successive paperback editions an indication of popularity, Balzac's Pierrette (1840) has had remarkably little attention from critics and scholars, no more than passing references and a very small handful of introductions and studies.1 These professional readers have frequently mentioned Balzac's early plans for the work, indicated in a letter to Mme Hanska on 4 June 1839: “la première œuvre un peu jeune fille que je ferai, je la dédierai à votre chère Anna …” While everyone understands that the expectation for what Jean-Louis Tritter calls “une œuvrette plus ou moins à l'eau de rose” was set aside, this comment promising a nice little story does not give much hope for a powerful masterpiece, and it remains to consider the mechanisms through which Balzac turned that same story into “une des scènes les plus désespérées de La Comédie humaine” (4 June).2 Tritter's excellent edition makes it clear that the work's creation was not easy, involving as it did many false starts (Tritter counts sixteen) and numerous corrections. Balzac's promised dedication to Anna de Hanska and the text itself leave no doubt that the work became anything but “jeune fille.” Balzac apologizes for its bleakness and explains that he had no choice: “Il est si difficile, Anna, de vous trouver, dans l'histoire de nos mœurs, une aventure digne de passer sous vos yeux, que l'auteur n'avait pas à choisir” (4.29). Conditions in France, particularly for young people, had grown so bad that edulcoration was impossible.

Works like La Vieille Fille (1837), “Z. Marcas” (1840), and Sur Catherine de Médicis (1830-42) show conclusively that by 1839, when Balzac wrote Pierrette, his opposition to the July monarchy was firmly established, and he had moved far to the political right. He was convinced that the avariciousness of the middle-class gerontocracy, controlling society for the sake of its members' own self-centered desires, was destroying the country's youth and, thus, nullifying any hope of a better future. As the matter was explained in “Ferragus” of 1833, “Cette jeunesse incertaine en tout, aveugle et clairvoyante, ne fut comptée pour rien par des vieillards jaloux de garder les rênes de l'Etat dans leurs mains débiles, tandis que la monarchie pouvait être sauvée par leur retraite, et par l'accès de cette jeune France de laquelle aujourd'hui les vieux doctrinaires, ces émigrés de la Restauration, se moquent encore” (5.801). Although the author is referring to the aristocracy in this passage, elsewhere he leaves no doubt that similar forces are crushing the brilliant young people of the middle and working classes as well. Pierrette is but one more example of the poor and the innocent being ground to dust in the maw of middle-class ambitions.3

While there remains little mystery in Balzac's politics, we continue to have difficulty elucidating the power of his work. If literature is viewed as prepackaged experience, why do readers continue to seek out and experience Balzac's creations? The story of an abused child, while touching, was a commonplace in the novels that since the late eighteenth century had detailed the pathetic plight of legions of orphans. Some of these waifs, like Ducray-Duminil's Dominique in Le Petit Carrillonneur of 1809, manage to rise to wondrous heights of joy and wealth, while others like the title character of Edouard Ourliac's Suzanne (1840) move from one disaster to another until they die a miserable death. Of course, Balzac frequently took the clichéd character types and tired stories of popular novels and recast them into works of astonishing power. Pierrette, a relatively short novel of 134 pages in the Pléiade edition, offers good ground to study some aspects of Balzac's aesthetic practice and gain some understanding of his appeal to sophisticated readers.

Pierrette's narration reveals Balzac deploying an entire arsenal of his most effective devices. I am particularly drawn to his allusion. I take the traditional name of “allusion,” reserving that of “intertextuality” as a generic term for “any textual exploitation of another text. It would include satire, parody, pastiche, imitatio, refacimento, reference, allusion, modeling, borrowing, even plagiarism.”4 By allusion, I mean simply the metaphorical relationship that may be created when the text being read establishes a relationship with another, previous, literary experience, if, that is, the reader has the knowledge to grasp the allusion and allow it to expand the reading. Fine writers often weave a tapestry of allusions that could be termed an allusive complex and that gives their creations considerable resonance. Particularly interesting is Balzac's construction of an allusive complex of intertextual references and images that evoke a comic structure, hagiography, Paul et Virginie, and Béatrix Cenci.

Balzac's allusive referents are varied but effective as the novelist used them to draw his readers into the story and to infuse a fuller understanding into various aspects of his vision. Despite this variety, the allusions themselves work together to produce the final aesthetic experience. That the book opens onto a scene that would make aficionados of traditional comedy smile with anticipation is surely not an accident. Just a few years before, Balzac had similarly set up his readers to expect a comedy before twisting La Vieille Fille into the tragic suicide of Athanase Granson and the pathetic end of Rose Cormon.5 Here in Pierrette, Brigaut, a young man, whose “physionomie … devint alors entièrement gaie” (4.31), serenades Pierrette, the ward of the wealthy former shopkeeper, M. Rogron. The latter's name itself, with echoes of “le ton rogue d'un ogre qui grogne,” prepares us for the horrendous apparition of Sylvie at the window.6 After greeting Pierrette with a single yellow flower, Brigaut is forced to flee by the sudden specter of this “vieille fille laide” (4.32), who serves, we shortly learn, to protect her brother's interests: “Quand il y a une vieille fille dans une maison, les chiens de garde sont inutiles” (4.34). The girl's pale skin reveals her severe anemia, and we later learn that she is “une petite fille délicieuse de blancheur, avec des yeux d'une tendresse à réchauffer un coeur mort” (4.106), but we are told nothing that would prevent us from expecting the joyous but clichéd conclusion of Molière's L'Ecole des femmes and hundreds of other, similar works where young lovers are united. When a young man surreptitiously visits a girl held captive by an ugly old man, we have every right to settle back and anticipate the pleasurable victory of love over an inappropriate marriage. Surely the comedy will not only prevent a marriage between the lovely ward and her repugnant guardian, but we can also expect him to be punished for his disgusting plans.

Rogron is without question unattactive; he sports “la physionomie la plus niaise que jamais un comptoir ait présentée à des chalands. Son front écrasé, déprimé par la fatigue, était marqué de trois sillons arides. Ses petits cheveux gris, coupés ras, exprimaient l'indéfinissable stupidité des animaux à sang froid” (4.42). Who would not suspect a worthy descendant of Arnolphe? Even the fact that “Pierrette avait dû être gaie, elle était triste” (4.36) does nothing at first to discourage associations with the comic structure. In fact it emphasizes the anticipated comedy. The repulsive guardian's vile plans will surely be frustrated when the handsome hero rides off in the distance with his bride. The strength, however, of what will shortly be understood as an oppositional allusion, where two or more literary patterns resist integration and emphasize disparateness, exacerbates our disappointment, for the girl does not live happily ever after, but rather dies leaving a disconsolate young man. Although compared to a “brebis” (4.88), she is in no sense a descendant of Molière's Agnès, whose love will soon be crowned with success; Pierrette is instead a lamb sacrificed to the vanity and avariciousness of the nouveaux riches Rogrons and their ambitious acquaintances. Encouraged initially to expect comedy by Balzac's clever allusion to a well known comic pattern, readers react strongly to the tragedy of the girl's fate when their confident expectation of a happy ending is betrayed. Thwarted expectations are a very effective way of emphasizing the tragedy. The oppositional allusion works in conjunction with several parallel allusions, where allusions merge (or more precisely concatenate) with one or more elements of the text.

With the disappointment that builds as the tragedy of Pierrette seems increasingly inescapable, readers may become aware of two allusions to martyrdom, that to the apostle Paul and, especially, to the lesser known St. Pierre de Vérone. Pierrette's name is, of course, particularly suggestive. In a splendid study of Pierrette's hagiography, Timothy J. Williams points to the similarities between Pierrette and St. Pierre de Vérone: both are virginal, indeed unexceptionably virtuous, both are victims persecuted by satanic people, who falsely accuse each of having a lover, and both die from head wounds during the Easter season. Like Christ, the girl is “blessée à la tête et à la main” (Williams 89, 93). Williams further quotes a passage where the grandmother “veilla sa petite-fille en lui baisant le front, les cheveux et les mains, comme les saintes femmes durent baiser Jésus en le mettant au tombeau” (Williams 94). Both Pierrette and St. Pierre de Vérone are then martyrs, and both consequently allude to the life, ministry, and passion of Christ. This extended allusion serves to insist on Pierrette's absolute innocence. It may encourage readers to remember how she continued in the face of unrelieved failure to try to please her tormentors. “Elle supportait avec une patience angélique les humeurs noires de ces deux célibataires” (4.97). Who but a saint, after all, would ignore her terrible pain as she died and beg “la famille assemblée de pardonner à son cousin et à sa cousine, ainsi qu'elle le faisait elle-même” (4.157)? Longtime readers of Balzac will not be surprised by his use of a name to key an allusion. He—and other authors—did so frequently. People of the day were encouraged to follow long precedent and choose names for their children that referred to saints of the church and, thus, were accustomed to associate stories and legends with names. Balzac's Eugénie like his Pierrette, Flaubert's Félicité, and Zola's Etienne would all have evoked useful resonances.

While the allusion to St. Pierre de Vérone may seem obscure to today's readers, the references to Paul et Virginie are repeatedly explicit and difficult to miss. The narrator summarizes the wonderfully free and joyous youth of his heroine: “Pierrette allait à sa guise en bateau sur les étangs, elle courait par le bourg et par les champs en compagnie de Jacques Brigaut, son camarade, absolument comme Paul et Virginie” (4.77). Pierrette and Brigaut were free to enjoy the whole of nature spread out before them: “libres comme l'air, ils couraient après les mille joies de l'enfance” (4.77). Balzac remarks on the fact that everyone loved them, and welcomed them with smiles wherever they went. The author rightly points out that it is extremely unusual for a childhood love, like that of Brigaut and Pierrette, to last as it does, although there is the well known example of another such love in Paul and Virginie detailed in the extraordinarily popular novel by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (4.98). Paul et Virginie was one of the best selling novels of the eighteenth century, its popularity continuing through the nineteenth and, even, the twentieth centuries. It has gone through more than two hundred editions, at least forty-five of them before 1800. Because of widespread familiarity with the novel, there was no need for Balzac to devote more than a few lines to Pierrette's carefree childhood. By referring to the earlier novel, he could resurrect it in the reader's mind, thus infusing it into the reading experience, and create a parallel allusion to Paul et Virginie. Balzac then focuses on that portion of the victim's life that Bernardin slights, which took place in France where Virginie was sent to live with an aunt. When told that Pierrette is promised an inheritance, any reader of Balzac's day would recall that Virginie's aunt had likewise agreed to make Virginie her heir and to prepare a suitable life in civilization for the half-savage girl. Both Virginie and Pierrette learn to read and write after leaving the paradise of childhood for the heartless prisons controlled by their aunts, and the deaths of both directly result from leaving their childhood homes. While Bernardin tells the reader little of Virginie's time under her aunt's tutelage, Balzac chronicles Pierrette's life of deprivation and misery in detail. Just as Virginie “était condamnée à mourir,” in the words of Paul et Virginie's narrator, so we are warned early on in the narration that Pierrette will die.7 But while Virginie's return can be explained by her refusal to marry her aunt's choice and her drowning by uncompromising modesty despite the need to disrobe and swim to shore, Pierrette's death comes from exploitation and abuse that can be neither explained nor justified.

The Rogrons have a long history of mistreating young people. Balzac's narrator makes it clear that such behavior is to be expected of unmarried people by bestowing names on the pair that mark them as uncivilized. One of Jérôme-Denis Rogron's given names, for example, derives from Dionysos, while Sylvie's comes from Silvanus, one of the wine-god's followers. In Greece, Dionysian festivals frequently included the immolation of young boys or flagellation. The number of times that Balzac insists on the importance of names, and draws attention to their meanings, raises a question about the meaningful intent of naming Denis Rogron's closest adviser Vin-et.

In Balzac's preface, he claims to hate celibates, for they are “improductifs” (4.21), though he recognizes certain exceptions “nobles et généreuses, comme le prêtre, le soldat et quelques dévouements rares” (4.22). We remember Eugénie Grandet, who was an exception to the general run of Balzac's unmarried people, for she experiences a profound love that could never be understood by such unmarried people as Sylvie and Jérôme-Denis, who are “sérieusement célibataires, volant la civilisation, et ne lui rendant rien” (4.24). They, like the general run of their breed, replace natural affection by the artificial, loving dogs and cats, or, in the Rogrons' case, they have an immoderate love for their house and furnishings (4.78-79). Balzac gives the Rogrons even more reason to be abusive. As children, they were abandoned to a cheap, country wet nurse, who went off to work and left them locked up in the dark, humid rooms typical of French peasants, crying “longtemps et souvent après le sein de leur nourrice” (4.40-41). In the days when the Rogrons were running their shop, their reputation was so bad that they would have had no employees at all without the help of their father, who sent them “tous les malheureux voués au commerce par leurs parents … il faisait la traite des apprentis” (4.45). The Rogrons, “[t]racassiers, sans âme et d'une économie sordide” (4.45), enjoyed few things more than making their victims miserable. Once retired, their new house redecorated, and barred themselves from local society because of their appalling personalities, they are reduced to their own company. “Ces deux mécaniques n'avaient rien à broyer entre leurs rouages rouillés, elles criaient” (4.66). They are bored and “périssaient faute de victimes” (4.82).

By referring to Paul et Virginie Balzac was able to limit himself to a few brief indications of Pierrette's childhood years in Brittany. Because Bernardin was, however, more interested in the portrayal of virtue than in showing the corruption of society, he could leave Virginie's time in Paris in shadow. With the detailed picture of Virginie's childhood, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre intended to emphasize the intimate relationship between Nature and Virtue. Balzac's goal is, however, quite different. He wishes to use his character to emphasize the destructive cruelty of modern France. Pierrette is then brought into focus during the period of her abuse. Though the two texts have different objectives, the allusion brings them together to focus attention and highlight the point of Balzac's attention: a society apparently bent on devouring its children and destroying its own future.

Needing a new interest, the Rogrons write for Pierrette. “Il faudrait avoir été … quelque peu bête sauvage et enfermé dans une cage du Jardin des Plantes, sans autre proie que la viande de boucherie apportée par le gardien, ou négociant retiré sans commis à tracasser, pour savoir avec quelle impatience le frère et la soeur attendirent leur cousine” (4.67). Pierrette is like “une caisse de roulage” (4.73), delivered “comme un paquet” (4.74). She then becomes their property—“elle leur appartenait!” (4.97). The girl's immediate success with the Tiphaines of Provins does not please the Rogrons, since they receive no payoff for themselves. Despite the many invitations that shower Pierrette, Provins society remains closed to Sylvie and Denis: “leurs sentiments, loin d'être paternels, étaient entachés d'égoïsme et d'une sorte d'exploitation commerciale” (4.81). The persecution of their ward cannot be explained as an indication of cruel, vicious natures; it is simply “une tyrannie imbécile” (4.82). They cannot help themselves. At first, before Sylvie's jealousy is aroused, they even think they are helping her (4.82). But when people who are variously described as “mesquin[s]” (4.30), “niaise[s]” (4.42), self-satisfied (4.30, 44), egotistical (4.40), and incapable of anything but “bêtise” (4.44), on the one hand, and characterized by “l'indéfinissable stupidité des animaux à sang froid” (4.42), on the other, the results for an affectionate child like Pierrette made only for love (4.77) are disastrous. At this point, perhaps, one of the Rogron house's new appointments begins to make sense. In the past, hunting was only for land-holding aristocrats. Now, the sport is open to the wealthy, propertied class, whether noble or not, and, as newly rich people, the Rogrons can reasonably install a weathervane that “représente un chasseur en position de tirer un lièvre” (4.30). Although Pierrette is nowhere compared explicitly to a hare, no one could doubt who is in the hunter's sights. Like Virginie, Pierrette is a victim and marked from the beginning for death. After all, as Gouraud implies, “une petite fille était peu de chose” (4.72). Certainly, Pierrette provides the Rogrons with the souffre-douleur they had lacked, and once she arrives “ils ne s'ennuyaient plus!” (4.82).

Balzac is, as always, primarily interested in the causes of social phenomena. His allusion to Paul et Virginie emphasizes that Pierrette's tragedy arises from the sordid stupidity and egotism of greed-ridden bourgeois in a corrupt society. The novel focuses on self-serving celibates like Sylvie and Denis Rogron who join with the liberals in what will shortly be a successful revolution against the Bourbons and, on a smaller scale, against the local group of royalists. Balzac focuses a brilliant light on the self-serving, self-centered old men that control the liberal July monarchy. In the process, he shows us the young of France being crushed. Both the brilliance and the energy of youth will as a result be denied a fading nation. One of the wonderful things about “fiction” is that the political lesson can be emphasized and rendered more touching by exploiting devices that are foreign to essays. The sympathetic character Pierrette carries the aura of Virginie. By playing several roles, she becomes the unforgettable objective correlative of Balzac's teaching.

Béatrix, another girl who suffered terrible abuse, is mentioned at the end of Balzac's story, “[P]oussée à bout par les choses horribles qu'elle avait à supporter,” Stendhal tells us, the sixteen year old Béatrix decides to kill her father, Cenci.8 François had raped her repeatedly while forcing his wife to watch. The girl wrote the pope for help, only to receive no answer. Although people were well aware that François had been jailed three times for “ses amours infâmes” (689-90), no one seemed willing to move against him, probably because of the liberal donations he had made to the appropriate authorities. Finally, there seemed no other solution, and Béatrix and her mother-in-law discuss the matter with the older brothers before arranging to assassinate their father. Béatrix and others of her family are condemned for the patricide, though Béatrix confidently commits herself to God's divine mercy. A procession including fifty large candles and all the Franciscans in Rome accompany her remains to a final resting place in front of Raphaël d'Urbin's Transfiguration, and her unjust, tragic death was not only regretted by an enormous crowd of people, Stendhal tells us, but has not been forgotten by history. Balzac concludes with his last allusion: “Aujourd'hui l'histoire et les vivants, sur la foi du portrait de Guido Reni, condamnent le pape, et font de Béatrix une des plus touchantes victimes des passions infâmes et des factions” (4.162-63). What makes this particular example interesting is that the story of Béatrix forms a paradigmatic relationship with that of Pierrette and then falls backward onto the syntagm, thus reformulating the tale. “La fonction poétique projette le principe d'équivalence de l'axe de la sélection sur l'axe de la combination.”9 Unlike the other allusions that move the reader toward the conclusion, that to Béatrix creates a new metaphoric concatenation that invites rereading and a different configuration.

Bardèche criticizes the story's concluding reference to Béatrix, for the comparison that Balzac draws is very inexact (Bardèche, “Notice” 667). Though not emphasized, the parallels between Béatrix and Pierrette are nonetheless present well before the conclusion. Still, the concluding references alone succeed in casting a retrospective light on the factions that are destroying France. The Tiphaine group has made an important step towards increasing their power by excluding the Rogrons. As the lovely Madame Tiphaine explains to her husband, “Là où il n'y a pas d'ennemis il n'y a pas de triomphes. Une conspiration libérale, une association illégale, une lutte quelconque te mettraient en évidence” (4.57). Mme Tiphaine does not say, though Pierrette illustrates, that such political conflicts may become surprisingly acute, breeding hatred and fear of one group for another. As Balzac well knew—his bad opinion of small provincial towns had recently been renewed by his trip to Belley in the vain attempt to save Peytel (Tritter 20)—small town hatreds are extraordinarily powerful, fueled as they are by ambition and greed. In this case, the Tiphaine group's aggressiveness fails to attain the expected victory, since the Tiphaines change parties with the Revolution of 1830, thus aligning themselves with Vinet: “[M]onsieur Tiphaine s'est rattaché sans hésitation à la dynastie de juillet” (4.161).

Pierrette becomes nothing but a means to another end. The venal Vinet is ready to use the child and her supposed inheritance from the Rogrons to reward Colonel Gouraud. When he understands that Pierrette may well not inherit, he points Gouraud to Sylvie and arouses the woman's love. Because the affection of such an old maid is expressed by jealousy, Sylvie, then, has all the more reason to persecute Pierrette. Later, however, Vinet decides that he would do better marrying Denis Rogron to an impoverished but beautiful Chargebœuf girl whom he can control. Vinet's tame doctor is then used to terrify Sylvie with an account of the dangers of childbirth, so as to keep her unmarried and thus protect the Rogron inheritance for the future Mme Rogron. The beautiful Bathilde de Chargebœuf, fearing that Pierrette might gain Rogron's hand, becomes the girl's enemy, as well. (Later when what one assumes to be the rigors of the marriage bed make Denis Rogron ill, it only advances Vinet, for at Rogron's death he will have another pawn whom he will marry advantageously to increase his power.) The factions are allied either expressly or through unconscious neglect to persecute Pierrette and, like Béatrix, cast her aside, leaving her dead.

Pierrette has the misfortune to fall between the two opposing camps of Provins' inhabitants. The royalists surrounding Mme Tiphaine are determined to reject the obnoxious Rogrons, Vinet, the shady lawyer, and Gouraud, a Napoleonic colonel. Vinet and Gouraud use Denis Rogron's money to establish an opposition newspaper, which Vinet writes and Gouraud manages. And Vinet carefully organizes gatherings at the Rogron house. Recognizing that the political winds are blowing against the legitimists, he moves into the liberal camp and brings Gouraud and the friendless Rogrons with him. Shortly, he succeeds in establishing the Rogron gathering as a liberal salon and a power in the provincial town (4.96). From the first, the text emphasizes duality. Provins has two rivers and divides into two sections, an upper and a lower city. Most important, there are two significant salons, two groups, and two newspapers. Two is, of course, the number of opposition and conflict, rivalry and antagonism.10 Pierrette will be “broyée entre des intérêts implacables” (4.96).

The allusive references to Paul et Virginie and the account of Béatrix prepare another oppositional allusion. As mentioned above, Pierrette's narrator says that history has condemned the pope for Béatrix's death. Likewise, society comes to despise Virginie's impoverished aunt who dies impoverished and alone, while her victimized niece goes with her loved ones to be with God. Bernardin's narrator says that Virginie's virtuous deeds are kept faithfully in the hearts of those who knew her, and her story is immortalized in various place names. By contrast, Pierrette is destroyed and forgotten. At the end of the book, Vinet, Gouraud, the Tiphaines, the Rogrons are all doing well. Vinet becomes a deputy and the public prosecutor, Rogron is the Internal Revenue director for Provins (Receveur-Général), M. Tiphaine makes his peace with Vinet and accepts an appointment as chief magistrate of His Majesty's court, and Mme Tiphaine happily frequents the salon of “la belle Madame Rogron.” The author concludes that “la légalité serait, pour les friponneries sociales, une belle chose si Dieu n'existait pas.” The reference to God is by no means idle. Balzac knew his popular audience well, and, however untraditional the Romantic God might be, the idea of God was very much alive in nineteenth-century France.11 (Napoleon did not make peace with the Church to satisfy his personal religious needs!) Here, Balzac is attempting to make his reader wonder whether God really does exist. Certainly the pages of Pierrette give no positive evidence.

The last allusion expands the little tale exponentially. By referring to Béatrix Cenci and “des passions infâmes et des factions” that brought her to death, Balzac sheds a new light back onto the story he has just told. What previously seemed merely a tragic account of a pathetic girl's victimization can now be reinterpreted in broader terms as the tale of a France ruled by greed and factions, willing to compromise ethics for the sake of advancement and wealth. The peculiar phrase at the end of the book presents the perhaps chilling possibility that God might have abandoned France. Explicit mentions of God make his absence seem all too apparent: because Pierrette learns “à voir en toute chose le doigt de Dieu” (4.92), she rejects thoughts of flight and submits to the Rogron brutality. When her case becomes so bad that even the famous surgeon Desplein fears to attempt surgery, Martener, “chagrin et morose,” tells Pierrette's friends that the girl's “salut était seulement dans la main de Dieu,” and the angelic Pierrette insists “que le jugement de ces choses appartenait à Dieu seul” (4.157). The narrator comments: “La légalité serait, pour les friponneries sociales, une belle chose si Dieu n'existait pas” (4.163). The phrase makes us realize that though Balzac's text mentions God four times, Jesus twice, and Providence once, there is absolutely no evidence of their activity. Pierrette is taught to love Jesus as her heavenly fiancé, but neither God's finger (4.92), nor his hand, nor his judgment (4.157) effect any change whatsoever. Instead of judgment being called down on the heads of those responsible for Pierrette's death, they all achieve temporal success.

Williams points out that however virtuous and pathetic Pierrette may be, unlike Pierre de Vérone and all canonized saints, she produces no miracles and can therefore not be a true saint: “[U]n saint qui n'est pas thaumaturge est inconcevable” (Williams 95). The other possibility, of course, is that the lack of miracles has nothing to do with Pierrette, but rather results simply from God's absence. While Christ had Pierre, the rock on which Christ “will build [his] church” (Matt. 16:18), France has only the youth of the country, who, like Pierrette, the “little stone,” are being disdained and discarded. Neither God nor anyone else punishes the venal liberals who were, on the one hand, responsible for killing Pierrette and, on the other, guilty of covering up the crime. They live on, rather, in positions of power. Furthermore, unlike Virginie and Béatrix, whose memories are carefully preserved by history, Pierrette leaves no monument to virtue. Only Dr. Martener and Brigaut still remember. Those who love Pierrette die, and the text mentions the tragedy of Brigaut who unsuccessfully seeks death in war. “[S]i Dieu n'existait pas …” (4.163), the narrator says, but all the allusions and the outcome of Pierrette's life suggest that God has very little to do with this story.12

The systems of allusion show Balzac at his best. The oppositional allusion to a theatrical structure common to plays like L'Ecole des femmes leads the reader into the story, with the expectations of light, amusing fare. The fictional reality proves very disappointing, however, and instead of amusement at the way young love can successfully overcome the most difficult obstacles and bring the guardian into ridicule, the tragedy of Pierrette is foregrounded and the reader finds one of Balzac's darkest tales. Once readers actually get into the story, there are two allusions that draw them toward the end and, along the way, highlight the most important elements and events of Pierrette's life. Alluding to Paul et Virginie suggests Brigaut and Pierrette's joyous youth and emphasizes the injustices of a civilization sold out to money. Just as we begin to lose faith in the comic structure, we know instinctively, perhaps even consciously, that Pierrette like Virginie and St. Pierre de Vérone must die. We suspect that Pierrette's torments differ little from those of her predecessors as she suffers her martyrdom. Unfortunately, while Virginie would long inspire other girls to a virtuous life and St. Pierre de Vérone would be beatified and thus inspire and receive the prayers of the faithful, Pierrette's many virtues serve no purpose. At the conclusion of Pierrette, only Brigaut and Martener still remember her.

In the activity of reading, readers make images or intricate, mental complexes of themes, feelings, and traits. When skillful writers like Balzac introduce allusions, the references to other works—at least to those works known by the reader of good will—stimulate the recollection of a previous experience, and the memory comes back to join metaphorically with the current experience. Although the alluding text must have salient similarities, it need not be identical to the text referenced. The reader has no difficulty making meaningful applications and ignoring those elements and relationships that are inappropriate and unevocative, rather as readers suppress secondary and tertiary meanings of words that have nothing to do with the current context. And, of course, readers without the necessary background experience—perhaps a reader who knows nothing of saints' lives—will have an image of Pierrette that lacks the illustrative emphasis of St. Pierre de Vérone. Pierrette's allusion to Paul et Virginie, however, fills in most of the needed elements. Though the experience of those who are insensitive to the allusions may be less intense, since the unreasonable persecution lacking redundancy will not be as powerfully evocative, Pierrette should nonetheless be comprehensible to any reader, sophisticated or not. By becoming a part of Pierrette and her story, the allusions serve primarily to intensify the little girl's pathetic misfortunes. Without the requisite allusive sensitivity, the tale loses its pervasive power and becomes just another story.

Allusions provide context. On occasion, they radically change a text's meaning by adding a new theme of significance. Prior to the last few lines of Balzac's little novel, we have a startlingly vivid picture of egocentric celibates destroying a helpless girl. The indications of factions and of politics are in the text, but they lack much of their evocative power until they are highlighted by the allusion to Béatrix Cenci. When the history of the Italian girl enters into the reading, it throws a retrospective light across the whole of Balzac's novel. Suddenly, while previously the reader's attention had been directed toward the individuals of the story, now it is the groups, the factions, and the political implications of the Revolution of 1830 that are illuminated and emphasized. At the end, little Pierrette is dead and in the last stages of being forgotten. Her persecutors have gone on to considerable success. In other of Balzac's novels we learn that even a harmless small town priest will not be spared, and in the case of Athanase's destruction, il “fut promptement oublié par la société qui veut et doit promptement oublier ses morts” (4.921). Because of the allusions that work together in Pierrette to form a tight complex, we are left with the vision of France abandoned to the machinations of insatiable cupidity. Because Pierrette does not seem to have the divine help that was available to Virginie and Béatrix, as the allusions highlight, nothing impedes the rapacious gerontocracy.


  1. To the works listed at the end of Jean-Louis Tritter's edition—Honoré de Balzac, Pierrette, Œuvres complètes, 12 vols., Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1976-81) 4.21-163—should be added: Maurice Bardèche, “Notice,” Pierrette, Œuvres complètes, vol. 5 (Paris: Club de l'Honnête Homme, 1956) 661-69; Lucette Chambard and Marguerite Rochette, Pierrette de Honoré de Balzac, Folio Guides 2 (Paris: Armand Colin/Gallimard, 1976); Armine Kotin Mortimer, “Myth and Mendacity: Balzac's Pierrette and Béatrice Cenci,” Dalhousie French Studies 34 (2000): 12-25; Nicole Mozet, La Ville de province dans l'œuvre de Balzac (Paris: Sedes, 1982. 212-17; André Vanoncini, “Pierrette et la rénovation du code mélodramatique,” Balzac: Œuvres complètes: Le Moment de “La Comédie humaine,” ed. Claude Duchet et Isabelle Tournier (Saint-Denis: pu de Vincennes, 1993) 257-67; Timothy J. Williams, “Dessein hagiographique balzacien: A propos de Pierrette,Dalhousie French Studies 28 (1994): 87-97; and Dorothy Wirtz, “Animalism in Balzac's Curé de Tours and Pierrette,Romance Notes 11.1 (1969): 61-67.

  2. .4.3. Here and elsewhere in respect to Balzac's Pierrette and the editor's remarks, I shall be referring parenthetically to Tritter's edition mentioned above.

  3. Balzac's move to the far right has drawn the attention of many biographers and critics: see, e.g., Graham Robb, Balzac: A Biography (London: Picador, 1994) 189-330; Pierre Barbéris, Balzac et le mal du siècle, 1799-1833, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1970); Sharif Gemie's “Balzac and the Moral Crisis of the July Monarchy,” European History Quarterly 19.4 (1989): 469-94; Bernard Guyon, La Pensée politique et sociale de Balzac (Paris: Colin, 1967); Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981).

  4. Allan H. Pasco, Allusion: A Literary Graft (1994; rpt. Charlottesville: Rookwood Press, 2002) 5. This study also includes extended consideration of allusion and intertexualité in its various permutations, as investigated in major studies by Michael Riffaterre, Julia Kristeva, and others.

  5. See, for the comic elements, e.g., Allan H. Pasco, “Dying with Love in Balzac's La Vieille Fille,L'Esprit Créateur 35.4 (1995): 28-37; and Armine Kotin Mortimer, “Le Corset de La Vieille Fille de Balzac,” L'Œuvre d'identité: Essais sur le romantisme de Nodier à Baudelaire, ed. Didier Maleuvre and Catherine Nesci, Paragraphes 13 (Montreal: pu de Montréal, 1996) 39-48.

  6. Pierre Citron, “Préface,” Pierrette (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1967) 36. Sylvie is later compared to an “ogresse” (4.117).

  7. Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Paul et Virginie (1788), ed. Pierre Trahard (Paris: Garnier, 1964) 218. See, as well, Allan H. Pasco, Sick Heroes: French Society and Literature in the Romantic Age, 1750-1850 (Exeter: Univ. of Exeter Press, 1997) 109-15. A number of critics have mentioned the allusion to Paul et Virginie, but only Armine Kotin Mortimer has considered the parallels at any length (“Myth and Mendacity”). I expand this excellent work to argue that Balzac uses Bernardin's work in conjunction with others to intensify the pathetic story of Pierrette through a series of allusions.

  8. Stendahl, “Les Cenci” (1837), Chroniques italiennes, Romans et nouvelles, vol. 2, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1952) 678-709. The passage quoted is on 594. Tritter reminds us that Stendhal is not the only possible source for the Cenci story, though as Mortimer shows it is the most likely. Balzac's friend, the Marquis de Custine, had however produced a play on the subject in 1833. For Mortimer, the allusion to the Cenci story has the effect of raising Pierrette to the status of saint and of insisting on Balzac as a scribe who immortalizes her.

  9. Roman Jakobson, “Linguistique et poétique,” Essais de linguistique générale, tr. Nicolas Ruwet (Paris: Minuit, 1963) 220.

  10. Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionnaire des symboles: Mythes, rêves, coutumes, gestes, formes, figures, couleurs, nombres (Paris: Robert Laffont 1969) 286.

  11. For the Romantic God, see Frank Paul Bowman's classic Le Christ Romantique (Geneva: Droz, 1973), and some of his more recent work in French Romanticism: Intertextual and Interdisciplinary Readings (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990).

  12. Mortimer (“Myth and Mendacity”) and Mary Donaldson-Evans (in her evaluation of the present study) argue that God's future punishment is implied by the phrase, “si Dieu n'existait pas …” If so, the implicit, divine presence has no supporting framework.

Andrea Goulet (essay date fall 2001)

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SOURCE: Goulet, Andrea. “‘Tomber dans le phénomène’: Balzac's Optics of Narration.” French Forum 26, no. 3 (fall 2001): 43-70.

[In the following essay, Goulet explores the dual narrative modes of vision and sight, or mystical revelation and scientific observation, in La Comédie humaine, showing how images of the eye and seeing, as well as ideas about spiritual seeking and inner vision, permeate Balzac's novels.]

Traditional distinctions between romantic and realist fiction in nineteenth-century France invoke a direct relation between narrative form and authorial vision: the poetic thrust of the romantic novel implies a visionary eye, attuned to the realm of mystical revelation, while the descriptive logic of the realist novel implies a scientific eye, trained for the positivist observation of details in the world. One need only read the titles of two well-known critical works on Hugo and Zola to recognize the competing poles of visuality at stake: Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel and The Visual Novel: Emile Zola and the Art of His Times.1 Victor Brombert's study of Hugo emphasizes a transcendent and transgressive visuality, one that exceeds mere ocular perception. Themes of temporal boundlessness, spiritual turbulence, and hallucinatory revelation invest Hugo's narrative “eye” with a visionary consciousness. By contrast, the eye in Zola's novels belongs to a precisely located materiality. As William Berg demonstrates, contemporary scientific theories of optical perception shape Zola's avowed authorial goal of “direct observation.”

Encompassing both poles of Hugo's mysticism and Zola's scientism, Honoré de Balzac's La Comédie humaine can be said to register a continual dialogue between the competing modes of vision and sight, of revelation and observation. Certainly, the long-standing “querelle Balzac réaliste—Balzac visionnaire” has cast the author's narrative range in visual terms, assigning the fantastic and philosophical elements of his writing to the logic of voyance and its historico-sociological themes to the classificatory eye of the observateur.2 Whether they have emphasized one side or another, most critics have temperately acknowledged that “Balzac was both an observer who looked at the world with the exact eye of a scientist and a seer who gazed with inspired clarity into the depths of the human spirit and beyond.”3 By associating one kind of vision with science and another with mysticism, however, this seemingly indisputable formulation promotes a distinction that was not observed in discourse of Balzac's time, nor in his Avant-propos de la comédie humaine.4 Moreover, it fails to take into account the particular, ambivalent status of vision within nineteenth-century scientific discourse. For Balzac is writing at a moment when a tension between empiricism and idealism pulls the scientist's eye simultaneously in two directions: toward the details of the visible world as well as toward the eternal truths that subtend them.5 Even more pertinent to a study of visuality in Balzac than the methodological double thrust of the sciences in general is the ambivalence that inhabited the field of optics at the beginning of the nineteenth century. From the philosophers of vision Locke, Diderot, and Condillac to the authors of optical treatises Monge, Hassenfrantz, and l'Abbé Nollet, the thinkers who influenced Balzac's visual theories were poised between an idealist concept of vision as the innate apperception of abstract laws and an empiricist definition of sight as subjective and physiological experience.6

Typical of this ambivalent position is Thomas Reid, whose Enquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764) informed Balzac's theory of second sight (Barbéris 56). Writing before classical idealism and modern empiricism had been separated into opposing strands of thought in the field, Reid combines Descartes' and Newton's emphasis on the physical laws of optics with Locke's and Addison's studies on subjective sensation. More importantly, he blurs distinctions between physical, physiological, mystical, and conceptual vision by extending the study of optics to discussions of seers and blind men, prophets and “philosophe[s] initiés[s].”7 In other words, Reid's summary of the state of knowledge in the field of optics embraces both revelation and observation, both categories that Balzac's readers have tended to position at separate poles of enquiry—philosophico-spiritualist and scientific. Like Reid, Balzac invokes a spectrum of visual models: inspired voyants (Louis Lambert, Victor Morillon, Séraphita/itus), initiés of art and science (Balthazar De Claës, Frenhofer), blind seers (Facino Cane), and worldly heroes whose eyes are gradually trained to perceive the workings of society (Lucien de Rubempré, Eugène de Rastignac, Raphaël de Valentin). But if one is to elucidate more precisely the contours of tension in Balzac's texts between physical sight and mystical vision, it is not enough to indicate similar tensions in the optical discourses of his time; a necessary further step involves relating specific problematics in the study of vision to the narrative choices that Balzac makes. In this way, we might re-calibrate our understanding of La Comédie humaine's visual double thrust, its ténébreuses affaires and its recherche de l'absolu.


We find the earliest fictional incarnation of Balzac's theory of voyance, or second sight, in Victor Morillon, a young orphan presented as the author of Les Chouans (1828) in its Avertissement. Although Morillon has lived in poverty and isolation, the young genius is capable of describing an imaginary life of luxury in opulent sensory detail:

Il … décrivit les plaisirs d'une immense fortune avec une étonnante vivacité de couleur; … parla des ivresses ressenties au sein des bals … peignit le luxe des appartements qu'il habita, leurs ameublements, la richesse des porcelaines, la beauté des tableaux, les dessins de la soie et des tapis, entra dans le détail des voitures somptueuses, des chevaux arabes … des modes …, du choix des étoffes, des cannes et des bijoux … sans avoir rien vu de tout cela par sa prunelle extérieure et visible. [emphasis added]8

The sumptuous visuality of Morillon's descriptions is anchored, paradoxically, in ascetic experience. As a result, this alter-ego of the young author of La Comédie humaine represents a purified model of authorial imagination, one in which the inner eye remains unaffected by external perception.

Similarly, the title character of Louis Lambert (1832), a doomed genius of whom Mme de Staël says “[c]'est un vrai voyant,” seems to fit a model of second sight in which the perceptible world is bypassed in favor of abstract imagination. Like Victor Morillon, the young genius Lambert can imagine vivid scenes without having actually perceived them:

A l'âge de douze ans, son imagination, stimulée par le perpétuel exercice de ses facultés, s'était développée au point de lui permettre d'avoir des notions si exactes sur les choses qu'il percevait par la lecture seulement, que l'image imprimée dans son âme n'en eût pas été plus vive s'il les avait réellement vues; soit qu'il procédât par analogie, soit qu'il fût doué d'une espèce de seconde vue par laquelle il embrassait la nature.

(T. XI, 595)

Unfettered by external sensory perception, vision exists for Lambert as the privileged medium for mystical revelation.

Si les apparitions ne sont pas impossibles, disait Lambert, elles doivent avoir lieu par une faculté d'apercevoir les idées qui représentent l'homme dans son essence pure, et dont la vie … échappe à nos sens extérieurs, mais peut devenir perceptible à l'être intérieur quand il arrive à un haut degré d'extase ou à une grande perfection de vue.


Ideas are presented here as pure essence, free of the distracting errors of the visible world.9 As with Victor Morillon and his ideal vision, Lambert's second sight seems disconnected from the mechanics of perception: “La vue et l'ouïe, dit-il en riant de son expression, sont sans doute les gaines d'un outil merveilleux!” (623) The images that interest Louis Lambert are those of the mind, not those of the eye. In fact, to access his inner vision, Lambert figuratively shuts off his external senses:

—Quand je le veux, me disait-il dans son langage …, je tire un voile sur mes yeux. Soudain je rentre en moi-même, et j'y trouve une chambre noire où les accidents de la nature viennent se reproduire sous une forme plus pure que la forme sous laquelle ils sont d'abord apparus à mes sens extérieurs.

(593, emphasis added)

This formulation of second sight as a purer, non-corporeal type of vision employs a charged metaphor to identify the locus of inner vision: the “chambre noire,” or camera obscura.

The camera obscura is an optical device that allows rays of light into a dark space, projecting images onto an enclosed screen. After Kepler's discovery of the retinal image in 1604, the camera obscura dominated philosophical discussions of sight for two centuries as the most suggestive analogy for how the human eye sees, with the retina understood as analogous to the camera obscura's screen. As Jonathan Crary argues in Techniques of the Observer, the camera obscura model of vision was not a neutral one; in fact, it promoted a primarily Cartesian conception of vision as reasoned abstraction rather than as physiological phenomenon.10 The “chambre obscure” isolates the observer from the external world and presents vision not as temporal, bodily sensation but as ideal, purified illumination.

The Cartesian subtext of the camera obscura model does seem, initially, to accord with Louis Lambert's retreat from the phenomenal world into a purified space of interiority. As with Victor Morillon, this gifted seer taps into images of a “forme plus pure” than those available to the eye—so that abstraction underlies Balzac's ideal of artistic inspiration.

But as Crary reminds us, the implications of the camera obscura model were in flux by the early to mid-1800's, when Balzac was beginning to write the novels of La Comédie humaine. Although traditionally associated with a non-corporeal purity of vision, the camera obscura image would eventually be recuperated into empiricist notions of visual perception that take into account temporality and bodily experience.11 And in fact, if we look again at the Louis Lambert passage, we see that his “chambre noire” begins already to deviate from the Cartesian ideal—as well as from the visionary ideal represented by Victor Morillon. While Morillon was able to access his inner vision directly, Louis Lambert sees with his mind only after seeing with his eyes. His mental images, says Lambert, have a purer form than “la forme sous laquelle ils sont d'abord apparus à mes sens extérieurs.” In other words, this visionary does not completely bypass the physical world of phenomenal experience. His “second sight” is modeled on a “first” sight, that of the bodily eye.

As the second event in a sequence, Lambert's inner vision partakes of an empiricist temporality that blurs the purely Cartesian implications of the camera obscura.12 If we take the historical spectrum of theories of visual perception as moving from a seventeenth-century Cartesian idealism (mind over eye) to a nineteenth-century empiricism (eye over mind), Balzac's Victor Morillon represents the former while Louis Lambert begins to incorporate elements of the latter. As I have begun to suggest, Lambert's description of his own second sight allows elements of temporality, materiality, and experience to seep into the idealized model of mystical vision figured by the “chambre noire.”

And in fact, throughout Louis Lambert, the representation of “second sight” remains connected to a physiological, phenomenal visuality. The schoolboy Lambert's keen eyesight, for example, is instrumental to his astounding capacity for learning; “L'absorption des idées par la lecture était devenue chez lui un phénomène curieux; son oeil embrassait sept à huit lignes d'un coup, et son esprit en appréciait le sens avec une vélocité pareille à celle de son regard” (ll [Louis Lambert], 16-17). Eye and mind work in conjunction here; physical perception is not skipped over in Balzac's conception of genius. Lambert's eyesight is emphasized as its own faculty, much as in the description of Etienne, the visionary title character of Balzac's story “L'Enfant Maudit”:

Comme tous les hommes de qui l'âme domine le corps, il avait une vue perçante, et pouvait saisir à des distances énormes, avec une admirable facilité, sans fatigue, les nuances les plus fugitives de la lumière, les tremblements les plus éphémères de l'eau.

(em [“L'Enfant Maudit”], 391)

Such emphases on the physical properties of eyesight—its relation to distance and to light—may seem out of place in the description of men whose souls “dominate” their bodies. But it underlines the fact that Balzac's understanding of vision is not fully decorporealized. The eye may act as privileged intermediary between body and mind, but it does not do so as a transparent window to the other world; rather, it retains its physiological characteristics.13

Of course, Louis Lambert is a rather unsystematic text, influenced by Swedenborgian and Mesmerist mumbo-jumbo and by the temporal distance separating the author's memory from Lambert's theoretical proclamations. It would, therefore, be a mistake to try to extract a coherent doctrine out of Louis Lambert's often contradictory musings on the relation between mind and matter, voyance and physical sensation. But that incoherence itself argues against a purified, sublimated mysticism that bypasses physicality altogether. Balzac himself presents the gift of second sight in Louis Lambert as an unexplained phenomenon whose make-up defies rigorous distinctions between matter and spirit. At the end of his narrative about Louis Lambert's short, doomed life, the narrator proposes a systematized distillation of Lambert's revelations, which includes this definition of second sight, or “Specialité:” “La Spécialité consiste à voir les choses du monde matériel aussi bien que celles du monde spirituel dans leurs ramifications originelles et conséquentielles” (688).

Two aspects of this definition go beyond the explicitly mystical, purely transcendent character of the faculty of second sight. First, the seer is understood to have access not only to a transcendental, spiritual realm, but to the hidden meanings of the material world as well. The revelation of occult, or hidden, causes in the daily, physical world undermines any theoretical separations between “Balzac-réaliste” and “Balzac-visionnaire.” Second, the vision is not an atemporal revelation, but an understanding of origins and consequences—that is, of past and future; the role of the seer is not incompatible with the human experience of time. In this way, vue (sight, with all of its physiological implications) imprints itself continuously onto vision (revelatory vision).

In Louis Lambert, Louis is presented as “soul-dominant” like the enfant maudit and Séraphita, beings whose angelic nature dooms them to eventual exclusion from the base, physical world. The narrator—Balzac as a child—represents the materialist counterpart to Lambert's spiritualism: “Il était spiritualiste; mais j'osais le contredire en m'armant de ses observations mêmes pour considérer l'intelligence comme un produit tout physique” (615). The extremes of this argument (mind as pure spirit, mind as pure matter) are explicitly denounced, consistent with Balzac's general defense of the imbrication of spirit and matter: “Nous avions raison tous deux.” What to make, then, of the fact that the materialist narrator survives, while the spiritualist seer goes mad and dies? Certainly, the text presents itself as a nostalgic elegy for the pure spirit that cannot make it in this world; like Séraphita's ascension, Lambert's tragic death reflects an incompatibility between Ideal and Real. But Balzac's text also puts into question the utility of a pure model of voyance, of vision unmarred by the material world. Lambert's obsessive worldly passion with Pauline (initiated, significantly, through the eyes) is presented as the beginning of a downfall into madness and death.

If the fictional Victor Morillon represents an ideal horizon of pure, non-corporeal vision, Louis Lambert tells of how the gift of second sight plays out in the world. Victor as author can be seen as a preempiricist ideal, a fantasy creator, given that Balzac's own writing was in fact supported by actual experience and observation. Once translated into a real life, that of Louis Lambert's, the concept of second sight gets thickened by the material world. With his paean to Lambert's voyance, Balzac strains toward a visionary ideal; but the sheer materiality of his realist oeuvre taps into an alternative mode of visuality, one that engages the bodily eye, not just the mental one.


Il nous arrive souvent de regarder une robe, une tenture, un papier blanc avec assez de distraction pour n'y pas apercevoir sur-le-champ une tache ou quelque point brillant qui plus tard frappent tout à coup notre œil comme s'ils y survenaient à l'instant seulement où nous les voyons …

Le Bal de Sceaux

Many of us, as Balzac suggests, have experienced the phenomenon described in this passage: having turned our attention away from a particular object, we encounter the delayed visual impression of a blurred shape or a spot of bright light. The effect is even more dramatic when one has purposely focused on an especially contrasting and luminous image, such as the pattern of dark window frames against a light window. The resulting effect (with the light/dark pattern reversed) is called a “retinal afterimage,” an optical phenomenon with a telling history.

Before the eighteenth century, the “afterimage effect” had been dismissed as illusory and therefore inconsequential for serious studies of vision, concerned as those were with the objective nature of the physical world. After Peiresc's 1634 description of window afterimages, the phenomenon had become a sort of parlor trick.14 And although the “illusion” attracted the scientific attention of thinkers like Mariotte, Newton, and De la Hire, it was not until the eighteenth-century that the retinal afterimage became an object of study as one of several subjective phenomena of vision. No longer was the study of optics concerned only with the physics of objective reality and the rational laws governing a normative concept of vision; Locke's empiricism had turned attention to the subjective experience of seeing. Illusory appearances like blur circles (the “haloes” formed around distant lights), floaters (“mouches volantes”), and retinal afterimages became part of a larger inquiry into the ways in which our bodily eyes affect how we see the world. In 1743, Buffon (the naturalist whose work interested a young Balzac) published his “Dissertation sur les couleurs accidentelles,” a term he coined to describe the afterimages of colors as distinguished from the objective colors that we first perceive. “Les couleurs accidentelles” depend on our organ of sight rather than on the properties of light; they are verified through the observation of subjective experience. Buffon's observation of retinal afterimages paved the way for a growing interest among nineteenth-century scholars, such as Goethe, whose definition of the phenomenon locates it in the observer's body: “Let the observer look steadfastly on a small coloured object and let it be taken away after a time while his eyes remain unmoved; the spectrum of another colour will then be visible on the white plane … it arises from an image which now belongs to the eye” (Crary 69). And it was, indeed, to the physiology of the eye itself that scientists like Purkinje, Aubert, and Helmholtz turned for explanations, performing numerous experiments designed to test the neurological effects of retinal stimulation by light and electrical sparks (Helmholtz V.II, 23. Variations of Sensitivity, 228-264). Despite the many advances in the field, even as late as 1867 Helmholtz decried the incompleteness and inexactitude of scientific knowledge on afterimages. The problem, explains Helmholtz, lay in the limitations of the observer's body:

The difficulty about it is that at first every observer has to gain a certain practice in apprehending and judging accurately the phenomena encountered here; and in doing this generally these experiments soon prove to be so trying to the eyes that severe and dangerous ocular and nervous trouble may ensue if they are pursued too long.

(II, 23, 229)

Thus the very thing that made afterimages a new object of study—their corporeality—also limited the means of acquiring knowledge about them. As scientific inquiry about vision moved in emphasis from the rational abstraction of Descartes to an experience-based empiricism, the subjective body became not only the object of study but also the tool for that study. Cartesian models had swept away anomalies, pulses, and bodily eccentricities in order to create an abstract, idealized model of vision. But empiricist theories of vision brought them back, attempting to explain the eye's functions through observation of how and what a living subject's eye actually sees under changing conditions. In this way, a certain position of mastery over an abstract realm of knowledge gave way to a more phenomenological science of vision, one that studied the body from within the body.

And in fact, it was the groundedness—in the body, in time—of afterimages that made them such a suggestive phenomenon for empiricist theorists of vision. For, as Crary points out in Techniques of the Observer, afterimages carried important theoretical implications for the study of perception and cognition:

First, … the privileging of the afterimage allowed one to conceive of sensory perception as cut from any necessary link with an external referent. The afterimage—the presence of sensation in the absence of a stimulus—… posed a theoretical and empirical demonstration of autonomous vision, of an optical experience that was produced by and within the subject. Second, and equally important, is the introduction of temporality as an inescapable component of observation.

(Crary 98)

As phenomena produced through an interaction of light and the bodily eye, afterimages are subjective; as delayed responses to an initial luminous impression, afterimages exist within a sequential temporality. Both characteristics imply a new way of understanding how we see—and know—the world: through experience, through time. Thus the study of afterimages signals an important epistemological shift away from objectivity and atemporality, away from the kind of abstract purity of the camera obscura model that Balzac invoked to depict Louis Lambert's visionary gift.

So what does it mean when Balzac calls our attention to the experience of afterimages? Surely, when he mentions afterimages in the passage I cited above, Balzac is not entering into a scientific debate about methodology in the field of optics. He neither identifies the phenomenon as an “afterimage” nor invests his mention with any explicit epistemological weight. But it is worth noting the moments at which Balzac draws on the realm of optical experience for his metaphorical imagery. In fact, I would suggest that attention to the context of these optical images can tell us something not only about Balzac's conception of vision and its relation to knowledge, but also about what visual epistemology has to do with the narrative project itself. The conjunction of visual figure and narrative form begins to emerge, for example, in another text featuring a passage in which a retinal afterimage appears: La Maison Nucingen (1838).

La Maison Nucingen is the rather convoluted story of Eugène de Rastignac's rise to fortune through the financial dealings of his lover's husband, the Baron de Nucingen. It is narrated as an overheard tale told by a dinner reveler, Bixiou, to his Parisian chums in a restaurant. Bixiou and his friend Blondet have promised to lay their friends' curiosity to rest with a detailed narration of the banking deals that propelled Rastignac upwards through the layers of French society—and so they relate a tale full of secondary characters and seemingly unrelated events.

One episode concerns a ball at which a mediocre young Parisian named Godefroid de Beaudenord becomes enamored of a lovely—and unmarried—young lady. Godefroid, a superficial fop who ends up being the dupe of Rastignac's financial machinations, is convinced by a friend that he should ask for the lady's hand in marriage. As Bixiou tells it, the lovestruck Godefroid can still think only of the object of his affections, Isaure, even a few days after the ball:

Pendant trois jours dans la chambre obscure de son cerveau, Godefroid vit son Isaure et les camélias blancs, et les airs de tête, comme lorsqu'après avoir contemplé longtemps un objet fortement éclairé, nous le retrouvons les yeux fermés sous une forme moindre, radieux et coloré, qui pétille au centre des ténèbres.

(mn [La Maison Nucingen], 353, emphasis added)

You will recognize the two optical phenomena in this comparison: the camera obscura (here, as with Louis Lambert, compared to the dark enclosure of one's mind) and the retinal afterimage (a bright object reappears as a persistent, blurred image once the eyes have been closed). Their coexistence reminds us that Balzac is writing during a period of flux in theories of vision, a moment when the implied mastery and objectivity of a Cartesian perspectivalism overlaps with the subjective corporeality of empiricist theories of vision. And yet the coexistence is fraught with an underlying tension, for the study of subjective, corporeal phenomena like retinal afterimages marks a departure from the classical conception of vision, away from the a priori purity of the camera obscura model.15

So when the passage in La Maison Nucingen moves from the “chambre obscure” to the effects of afterimages, it re-inserts the temporal, bodily, phenomenal world into an abstracted, Cartesian model of vision. This point is made clearer when we compare the passage directly to the one from Louis Lambert that we looked at earlier:

Soudain je rentre en moi-même, et j'y trouve une chambre noire où les accidents de la nature viennent se reproduire sous une forme plus pure que la forme sous laquelle ils sont d'abord apparus à mes sens extérieurs.

(ll, 593, emphasis added)

Both Louis Lambert and Godefroid perceive mental images in the figural camera obscura of their minds. The image of a darkened chamber signals a distance from the external, physical world. For Louis Lambert, the distance is caused by an ascetic retreat from the physical world and for Godefroid, it has to do with the physical absence of the woman he admires. But while Lambert's “chambre noire” allows a purified image of the world to develop, Godefroid's “chambre obscure” is modified, as though by the subjective phenomenon of afterimages: compare the “forme plus pure” of Lambert's mental image to Godefroid's “objet … sous une forme moindre, radieux et coloré, qui pétille au centre des ténèbres.” The latter description recalls the language used to describe retinal afterimages, in which the bright blots of color appear shaky and hazy because of the eye's twitches and the semi-obscurity of the closed eyelid. This represents a deviation from the conventional way in which the camera obscura is used to figure vision. In its Keplerian and Cartesian use, the “chambre obscure” had been compared to an open eye that allows a ray of light to project an accurate image to the retina; it acted as a model of pure vision, shutting out any disruptive, extraneous phenomena. In the passage from La Maison Nucingen, however, the “chambre obscure” of the mind is compared to a closed eye, one whose nerves and pulses blur the shrunken, shimmering image. From pure blackness (Louis Lambert's “chambre noire”) to shadowy obscurity (Godefroid's “chambre obscure” and “ténèbres”), the two passages echo a subtle ambivalence in optical discourse between the clear-cut purity of abstracted vision and the bodily disturbances of experiential sight.

It is only fitting, of course, that the spiritual visionary Lambert be associated with an atemporal model of revelation while the lovestruck Godefroid is associated with a corporeal and subjective perception. After all, Lambert is gifted with the inner vision of “second sight,” while Godefroid—propelled by his libidinal stirrings and blind to the ways in which he is being manipulated—has a real lack of vision; the two characters lie on either side, as it were, of normal visual perception. What I find interesting is that this difference manifests itself even in the casual and seemingly similar use of an optical phenomenon, the camera obscura, to refer to their mental processes. While Lambert “sees” the abstract truths of a burgeoning philosophy in his purified mind, Godefroid sees Isaure, the conventionally pretty and conveniently rich young lady he wants to marry. Bixiou calls Godefroid's attraction to Isaure “l'idéal ascétique”—a possible indication of a link to Lambert's visionary mode—but the phrase can only be taken as irony, since Godefroid's rather bumbling courtship shows no signs of pure artistic, ascetic, or amorous genius. Even if Godefroid's cerveau is initially pure, it is soon affected by the afterimages of time and the body in the form of libidinal interest and manipulations of financial timing.

La Maison Nucingen is, after all, a story about cynical intrigue and manipulative venality. Through a series of complex investments, divestments, false rumors, and delays, the Baron de Nucingen assures his own and Eugène de Rastignac's rise to fortune. Speculation here takes on a joint financial and visual meaning, with the chance effects of the market combining with conscious distractions of Godefroid's focus of attention in order to blind, “aveugler,” the victims of the capitalist ruses. The move in visuality from absolute essence to phenomenal appearances corresponds, in a sense, to the move in early nineteenth-century finances from a confidence in stable values to a more fluid conception of the relation between monetary units and their changing appearances (in the stock market, for example). With their “fausse faillite” scheme, Rastignac and de Nucingen are able to manipulate those appearances because they have abandoned an absolutist belief in transcendental value.16 Similarly, the scientists of empiricist vision turn their attention away from abstract models of vision and towards the shifting, pulsing phenomena of visual experience. Rather than pin down a transcendental physics of vision, they allow temporality to affect its study. The interest in retinal afterimages, or “les couleurs accidentelles,” rests on the fact that they function according to temporal delays and to an element of chance—much as Rastignac's confusing manipulation of Godefroid's (and other victims') investment relies on chance and temporal delay for its success.

This may seem like a negative shift—from idealized, pure image to “une forme moindre” of a previous ideal; but I think there is more at stake here than just a nostalgic glance at purer forms of ascetic vision and value. We should remember that La Maison Nucingen is a tale within a tale: the framing scenes take place at a restaurant, where an unidentified narrator has overheard a story told by the young man-about-Paris Bixiou. The narrator then recounts the story, with a full staging of its narration, complete with details about Bixiou's voice, his gestures, the interruptions from his listeners. In a way, then, “La Maison Nucingen” is a story about story-telling. As the main internal author-figure, Bixiou is materially incorporated into the very production of the tale—unlike Victor Morillon, who is given a fictional role external to the story of Les Chouans.

Bixiou's listeners continuously attack his story-telling technique as “marivaudage.” For example, when he begins to enumerate the camelias worn by Isaure at a ball, Bixiou is interrupted by his companion Blondet: “Allons, voilà les trois cents chèvres de Sancho!” (351), an allusion to Don Quixote's exhortation to Sancho Panza to get to the point. Bixiou defends the value of pleasure over brevity in literature and Blondet apologizes for the interruption. Bixiou is interrupted again, however, right after he compares Godefroid's mental image of Isaure to the effects of after-images:

… Godefroid vit son Isaure et les camélias blancs, et les airs de tête, comme lorsqu'après avoir contemplé longtemps un objet fortement éclairé, nous le retrouvons les yeux fermés sous une forme moindre, radieux et coloré, qui pétille au centre des ténèbres.
“Bixiou,” dit Couture, “tu tombes dans le phénomène, masse-nous des tableaux?”


“Tu tombes dans le phénomène”—Well, precisely! At the very moment that he invokes the subjective phenomenon of vision we call an afterimage, Bixiou is accused of paying attention to the world of appearances, to inessential phenomena, to details that do not matter. Or to return to the terms used by Thomas Reid, he is accused of pausing at the level of “apparences visibles” before getting on to what they signify. The centuries-long philosophical debate between unifying essence and diversity of forms gets applied here to the realm of narrative—through a visual figure. Bixiou has gone beyond a conventional description of imagined love by appealing to our own visual experience, to the way in which an idealized image—rather than remain stable in the abstract vacuum of a pure camera obscura—is distorted, blurred, changed by the mechanisms of our bodily eye. Couture's impatient reaction to this appeal signals a desire to pull Bixiou back to his narrative point. In other words, Couture wants Bixiou to eliminate distracting details drawn from the material (sensory, phenomenal) world and to pass directly to the story's essence—just as a Cartesian theory of vision tries to eliminate the phenomenal distractions of sensory perception from an idealized, essentialized notion of vision.

But Bixiou, the storyteller, defends his narration. The material world cannot be skipped over, for it comprises the tale itself. In the realist mode of storytelling, the details do count, the phenomena of the visible world do “matter.” The material particulars—like the number of Isaure's camelias or the way in which Godefroid's imaging of her recalls our own visual experience—cannot be skipped over in the service of brevity any more than the visible world can be skipped over in the service of a theoretical purity of vision.

In short, Balzac's own realist narrative project is at stake in Bixiou's defense of “phenomenal” narration. Bixiou embodies the author-function not as isolated voyant but as effective guide to the labyrinthine realities of society. He is no fictional Victor Morillon, pure spirit and ideal horizon of artistic production as imagined in a Preface draft. Bixiou belongs to the real cast of characters populating Balzac's La Comédie humaine. And his narrative project has less to do with providing a distillation of a sweeping historical event (as Les Chouans was meant to do) than with providing the reader with the sense of a particular atmosphere at a particular moment; as readers we are given enough details to identify with the narrator, sated by an elegant Parisian restaurant meal, listening from behind a curtain to intrigue-heavy gossip.

As his themes and methods move away from idealized overviews and toward daily dealings and contemporary experience, Balzac closes a gap that had been established in the Preface to Les Chouans between visionary author and worldly reader. In that Preface, Balzac described Victor Morillon as a publicity-shy seer, reluctant to tarnish the purity of his vision by allowing mercenary publishers to share his stories with the world:

Les images qui ne devaient pas sortir de son âme, les tableaux au trait, aussitôt effacés que dessinés, qui passaient rapidement dans sa pensée secrète empreints de la grâce des aurores, il les a décrits, en les exposant aux regards de tous, il leur verra perdre leur fleur virginale.


This early, melodramatic description of the images wrought by gifted inspiration emphasizes their purity, their protection from the eyes of the public, their isolation in a sort of “chambre noire” of the soul—so much so that contact with the world necessarily defiles them. With Bixiou, on the other hand, there is no such imaginative purity: his tale of Rastignac's rise to fortune is based on what he has directly observed, heard, witnessed. The scene of narration itself is given over to be visualized, so that the reader may phenomenologically enter into the experience not only in the tale, but of the tale. Where Les Chouans's unidentified narrator had lamented the impossibility for a reader to see the story's introductory landscape, La Maison Nucingen presents the reader with sensory connections to every element of the story. Bixiou's narration functions according to the empirical logic of observation and experience; unlike the abrupt revelation of images in Victor's mental sanctuary (his “fleur virginale”), Bixiou's story comes to the reader slowly, with interruptions and delays, temporal mediation and sensory screens. If Victor represents the visionary purity of second sight, La Maison Nucingen casts aside that purity in favor of a temporal logic of narration, a series of afterimages rather than one pure “second sight.”

What are the implications of this textually encoded move from one mode of seeing to another in Balzac? Can we read La Maison Nucingen as an exploration of the “modern observer”—that is, of the seeing subject as bodily, temporally grounded and implicated in a nexus of political and economic forces that strip the subject of perspectival mastery? I think so, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the multiple narration (by the frame-narrator, Bixiou, Blondet, Finot, and Couture) implies the abdication of a unique, all-knowing perspective. As with changing theories of optics, an objective, mastering gaze is decentered, and Reason replaced with the experience of individuals. This narrative “democracy” is in keeping with Bixiou's defense of the story's flow as against the voiced by his listeners for a narrative purity, one that follows only the “essence” of the tale. Further, the move away from pure, essential value is echoed in the financial themes of the tale, where relativism and speculation determine the rise and fall of fortunes. And finally, the narrative and financial flux are linked to new modes of government. After having heard the ins and outs of the financial rigamarole that allowed Nucingen and Rastignac to make fortunes, Blondet proclaims that the only way to eliminate financial corruption is to go back to absolute government: “Au gouvernement absolu, le seul où les entreprises de l'Esprit contre la Loi puissent être réprimées!” (392) He adds that all healthy societies go back to a monarchy in one form or another. With Blondet's outburst, La Maison Nucingen ends on a note of nostalgia for the stable purity of a political Absolutism. But its narrative form belies that nostalgia, proposing instead a forward flow whose implications include the following substitutions: a) history for transcendence; b) empirical methodology for a priori deduction; c) speculation for absolute monetary value; d) gradual sight for visionary illumination; e) multiple narration for unifying perspective; f) bodily flux for abstract purity; and g) (semi-) democratic regimes for absolute monarchy.

This may seem a lot to hang on a short story like La Maison Nucingen, but I am trying with this list to show how thoroughly a visual tension—between transcendent “second sight” and physiology-based optics—inflects the broader historical, philosophical, and narrative ambivalences that course through La Comédie humaine. There is no doubt that Balzac, writing at a time of post-Revolutionary flux, was both looking back and looking forward. And while texts like Les Chouans, Louis Lambert, and Séraphita exist under the sign of a dominant nostalgia, other texts exhibit a forward propulsion. Among these I would count Le Bal de Sceaux, to which I now want to turn, as I think its analysis will clarify my point.

Le Bal de Sceaux was written in 1829, soon after Les Chouans. But while Les Chouans is set in 1800, at the end of an era (note the original title, “Le Dernier Chouan”), Le Bal de Sceaux takes place in 1815, at the beginning of the Restoration reign of Louis XVIII—a time of transition, of change, and of a sense of inevitable progress.

It is the story of Emilie de Fontaine, the elegant and beautiful youngest daughter of a royalist count, Monsieur de Fontaine. A Bourbon loyalist, Fontaine had lost a fortune fighting for the king during Napoleon's first rise to power. Such selflessness had won him the consideration of the other courtiers as “le plus pur des vendéens”—but that consideration included as well a bit of sneering at such absolute purity. Slowly, the count begins to realize that those who had joined the king in exile had received far more recompense than those who had bravely fought at home. As a result, Fontaine decides to emigrate with the court during the second royal exile (1814-1815); in other words, he learns from experience. He learns so well, in fact, that he returns to France with the court, after Napoleon's defeat, as one of Louis XVIII's closest counselors. Despite having once balked at any hint of dilution of monarchical power, he eventually accepts representative rule: “Ce prince philosophe [Louis XVIII] avait pris plaisir à convertir le vendéen [Fontaine] aux idées qu'exigeaient la marche du dix-neuvième siècle et la rénovation de la monarchie.” (117) Fontaine has observed his surroundings and allowed experience to modify an originally pure political model.

Fontaine's daughter, Emilie, is another story. Among the favors that Louis XVIII has granted to Fontaine is the marriage of his children to wealthy bourgeois mates. But as Le Bal de Sceaux begins, we learn that his youngest child, Emilie, refuses all proposed matches because she considers them beneath her station. The count's move to a progressive political stance had included the acceptance of a new definition of nobility, one that recognizes class based not only on aristocratic birth but on merit and even on wealth. Emilie, on the other hand, clings to the most traditional, essentialist definition of nobility taught to her by her aristocratic mother: to be a nobleman, one must be born a nobleman. Emilie has in mind an image (we could say a “pre-image”) of her ideal mate: he must be rich, elegant, handsome, svelte, and a Peer of France—that is, of the highest nobility.

Notably, Emilie wants her ideal suitor's nobility to be visually apparent. She seems especially interested in the arms emblazoned on her future spouse's carriage as visible sign of his standing: “Il me serait insupportable,” announces Emilie, “de ne pas voir mes armes peintes sur les panneaux de ma voiture au milieu des plis flottants d'un manteau d'azur.” The lucky position of judgment from which this young lady rejects all suitors is set up by Balzac in visual terms: “[l]e jeune homme qui, au premier coup d'oeil, ne remplissait pas les conditions voulues, n'obtenait même pas un second regard.”

Emilie herself, like so many of Balzac's characters, displays the visible traits of her personality. Haughtiness and disdain, for example, manifest themselves in her height, her piercing eyes (“ses yeux perçants”), and even a rather long neck (“Son col un peu long”), which allows her to survey the world (and her suitors) from above. From her position of superiority, Emilie masters the social spectacle of her time, where seeing and being seen determine every intrigue, amorous or political. Her father, though, worries that the world might tire of “une personne qui restait si longtemps en scène sans donner un dénouement à la comédie qu'elle y jouait,” for if Emilie's power lies in her visibility, it also relies on a certain blindness in her audience: “le comte sentit que plus tard les prétentions de sa fille, dont le ridicule allait être visible pour certaines femmes aussi clairvoyantes que peu charitables, deviendraient un fatal sujet de raillerie.” Emilie has turned the serious business of marriage into a game, one whose investment in the visual realm is threatened by the emptiness of optical illusion. Her father still hopes that the suitors he presents to his daughter will have a chance, “que son assemblée de prétendus ne serait pas, cette fois, une fantasmagorie pour sa fille.” A fantasmagoria—that is, a purely superficial distraction for the eyes, to be dismissed as amusing illusion.17

The visual mastery that Emilie exerts over her private domain, however, is doomed to be toppled—at the ball of the story's title. As Anne-Marie Meininger proposes in her introduction to Le Bal de Sceaux, the choice of this particular ball reveals Balzac's interest in social and political questions that surpass the private romance of a young lady:

le bal de Sceaux n'est pas seulement l'endroit où Emilie de Fontaine aperçoit Longueville pour la première fois, c'est surtout un lieu de rencontre symbolique entre le passé et l'avenir, c'est ‘l'intéressante mêlée’ de l'aristocratie et du peuple, de ceux qui regardent et de ceux qui bougent, de ceux qui viennent des manoirs où l'on conserve et de ceux qui viennent des champs et des bureaux ou des boutiques où l'on acquiert, de la classe finissante et de la classe ascendante.


But if the ball marks a link between past and future, manorial aristocracy and commercial class—as indeed the outcome of the story confirms—Emilie arrives at Sceaux blind to its potential blurring of the boundaries she holds so dear. In fact she has decided to attend this provincial country dance for the simple amusement of displaying her radiant beauty. Emilie is certain that the townsfolk will be devoid of interest for her, other than as objects of ridicule: “Mlle de Fontaine se plaisait à se figurer toutes ces tournures citadines, elle se voyait laissant dans plus d'un coeur bourgeois le souvenir d'un regard et d'un sourire enchanteurs, riait déjà des danseuses à prétentions” (133). “Elle se voyait”: as both subject and object of her imagined visuality, Emilie puts herself in the Cartesian position of visual control through abstraction of the self.18 The perspective external to her own body allows Emilie to imagine the effect that her own charming glances will have on the bourgeois population. They, she is sure, will be “magnetized,” subjugated by her visible radiance and rendered incapable of turning away their own eyes. Emilie's haughty eye will, in short, direct a play of gazes. At least, that is what the young coquette expects from her country outing.

But something unexpected happens to Emilie as she makes her rounds at the modest ball—something that is presented initially as an optical phenomenon familiar to the reader:

Il nous arrive souvent de regarder une robe, une tenture, un papier blanc avec assez de distraction pour n'y pas apercevoir sur-le-champ une tache ou quelque point brillant qui plus tard frappent tout à coup notre œil comme s'ils y survenaient à l'instant seulement où nous les voyons; par une espèce de phénomène moral assez semblable à celuilà, Mlle de Fontaine reconnut dans un jeune homme le type des perfections extérieures qu'elle rêvait depuis si longtemps.

(I, 134)

This, the key passage I cited as epigraph to this section, returns us to retinal afterimages. As with the comparison in La Maison Nucingen between Godefroid's mental image and the common optical phenomenon of afterimages, the description of Emilie's perception of a young man appeals to the readers' common visual experience. The “tache[s]” and “point[s] brillant[s]” in Balzac's analogy recall the physiological effects of retinal stimulation described by scientists of vision like Buffon and Helmholtz. Remember that Cartesian optics dismissed such phenomena as largely irrelevant to the study of vision; for empiricist theories of vision, on the other hand, these seemingly unimportant specks on the eye are essential indicators of optical physiology. Balzac's use here of afterimages in his comparison emphasizes this relevance: Emilie's expectations that nothing in the “blankness” of the ball will attract her attention is belied by the eventual importance of the young man who appears to her as though he were an afterimage. We are being told, in effect, to pay attention to the details, to the phenomena of the visible world because they are what motivate Balzac's story and the society it describes.

Let me add a further nuance to my reading of this passage. Balzac's announced parallel of optical phenomena (the spots and lights that “frappent tout à coup notre oeil”) and moral phenomena (“une espèce de phénomène moral assez semblable à celui-là”) does not actually hold up as a rigorous comparison. One would expect the second term of the comparison to refer to Emilie's eventual recognition that a handsome man had crossed into her field of vision without her having initially noticed him. Instead, Balzac tells us that Emilie came across a man who fit the imagined ideal that she had mentally formed in advance. One might paraphrase Balzac's sentence thus: “just as something we hadn't consciously perceived (although it had crossed our field of vision) appears retrospectively to the eye, Emilie perceived a visual image whose existence she had earlier only imagined.” If a déjà-vu, a “have-seen,” exists for Emilie, it is only because of the force of her imagination—not because of any real similarity of structure between the optical experience of afterimages and her described visual interaction with the “jeune homme.” The result is a catachresis in which the physiological term (a young man passes through Emilie's scopic field) is left out entirely. The “monstrosity” of the figure as well as the hesitancy of Balzac's “assez semblable” point to a conceptual tension—one I would characterize as that between two models of vision. For in fact, the two sides of Balzac's equation are anything but “semblable,” in that they invoke two different types of seeing: the “pre-image” of a Cartesian a priority, in which visual truths are deduced from pre-existing abstract models; and the after-image of empiricist induction, in which optical phenomena are studied for what they can tell us about visual functioning. Emilie's absolute adherence to a pre-existing image of her ideal suitor belongs to a Cartesian logic of abstraction. Balzac's rhetorical appeal to the reader in this passage, on the other hand, privileges the empiricist model as useful for his telling of the story—a story that ends up undermining Emilie's absolutist visuality.

How is Emilie toppled from her high perch of visual mastery? It begins with the passage above, which alerts the reader to the importance of Emilie's first visual contact with the “jeune homme” at the bal. Then, as though the textual structure itself were recreating the double temporality of an afterimage, we get a longer, second version of that moment, one that stretches it out over the time of a more detailed description. First, Emilie is seated in a position of visual mastery over the scene:

[E]lle s'était placée à l'extrémité du groupe formé par sa famille afin de pouvoir se lever ou s'avancer suivant ses fantaisies, en se comportant avec les vivants tableaux et les groupes offerts par cette salle comme à l'exposition du Musée; elle braquait impertinemment son lorgnon sur une personne qui se trouvait à deux pas d'elle, et faisait ses réflexions comme si elle eût critiqué ou loué une tête d'étude, une scène de genre.


In this description, Emilie's relation to the country dance is that of a spectator at a museum exhibition. The human subjects of the crowd exist only as “tableaux vivants,” as objects for her to “lorgner” impertinantly as if they belonged to the realm of visual representation. Emilie's eye is that of the art critic; it exists as origin point of a framed space, a “tableau,” whose lines of perspective exist in function of her.19

But this eye does not keep its privileged position: Ses regards, après avoir erré sur cette vaste toile animée, furent tout à coup saisis par cette figure qui semblait avoir été mise exprès dans un coin du tableau, sous le plus beau jour, comme un personnage hors de toute proportion avec le reste. L'inconnu … avait les bras croisés et se tenait penché comme s'il se fût placé là pour permettre à un peintre de faire son portrait.

(134, emphasis added)

Emilie's gaze, starting out as grammatical subject and sign of her visual mastery, loses its status quickly; it is “seized,” controlled externally, taken into a perspective other than its own. And taken by what? By something that exceeds the picturesque framing of Emilie's country scene: by an “inconnu” described as “hors de toute proportion avec le reste.” In other words, this alternate subject exists outside the rules of perspective set up by Emilie's smug art-viewer position. According to the rules of perspective for painting that were drawn up by Brunelleschi and Alberti in the Renaissance (and that dominated classical theories of art), a single element that is out of proportion in a painting destabilizes the entire work. It provokes a “désaxement,” a discrepancy vis-à-vis the origin point that is meant to organize the represented space. The “inconnu” at the Bal de Sceaux is presented as just such an element, one whose disproportion will overturn and trouble the “tableau” that is Emilie's world. Moreover, it is a disproportion only in relation to Emilie's position; in and of himself, the “inconnu” embodies the perfect ideal of esthetic form: “Sa taille svelte et dégagée rappelait les belles proportions de l'Apollon.”

Emilie is used to being the center of interest and attention. She usually wields control over her suitors by magnetizing them, by pulling their desiring gazes toward herself. But this stranger, far from succumbing to Emilie's scopic field, is gazing entrancedly at another: “Son regard fixe suivait les mouvements d'une danseuse, en trahissant quelque sentiment profond.” And Emilie's own gaze is seized and led in to his visual vector: “Mlle de Fontaine suivit alors la direction que prenaient les regards du jeune homme, et aperçut la cause de cette insouciance.” Emilie is marginalized by the young man's oblivion at the same time that she is becoming enraptured by his perfect appearance, at the moment when her haughty “survol” is troubled by desire for the first time in her life.

Obviously, Emilie will do all she can to regain her elevated position. The amusing series of her bumbling attempts have to do, once again, with visual mastery. First, our young coquette wanders at seeming random over to the area where the young man is standing. Although she feigns indifference, “par un artifice d'optique familier aux femmes, elle ne perdait pas un seul des mouvements du jeune homme.” (136) Then, when he fails to notice her, she proposes to her brother a promenade around the handsome stranger “sous prétexte d'admirer les points de vue du jardin.” (136-37) Emilie is used to surveying her sea of suitors from the “points de vue” of her whims, as though the people around her were sculptures in an art gallery. But even her attempt to recreate the control through a contrived perspectival walk fails. Through the stranger's indifference, Emilie's visual field has become uncertain, de-stabilized.

To a certain extent, Emilie's “effets d'optique” do end up capturing the young man's attention and he comes calling a few days later. The story unfolds with a series of encounters that leave Emilie more and more enamored of the young man, Maximilien, without having been able to discover his rank. Maximilien seems to fit her pre-ordained ideal to perfection: he is stunningly rich, meltingly handsome, talented at dancing, generous and good—and he loves Emilie sincerely. It is only a matter of time before the young couple falls in love. But it is a love based on a mutual blind spot: his “punctum caecum” is her snobbery, which he keeps hoping does not really exist; and hers is his non-noble rank, which she allows herself to deny. They avow their love for each other in a tender engagement scene, but the luster fades soon after when Emilie is confronted with visual proof that her fiancé is not a nobleman: she sees him selling cloth in a bourgeois boutique. Her disappointment is enormous. And despite her love for the young man, she cruelly rejects him, even after having learned that his lowly employment represents a generous sacrifice for his older brother to attain the Peerage—the title, that is, that Emilie finds so essential to her union. The tragi-comic dénouement has Emilie, age twenty-two, marrying her eighty-year-old great-uncle and—to top it off—learning too late that Maximilien has inherited the title of Pair de France from his father and older brother.

This somewhat amusing comeuppance of a snobbish young lady leaves us with an apparently clear moral: be flexible in politics and accept the march of progress. I would further suggest that Emilie's story narrativizes this political moral through the figural decentering of a visual subject. For if Le Bal de Sceaux is a political fable, it is also a fable of visibility, of the relations between seeing and knowing.20 The great disappointment in Emilie's life is due to a social upheaval that changes the rules of perspective that had governed her idealized world. First, Maximilien's appearance indicates nobility to Emilie; then, when she sees him selling merchandise, she believes that her initial assessment was wrong. The gap between how he seems and what he is confounds Emilie's hopes for a happy marriage. As a result, she ends up wishing for a more direct relation between essence and appearance, one that would guarantee that a suitor's beauty and elegance are indicative of his rank. This wish takes the form of nostalgia for an era when social hierarchies were confirmed by visible signs:

Si, comme son père, elle avait quelque influence à la Chambre, disait-elle, elle provoquerait une loi pour obtenir que les commerçants … fussent marqués au front comme les moutons du Berry, jusqu'à la troisième génération. … A l'entendre, peut-être étaitce un malheur pour la monarchie qu'il n'y eût aucune différence visible entre un marchand et un pair de France.


This passage links political absolutism to stable visuality. Horrified by the social mobility of the post-Revolutionary age, Emilie wants to legislate appearances, to ensure a transparent relation between what things are and how they appear to the eye.

But the political flexibility of Louis XVIII's reign indicates a new, troubled status of the privileged seeing subject. No longer able to take in the world at a “coup d'œil” (as Emilie did when she first saw Maximilien at the ball), the modern observer must gain experience with the subtle, changing phenomena of social appearances in order to interpret them. Emilie's “coup d'œil,” based as it is on an absolute, pre-existing image of the world as it should be, recalls the Cartesian a prioristic conception of innate, idealized vision. Her father, on the other hand, has a vision of the world that incorporates learning and experience; his acceptance of historical flux recalls the empiricist concept of vision as gradual acquisition. Emilie has resisted the progress that attempts to pull her away from a static hierarchical conception of the world. But her visuality is at odds with a world coming to terms with the gaps between absolute essence and phenomenal variety. In Balzac's optical and philosophical contexts, the uniform perspective of absolute mastery is giving way to a changing conception of bodily subjects-within-the-world; theories of perception, as I have suggested, are leaning towards a subjective visuality that allows optical phenomena (shadows, sun-spots, after-images) to enter into definitions of vision. The “phénomène” of Maximilien as he first appeared to Emilie at the ball, compared as he was to the spots that appear on one's eyes, is a sign of an irruption of the body into the purified, abstracted, absolutist space of the Ideal.

What the afterimages in La Maison Nucingen and Le Bal de Sceaux suggest is an alternative visuality to the transcendental voyance of second sight. While visionaries like Victor Morillon, Louis Lambert, and—in a more angelic mode—Séraphita represent a vertical thrust toward transcendent illumination, the physical world represented in La Comédie humaine imposes itself as necessary object of observation. Indeed, the material, visible world is not merely a transparent phenomenal indicator of what lies behind it; rather, it functions as an empirical object of observation, modifying the way in which that conceptual, underlying truth is perceived. Throughout the Balzacian text, physical vision structures the spiritual search for truth. If Balzac has given us the visionary dictum “Penser, c'est voir,” it is perhaps as a reminder that images of the mind are grounded in images of the eye, that “second sight” comes after a first.


  1. Brombert, Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel; and Berg, The Visual Novel: Emile Zola and the Art of His Times.

  2. On the history of this “querelle”, starting with Sainte-Beuve's and Baudelaire's interventions in 1850, see Barbéris, Balzac: une mythologie réaliste; for another now classic locus, see Béguin, “Balzac visionnaire,” in Balzac lu et relu.

  3. Bays, “Balzac as Seer,” 83-92; 83.

  4. With its allusive linking of mystics and sages (from Mesmer and Saint-Martin to Cuvier and Saint-Hilaire), the Avant-propos explicitly fuses science and mysticism, refusing to situate them at opposite ends of a spectrum.

  5. The nineteenth-century sciences have been categorized according to discipline as either empirical and “inductive” (biology, natural history) or abstract and “deductive” (physics, mathematics). See, for example, Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences. Nonetheless, Foucault's formulation of modern (post-1800) epistemology as caught in an “empirico-transcendental doublet” better reflects the methodological and theoretical tensions between induction and deduction that pertained across scientific thought and within particular disciplines. Foucault, Les Mots et les choses: une archéologie des sciences humaines, 330-331. Balzac, of course, rejects categorical distinctions between scientific and mystical discourse in the Avant-Propos, where he links the scientific writings of Leibnitz and Lavater to the mystical musings of Swedenborg and Saint-Martin. But even when engaging in strictly scientific debates, the author of La Comédie humaine implicitly refuses to discount either empiricism or transcendentalism, paying tribute, for example, both to Cuvier's empiricist emphasis on the observation of natural phenomena (in La Peau de chagrin and La Recherche de l'absolu, for example) and to Saint-Hilaire's direct inquiry into what Françoise Gaillard calls “la raison invisible du visible,” the unified, hidden essence that transcends mere visible appearances (in the Avant-propos). Gaillard, “La Science: Modèle ou Vérité. Réflexions sur l'avant-propos à La Comédie humaine,” 57-83; 73. In Illusions perdues, Balzac calls Cuvier and Saint-Hilaire “deux génies égaux” (Fargeaud, Madeleine. Œuvres complètes, note p. 117).

  6. The broad shift from classical (Cartesian, Newtonian) optics to a modern (empiricist, physiological) optics is chronicled in various histories of theories of visual perception, including the following: Dember, Visual Perception: the Nineteenth Century; Gregory, Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing; Helmholtz, Helmholtz's Treatise on Physiological Optics; Machamer and Turnbull, Studies in Perception: Interrelations in the History of Philosophy and Science; Pastore, Selective History of Theories of Visual Perception: 1650-1950; Taton, Histoire Générale des Sciences; and Wade and Swanston, Visual Perception: an Introduction.

  7. Reid, “Des Erreurs des Sens,” 48.

  8. Balzac, Œuvres Complètes, 417-18.

  9. Certainly, as many critics have explained, this anti-materialist notion of second sight can be traced to a Swedenborgian mysticism. See, for example, Bays, “Balzac as Seer,” 83-92; and Bérard, “Une Enigme Balzacienne: la ‘Spécialité,’” 61-82. But read in the context of scientific notions of sight and second sight, Lambert's “grande perfection de vue” shares with Cartesian optics its conception of physical sensation as an obstacle to real knowledge. In Descartes, reality and truth are assured by Reason, and not by the evidence of the senses, for “c'est l'âme qui sent, et non le corps” (681-2). Descartes, “De la Dioptrique,” 651-761.

  10. Crary takes the figure of the camera obscura as paradigmatic of the status of the observer in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge ma: mit Press, 1990); the argument is made throughout the book, but see especially chapter 2: “The Camera Obscura and Its Subject.” Jay also refers to the “Cartesian perspectivalism” figured by the camera obscura as the “dominant scopic regime of the modern era.” Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, 69-70.

  11. Helmholtz, for example, writing in the late nineteenth century in defense of the empiricist theory of vision, uses the image to explain the physiological phenomenon of the inverted retinal image: “In its optical behaviour the eye is essentially like a camera obscura” (Vol. I, 91: “Optical System of the Eye”). The comparison had been made centuries earlier by J. B. Porta (1545-1615), but Helmholtz' use shifts the figure's connotation from transparency to anatomy.

  12. One might note that the Cartesian ideal of transparent vision (unimpeded by the potential errors of physical senses) appears in the term “clair-voyance,” while “seconde vue” retains an echo of “la première vue”—physical sight.

  13. As Brooks writes, the Balzacian text continually slips from vue (physical sight) to vision (symbolic significance); but while the realm of meaning associated with vision remains the telos of the Balzacian text, it cannot be accessed without “the ‘pressure’ applied to the surfaces of the real, the insistence of the recording glance.” The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess, 125.

  14. Helmholtz, in his Treatise of Physiological Optics, tells of a seventeenth-century wager, in which Bonacursius bet a Jesuit scholar named Kircher that he could make a person see just as well in the dark as in the light; he won the bet by making Kircher look steadily at a drawing displayed in a window, then darkening the room and having him look at a blank piece of paper, on which Kircher plainly perceived the same drawing. (23. Variations of Sensitivity, 261)

  15. Remember that the camera obscura model elides not only corporeality (by reducing the body to one abstract point of perspective) but also temporality (by representing the act of seeing as virtually instantaneous).

  16. Their tale belongs to Balzac's attempt to represent a moment of transition—transition from one form of capitalism (still anchored in pre-capitalist value systems) to another, more modern form: “Du capitalisme larvé au capitalisme triomphant, du riche honteux au riche insolent, de l'argent maigre à l'argent gras, telle est l'évolution que, de Gobseck à La Maison Nucingen, Balzac nous fait toucher du doigt.” (Pléiade Vol. VI: Pierre Citron's Introduction, 326) Note that Citron's formulation, in addition to explaining the economic transition, also suggests an appeal to the senses in Balzac's representational mode: to the direct material witnessing of the “toucher du doigt.”

  17. On the historic and literary connotations of fantasmagoria, see Milner La Fantasmagorie; and Castle “Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie,” 26-61.

  18. Lacan characterizes “seeing oneself seeing” as the quintessential delusion of Cartesian perspectival vision/thought. Lacan, “Du Regard Comme Objet petit a,” 65-84. especially 71-76.

  19. On the mastering logic of the “tableau,” see Foucault. On perspectival vision, see Harries “Descartes, Perspective and the Angelic Eye,” 28-42; Bryson Vision and Painting: the Logic of the Gaze; and Damisch, L'Origine de la perspective.

  20. Goux's article “Descartes et la perspective” examines the way in which the perspectival logic of Descartes' philosophical writings is “à la fois monarchique et démocratique” in its positing of a central viewpoint from which a single subject (in the king-position, whether actually king or not) sees the world; “Voilà ce que postule la perspective, comme le cogito: la subjectivité absolue ne contredit pas mais rend possible l'objectivité parfaite.” (19) Commenting on this article, Swain writes: “The new emphasis on viewpoint both gave power and took it away—gave it, by placing the viewer at the optimum point of control, and refused it, by making this place open, democratically, to everyone.” (Swain, “Lumières et Vision: Reflections on Sight and Seeing in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France,” 7).

Works Cited

Balzac, Honoré de. Œuvres Complètes. Ed. Pierre-George Castex. Editions de la Pléiade, Paris: Gallimard, 1976.

Barbéris, Pierre. Balzac: une mythologie réaliste. Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1971.

Bays, Gwendolyn. “Balzac as Seer.” Yale French Studies 13 (spring-summer 1954): 83-92.

Béguin, Albert. “Balzac visionnaire,” in Balzac lu et relu. Paris: Seuil, 1965.

Bérard, Suzanne J. “Une Enigme Balzacienne: la ‘Spécialité’,” L'Année Balzacienne (1965): 61-82.

Berg, William J. The Visual Novel: Emile Zola and the Art of His Times. University Park, pa: The Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1992.

Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge ma: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984.

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven ct: Yale Univ. Press, 1976.

Bryson, Norman. Vision and Painting: the Logic of the Gaze. New Haven ct: Yale Univ. Press: 1983.

Castle, Terry. “Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie,” Critical Inquiry 15 (autumn 1988): 26-61.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge ma: mit Press, 1990.

Damisch, Hubert. L'Origine de la perspective. Idées et Recherches. Ed. Yves Bonnefoy. Paris: Flammarion, 1987.

Dember, William N. Visual Perception: the Nineteenth Century. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1964.

Descartes, René. “De la Dioptrique.” Œuvres philosophiques, T.I (1618-1637). Paris: Garnier Frères, 1963. 651-761.

Foucault, Michel. Les Mots et les choses: une archéologie des sciences humaines. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1966.

Gaillard, Françoise. “La Science: Modèle ou Vérité. Réflexions sur l'avant-propos à La Comédie humaine.Balzac: L'invention du roman. Eds. Claude Duchet and Jacques Neefs. Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1982. 57-83.

Goux, Jean-Joseph. “Descartes et la perspective,” L'Esprit Créateur, XXV, 1 (spring, 1985). 10-20.

Gregory, Richard L. Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.

Harries, Karsten. “Descartes, Perspective and the Angelic Eye,” Yale French Studies, 49 (1973), pp. 28-42.

Helmholtz, Hermann von. Helmholtz's Treatise on Physiological Optics. Ed. James P. C. Southall. 3 vols. New York: Dover Publications, 1962.

Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994.

Lacan, Jacques. “Du Regard Comme Objet petit a.” Le Séminaire XI: Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1973.

Machamer, Peter K., and Robert G. Turnbull, eds. Studies in Perception: Interrelations in the History of Philosophy and Science: Ohio State, 1978.

Milner, Max. La Fantasmagorie. Paris: puf, 1982.

Pastore, Nicholas. Selective History of Theories of Visual Perception: 1650-1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Reid, Thomas. “Des Erreurs des Sens,” Œuvres Complètes, T.IV (Essais sur les facultés Intellectuelles de l'Homme). Paris: A. Santelet et Cie, 1828.

Swain, Virginia E. “Lumières et Vision: Reflections on Sight and Seeing in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France.” L'Esprit Créateur XXVIII.4 (1988). 7-16.

Taton, René (Ed). Histoire Générale des Sciences. Paris: puf, 1958.

Wade, Nicholas J., and Michael Swanston. Visual Perception: an Introduction. London: Routledge, 1991.

Whewell, William. History of the Inductive Sciences (1857), Volumes I and II. New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1976.

Allen Thiher (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Thiher, Allen. “Balzac and the Unity of Knowledge.” In Fiction Rivals Science: The French Novel from Balzac to Proust, pp. 37-80. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Thiher claims that Balzac transformed the novel from philosophical allegory to a discussion about the nature of knowledge, and explores the author's attempt to offer a reality in his novel that would compete with the supposed total truths posited by scientific discourse.]

Qui ne pardonnerait ce dernier plaisir à un homme de science et de poésie?

[Who would not forgive a man of science and poetry for this last pleasure?]

—Balzac, La Peau de chagrin


1778: Mesmer arrives in Paris with his medical theory based upon animal magnetism, sometimes viewed as the precursor to psychotherapy.
1785: Coulomb publishes his research on the inverse square laws of electrical and magnetic attraction.
1789: After several years of research that included the discovery of oxygen and the development of chemical nomenclature, Lavoisier publishes his Traité élémentaire de chimie containing the law of mass conservation.
1801: Pinel caps neo-Hippocratic revival in medicine with Traité médico-philosophique sur l'aliénation mental ou la manie, often considered first modern work of psychiatry.
1800: Bichat's Traité des membranes results from research that founds histology and experimental physiology.
1809: In his Philosophie zoologique Lamarck proposes that species emerge from a gradual process of development going from the simple to the complex.
1811: Jöns Jacob Berzelius states that electrical and chemical forces are one and the same.
1812: Sir Humphry Davy publishes his Elements of Chemical Philosophy, the major work by this romantic scientist who refused Dalton's theory of atoms as basic elements.
1817: Founding paleontology, Cuvier develops Linnaeus's system of classification with Le Règne animal.
1819: Working after Young's experiments in light interference, Fresnel undertakes work on a wave theory of light, against Newtonian theory, reported in a mémoire to the Academy of Sciences.
1824: Carnot's Réflexions sur la puissance motrice du feu first describes the relation of work and heat later developed in thermodynamics.
1827: After Oersted's discovery of the magnetic field generated by an electric field, Ampère's work results in mathematical formulation of electromagnetism.
1829: Gustave-Gaspard Coriolis publishes Du Calcul de l'effet des machines, giving definitions of work and kinetic energy.
1830: Differences between antievolutionist Cuvier and transformationist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a defender of the morphological unity of all living beings, result in public debate at the Academy of Science. Goethe writes a report on it.
1830: Stendhal publishes Le Rouge et le noir.
1831: Balzac publishes La Peau de chagrin.

Moral discourse, pornography, utopian eroticism—these are some of the genres found in the fiction of the eighteenth century. Enlightenment thinkers also used the novel to explore philosophical conundrums. Names like Richardson, Defoe, Montesquieu, Sterne, Voltaire, Diderot, and Goethe, among others, come to mind as illustrative of fiction's capacity to embody philosophical thought. My thesis in this chapter is, however, that the novel changed when Balzac transformed it into a more capacious epistemic discourse than philosophical allegory. Balzac understood this change as a challenge to science. He saw himself engaged in rivalry with the scientific discourses of his time at the same time that he saw his mission to be that of a collaborative critic. He understood his rivalry to engage not only the new totalizing discourses of history and metaphysics, but also the new discipline of chemistry and the older one of Newtonian mechanics, as well as disciplines such as medicine, physiology, and biology that offer direct knowledge of life forms, and hence of humanity. Most importantly, after the natural history of Linnaeus and Buffon, and with the work of Lamarck, Cuvier, and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, biology was emerging as the totalizing study of life forms as Balzac came to maturity. Moreover, geology and paleontology were taking their modern form; the story of the earth and its inhabitants was becoming precisely that: a story conceived as a history, or science as narrative.

The history of the novel, beginning with Balzac and, with some restrictions, Stendhal, is a tale of its reaction to, and interaction with, epistemic discourses as various as metaphysics, history, and natural science. Here I place the accent on the most neglected feature of that story: the novel's encounter with natural science. Only through successful competition with science, or so believed Balzac and a good many of his successors, could the novel justify its claims to offer access to reality in ways that might even be superior to scientific discourses with their claims to represent the totality of knowledge.

Balzac endorsed the view that knowledge is ultimately granted by a unified discourse. If reality is a single totality—a wistful axiom that contemporary physics pursues in its own way with its dream of a final, unified theory—it is not unreasonable to believe there should be a single, totalizing discourse that offers knowledge of that reality. Or as Balzac's alter ego scientist, Louis Lambert, says, “Aujourd'hui, la science est une”—knowledge is one. In the context of Balzac's novel, this proposition is not, however, a straightforward endorsement of a nineteenth-century version of the belief in a unified theory: Louis Lambert is a scientist who goes mad pursing the axiom that “il est impossible de toucher à la politique sans s'occuper de morale, et la morale tient à toutes les questions scientifiques” [it is impossible to separate politics and morality, and that morality involves all scientific questions].1 Lambert goes mad pursuing the Enlightment dream of totalizing knowledge. And this madness marks a significant change of attitude about the belief in the unity of all discourses that was characteristic of much Enlightenment thought. As we have seen, this unity is presupposed by Condorcet's attempt to figure physical and moral probability, and it underwrites Kant's view that pure reason can give rise to synthetic a priori propositions for both mathematics and morals. From a comprehensive historical perspective, it is clear that many Enlightenment axioms about knowledge continued in France, in science and history, well into the nineteenth century, and that romantics like Balzac and Stendhal, the romantics who invented modern realism, basically accepted the epistemic axioms of the Enlightenment. But Lambert's madness, perhaps like Faust's damnation before him, points to a certain loss of confidence. And, in the case of Balzac, it suggests that he sometimes accepted Enlightenment axioms the better to contest them.

Lambert goes insane in his quest for knowledge, and this insanity can be interpreted as a critique of the Enlightenment beliefs that Balzac acquired through his education. In his earliest essays, Balzac shows himself to be a Lockean nominalist, but he is also enough of a Cartesian (or Laplacean) physicist to believe that he could not affirm the existence of an eternal “principle” until “everything had been explained mathematically.”2 Locke, Descartes, Condorcet, and Malbranche, among others, provided a rationalist education for the young novelist growing up during the Empire. The other side of his education was provided by those eighteenth-century novelists, from Defoe through Richardson, who had produced a realist discourse more or less respecting the probabilistic knowledge that one supposedly garnered, through the senses, about everyday reality. Ultimately, however, at least to the contemporary reader, the realism of these novelists subordinates representation to moral discourse: epistemic interests are often sacrificed to more or less allegorical demonstrations. It hardly seem contestable that a reader has gained little knowledge, though much edification, when, after reading Moll Flanders, he or she can affirm that it is good to be virtuous when one is rich.

It is possible, of course, to argue that there is a moral dimension to Balzac's work—though that dimension is not so easily encapsulated as in a work by an English puritan. The difference between eighteenth-century fiction and Balzac's realism is evident, I think, in the way in which the moral dimension in Balzac is subordinated to an epistemic desire. Ethical judgments about the world, of which there are many in a Balzacian novel, are subordinated to the totalizing knowledge that the novel can offer in the first place. Knowledge precedes evaluation. In its most radical form, Balzac's desire to create an epistemic discourse results in what he called “philosophical” works, or novels that intend to promote the development of a unitary science or field of knowledge as Balzac conceived it. Viewed from this perspective, realism and metaphysical speculation can be seen as part of the same epistemic impulse in Balzac, for speculation is intended to promote epistemic ends. The quest for knowledge results in the realism of a Père Goriot, but also in the fantastic metascientific discourse of Séraphita as well as the extravagant allegory of La Peau de chagrin.

Although the Enlightenment framework sets out the most widely accepted criteria for what constituted the real and the knowable in the early nineteenth century, this framework was being challenged as Balzac was developing as a novelist. The latter part of the eighteenth century had already seen, in medicine and natural history, the vitalist challenge to the mechanistic paradigm. Vitalists postulated a life force that could explain human physiology and psychology, a life force that could not be described in mechanical terms. (Some literary romantics wanted to see in the vitalist challenge to the comprehensiveness of Newtonian mechanics a sign that physics and dynamics had no relevance for knowledge about life, but this was a minority movement.) The critique of the scope of Newtonian mechanics was hardly unique to vitalists. The challenge to its totalizing scope occurred in several quarters in the early nineteenth century. In the France of the 1820s, a critique of Laplacian physics was undertaken by physicists such as Ampère, with his work in electrodynamics, and Fresnel, whose renewal of a wave theory of light largely discredited Newton's particle theory. Fourier had begun the study of thermal conduction and was certain that heat was part of a class of phenomena that could not be explained by mechanical forces.3 And Sadi Carnot had theorized that the amount of energy produced by a steam engine is dependent only upon the temperature differential between the beginning and end phase of its cycle. This principle was to lead to an understanding of heat as a form of kinetic energy. Carnot's thought about energy was not only a nascent revolution in science that demonstrated an area in which Newtonian laws of motion were not relevant, but, as we shall see, it finds pertinent resonance in Balzac's own way of thinking about forces in conceiving the causes of events in fiction.

The active critique of scientific disciplines found in Balzac's novels is part of an ongoing historical debate. Largely centered on Paris in the first decades of the century, this debate was promoted by scientists who felt too limited by Newtonian or Kantian metaphysics, or found simply that Newtonian explanations did not fit the data, as in the case of light waves and thermal conduction. In general terms one can say that the early nineteenth century witnessed a number of debates, by scientists as well as philosophers, concerning the frameworks that offered access to reality. In the context of these active debates, Balzac believed that he could actively contribute, in terms that were scientifically viable, to the solution of these debates—debates, for example, as to what constitutes mind, matter, and life forces. To take Balzac's epistemic quest seriously requires one to place these questions in the foreground of reading Balzac.

Balzac embarrasses some of his most partisan readers with his claims to have knowledge about, say, imponderable forces and spiritual fluids that, from the viewpoint of today's science, seem rather quirky indeed. But it seems to me that this embarrassment comes from having only a partial grasp of the conditions of possibility for knowledge in the first part of the nineteenth century—for Balzac is, often, no more quirky than mainline scientists of the time. Some of the “models” Balzac proposes for scientific understanding have disappeared—such as the physics of imponderables, mesmerism, and phrenology. Mesmerism and phrenology are, for example, historical oddities belonging to the realm of failed theories (though some revisionist historians want to see in these parasciences the beginnings of psychotherapy or even of neurological determinism). Imponderables, on the other hand, were a rational solution to problems that could not be accounted for in other terms: before Carnot, nobody had found a way of measuring thermal energy, so heat seemed to be a weightless imponderable. (It required an “epistemological engine” like the steam engine to make this measurement possible.) A history of European culture—scientific and literary—should take into account the existence of many odd and unsuccessful theories, as well as the successful ones, for the history of culture is as much a history of the role of unsuccessful theories as of those relatively few that have survived. Moreover, unsuccessful theories often reveal that the line of demarcation between science and literature can be tenuous.

Literary history, I add, should certainly deal with these theories, and not only because they interested major writers like Balzac. Literature is concerned with impossible discourses as well as renditions of the possible. Literary historians can look upon failed scientific theories as a domain of the imaginary that, drawing upon Borges, one can call a realm of fantastic literature. One may speak of unsuccessful paradigms with regard to unsuccessful scientific theories—though I take my distance from the view that the history of science is punctuated by so-called paradigm shifts. Indeed, it seems to me that the history of most scientific disciplines is the history of a series of questionings and shifts that, over a period of time, has evolved continuously to such an extent that the early founding thought of a given discipline finally looks like a fantasy. Rarely does this evolution entail a dramatic rupture between one paradigm and another—though one can argue this point indefinitely. For example, Buffon's idea that animal families were created by degeneration from an original stock seems bizarre today, but it can be argued that this now “fantastic” idea generated a development that runs continuously from eighteenth-century natural history through Lamarck and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, then Darwin, to culminate in our own neo-Darwinian theories of evolution.

When historically situated, Balzac's interest in, say, animal magnetism is not simply eccentric, but part of his creative participation in the debate about imponderable substances and the nature of “immaterial” forces such as heat and electricity, for which there were several theories in the early part of his century. Imponderable substances—substances without weight—were put forward as an almost plausible theory with which one could explain everything—from the mysteries of electricity and magnetism, to the form heat assumed as a transferable substance called caloric—before energy was finally a received concept. (In fact, even at the end of the nineteenth century, one could find a few retrograde physicists who persisted in viewing the doctrine of imponderables as a plausible doctrine.) Balzac's relation to the sciences of his time is sometimes complex and subtle, sometimes bullying and full of braggadocio, but in the main it is not greatly out of step, for he constantly studied science of all sorts. Quite simply, Balzac wanted the novel to offer knowledge that could rival the sciences in their quest for totalization. This enterprise meant that Balzac accepted some scientific models, rejected others, and considered all of them. His intent was really nothing less than a revision of science so as to bring it in harmony with the knowledge he could offer in the novel—in his creation of an epistemic totalization that was, by a priori definition, the ultimate goal of knowledge.

Balzac explicitly criticized scientific models for various purposes. However, most of his realist novels by and large implicitly accept the Newtonian-Laplacian worldview of post-Revolutionary science. Several of his “philosophical” works offer a critique of Newton and explore non-Newtonian theories of knowledge and the world. However, in such realist works as Le Père Goriot or Le Curé de Tours, Balzac does not challenge the materialist causality of celestial mechanics and terrestrial dynamics that Newton's French followers, such as Lagrange and Laplace, had succeeded in making into the dominant scientific model of the early nineteenth century—the model that served well into that century as an ultimate court of appeal for deciding what was knowledge of the real. This acceptance and criticism reflects historical struggles with Newton, as well as Balzac's own psychological make-up. He was educated in the mechanistic worldview, which sometimes caused him to believe that he himself was a victim of that “fatal” modern education in mathematics and science that the avowedly reactionary Count de Mortsauf deplores in Le Lys dans la vallée (The Lily of the Valley): “L'éducation modern est fatale aux enfants. … Nous les bourrons de mathématiques, nous les tuons à coups de science, et les usons avant le temps” [Modern education is fatal for children. … We stuff them with mathematics, we kill with doses of science, and wear them out before their time].4 But Balzac could not overthrow the education that he criticized, for it gave him the grounds for criticizing the Enlightenment.

With this education, Balzac could stay abreast of contemporary scientific developments. For example, with regard to chemistry, Balzac knew quite well that Lavoisier (1743-1794) had given shape to modern chemistry with his work on elements and atomic weights; and that, during Balzac's youth, the atomism of Dalton (1766-1844) had taken chemistry a step farther toward a way of understanding the basic elements. Dalton's atomism had then been rationalized and given its modern symbolism by the Swedish chemist Berzelius (1779-1848)—whom Balzac literally memorized and rather much plagiarized for his own theorizing in his novel centering on research in chemistry, La Recherche de l'absolu. Balzac was equally as attentive to the way the foundations of modern biology were established in the Paris of his youth. A very young Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844), who became Balzac's friend later in life, was, in 1793, the first professor of zoology at the Museum of Natural History, and the zoologist Cuvier, for whom Balzac expressed great admiration, introduced comparative anatomy into zoology for the first time shortly thereafter. Balzac knew that their contrasting theories about the unity of nature came to a head in their public debate of 1830, a debate that can be taken as emblematic of the unsettled nature of the biological theory Balzac confronted and theorized upon just as he began to write La Comédie humaine. Balzac found himself drawn to the viewpoints of both scientists. In defending an evolutionary view of the unfolding of life forms, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire proposed that all animals tend to repeat the same archetype, and that homologies of form demonstrate the principles of connection that all animals manifested. Cuvier denied evolution, maintaining that animal functions derive from morphology—a principle Cuvier put to use in inventing the science of paleontology. As we shall presently discuss, Balzac's own invention of character, his nonpsychological development of types, owes much to both scientists.

In brief, Balzac confronted a situation in the Paris of his youth in which Lavoisier's chemistry, the electrodynamics of Ampère, and Cuvier's biology were issues of public debate. Even an ancient discipline like medicine was receiving new foundations. Bichat, a model for Balzac's ideal doctor, had founded histology, and Magendie was undertaking the experiments that led to experimental physiology. (Medicine largely remained, however, an eclectic mixture of medieval humors theory, mechanistic explanation opposed by vitalism, and rudimentary physiology, for a modern theory of disease based on microbiology was some decades away—Pasteur was born in 1822.) In the context of this unique situation in which Paris became, for at least a generation, the world's most important center for scientific thought, it is not surprising that Balzac felt it incumbent to take part in scientific debates—for how else could the novel be transformed into something with an epistemic status that could rival the success of the sciences? Simply by being in the Paris of Magendie and Ampère, of Cuvier and Lamark, of Carnot and Fresnel, a novelist alive to what was shaping the world was obliged to pay attention to the scientific theories transforming epistemic discourse—which included at the time controversial ideas, such as mesmerism and animal magnetism, that strike us today as failed theories. In résumé, the Paris of 1830, to name a symbolic date, was a place in which rivalry among various theories and epistemic models was intense. The totalizing worldview proposed by Laplacian-Newtonian mechanics came under criticism for its views of physiology, optics, and heat, but, for at least another generation, it remained a, if not the, fundamental model for understanding the world.

Balzac drew upon these debates for theories that he in turn translated into, and elaborated as, literary models. He used the nascent science of biology as well as the taxonomic tradition of natural history, arguably for the first time, as categories for understanding the human world. In his novels, Balzac wants to describe not just isolated classical “types” or caractères of the moraliste tradition, but related taxa that can be defined in terms of a totality of interrelationships. This is not to say that Balzac does this taxonomy systematically. Rather, taxonomy proposes an ideal model for understanding, drawn largely from nascent biology. Balzac theorized that, since human nature is encompassed by the presupposed totalization of knowledge, the nature of human society can be explained through its homologies with the entire natural world. This is analogous to an understanding of nature such as Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire understood it. But Balzac's totalizing synthesis also understands taxonomy in terms of morphological differences—whence Balzac's admiration for Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire's opponent, Cuvier. Balzac's totalization aims at reconciling the divergent theses of these adversaries by reconciling synthesis with analysis—to use the terms that Goethe used in his rather confused reports on the debate between Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier. Synthesis means linking characters in terms of totalization, whereas analysis led to characterization by means of the distinctive trait—traits drawn from Balzac's own ideas about the morphology of the human species.

In this description of the epistemic rivalry between Balzac and natural science, it is perhaps a bit misleading to maintain that Balzac was influenced by the biology that was being formulated in Paris by Lamark, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and Cuvier. It is more accurate to speak of a convergence of theoretical interests in which Balzac found, in contemporary biology, analogies with his own epistemic vision. Early biology and Balzac's novels manifest the same concerns with vision, taxonomy, and figuring the relation of the particular to the whole—the Ganzheit that is the ultimate referent of early nineteenth-century natural philosophy. Balzac was in a sense predestined to get along with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and his historicizing the totality of life forces evolving and undergoing transformation in time. It is not immediately clear, in spite of my comment above, why Balzac honors so effusively the taxonomical observer that he found in the comparative anatomist Cuvier. Cuvier refused for religious, as well as scientific, reasons to accept transformism, but his work in paleontology was nonetheless crucial in proving that there have been successive extinctions of many species. Between Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, biological science was historicized toward the past and toward the future, and in the two scientists Balzac encountered thinkers who, in different ways, placed individual species in contact with the totality of the biological and, for Balzac, the social sphere. Balzac admired both scientists for underwriting different aspects of his own totalizing theory in which society and nature are fused as a unity. If one wants to find a powerful source for this shared vision, one should look back to the naturalist Buffon, whose influence on both Balzac and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, though not Cuvier, is notable. Buffon promoted a nominalism in taxonomy that rejected Linnaeus and his taxonomy in favor of a view proposing the interconnected totality of nature and natural beings. According to the Buffon of the “Premier discours” of his Histoire naturelle (1749)—a major Enlightenment source for the belief in totalization—natural history is nothing less than the everramifying story of everything that the universe offers us.

With these epistemic themes in mind, let us turn, first, to works in which Balzac explicitly deals with issues of knowledge, and then to examples of his realist work in which the novel is used as a vehicle for knowledge of the world. This division corresponds roughly to a difference between works that are metaepistemic and works, especially the realist works, in which the work itself embodies the epistemic project in the description of the world and the events that take place therein. The first Balzacian novel to illustrate this epistemic play is La Peau de chagrin (translated variously as The Magic Skin or The Wild Ass's Skin), an ironic allegory about knowledge that shows the critical distance Balzac could take from the sciences of his time. This relatively early novel was written in part after the debate between Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and published as a book in 1831. In it, Balzac clearly manifests a desire to rival scientific discourse. He does so in the novel through an ironic critique of science's claims to knowledge. The overlap of the novel's creation with the debate of 1830 on the unity of nature is significant. It is quite likely that the open conflict of two major scientific minds gave Balzac warrant to consider himself capable of entering scientific debate and to criticize science while pursuing his own epistemic aims. When the experts disagree, then it is up the independent-minded individual to enter the fray, to weigh the evidence, and to criticize errors. (This is, I add, a relevant lesson for critizens facing the claims of genetics today.) This critical strategy is central not only to La Peau de chagrin but also to several successive early novels in La Comédie humaine, such as Louis Lambert (first version in 1832), La Recherche de l'absolu (first version in 1834), and Séraphita (1835). These are all works that explicitly enact critiques of science and procedures of knowledge. Taken together, they offer an overview of Balzac as self-conscious epistemologist.

The marvelous allegory of La Peau de chagrin introduces Balzac's epistemic critique in the guise of an exercise in aspect-seeing. Aspect-seeing, or seeing according to the perspective adopted on foreground and background, demonstrates that the very relativity of knowledge entails, as a consequence, that the novel must be considered an ideal vehicle for an epistemic quest. The relativity of knowledge allows the novel to rival science. (I use the notion of relativity here in its classical sense that, from Galileo through the nineteenth century, proposed that knowledge is relative to position.) Knowledge is relative to the perspective adopted by the observer confronting phenomena that may allow different explanations—and for which the novel is an ideal medium. At least two perspectives on the world are proposed in La Peau de chagrin. The novel's hero, Raphael, experiences a rise and fall that, on the one hand, may be explained by the natural forces that make him extremely lucky and then cause him to die from tuberculosis, or, on the other hand, the hero's death may be fatefully caused by a magic ass's skin that perceptibly shrinks each time it seemingly grants the hero one of his desires. So it is imperative, from a scientific standpoint, to explain why the skin shortens with each wish granted.

Raphael had himself been a Faustian seeker of knowledge whose passion for learning found expression in a treatise that he wrote offering a theory of the will. However, at the novel's outset, he is ready to commit suicide when he encounters a Mephisto-like antiquarian who gives him the wish-granting ass's skin. Raphael learns that he may anticipate that his every desire will be granted—except the desire not to desire. Balzac's allusion to Faust underscores the epistemic allegory here, since Faust's surfeit of knowledge leads him to desire to desire and thus to the infernal pact. Raphael's leap into desire suggests an allegory with a different epistemic slant. His is an allegory figuring the limits of desire that, when exceeded, portend the loss of the energy fueling desire. Energy is a term that is not quite yet in its place here, for the modern notion of the conservation of energy, or energy itself for that matter, was only first being theorized at the time that Balzac set out to write La Comédie humaine. Paralleling the development of the concept of energy, Balzac's allegory is about energy as the fuel propelling both desire and knowledge, so it is worth exploring analogies between the development of energy as a scientific theory and Balzac's literary knowledge of energy.

Balzac's contemporary Sadi Carnot (1796-1832) made one of the first modern attempts at theorizing energy in 1824, but his work on the “motive force of fire” went virtually unnoticed for another generation. Carnot died of cholera the year after Balzac published La Peau de chagrin. Remarkably, Balzac's concept of desire as energy strikes a coincident note with Carnot's view that heat energy is nothing other the motion of the particles of bodies, coincident in the sense that Balzac theorizes about “motive force” as something that can be defined as other than itself. This is analogous with the way Carnot was working toward the idea that heat and energy are interconvertible and equivalent.5 It would be hyperbole to claim an exact correspondence here, but it is important to see that, in tying characterization to a force like energy, Balzac was participating in the search for new ways of theorizing motion and acts, and the power that lies behind them. Balzac was among the first to equate desire and what we now call energy, and he was among the first to relate desire and energy to the epistemic project itself: desire and energy are part of the knowing subject. In La Peau de chagrin, Balzac's allegory about knowing points up the limits of knowing, since to desire to know entails an expense of energy—as do all other forms of desire. Knowledge itself is the desire to go beyond what one can immediately see, which is the epistemic desire par excellence of Newtonian physics. But such desire leads to boundless expenditures of energy and, finally, death.

Balzac's epistemic allegory figures the limits of vision, though in rather comic terms. In La Peau de chagrin, an epistemic comedy is enacted in the way the supernatural seems to have become a part of the natural world. With the regularity of a Bergsonian comic machine, the magical shrinking skin is a diabolical causal agent, shrinking as energy is expended, that is as natural as death. From another perspective, however, the skin is simply one of those millions of things that one sees drying up and for which there is usually no explanation. Science is limited, since explanations are always relative to the epistemological framework involved. In his critique, Balzac makes a heavy-handed demonstration of the scientists' impotence to explain the shrinking of the skin, for it can be explained differently by every science, and thus seemingly by none. However, Balzac's demonstration seems less emphatic if we recall that, immediately before the novel was published, all of Europe had witnessed the edifying spectacle of two of the leading natural scientists of the time trying to destroy each other in their public debate of 1830: Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier had equally plausible theories about life and its variegated manifestations. With his shrinking skin, Balzac seems to imply that life, like any other magical phenomena, allows multiple and relative theories to explain it.

Most pointedly in the novel, then, Balzac undertakes a satire of natural history and medicine that shows the distance he could take from his masters and the confidence he felt in demonstrating the limits of received forms of knowledge. Toward the novel's end, when Raphael is near death from his successive wishes, he takes the skin to a zoologist who is classifying ducks in the hopes of producing a new species (a probable allusion to Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire's attempt to produce monster chickens by modifying their eggs). To explain the skin's shrinking, Balzac's zoologist uses rhetorical overkill with empty explanations drawing upon natural history, explanations that are something of a parody of Buffon's verbosity. These epistemic pirouettes leave Raphael with the opinion, reflecting what Buffon did hold in fact about Linnaeus, that all classification in natural history is merely a nominalist matter of nomenclature. The issue of aspect-seeing is central here: the naturalist sees the skin as an excuse for taxonomy, the harried romantic hero sees the skin as the central mystery of his expiring life.

Raphael goes to see a mechanical philosopher who views the skin as another illustration of the central mystery that mechanical philosophy has yet to explain: movement. And a mechanic sees the skin as a substance to be manipulated—something that he can't do. Nor can a chemist proceed to do much with the skin, although he views it as a substance to be decomposed into its basic elements, that is, until, confronting failure, he finally decides to view it as part of the class of things that one should not mention to the Academy.

Raphael takes his own decrepit body to doctors who view him according to the lights provided by their doctrines. Balzac does quick overviews, with comic overtones, of several reigning medical doctrines of the early nineteenth century. Each theory determines what one sees, since knowledge is relative to the perspective provided by an epistemic doctrine. A materialist doctor, representing the doctrines of the then-famous Broussais, sees only what Broussais always saw: general inflammation giving rise to monomania. A vitalist doctor, looking for the iatrochemist Van Helmont's mystical life force, the archea, finds in Raphael that the mind has attacked the epigaster, the locus of the life force. And a sceptic, closely resembling the experimental physiologist Magendie, is willing to experiment in order to see what will happen when Broussais's treatment using leeches or, alternatively, a “moral treatment,” recalling the psychiatrist Pinel, have been applied to Raphael. These doctors are in turn commented upon by the ideal all-round doctor Bianchon, Balzac's own totalizing theorist. Bianchon explains that his colleagues' nosologies are so-many forms of aspect-viewing related to the three spheres of soul, body, and reason. This is a classical eclecticism that Greco-Roman medicine might have found amenable, though the final therapy is provided by Bianchon's reminder that at best one must trust nature—nature or that total curative agent that a Renaissance doctor like Rabelais, recalling Hippocrates, would have prescribed.

The novel's overview of sciences and medical doctrines presents Balzac's amused critique of any partial or relative vision that claims to understand human totality. However, this critique of science as partial vision risks turning against the novel itself, for what knowledge can the novel propose other than its own system of vision? And, moreover, even if one could be enlightened, can knowledge overcome the blindness of desire? Balzac represents this predicament in the novel itself. Raphael never achieves his quest to know what has befallen him or how to handle his desire. Rather, this quester for knowledge finds himself figured at the novel's end by a blind minstrel that he encounters on the route to Paris and in whom Raphael sees a fantastic image of his own desire. And a blind minstrel might well figure the novelist himself.

Raphael finally tries to elude desire and the quest. Most interestingly, before his death he tries to live like a natural being, like an oyster on a rock, making a fusion between himself and the totality of nature, becoming lost “in the sanctuary of life.”6 In this fusion he is “like a plant in the sun, like a hare in its lair” (282). But in this attempt to elude the quest, he undergoes an epistemic epiphany in which he seizes the plan of nature's organization. Every variety of life form appears as the development of a single substance. Lost in a dream of total science, Raphael has the impression that he is saved. Romantic biology is, however, therapeutic only in psychological terms, for Raphael awakes to hear another character describing his condition—and from this exterior perspective, it sounds as if he has an advanced case of tuberculosis.

Fleeing death, Raphael returns to Paris and tries to lose himself in slumber produced by opium, in a sleep without desire. But the renewed presence of the beloved Pauline renews his yearning. In his recognition of desire, he confronts the final flames in which desire consumes his energy. Raphael burns a fatal letter Pauline sends him, only to see in the ashes an “image trop vive de son amour et de sa fatale vie” [a too vivid image of his love and his destiny] reduced now to ashes by the loss of the energy that has fueled his quest (306). At last Pauline adventures to Raphael's bed where, igniting his last gasp of desire, she kills him. Raphael's knowledge of nature has not saved him, nor does it seem that knowledge of any sort could have enabled him to avoid destruction.

It remains an open question as to whether anyone could know what has been Raphael's destiny, other than the universal destiny of human desire and the depletion of energy expended in the service of that desire. Physics is related to physiology from this Faustian perspective. There is a clear intertextual relation between Raphael's desire and Faust's desire, as well as between Balzac's novel and the Faustian critique of an unbounded desire for knowledge. But Faust is not the only scientist who stands as a patron saint to Balzac's project of seizing the social world in La Comédie humaine. Balzac's title for his totalizing project recalls, with appropriate hubris, its intertextual relationship to perhaps the most impressive totalizing work of the Christian West, Dante's summation of all true knowledge in the Divina Commedia. Like many a scientist in the Paris that surrounded him—scientists who might be likened to so many contemporary versions of Faust—Balzac could view his own epistemic desire as excessive, and the warning written in Sanskrit on the ass's skin undoubtedly haunted him from the moment he began La Comédie humaine: determine your desires by your life (“règle tes souhaits sur ta vie”). La Peau de chagrin is a unique work in that it proposes a critique of excessive desire that could put in question Balzac's project of a totalizing natural history of society, as he phrased it some years later in the “Avant-Propos” that he wrote in 1842 for La Comédie humaine.

Balzac's belief in his understanding of epistemology, in 1832, was nonetheless confident, and it is worth contrasting the critical doubts of La Peau de chagrin with the confidence embodied in a published letter Balzac wrote to a writer of fantastic tales, Charles Nodier. Writing in effect a public manifesto in this admonishing letter, Balzac showed that he was at once admiring of, and impatient with, contemporary science—and quick to make judgments. The infinite spaces of distant nebulae that Herschel's telescope revealed were as much a cause of wonder as the thousands of years that Laplace's calculations had added to the world's age. But, Balzac assured, the time and space that we use for knowledge depend uniquely upon human perception: and dream and sleep show that one can travel outside of these coordinates. The fact that all knowledge is relative to the subject is a cause for optimism as well as for a belief that the subject can be liberated. Indeed, one day, Balzac predicted, some savant will explore sleep to show that, just as Cuvier and Laplace “have torn facts from an ocean of thoughts,” human beings possess the exorbitant faculty to annihilate, in relation to themselves, “space which exists only in relation” to themselves.7 In our present darkness, however, humanity is obliged to accept the Newtonian-Kantian coordinates of time and space to find reality—while knowing that other worlds await the traveler who can enter the obscurity of dream, madness, and the fantastic. Magnetism and electricity, psychic or nervous fluids, the imponderables of late eighteenth century chemistry, these all suggest that there will be applications of science to create a new science of the human mind:

Les bornes d'une simple lettre ne me permettent pas d'embrasser autrement que par l'énumération les magnifiques irraditions de cette science nouvelle; mais les prodiges de la volonté en seront le lien commun, auquel se rattachent et les découvertes de Gall, celle du fluide nerveux, troisième circulation de notre appareil, et celle du principe constituant de l'électricité; puis les innombrables effets magnétiques, ceux du somnabulisme naturel et artificiel dont s'occupent les savants de Danemark, de Suède, de Berlin, d'Angleterre, d'Italie, et que nient ceux de notre Paris.

[The limits imposed by a letter do not allow me to grasp, except by enumeration, the magnificent radiations of the new science. But the prodigies of will power [volonté] will be what ties it to all others; and to which are linked the discoveries of Gall, that of nervous fluid, the third circulatory system of our body, and that of the principle constitutive of electricity, and also innumerable magnetic effects, such as those of natural and artificial somnambulism that are occupying scientists in Denmark, Sweden, Berlin, England, Italy, and whose existence our Parisian scientists deny.]


Clearly impatient with the reigning empiricism of Parisian science, Balzac wanted to muster support for new theories that would displace the Kantian interpretation of Newton—as he shows in this letter to Nodier by twisting Kantian metaphysics so as to suggest the possible abolition of space and the willful freeing of the subject from the constraints of Kantian rationalism. Emanating from the subject, the new sciences of which Balzac is a herald should lend themselves to a unified science of the will.

A treatise on the will is supposedly written not only by the hero of La Peau de chagrin, but also by the hero of Balzac's slightly later work, Louis Lambert. This novel is a fictional biography that describes the failure to give birth to the new science that Balzac hailed in his letter to Nodier. Louis Lambert is an ambiguous metaepistemic work in that its hero, a savant whom the novel's narrator cannot quite understand, dies after a bout with insanity. Flaubert was duly impressed by this hero, in whom he undoubtedly saw a double, driven mad, as Flaubert noted, by thinking about intangible things.8 Written with the sobriety of a biographical dictionary entry, Louis Lambert portrays the search for illumination as seen from without by a commonsensical narrator who can only surmise the inner mystical knowledge that Lambert has reached in his research. The novel's narrator is Lambert's best friend from their school days, a time when Lambert devoured every available source in an attempt to amalgamate religion, history, philosophy, and physics and thus arrive at a potential totality of knowledge. Lambert is rather like a schoolboy incarnation of some Hegelian world-mind whose development would ultimately result in the synthesis of all knowledge. Like young Cuvier, reconstituting a total organism from small fossilized remains, Lambert constructs totalities from traces of evidence (621). Presumably following in the footsteps of Swedenborg and Mesmer, Lavater and Gall, Lambert is a “chemist of the will” who wants to invent a new science. Hardly a Lavoisierian materialist, he wants to found his science on the fundamental axiom of human doubleness (622-23). This axiom is the basis for the prodigy's “Treatise on the Will” that an ignorant curate teacher confiscates.

As described by the narrator, Lambert could have become a Pascal, a Lavoisier, or a Laplace, but not due to the university studies that he later undertakes in Paris, which Balzac portrays as an intellectual desert. There, literature is taught by the repetition of tautologies, and science is fragmented into separate academies that have destroyed the dreamed-of unity of science that Lambert, before Balzac's Séraphita, hopes to formulate. Balzac was right historically in that Paris was indeed the place where empirically oriented chemists, physicists, and biologists were developing separate scientific disciplines that, in practical terms, did not rely upon a presupposed unity of science. The totalization Laplace's physics had proposed, for example, was foundering not only on its impracticality, but also on the development of disciplines, such as optics, electricity, and heat, that could claim their own autonomy vis-à-vis Newtonian mechanics. In a sense, then, Lambert's view of contemporary science is as “reactionary” as were Balzac's putative politics. (Or, if one prefers, perhaps as “radical” as the Marx who also declared that there would be one science: “es wird eine Wissenschaft sein.”)9

Like Hegel and Marx, Balzac defends a utopian view of science that would at once integrate literature and all epistemic discourses into a grand totality. And, so formulated, this utopian view condemns actual scientific discourse to the status of a fallen discourse that needs literature to supplement it as its totalizing other. This is one side of Balzac's attempt to compete with science, for he does indeed condemn theories that respect the narrow limits of rational empiricism. Yet, even the rather summary plot of Louis Lambert shows Balzac's critical self-awareness at work: Balzac's totalizing scientist, in his desire to encompass all of knowledge, goes insane, at least in the eyes of the world. Lambert could be viewed as a new kind of scientist in this madness, since, from Balzac's romantic perspective, madness liberates Lambert from the restrictive limits of space and time that prevent a total epistemic synthesis. But Balzac does not pursue this point here. Rather, Lambert seems to founder on the immensity of the task at hand, on the incommensurable distance between the real and the knowledge he can imagine. At times Balzac's utopian total knowledge is, like some Borgesian science, a form of imaginary totalizing knowledge that, because we can imagine it, serves to condemn real science and literature for their necessary partiality—when judged by the imagination.

Balzac's belief in, and desire for, the unity of knowledge finds correlates in the German Naturphilosophie that Schelling and Fichte underwrote, and, as I noted earlier, in the natural history of his friend, the zoologist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Opposing Cuvier's rigid taxonomical separation of the animal kingdom into four orders, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire argued, with increasing vehemence, for the unity of all animal orders as derivative from a basic model—what Raphael discovered in his communion with the totality of nature. The specifics of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire's demonstration of what we call today homologies are less important for Balzac than the epistemic model that argued for connections underlying all apparent morphological differences in the animal kingdom. Balzac admired the genius with which Cuvier identified species—Balzac's own concept of a social species defined by a distinguishing trait is closer, I think, to Cuvier than to Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. But the utopian epistemic impulse is one he shared with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire—and vice versa, since the scientist liked to quote Balzac's Lambert to the effect that science is one. Finally, of course, we see that Balzac shared the Enlightenment desire to unite physical and moral sciences with one total methodology. Balzac was not overly fond of mathematics, but he, like many others, was also enticed by the belief that one might find a moral calculus equivalent to the calculus of probabilities used by the physical sciences. For the early successes of probability theory promoted a belief in a total methodology that would produce the knowledge—the utopian knowledge—Balzac dreamed of.

There is, however, a dark side to the Faustian pact that underwrites Balzac's science. Opposing the utopian belief in totality is the belief that the desire to know is a destroyer of limits: Hence, the desire for knowledge brings about dissolution. Faustian desire refuses limits, a refusal demonstrated by the epistemic-erotic allegory enacted in La Peau de chagrin. That Balzac further developed this theme of destruction in La Recherche de l'absolu (The Quest of the Absolute, 1834) testifies to the ongoing rivalry he felt with the sciences, for in this novel Balzac rectifies the “mistakes” of contemporary chemistry while undertaking to show the hubris of modern research. In this “search for the absolute,” Balzac portrays a demented chemist who, having nearly ruined his family with his exorbitant experiments, dies still believing that he can find the absolute. Through this portrayal of a chemist, Balzac intended to attack his rivals, the successful Parisian empirical scientists who were transforming chemistry as well as physics and biology and who, in their hubris, struck a Faustian note. La Recherche has also been read as a call for the creation of a latter-day alchemy. It is true that Balzac saw a line of historical continuity running from alchemy to the chemistry then being developed in the wake of Lavoisier's revolution in chemical theorizing. Balzac's chemist hero, Claes, is called an alchemist by the local folk who think, rightfully, he is insane in his obsession with research. However, historically speaking, Claes is working in the mainstream of nineteenth-century chemistry. He wants to decompose azote, or nitrogen. This experiment would show that the system of classification of elements, some fifty-three as Balzac got them from reading Berzelius, is not absolute, for any decomposition would suggest a more elementary substance than that of the atom. Claes, once a student of Lavoisier, wants to reduce the elements to an elementary unity. This desire for unity may have characterized his alchemical predecessors, and it also constituted a leitmotif in romantic biology.

However, with regard to chemistry, there was nothing intrinsically alchemical or even romantic about the early nineteenth century debate among chemists as to what might constitute an elementary substance. William H. Brock underscores, in The Norton History of Chemistry, the doubts that nineteenth-century chemists entertained about their science: “At the start of the nineteenth century several chemists, including Davy, found it impossible to believe that God would have wished to design a world from some fifty different building blocks. Their skepticism that Lavoisier had identified the truly elementary blocks was reinforced by Davy's experimental work in which he showed that several of Lavoisier's elements, including the alkaline earths, were not truly elementary.” So the English chemist Davy, whose work Berzelius systematized, preferred “undecompounded body” to the term “element” and its suggestion of some ultimate nature.10 The debate on the elementary nature of atoms was unfolding, and many felt doubts that anticipate what some contemporary physicists may feel about the proliferating particles that the standard model allows today in particle physics. Balzac wanted to participate in the debate about the foundations of matter by elaborating a critique of chemistry—through much cribbing from Berzelius. Through his portrayal of research, Balzac wanted to show that literature can at once participate in the elaboration of scientific discourse and, with its superior dramatic means, enact a critique of the scientific hubris that desires to go beyond limits. And if one inevitably thinks of Faust in this regard, it is because Faust is a constant model in the nineteenth century for pointing up the destructive side of epistemic hubris.

La Recherche de l'absolu is, however, more a realist work than an allegory, for Balzac wants to confront contemporary science by more or less embodying its research protocols in the novel. The novel's narrator self-consciously points this up when he says that he takes his epistemology from Cuvier. For this narrative undertaking, the narrator compares himself to an archeologist doing for society what the comparative anatomist does for nature: “Une mosaïque révèle toute une société comme un squelette d'ichthyosaure sous-entend toute une création. De part et d'autre, tout se déduit, tout s'enchaîne. La cause fait deviner un effet, comme chaque effet permet de remonter à une cause” [A mosaic reveals an entire society just as the skeleton of an ichthyosaur presupposes an entire creation. In both realms all can be deduced, all is related. A cause allows one to guess an effect, just as each effect allows one to go back to a cause].11 Balzac's narrator, perhaps not consciously echoing Laplace, invokes the principle of sufficient reason to explain his deductions about parts and the totality, for the epistemological principle that declares all has a cause underwrites the probability theory that is the basis for scientific rationality—including the reasoning behind such recently created taxa as the ichthyosaur. In Balzac's work causality also dovetails with probability theory to provide a model for aesthetic realism, since the narrator need only see what probability has produced to know what must be the case—and then proceed back to show what must be the causes. Through a slight of hand that Diderot's Jacques the fatalist would have approved, Balzac's narrator draws upon contemporary epistemology to justify his own procedures of representation.

As stated in the introduction, the development of realism is underwritten by the development of probability reasoning. Reasoning about the causes of events in a novel is analogous to reasoning from effects to probable causes (that form of probabilistic reasoning that led to the theory developed in Bayes's theorem about conditional probability). Probability theory underwrote a theory of rhetoric that could be used for writing fictions, for, in Laplace's terms, probability is the description of how psychological, as well as mathematical, certainty is induced, and the effect of certainty is what the rhetoric of realist fiction aims to create. In his Essai philosophique sur les probabilités (1814), Laplace is a conscious rhetorician when he claims that a récit or narration can always be constructed by probable reasoning from effects to causes, and that psychological certainty can be derived from a narrative line constructed by analogy with the probability of drawing lots. All this results in the assurance that the theory of probability is just common sense reduced to a calculus.12 Conversely, this means that a calculus can be extended to a demonstration of common sense through narration. Laplace describes, really quite directly, how one can generate a narrative form, like a novel, narrating probable events.

Or, to reason like Cuvier and Balzac's narrator, what is the probability that a fossilized jaw bone belonged to a Marsupial species that is no longer extant in Europe? To make this kind of question into a generator of fictions entails that Balzac, as novelist, must link effects and causes, drawing upon effects that might plausibly be found before his narrator's eyes in the variegated undertakings of contemporary society. Here we see why the materialism of the Laplacian worldview is in fact the bedrock for Balzac's way of construing the arraignment of forces and probabilities in his realist works. The Balzacian realist narrator is often a version of the superior intelligence that Laplace placed at the center of the cosmos for the seizure of total knowledge. And if Balzac never challenges the theories of probability that found expression in Laplace's Essai philosophique sur les probabilités, this is because the Balzacian narrator implicitly, when not explicitly, appeals to Laplacian notions of probability to justify his knowledge of events and causes. From the perspective of Enlightenment mathematics, probability was a measure of ignorance of true causes. Conversely, the Balzacian narrator relies upon probability to establish the measure of his knowledge of the world. Balzac's narrator is not unlike the scientist whose impulse is to reduce the universe to a series of equations—working in effect toward the converse of a measure of ignorance. Given an “effect,” the Balzacian narrator asks what probable causes can be adduced to explain, say, the presence of the “species” in question. The answer is a récit, to use Laplace's term, which is to say, a narration like La Recherche de l'absolu and all the other realist works that argue at once from the existence of the species back to probable causes and forward to the evolution of the type.

Balzac's chemist in La Recherche de l'absolu, Claes, is a type. Claes studied with Lavoisier, became a good father and respected citizen, and then neglected all his duties to pursue his passion for chemistry. If classified by nineteenth-century psychiatric nosology, he seems to be a monomaniac. Balzac introduces a bit of medical diagnosis to give an additional cachet of scientific authenticity to his character portrayal, though most monomaniacs did not pursue the absolute, and Balzac knows that the probable genesis of this type must be found in the historical context. The context is the scientific “mania” for knowledge that leads to the Faustian contract: Claes once met a Polish chemist who, Mephisto-like, awakened in Claes the epistemic mania that drives him beyond limits, to a death in which he “perhaps” found the key to the enigma of life: the absolute grasped by the bony fingers of Death.

Perhaps myth is always ready to invest realist narration. Especially when dealing with madness, reason seemingly must have recourse to myth, since myth is often the only means by which reason can represent its contrary, unreason or the irrational. In a sense, myth is the work of reason; indeed, it is an epistemic attempt to deal with what science cannot reduce to reason. In Balzac's novel, myth and a scientific hypothesis share common traits, or so it appears now that the nineteenth-century hypothesis about an absolute substance no longer has any currency as a theory. From today's perspective the absolute functioned as a myth, but it also generated theory. The hypothetical absolute is, in the Polish chemist's words, a substance common to all creations, modified by a unique force, though this unique force gives rise immediately to a mysterious “ternary”—the triadic substance Balzac saw characterizing everything from alchemy to Christianity. With his hypothesis about an absolute substance, Balzac's Claes joins in fact the post-Kantian search for what Kant said could never be known, the ultimate Ding an sich. Claes is seeking the ultimate inner substance behind all the variegated phenomenal manifestations that we can know, as subjects, looking at phenomenal objects unfolding in space and time. In this regard, romantic metaphysics and early nineteenth-century chemistry shared a common search.

Balzac wanted to foster this common search, since he thought that anti-Kantian metaphysics of the German sort should be melded with the positive sciences to produce the totalizing knowledge he sought. The recipe for this totalizing knowledge is expounded in Balzac's most explicitly “metascientific” novel, Séraphita (or Séraphîta, as this name is sometimes written). In this most theoretical of works, Balzac recast Swedenborgian cosmology to offer a critique of the claims of science, though a critique that should ultimately help science fulfill itself as a total explanation of the universe. Séraphita can be called a “mystical” novel, for the main character is an androgynous angel who reasons, however, more like an epistemologist than a seraphic being capable of revealing the hidden Kantian noumena. Religion is a matter of faith, s/he says, and, with that, s/he maintains that the question of religion, in epistemic terms, has been settled (which was Balzac's personal position in his letter to Nodier, as well as in his correspondence to Madame Hanska). However, Sériphita, like Balzac, also wants to show the inadequacies of any system of thought that might propose to replace religion, and by system of thought s/he especially has in mind the religion of science or reason that recent French history had elevated to a supreme position. S/he proposes, al contrario, the use of “mystical science” to complete the truncated knowledge proposed by unbelieving Parisian scientists (as Balzac also puts it in the Préface du livre mystique). It is dubious that, after the positivist revolution of the midcentury, anyone could ever speak of mystical science again—except from the margins of culture. In 1830 the notion was still polemical, though clearly a notion on the wane. But, fearing no polemic, Balzac wants to show that there is an epistemic relation that can mediate between mystical vision and knowledge in some nearly Kantian sense (which Kant would of course have denied). The most appropriate speaker for this mixed mediation is the creation who unites all opposites, the beautiful Séraphita-Séraphitus, a pre-pre-Raphaelite angel dwelling in an imaginary Norway, in an icy soul-scape that resembles a landscape of contrasts such as the painter Caspar David Friedrich gave us in his towering projections of the inner world. But the flora and fauna contained in this imaginary world are “real”—much as we see in mystical landscapes in early Renaissance paintings in which we recognize European birds and plants inhabiting a mystical, imaginary Jerusalem. The real and the revealed should thus complete each other, much as should natural history and mystical cosmology—or so Balzac hoped.

Swedenborgian cosmology, as recast by Balzac and explained by the novel's skeptical pastor, is less impressive than Séraphita's critique of science. Through this angelic character and the critique that s/he elaborates, Balzac wants to carve out an epistemic space in which his novels can take their place with other discourses of knowledge. In this move toward self-reflexive justification, Séraphita is an apology for those novels in which Balzac offers mere “realist” knowledge of the world, novels in which, from Le Père Goriot (1834) to La Cousine Bette (1846), there occurs, to say the least, no revelation of mystical science. In these realist works, one finds only the relative knowledge of ordinary causes and effects. Ordinary realism, like ordinary science, as Séraphita puts it, is simply a description of the fallen world. Realism relies upon the “langage du monde temporel”—language of the world fallen into time—and knowledge given by this language, s/he says, can only produce sadness. Hence Séraphita's claim that science is a melancholy state of affairs: “la science attriste l'homme.”13 To work within the confines of Newtonian space and time is, to paraphrase Séraphita, to exclude oneself from the realm of love—which certainly is the case in most of Balzac's realist works. Portraying far more greed than love, these novels describe a fallen world resolutely within the confines of Newtonian space and time.

Séraphita is an epistemological angel, reconciling all scientific and philosophical contraries, for s/he has read Locke, Buffon, Laplace, and Balzac's other favored scientific sources. S/he needs little mystical illumination for the epistemic views s/he defends. Séraphita's critique of science appeals to Lockean nominalism to show that the Newtonian-Laplacian worldview must lead, if one is logical, to a belief in the existence of things beyond the world of mechanical philosophy. As s/he explains knowledge to Wildrid, the young man courting her feminine side, true vision must represent the effects of moral nature as well as those of physical nature in their common and unified appearance. Though s/he seems to refer to mystical vision, Séraphita's terminology is couched in terms of causality that appeal to probability theory. Actually, s/he is more Laplacian than Laplace, since s/he claims that s/he carries within a mirror in which moral nature is reflected with all its causes and effects [“Eh bien, il est en moi comme un miroir où vient se réfléchir la nature morale avec ses causes et ses effets”] (795). In effect, s/he applies, like Laplace's hypothetical total observer, the principle of sufficient reason to all the phenomena in the universe, moral as well as physical. Since all has a cause, s/he sees that nothing is uncertain: past and present are present to the observer's eyes. Going beyond Laplace, s/he extends this abolition of uncertainty to the moral world, proposing thus to realize the Enlightenment's fondest hope of uniting moral and physical sciences—a project that theoretically, if not actually, underwrites Balzac's intentions for La Comédie humaine.

Séraphita wants to use science to combat the singleminded materialism and skeptical doubt that s/he finds characterizing the modern scientific mind (though s/he also is quite hostile to traditional theology). As a chemist and physicist, s/he defends the waning doctrine of imponderable forces in order to explain human thought on the model of magnetism. Magnetic force was construed as an imponderable substance united to a material body, and so, by analogy, one could argue that immaterial thought is attached to the human body. As an epistemologist, s/he also claims that science's faith in mathematics shows that even the most resolute materialists are willing to believe in abstractions—such as the infinite. Why then, s/he asks, do they doubt other abstractions, such as God, abstractions that exist, like the infinite, beyond their comprehension?

Balzac is endorsing here a kind of Pythagorean philosophy of mathematics to maintain that Number, the source of the mathematics used to describe time and space, is beyond knowledge and hence an object of faith. Balzac's grasp of the infinite is not beside the point, since most pre-Cantorian mathematicians readily admitted that the infinite was a necessary concept, but not a comprehensible one. (The greatest mathematician of the early nineteenth century, Gauss, doubted that one could speak of an actual infinite.) Moreover, Balzac's thirst for the unity of knowledge must posit something like God, for, from the perspective of this mathematical mysticism, God is the principle of unity that necessarily engenders the multiple. Using this kind of mathematical reasoning, Séraphita says that the multiple is derived from unity through movement (819). And since number and movement are the basis for science and knowledge, one must conclude that Newtonian dynamics is in some sense mystically grounded. Whether this theory can justify a leap of faith is questionable, but it is of the greatest interest that Balzac wants to demonstrate here that the crown of Newtonian physics—quantified gravitational attraction and repulsion—can be used in all epistemic quests, including the novel, once quantification is understood in analogical terms. And this generative principle implies that larger epistemic ensembles—like a novel—may be more accurate than physics in its own sphere. Or as Séraphita says with physics in mind: “Votre numération, appliquée aux choses finies et non à l'Infini, est donc vraie par rapport aux details que vous percevez, mais fausse par rapport à l'ensemble que vous ne percevez point” [Your calculation, applied to finite things and not to the infinite, is thus true relative to the details that you can perceive, but false relative to the totality that you cannot perceive] (820). The totality is the backdrop that provides the criteria for truth and knowledge, and this totality should thus be the ultimate object of knowledge—at least when one is thinking like a physicist.

Thinking like a biologist, Balzac gives his nominalism expression in Séraphita's doubt about the possibility of quantification. This may seem contradictory in light of the above defense of totality, but let us consider what are the concepts that natural history, now becoming biology, imposes:

Si la nature est semblable à elle-même dans les forces organisantes ou dans ses principes qui sont infinis, elle ne l'est jamais dans ses effets finis. Ainsi vous ne rencontrez nulle part dans la nature deux objets identiques: dans l'Ordre Naturel, deux et deux ne peuvent donc jamais faire quatre, car il faudrait assembler des unités exactement pareilles, et vous savez qu'il est impossible de trouver deux feuilles semblable sur un même arbre, ni deux sujets semblables dans la même espece d'arbre.

[If nature is uniform in its organizing forces or in its principles that are infinite, it is never uniform in its finite effects. Thus you will never encounter anywhere in nature two identical objects: in the Natural Order, two and two can never be four, since one would have to bring together exactly similar unities, and you know that it is impossible to find two identical leaves on the same tree, or two identical examples of the same species of trees.]


The doctrine of the absolute specificity of natural objects also holds for the moral world, says Séraphita, linking together once more, like Balzac's other post-Enlightenment narrators, the natural world and the human world. Séraphita's biological nominalism sounds somewhat backward looking, recalling the epistemology that led Buffon to deny any interest to Linnaeus's taxonomy. However, in claiming radical specificity for the individual, Séraphita's idea of privileging the individual also points toward the post-Darwinian thought about populations that modern evolutionary theorist Ernst Mayr has described. Such a privileging means that, for the naturalist and the novelist, knowledge demands the realization of a general taxonomy of the individual type. Balzac was convinced that this project could be realized in the novel through what he called, in his “Avant-Propos” of 1842 to La Comédie humaine, the description of the social species—by individualizing the type, and creating a type based on the individual.14

Nominalism leads, moreover, to Séraphita's paradoxical denial that two plus two equals four. The naturalist in Séraphita denies the role of quantification in knowledge, at least as far as the individual is concerned. The description of an individual has the essential epistemic role, which in one sense denies that quantification is possible in every realm of knowledge, for one cannot simply add up unique individuals to have meaningful aggregates. Natural scientists were, and are, divided on the meaning of quantification, and I do not think any philosophically consistent explanation of what quantification is, or why it works, has yet been offered. In any case, in a context in which biology is defining itself as a science not based on physics, Balzac's epistemological angel knows well that her discourse will find acceptance among those for whom the basic unit of knowledge is the individual understood in its relation to the whole—such as for a naturalist like Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who maintained that connections or “analogies” exist among all vertebrates and perhaps invertebrate species.

Novels like La Peau de chagrin or Séraphita may be considered something like a preface to what most readers take to be Balzac's major achievement: the creation of a new type of realist novel. His early metascientific works, or the “philosophical” works if one prefers, are a complementary aspect of the totalizing that Balzac saw as his complete task as a novelist. Realism was conceived as a response to complete this totalizing, a totalizing that necessarily had to take account of the accomplishments of science. To this end Balzac created a type of novel that is largely consonant with the science of the early nineteenth century, which is to say that in his realist novels he created a novelistic form endowed with an epistemic dimension. The quest for the totalization of knowledge demanded that Balzac in fact call upon science for the epistemic coordinates for defining the real. In incorporating into fiction these coordinates—such as those of Newtonian cosmology and dynamics, the taxonomical understanding of biology, or then-nascent energetics—Balzac made the scientific understanding of reality a ground for the practice of fiction. In brief, Balzac's use of science to define the real was part of a programmatic effort to demonstrate that the novel as a genre can propose knowledge. Balzac's enthusiasm for his own research program may seem dated today, but it seems incontrovertible that, with this program, the novel became an instrument for defining the real—an instrument that even some of today's postmoderns still respect whenever they acknowledge that the novel offers access to, and hence knowledge of, reality that no other discourse offers.

Balzac published Séraphita in the same year as Le Père Goriot (translated sometimes as Old Goriot). For many generations of readers, it is of course Le Père Goriot that represents, to the extent any single work can, the novel that invents the axioms for the modern novel. Coming after Balzac's metascientific works, Le Père Goriot is, perhaps with Eugenie Grandet (1833), a test case for his desire to rival sicence by offering knowledge of human society now conceived as a branch of natural history. But the novel also reflects an understanding of basic physics and dynamics. Balzac's use of the novel for purposes of epistemic investigation means that a full reading of a realist novel like Le Père Goriot must be attentive to the several epistemic discourses Balzac calls up, combines, and juxtaposes to produce what aims at being the unique exemplar of a partial totalization of reality. In the interest of clarity, then, let me offer a brief recapitulation of the epistemic frameworks presupposed by Balzac's realist works before turning specifically to Le Père Goriot.

Newtonian dynamics was still the dominant science in the 1830s, and it is hardly surprising that Balzac respects a Newtonian framework to frame the configuration of forces present in the novel. In the broadest sense, the framework is set up by the parameters of public space and time within which one can plot out the movement of the characters as so many bodies in motion. Within this framework Balzac takes into account the evidential probabilities determining the possibility of events. Of some historical interest is Balzac's frequent suggestion that the chemistry of imponderable substances might explain the human consciousness portrayed in the novel. Far more important, however, is the attention Balzac gives to types or species as they are shaped by a historically determined milieu to which these human types struggle to adapt. As a naturalist observer, Balzac was keenly aware of the way species do or do not adapt to their milieu, a milieu undergoing constant modification in time. The possible and probable extinction of types is a recurrent theme in Balzac's work. (For example, in Le Père Goriot survival is a leit-motif in the consciousness of a survival artist like Vautrin or an arriviste aristocrat like Rastignac.) Cuvier's vision of successive extinctions is an accepted fact for Balzac's natural history of the human animal.

Balzac scholar Madelaine Fargeaud-Ambrière even speaks of the mathematics of Balzac's science.15 By this comment, I understand that, in Balzac's post-Enlightenment mind, much that he describes should be amenable, theoretically at least, to some potential Laplacian quantification—which throws light on a good many of Balzac's analogies. This attraction to mathematics brings up an interesting caveat about epistemic paradox when reading Balzac. In spite of Séraphita's paradox, Balzac could hardly deny the epistemic power of mathematical discourse. When thinking as a social physicist, neither Balzac nor his angel could deny, on its own terms, the Laplacian belief in the finality of mathematical explanation. Only when thinking as a biologist or historian does Balzac push forward the recognition that the historization of knowledge entails the rejection of the epistemic primacy of the quantification of experience. Historical knowledge is of a different order of being from mechanical or systemic quantification, a fact to which history and nascent sciences like evolutionary biology, paleontology, and geology have all attested. Balzac, moreover, often seems to want to combine metaphorical quantification and a description of the unique history of a living being. Such contradictory tensions underlie what can appear to be a paradox involved in the attempt of Balzac's realism to seize individual types. These tensions generated by apparent paradox—that an individual can be a type—point up how directly Balzac was enmeshed in the epistemological debates of nascent scientific modernity. True, the paradox later finds a solution in Darwin, in a theory that allows individual difference to generate changes in populations, but that lessens none of the interest one takes in Balzac's attempt to represent the relation between a type and his truly individualized characters.

Balzac theorized his views about type and individual in his novels, some ten years after Séraphita, in 1842 when he wrote the “Avant-Propos” to La Comédie humaine. This document is of first-rate intellectual interest for what it tells us about Balzac's conception of his work's relation to science. Unabashedly explaining his competence to rival biology, he spells out in this forward how he could apply Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire's notion of the “unity of plan” of natural beings to his literary work, since “There is only one animal. The creator having used only one and the same pattern for all organized beings.”16 Saluting Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire as the victor over Cuvier on this point, Balzac goes on to explain that differences in form are due to the milieu in which the species develops, and, most importantly, society is the milieu that creates the specific differences that constitute the various “species” of humanity. Using the technical term milieu, Balzac links his writing here with the epistemic project of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and implicitly with Lamarck, and more distantly with Buffon—for he claims to have understood that society resembles nature before knowing about the debates that culminated in the polemic of 1830. The separation of nature and culture that Rousseau had proclaimed is in effect dismissed by Balzac, since society functions as a natural milieu in which adaptation leads to new species.

In his “Avant-Propos,” Balzac not only plays with the idea that the notion of species, as used by natural history, can be applied to society since one finds there “social species.” He also resolutely endorses the transformationist view that allows types or species to change—in Balzac's world, grocers can become peers of the realm. Balzac is thus claiming for fiction the capacity to participate in the great taxonomic endeavors that, from Linnaeus to Cuvier, were mapping the natural world. Moreover, what was (and is) a hypothesis for the natural world—the transformationist origins of species—is more of a demonstrable fact in the social world: transformations of society exist as documented history. The recent work of a historical novelist like Scott, Balzac suggests, demonstrates that the historical dimension of knowledge can be fully incorporated in the novel through its investigation of transformations of the social milieu.

What is innovative in Balzac is that he is writing a discourse in which human beings are squarely recognized as part of the animal kingdom. In other words, there is no ontological break between the natural realm and the social realm. Even the most atheistic philosophers of the Enlightenment had not usually been ready to embrace such a complete naturalism—say, the atheistic doctor La Mettrie who, in describing “machine man,” still wanted to consider “man” the pinnacle of creation. In spite of his atheistic belief in mechanical physiology, La Mettrie unwittingly slipped God back into the human machine when he proclaimed that humans have a unique capacity for language—in the form of that logos that is the arche of theology. By contrast, the more or less Christian Balzac depicts, in Le Père Goriot and many later novels, a world in which human beings belong to Cuvier's embranchement of vertebrate beings. They share the analogies that Geoffroy described as characterizing all other animals, for humans and animals are all zoological beings differentiated in terms of a common plan that unites them in what biologists today call homologies. Their “morphology”—to use the term Goethe had recently invented—is shaped, moreover, by the natural forces of the milieu Balzac studies with such great detail. And finally, Balzac's fiction coincides with nascent biology in his search for the type, or the singular, real specimen that is the basis for the naturalist's creation of a tax-on—something like what later biology came to call the holotype, the single specimen chosen to be an exemplar for a new species. Balzac clearly believed that the ontology of fiction and of natural history coincide in this epistemological quest for the unique individual that is nonetheless the type for a species.

Such types are found in the realist works like Le Père Goriot. Dedicated to Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, though several years after its original publication in 1835, this realistic novel might be taken as the antithesis of Séraphita. It contains no fantastic elements, no androgynous angels making metascientific perorations. Moreover, it contains hardly any metascientific discourses justifying the unitary materialism Balzac thought would explain mental and physical phenomena. The novel simply demonstrates that unitary materialism, and thus contains nothing that the atheistic scientific community could not accept. It is a novel rigorously situated in the here and now of physical space, an ordinary epistemic space, open to every investigator interested in the quotidian. The novel's title outlines its limited subject matter, relating the demise of a single human being, in this case, a once prosperous pasta manufacturer who allows himself to be exploited by his two greedy and vain daughters. Balzac could not limit himself to a single case study, and the work does introduce other major characters, such as Rastignac, a prototypical impoverished member of the provincial nobility whose education takes up much of the novel. This education consists largely in discovering the unscrupulous nature of the struggle necessary to succeed in a world in which, as old Goriot says, money is life. Another important character is the unscrupulous swindler and convict Vautrin, a philosophical villain whose cynicism is almost unbearable. These characters recur in other novels, though the recurrence of characters is of lesser interest than the way Balzac invented, in these characters, the individual type.

The novel is constructed to elicit knowledge about these types and the milieu in which they have developed. Though composed of four titled sections, the structure of Le Père Goriot can be divided into three parts. In the first section, the introduction, Balzac's narrator describes the milieu, set in Paris, that is first centered on the Vauquer boarding house. The narrator begins by framing a series of questions that are so many requests for knowledge. This section sets out an epistemic demand for answers that can elucidate these implicit and explicit questions. The novel's second part, comprising the sections called “L'Entrée dans le monde” and “Trompe-la-mort,” answer these questions by tracing out the trajectories of the characters encountered in the boarding house in which the questions were first generated. Answers to these questions take the reader into other milieux, most notably that of the hereditary aristocracy and the newly created aristocracy of the moneyed elite. The final structural movement coincides with the last named section, “La mort du père.” This section works out, with geometrical precision, the final movement leading to the father's demise—emptied of all force and all his wealth—and traces the general geometry of rising and falling that the various characters undergo in struggling in a milieu in which only the crassest instincts have survival value. Most notably, the young pauper aristocrat, Rastignac, discovers that his ascension has only begun.

In Le Père Goriot, the narrator offers a plot organized as so many microsequences. These sequences are narrated in response to a desire for knowledge that might explain various puzzles and enigmas brought about when an observer looks at the world. Balzac begins the novel, for instance, with the famous demonstration of how one goes about describing a social milieu with his depiction of the Vauquer boarding house. The narrator proposes a model of homological description in which, as he puts it, the character of the landlady explains the boarding house, and the boarding house implies the existence of the landlady. Typed as resembling all women who have known misfortune, Madame Vauquer is nonetheless an individual specimen. She has adapted to the milieu that has shaped her: “L'embonpoint blafard de cette petite femme est le produit de cette vie, comme le typhus est la conséquence des exhalaisons d'un hôpital” [The pale portliness of this little woman is the product of this life, just as typhus is the result of the exhalations of a hospital].17 Mixing medical discourse and natural history, the narrator invents a composite epistemic discourse that wants to explain type, milieu, and phenotype through their interaction.

Metaphorically at least, the narrator is a natural historian when he explains why most of the boarders cannot answer the questions raised by father Goriot's curious presence in the boarding house: “Les vieilles gens dont la curiosité s'éveilla sur son compte ne sortaient pas du quartier et vivaient dans la pension comme des huîtres sur un rocher” [The old people whose curiosity was awakened by him never left the neighborhood and lived in the boarding house like oysters on a rock] (54). These mollusk-like characters do, however, have epistemic desires and can want to know. For example, characters invent explanations of Goriot's presence in the boarding house so that finally Goriot is typed—wrongly—by an employee of the natural history museum as “un colimaçon, un mollusque anthropomorphe à classer dans les Casquettifères” [a snail, an anthropomorphic mollusk to be classified among the Casquettiferous] (55). Balzac's playful invention of taxonomy shows the distance he can take vis-à-vis the scientific discourse that he adopts at the same time he satirizes it. There is something intrinsically comic about the fact that this Parisian biotope is also the biotope to which must adapt the scientists who produce the concepts that should describe the scientists who live in it, in Paris, that unique milieu for homo scientificus.

Buoyed by these epistemic explanations, plot is generated by the narrator's playing with the readers' probabilistic expectations. Opening Le Père Goriot, a knowledgeable reader automatically questions the probability of finding a rich old man, one moreover visited by two beautiful young women, in a less than elegant boarding house. To explain his presence, and even more so that of two beautiful young women, probability theory demands that one be able inductively to offer probable causes for these seemingly improbable events. The entire novel is, in this regard, a kind of inductive demonstration of probable causes. Few earlier novels rely so overtly upon inductive strategies to motivate narration (except parodistically in works by those writers like the Diderot and Sterne to whom Balzac duly pays homage). Balzac's strategy in creating plot is not to use “suspense”—that baroque device that poses an enigma or problem to be resolved and then titillates the reader by keeping the resolution at bay. Rather, Balzac's narrator sets out his inquiry as one that is to be solved by ferreting out probabilistic causes—and this inquiry in turn becomes an education for Rastignac as the young noble undertakes the quest that gives the data needed to elucidate the mystery. In his need to survive, if not to conquer, Rastignac is an epistemic quester possessed by a “furieuse envie de savoir la vérité”—a furious desire to know the truth (75).

Rastignac has to know the nature of the milieu to which he must adapt, and, in seeking this knowledge, he discovers what will best facilitate his quest: a knowledge of probabilities is necessary for survival. Like a Dante with a perverse Virgil, Rastignac has been preceded on this quest by the criminal Vautrin, the savant who already knows the milieu and how it can destroy those who don't know it. The notion of milieu here acquires the biological sense of an environment to which specific species adapt. The milieu found in the natural history incorporated in the novel is quite precisely a bourbier, or a mire, in which, as the ever knowledgeable Vautrin says, those who get filthy while in a coach are honest people, whereas those who get filthy on foot are scoundrels (76). Vautrin's quick lesson in basic social taxonomy is the best preparation that Rastignac receives to acquaint himself with the milieu frequented by the elegant women, whom one would normally not expect to be connected to old Goriot. But plot unfolds and demonstrates that the improbable can be shown to be probable, and that the complex workings of the milieu make these relations possible. Beautiful aristocratic women can frequent a run-down boarding house when they are exploiting a father who lets himself be bled by them.

Motivated first by the desire for knowledge, Rastignac finds that his desire transforms itself into a desire for what knowledge and power can obtain. Rastignac is set on a trajectory that, in terms of narrative geometry, aims at ascension. In Balzac's work, ascension describes metaphorically a successful quest, in conventional terms, but it also figures the expenditure of force. As Newton teaches, to rise is to exert force against opposing forces as dynamics. Rastignac's quest for knowledge and for social success is threatened by his own contradictory desires and the force they demand. Or perhaps one might say that he wants to catapult himself up by using contradictory forces for which there is no vector resolution. Balzac uses a mathematical image to describe the threat to Rastignac's ascension: “Rastignac résolut d'ouvrir deux tranchées parallèles pour arriver à la fortune, de s'appuyer sur la science et sur l'amour, d'être un savant docteur et un homme à la mode. Il était encore bien enfant! Ces deux lignes sont des asymptotes qui ne peuvent jamais se joindre” [Rastignac resolved to open two parallel trenches in order to pursue his fortune, he would rely upon science and love, he would be a savant doctor and a man of fashion. How childish he still was! These two lines are asymptotes that can never join up with each other] (118). By dispersing his energy along two asymptotic lines, his twin projects will not come together like intersecting lines. Each project would be like a straight line approaching the tangent of a curve, coming closer and closer to the points of the curve as it approaches infinity, but never reaching it. This is an analogy Balzac uses several times in his work. Desire is geometricized as an infinite undertaking. And it can never join the trajectory of force moving knowledge, since knowledge follows a different, Faustian line, one also moving like an asymptote toward the infinite. Behind these metaphors stand undoubtedly Fichte's thoughts on the infinite as the object of all human quest. (Balzac recommended Fichte to Nodier with enthusiasm.) But we also recognize here Balzac's concept of energy and his attempt to plot the vectors in the expenditure of energy.

Balzac is romantic in many respects, and in this regard we might speak of romantic physics: desire and knowledge can be represented as vectors of a potentially infinite expenditure of energy, to use a technical concept not yet available to Balzac. Desire and knowledge cannot be reconciled, since the infinite is incomprehensible, and perhaps they can never even be realized. What could it mean to find an infinite force to motivate them? In Séraphita the infinite confounds knowledge by imposing upon knowledge a recognition of its limits. Perhaps like desire, knowledge is condemned to failure, for there can be no infinite expenditure of energy in the service of either. Just as the engineer Carnot relied upon the axiom that there can be no perpetual motion machine to demonstrate the nature of the expenditure of energy, so Balzac accepts as axiomatic that all energy is limited, and thus knowledge and desire are limited. The finite nature of energy sets the limits of reality. This is a bedrock axiom of realism, for Balzac and for today.

Mathematics is a frequent source for the figures and images that stage Balzac's world for epistemic purposes. Mathematical metaphors work well for the geometry figuring desire and the plot that results from it. However, Balzac's desire for quantification is sometimes contradictory, for the historical knowledge that underwrites the Balzacian novel is not amenable to the application of mechanical dynamics. In spite of his own historicizing of knowledge, Balzac, like a literary Laplace in quest of totalization, accepts the a priori possibility that most experience could conceivably be measured and quantified in some sense. This belief surfaces throughout the realist novels, as in the following passage in which a Newtonian concept of force is combined with a belief in the materiality of an imponderable such as human thought. Passages such as these present not just metaphorical fioriture, but sum up Balzac's somewhat contradictory worldview about a possible quantification, if not an exact vector sum, of all the forces in the world: “Pendant ces huit jours Eugène et Vautrin étaient restés silencieusement en présence et s'observaient l'un l'autre. L'étudiant se demandait vainement pourquoi. Sans doute les idées se projettent en raison directe de la force avec laquelle elles se conçoivent, et vont frapper là où le cerveau les envoie, par une loi mathématique comparable à celle qui dirige les bombes au sortir du mortier” [During those eight days Eugene and Vautrin had remained silently in each other's presence as they observed each other. The student wondered in vain why. Probably ideas are projected forward in direct proportion to the force that conceives them and go to strike where the brain sends them, according to a mathematical law comparable to the one that directs shells when they are shot from a mortar] (139). Like Goethe experimenting with the chemical notion of elective affinities, Balzac is trying here to conceive something like an algorithm to express the interaction between character types as they engage in their struggle for mastery. The image of the cannon shot is of course a metaphor of struggle and combat, but the metaphorical quantification of struggle is part of the attempt to measure ineffable or imponderable substances—like human thought or, equally as interesting, force and power. From a broader historical perspective, the attempt to understand force has been part of the larger European quest for rationality since Machiavelli as well as Galileo. Beginning with these thinkers evolved the idea that power and force, in their respective domains, are ultimate realities behind all phenomena. Balzac brings to the novel an epistemic concern in which the metaphorical notion of power links up with the non-metaphorical use of force as a way of defining the real, for the notion of force can be used for a quantitative expression of individual relations in the material world. Marx was not wrong in his judgment that Balzac, for all his contradictions, is more in contact with historical reality than any other novelist in the first half of the nineteenth century: Balzac well understood that the multifaceted concept of force was a notion that provides for a definition of the real in diverse contexts. Marx wanted to do the same thing for the “forces” of history (though by the end of the century Hertz thought that force had been so overextended as a concept that it should be banished as a foundational concept in physics).

Balzac's attempt to understand force underlies the development of the narratives in his novels. Larger narrative patterns are motivated by Balzac's desire to link dynamics to the unfolding of events. Each character is pushed forward by his or her energy, pursuing a trajectory that unfolds in terms of sequential events. Balzac's understanding of force is in this regard modern: force is a vector with both magnitude and direction (I say modern because the vector notion is only implicit in Newton's earlier definition of force). For example, in Le Père Goriot, Goriot himself follows a line of development that ends in a depleted state of energy—to use a concept that, I recall, was being invented as Balzac wrote the novel. By contrast, the vector of a character's development can take an upward movement, as in the case of Rastignac, and perhaps Goriot's ambitious daughter Delphine. But Goriot's trajectory is most clear: once he has given up every material possession that could benefit his daughters, once all his energy is expended, he dies. With no money, he has no energy, for money, by his own definition, is the essential force in this milieu. Another nascent capitalist, the criminal Vautrin is at least momentarily stopped in his trajectory, since the opposing force of the police neutralize his upward ascension and prevent him from becoming a rich slave owner in the United States. He is literally and figuratively arrested in his ascension in Le Père Goriot.

Goriot's daughters are threatened with a fall once the force propelling them is met by a counterforce. At the novel's end, when neither daughter comes to her father's funeral, it is an open question as to whether they can continue upon their path in society. Rastignac's first move after the funeral is to accept the challenge of struggle among competing forces in society. He will remain Delphine's lover, which suggests that, whatever be the outcome of his struggle, he believes he can gain a boost in force by attaching his trajectory to hers. By contrast, the failure of the force of desire is clearly illustrated in the moving example of Rastignac's cousin, Madame de Beauséant. Upon being betrayed by her lover, who prefers a rich marriage to fidelity, she decides to spend the rest of her life in seclusion. Her choice to abandon society for “exile” in Normandy is equivalent to expending one's force. There is a rich overdetermination to these trajectories: Madame de Beauséant's move reflects at once the classical moralist's belief in the ravages of passion and the modern epistemologist's view that all conflicting forces must eventuate in a vector resolution in which weaker forces are annulled and absorbed by greater powers.

In résumé, then, what strikes the literary historian upon considering Balzac's tempestuous encounter with science is the way in which he naturalizes Laplace's physics and probability theory. He embodies theory in the fabric of his novels in ways that had not occurred in literature before. Linear dynamics and the calculus of probability are intrinsic to the figuring of experience in Balzac, for events are determined in terms of vector relationships that link up as causal chains. Finally, in Balzac's realist work we find a world of probable forces unfolding causally in terms of the materialism that Marx, among others, wanted to make into the hallmark of historical totalization.

To conclude these considerations, let me adduce another example of the way in which Balzac's energetics is the basis for his realistic plot development, especially with regard to how his characters interact in a determined milieu. Balzac often conceived of the milieu as a closed system in which each character's force can only be augmented or diminished by clashes with other characters to whom energy is transferred or from whom it is extracted. In their own way, works like La Peau de chagrin and La Recherche de l'absolu illustrate this principle, though an even more pointed example of contrasting vectors can be found in a realist work like Le Curé de Tours (The curate of Tours, though, curiously, the title is left in French for the one translation I have found). Energetics is placed in the foreground in this novel narrating a struggle for power between two priests, albeit one of the priests is too naive to be aware that a struggle is taking place. The central character is a curate, Father Birotteau, who does not realize he is being dispossessed by Troubert, an ambitious priest who desires to ascend in the church hierarchy. The ascent of the power-obsessed, yet ascetic Troubert is exactly balanced by the decline and fall of the hedonist, though well-intentioned curate Birotteau. In his ascent, Troubert strips Birotteau of all his possessions, deprives him of all resources, and leaves the poor priest at the end of the novel exiled, across the river from Tours, in a village. From this vantage point the once happy Birotteau is reduced to contemplating in anguish his beloved cathedral, now seen in the distance, as upwardly rising Troubert leaves to occupy a bishopric. The gain and loss of energy is symmetrical. One priest is empowered to move up to become a bishop, and the other loses all energy to end disenfranchised in exile. Or to express this movement in terms of more classical dynamics, the chiasmatic resolution of forces follows rigorous geometry: Troubert's ascension is proportional to Birotteau's decline. And in the most palpable realist terms, the transfer of power as energy can be measured by the loss of possessions, of place, and even of flesh. The once portly priest Birotteau becomes sickly and emaciated after he loses his position and possessions. With no energy, bereft of all force, he collapses immobile in his exile.

Newton knew that he had not explained motion, that he had simply described it in quantified terms as a product of forces that are amenable to public purview. At times a literary Newtonian, Balzac also believed that motion remained the great material mystery. He intuitively sensed that something like the concept of energy would remove some of the mystery. His own vector geometries show that he conceived of the energy available in the social milieu to be finite, mobile, and subject to transfer. In this sense he seems to be groping, like Carnot and others at the time, for a theory to explain force and movement. With these themes in mind I want to conclude with a bit of speculation. I recall that Carnot was working out, in the 1820s, the principles that would later be the basis for the laws of thermodynamics, for entropy and the conservation of energy. Although Balzac probably did not know that Carnot had published the beginnings of a theory of thermodynamics in 1824 in a small book called Reflexions sur la puissance motrice du feu (Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire), it is clear that Balzac shared the same concern about energy that, in Carnot's work, was leading toward a kinetic theory of heat and energy. In his encounter with the science of his time, in his desire to compete with science on its own terrain, Balzac applied a concept something like energy to character development, an application that is fundamental to the development of the novel. In this sense it seems justified to compare Balzac's development of literary form with the development of Carnot's work in thermodynamics. One led to literary realism and the novel as we understand it; the other led to the second law of thermodynamics and the concept of entropy, breaking the visegrip of mechanistic philosophy.

Of course, neither Balzac nor Carnot are a permanent stopping point in our intellectual history. A generation after Carnot's death, the first law of thermodynamics reformulated his work in the principle of the conservation of energy. But the second law of thermodynamics then proposed that this energy, in its distribution, would tend toward equal distribution, and hence all things would run down. The process of time is the inevitable increase of disorder. This interpretation meant the end of the reign of classical dynamics and its laws of equilibrium, for the order of the world, once seen as based on synchronic processes, must have an inevitable historical dimension. Or as Cecil J. Schneer puts it in his classic The Evolution of Physical Science, “Processes, even mechanical processes, were now seen to change with time. There was an evolution, not merely to living things as Darwin had asserted, but even to the inorganic world.”18 After Balzac and Carnot, the next generation formulated that entropy, a measure of unavailable energy, is the most probable process of any system.

With the understanding that entropy is also a measure of the necessary dissolution of energy, the nineteenth century's project of epistemic totalization came to an end, for the concept of entropy undermines the very idea of the closed system, with that fixed totalization of which Laplace, Hegel, and Balzac had dreamed. Any system is necessarily an open system, evolving through time, as energy is displaced. Totalization is irrelevant for describing those random entropic processes by which the lowest level of energy of a system is in the long run the most probable. So Balzac's energetics is homologous to an early stage in the development of the concept of energy, when one thought as much in terms of forces as in terms of energy. What Balzac developed was the idea that the vector array of forces, describing the way in which the powerful were rapaciously destroying the weak, was as evident as the earth's attraction to the sun. This naturalizing of social forces in the Balzacian novel makes of Balzac one of the great contributors to knowledge in the nineteenth century.


  1. Balzac, La Comédie humaine, ed. Pierre-George Castex, vol. 11, 655.

  2. Balzac, “Discours sur l'immortalité de l'âme,” in Oeuvres diverses, ed. Pierre-Georges Castex, vol. 1, 545.

  3. Stephen F. Mason, A History of the Sciences, 488.

  4. Balzac, Le Lys dans la vallée, 77.

  5. My discussion of Carnot draws upon, among other sources, Mason, A History of the Sciences, as well as Cecil J. Schneer, The Evolution of Physical Science, and Emilio Segrè, From Falling Bodies to Radio Waves: Classical Physicists and Their Discoveries. I also recommend highly the ever useful Princeton Dictionary of the History of Science, ed. W. F. Byynum, E. J. Browne, and Roy Porter.

  6. Balzac, La Comédie humaine, ed. Castex, vol. 10, 282.

  7. Balzac, Oeuvres complètes, vol. 23, 177.

  8. Flaubert quoted in Balzac, La Comédie humaine, ed. Castex, vol. 11, 561.

  9. I quote from the Habermas text, in which a contemporary neo-Marxist shows that he is unhappy that Marx actually believed in the totalizing thought that he held up as the epistemic ideal. From Jurgen Habermas, Erkenntnis und Interesse, 63.

  10. Brock, The Norton History of Chemistry, 160-61.

  11. Balzac, La Recherche de l'absolu, 20. In his introduction to this edition, Raymond Abellio relates the novel to the development of science fiction.

  12. Laplace, Essai philosophique sur les probabilités, 95.

  13. Balzac, La Comédie humaine, ed. Castex, vol. 11, 781.

  14. In his study of Le Père Goriot, Uwe Dethloff emphasizes the importance of the Lettres à Madame Hanska for understanding how Balzac viewed his work in this regard. Dethloff quotes Balzac: “Aussi dans les Etudes de moeurs sont les individualités typisées; dans les Etudes philosophiques sont les types individualisés. Ainsi partout j'aurai donné la vie—au type, en l'individualisant, à l'individu en le typisant” [Thus in the Studies of mores are individuals typed, and in the Philosophical studies are types individualized. So everywhere I will have reproduced life—in the type by individualizing it, in the individual by making a type of it]. See Uwe Dethloff, Balzac:Le Père Goriot”: Honoré de Balzacs Gesellschaftsdarstellung im Kontext der Realismus Debatte, 37.

  15. Fargeaud-Ambrière, “Balzac, Homme de science(s),” in Balzac, l'invention du roman, ed. Claude Duchet, 54. Fargeaud-Ambrière has done much useful work on Balzac and science. In addition to the many other scholars I have used here—Pierre Barbéris, Philippe Bertault, Albert Béguin, Geneviève Delattre, Ernst Robert Curtius, etc.—I call attention here to two especially useful books on questions of Balzac and science: Moise Le Yaquanc, Nosographie de l'humanité balzacienne, and Per Nykrog, La Pensée de Balzac dansLa Comédie Humaine.

  16. Balzac, La Comédie humaine, ed. Castex, vol. 1, 8.

  17. Balzac, Le Père Goriot, 29. This edition has a useful preface by Félicien Marceau.

  18. Schneer, Evolution of Physical Science, 202.


Balzac, Honoré de. La Comédie humaine. Ed. Pierre-Georges Castex. Paris: Editions de la Pléïade, 1976-1981.

———. “Discours sur l'immortalité de l'âme. In Oeuvres diverses, ed. Pierre-Georges Castex. Paris: Editions de la Pléïade, 1990.

———. Le Lys dans la vallée. Paris: Editions Garnier-Flammarion, 1972.

———. Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Club de l'honnête homme, 1956.

———. La Recherche de l'absolu. Introduction by Raymond Abellio. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1967.

———. Le Père Goriot. Preface by Félicien Marceau. Paris: Editions Folio, 1971.

Brock, Norton. The Norton History of Chemistry. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

Byynum, W. F., E. J. Browne, and Roy Porter, eds. Dictionary of the History of Science. Princeton: The Princeton University Press, 1985.

Dethloff, Uwe. Balzac: “Le Père Goriot”: Honoré de Balzacs Gesellschaftsdarstellung im Kontext der Realismus Debatte. Tubingen: Francke Verlag, 1989.

Fargeaud-Ambrière, Madeleine. “Balzac, Homme de science(s).” In Balzac, L'invention du roman, ed. Claude Duchet. Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1982.

Habermas, Jurgen. Erkenntnis und Interesse. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968.

Laplace, Pierre Simon. Essai philosophique sur les probabilités. Brussels: Culture et Civilisation, 1967. [Reprint of 1814 edition.]

Le Yaquanc, Moise. Nosographie de l'Humanité balzacienne. Paris: Maloine, 1959.

Mason, Stephen F. A History of the Sciences, rev. ed. New York: MacMillan, 1962.

Nykrog, Per. La Pensée de Balzac dans “La Comédie Humaine.” Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1965.

Schneer, Cecil J. The Evolution of Physical Science. New York: Grove Press, 1960.

Segrè, Emilio. From Falling Bodies to Radio Waves: Classical Physicists and Their Discoveries. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1984. [Also cited from Die grossen Physiker und ihre Entdeckungen, trans. into German by Hainer Kober. Munich: Piper, 1990.]

Cathy Caruth (essay date winter 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11497

SOURCE: Caruth, Cathy. “The Claims of the Dead: History, Haunted Property, and the Law.” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 2 (winter 2002): 419-41.

[In the following essay, Caruth maintains that in Le Colonel Chabert, a novel about a ghostly claim to property, Balzac illustrates how the law, functioning as historical memory, recognizes and yet fails to understand those traumatized by history.]

Balzac's novel, Colonel Chabert, first published in 1832, opens with a peculiar scene: a soldier who is known to have died in battle most improbably and unexpectedly returns to the office of a lawyer to reclaim his property. Disfigured and unrecognizable, the stranger insists that he is actually the famous colonel and asks the lawyer to help him to obtain a form of legal recognition that will restore to him his lawful identity, his property, and his wife. In this strange reincarnation of his own dead self, the character appealing to the lawyer hopes to become legally, and therefore humanly, alive. Unfolding from this haunting encounter, Balzac's story dramatizes the attempt by a man who is legally dead to come alive before the law and the capacity and limits of the law to respond to this attempt at legal resuscitation.

Set in post-Revolutionary France during the Restoration, this ghostly return of a Napoleonic soldier clearly echoes the historic repetitions that were taking place during this period: the return to the pre-Revolutionary past during the Restoration, itself ruptured by the return of Napoleon during the 100 Days; the protracted waves of revolutionary socioeconomic shocks to France in the wake of the French Revolution. What is remarkable in Balzac's text is the singular perception that this haunted repetition, this return, takes place not simply in the realm of history, politics, or war, but rather and specifically on the site of the law. What is at stake in Balzac's novel is a legal claim that turns the law itself into the place par excellence of historical memory. This appeal to memory and history through law emerges in Balzac, moreover, not simply through the return of a living revolutionary hero, but, far more unexpectedly and enigmatically, through a return of the dead. What does it mean, Balzac's text seems to ask, for the dead to speak—and to speak before the law? And what does it mean, moreover, for the law to listen to this claim coming, as it were, from the dead? It is through these unsettling questions, I will argue, that Balzac reflects on the complexity of the relationship that, in the wake of the French Revolution, emerges as an entanglement and as an indissoluble bond between the law and history.

It is not by chance, I will suggest, that this literary story takes place as a scene of haunted memory. I will argue that in giving center stage to the return of the dead and to the singular encounter between the survivor and the law, Balzac's text grasps the core of a past and of a future legal haunting and identifies as central to historical development a question of death and of survival. This question will indeed return to haunt the twentieth century, not simply in the central role of Holocaust survivors in the postwar war crime trials, but, even more uncannily, in the current legal claims made by individual survivors for restitution of their past property, and, more fundamentally, for restitution of their property rights. Through its strange tale of a ghostly claim to property, Balzac's text thus prophetically tells, I would propose, what it means for the law to grapple with its own traumatic past.

The text of Colonel Chabert is in effect the story of a young lawyer's attempt to recognize and to respond to this peculiar claim to restitution of property. Chabert tells the lawyer how he died in war without quite dying: how he was wounded and buried alive in battle; how he was mistakenly declared dead; and how he managed to struggle out of the mass grave, only to find a society that denies his existence and a wife, now remarried and with children, who refuses to acknowledge his letters. Astonished by the appearance of Chabert but willing to believe his story, the lawyer Derville suggests a compromise between Chabert and his wife, a settlement that will provide an equitable compromise on the property. In the story of the compromise and of its failure—through which the text stages the drama of the legal struggle to come alive before the law—Balzac describes the very struggle of the survivor of catastrophe to reclaim life: to claim existence and identity. But it is also, quite precisely, through the peculiar legal struggle over the claim to property that Balzac shows, I will argue, how the law, in this tale, at the same time comes to recognize, and fails fully to comprehend, the legacy of a traumatic history.



The problem of recognition is indeed central to the opening scene of the text. In the very first lines of the story, a clerk at a lawyer's office notes the strange appearance of a figure that keeps returning to their door:

“Look! There's that old greatcoat again!” …

“Simonnin, stop playing stupid tricks on people. … No matter how poor a client is, he's still a man, damn it!” said the head clerk. …

“If he's a man, why'd you call him old greatcoat?” asked Simonnin.1

Appearing only as a ghostly “greatcoat,” the stranger's first encounter with the law is marked by a misrecognition, an inability of the law office to decide whether the figure should be considered fully human. Haunting the office in his not fully recognizable form, this figure of a man without property situates the question of property at the very heart and at the jurisprudential center of the law.

The scene that the stranger interrupts in fact represents the performance of the law at a very specific historical moment, a moment that is named by the clerk who is improvising a long and “prolix” appeal:

“But in his noble and benevolent wisdom, His Majesty, Louis the Eighteenth … [deemed to] repair the damages caused by the terrible and sorry disasters of our revolutionary times by restoring to his loyal and numerous adherents … all their unsold property … rendered on … June 1814.”

[CC, pp. 2-4]2

The lawyer's appeal refers, specifically, to the period of the Restoration, the time of the return of the Bourbon monarchy to the throne after the abdication of Napoleon and, more precisely, to the Charter of 1814 by which the new king, Louis XVIII, took power. In its political significance, this moment was an attempt at a kind of historical return: France's attempt to return to a form of rule that preexisted the Revolution and to create a bridge over the rupture constituted by the radical events of 1789 and their consequences during the Napoleonic Empire. But this moment was in fact as the lawyer's appeal indicates, a legal one as well; for the Charter of 1814 was the reiteration and modification, in particular, of the legal legacy of the Revolution: of the astounding legal breakthrough of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 and its codification during the Napoleonic Empire in the Civil Code. The Restoration's legal and political attempt to return to the past, Balzac suggests, thus takes place through the execution and the institution of another kind of return: the return of property to the aristocrats from whom it had been taken during the Revolution. The return of property in the legal act of the Restoration is thus a political attempt to return to the pre-Revolutionary past.

The primary interest in Balzac's text is not, however, in this story of restoration per se but in the way in which it becomes bound up with a far stranger kind of return: the peculiar manner in which the return of property becomes entangled, strangely, with the insistent and uncanny return of the dead. The appearance of the stranger at the door of the office indeed represents, not simply a man who is poor, but, more enigmatically, a man who cannot be recognized, precisely, as alive:

“Monsieur,” Boucard said to him, “would you be good enough to give us your name, so that our Master may know …”


“Isn't that the colonel who died at Eylau?” …

“The same, Monsieur,” answered the good man with old-fashioned simplicity.

[CC, pp. 10-11]

It is indeed as a man who is dead that Chabert first introduces himself into the scene of the law: “My death,” he will later reassert to his lawyer, “is a matter of historical record.” Coming nonetheless to make a claim for his property, he appears as a peculiar inversion of the historical attempt to return to the past effected by the Restoration. At the point that the Restoration would return property to the aristocrats, here a figure of the Revolution comes to demand that his own property be returned to him. In the very act of making this claim in the name of a dead man, however, Chabert also points toward a past that cannot be spoken in the simple terms of the living. If property here functions, from within the Restoration, as the place par excellence of return, it is also, in this story, the uncanny site of a haunting.

If we step back for a moment, we can see how Balzac's narrative about a dead man coming before the law addresses a larger question of law and historical memory, specifically as they became intertwined after the French Revolution. For the introduction of the Charter of 1814 in the opening scene of Balzac's story inscribes this legal document in the literary text not only in relation to the Charter's use of law to return aristocratic property, but also and more profoundly, I would suggest, in the Charter's peculiar function as a decree of historical forgetting. Indeed, quite remarkably, when Louis XVIII proclaimed his kingship after the abdication of Napoleon, he placed in the Charter an article that, in François Furet's words, “put forgetfulness under the law's protection, as if it were the most precious of national virtues: ‘All research into opinions and votes issued up to the Restoration is prohibited. Courts and citizens are equally commanded to forget.’”3 Decreeing forgetting within the very Charter that reiterates the Civil Code as the regime's basic legal principles, the King makes of forgetting itself a legal function. Appearing against the background of this operation of the Charter, Chabert's return before the law can thus be understood as the return of memory against the very action of the legal attempt to forget. The claim to property, in other words, is the site of a memory: the memory of a revolutionary history paradoxically repressed within the very extension of the Revolution's own legal legacy.4

But such a claim is not made in the light of day. It is significant that Chabert's story and his claim literally emerge not in the outer offices of the clerks who work during the day but in the inner office of the “master” lawyer, Derville, who works, we are told, “only at night.” Not available to the law's consciousness, the story of Chabert is narrated to the lawyer in the darkness of the night, as the return of an ungrasped death that insists on legal recognition. Indeed, Derville's nighttime labor seems to represent a place of unconscious wakefulness at the very heart of the law. The claim to property profoundly and symbolically becomes, thus, the unconscious site on which the law confronts the nightmare of a historical trauma.


The story that Chabert comes to tell is indeed tied up with a crucial moment in the record of French history: Chabert is a colonel in Napoleon's army who was involved in the famous battle of Eylau and who was instrumental in Murat's charge—an actual military event that has been called the “greatest charge of the Napoleonic wars.”5 To the extent that his name is recognizable, then, Chabert represents the greatness of the Napoleonic period, the spreading of the principles of the Revolution throughout Europe and the greatness of military glory so central to French identity. Indeed, it is in setting up Murat's charge, apparently, that Chabert is wounded, falls off his horse and is subsequently trampled under the charging soldiers. His recognizable historical identity, he suggests, is based, then, purely on the mistakes of medics and more importantly on a mistaken legal declaration:

Those damned medics, who had just seen me trampled beneath the horses' hooves of two regiments, no doubt dispensed with checking my pulse and declared that I was quite dead. My death certificate was then probably made out in accordance with the rules of military jurisprudence.

[CC, p. 20]

While he is truly a Napoleonic colonel, Chabert's official historical status as a hero of the wars—and in particular of its “victories and conquests”—is associated with the finality and tragic romance of his death, a death that is, as it turns out, a legal fiction. In this error of death, then, the law of certificates and declarations has paradoxically helped to write a heroic history that eliminates the reality of war—a reality of horror, of atrocity, and of confusion in which death is carried on into life and which Chabert, in contrast, is precisely struggling to articulate and to narrate.

The reality of which Chabert speaks is indeed a far more gruesome one than the romantic story of his death, associated with the greatness of French victory. The death in this tale is of an entirely different order:

When I woke up, Monsieur, I was in a position and a setting which I couldn't convey to you if I talked till dawn. The little air I was breathing was foul. I wanted to move but had no room. Opening my eyes, I saw nothing. … I heard, or thought I heard—though I can't swear to it—groans coming from the pile of corpses I was lying in. Even though the memory of these moments is murky, and despite the fact I must have endured even greater suffering, there are nights when I still think I hear those muffled moans! But there was something more awful: a silence that I have never experienced anywhere else, the perfect silence of the grave.

[CC, pp. 21-22]

What Chabert truly comes to know is not the glorious death of war and conquest but the horror of being buried alive under the dead. The story he has to tell is indeed the story of the dead, the sounds of the dead in the very act of dying, and the “silence of the grave” itself, a silence far more horrible, he suggests, than the loud and noisy heroism of the death named on the historian's page. Likewise, the triumph he also achieves in this horrible situation—the victory over death he will accomplish—is itself not the victory of war as recorded in history but an underground story horrible in its gruesome detail:

Scrabbling around me at once, for there was no time to lose, I felt a huge, detached arm. I owe my rescue to that bone. Without it I would have perished! But with a fury I'm sure you can imagine, I plowed my way through the corpses separating me from the surface. A layer of earth had no doubt been thrown over us—I say ‘us’ as if the others were still alive! I still do not know how I could have dug through all that flesh. It formed a barrier between me and life. But I went at it, Monsieur, and here I am.

[CC, pp. 22-23]

Chabert's story of his return to life is not a glorious tale of conquest but the horrid account of tearing human limbs and of climbing on human bodies in a desperate attempt to save himself and to struggle out of the grave. Indeed his final emergence from the grave itself conveys a certain disrespect, a paradoxical act of desecration of the dead rather than their simple veneration and glorification: “‘I pushed myself up with my feet standing on the solid backs of dead men. This was no time to respect the dead’” (CC, p. 23).

In words uncomfortably anticipatory of twentieth-century horrors—one thinks, for example, of the stories of people in the gas chambers stepping on each other in an attempt to resist choking and get air—Chabert describes a kind of struggle for survival that cannot be assimilated to heroic notions of greatness or triumph.6 Not being really dead, Chabert in fact serves as a witness to a death—and a survival—far more disturbing and far less comprehensible than the deaths and victories recorded in history. What comes back, thus, through the “realism” of Balzac's description of Chabert's experience in the mass grave is in this sense truly a traumatic return: a history of death that insists on returning precisely to the extent that it is not fully understood.

What the literary text suggests surprisingly, however, is that, if history is to be understood as a traumatic history, its insistent return should be located not simply, as one might expect, in the psychic suffering of Chabert but, oddly and problematically, within the very inscription of this suffering in the realm of the law. Chabert himself suggests, repeatedly, that it is not his physical suffering that is of interest. Indeed, just as the lawyer Derville gets caught up in the physical and actual horrors of Chabert's story, Chabert insists that its import lies somewhere else:

“Monsieur,” said the attorney, “you are confusing me. I feel like I've been dreaming. Just hold on a moment.”

“You are the only person,” said the Colonel with a sorrowful look, “who has had the patience to listen to me. I haven't found a lawyer willing to advance me ten napoleons to send to Germany for the necessary documents to begin my lawsuit …”

“What lawsuit?” said the attorney, who had forgotten his client's present painful position while listening to his past sufferings.

“Monsieur, the Countess Ferraud is my wife! She possesses 30,000 pounds a year that belong to me, and she won't give me a sou. When I tell these things to lawyers, to men of good sense; when I propose that I, a beggar, should sue a count and countess; when I, a dead man, rise up against a death certificate, marriage licenses, and birth certificates, they show me the door. … I've been buried beneath the dead, but now I'm buried beneath the living; beneath certificates, facts—the whole society would rather have me buried underground!”

[CC, pp. 26-27]

If Derville is first moved by the story of Chabert's physical and mental sufferings—his remarkable story of being buried alive—what Chabert is troubled by is another form of burial, the burial beneath the living. If the war trauma can be said to repeat itself, indeed, it repeats itself, not in Chabert's physical or mental suffering, but in his suffering before the law: in his inability, having revived himself physically, to revive himself legally. The trauma returns, that is, not in a vision of his remembered near-suffocation in the grave but in his present and repeated suffocation by the death certificates and by the legal papers that bury him alive in a more pernicious and more permanent way. The repetition of the trauma, therefore, takes the form, not of a physical or mental, but of a social and a legal death.7 As such the horror of the traumatic history is contained, in this story, in the enigmatic and complex problem of a legal trauma.


Chabert's ghostly reappearance before Derville, indeed, is represented, not as an anomaly coming to the law from outside it, but as a problem that haunts it, as it were, from within. The dead colonel's mistaken burial had first occurred in a battle that was part of an attempt to spread, precisely, the very principles of Revolution in the form of the Civil Code—the law that, in 1807 (the very year of the Battle of Eylau) was named after Napoleon and was considered by him to be one of his greatest achievements.8 Chabert returns from this battle, however, not as a conqueror spreading the law in its glory, but as the war's victim, as the man mutilated and barely recognizable as human precisely because of a war meant to disseminate the notion of rights. Indeed, if revolutionary law in a certain sense redefined the human around the notion of rights, Chabert emerges from among the literally dehumanized, the disarticulated limbs and unrecognizable faces of those upon whom and through whom these rights were imposed. Chabert's return thus haunts the law with an aspect of its own history that remains unrecognizable to it, a figure of inhumanity that the law cannot contain within its own memory.

Chabert does not return, indeed, precisely as a human being claiming his rights but as a cry for humanity emanating from someone not yet recognized as human. Chabert must claim, first, his very existence, his very recognizability as a living human being who has the right to claim. Describing to Derville his attempts to contact his wife, Chabert displays the depth of his dilemma caused by this radical refusal of recognition:

“Well,” said the Colonel, with a gesture of concentrated rage, “when I called under an assumed name I was not received, and the day I used my own I was pushed out the door. … My gaze would plunge inside that carriage, which passed by with lightning speed, and barely catch a glimpse of the woman who is my wife and yet no longer mine. Oh, since that day I have lived for vengeance!”

[CC, p. 33]

The desire for rebirth before the law, as Chabert first speaks of it, emerges as a cry of revenge that will force recognition through an act of retribution: an act of forcefully reclaiming the life that he no longer owns. In claiming his property, then, Chabert does not claim something to which he has the right but rather that to which he precisely can no longer rightfully lay claim, a self, a love, and a life of which he has been radically dispossessed.



From one perspective, the entire narrative of Balzac's novel—the legal drama that grows out of the encounter between Chabert and Derville—can be understood as revealing the law's capacity to hear this claim and to perform the rebirth of the dead man, his legal resuscitation, through its capability of translating the traumatic story into recognizable legal terms. Derville could indeed be said to discover in the claim more than the negotiation of an already existing link between the legally unrecognizable figure and the human world he wishes to enter. The claim to self and to life, made as a claim to property—as a claim that is always made in relation to another—becomes, in Derville's creative manipulation of it, the very possibility for Chabert to achieve a recognizable identity.

Indeed, if Derville is shown to be a capable listener, this legal listening is made possible, in part, not because he speaks in the same language as Chabert, but because he integrates the story—and the claim—into a recognizable legal and human framework. As it turns out, Derville is also the lawyer for Chabert's (now remarried) wife, and it is by bringing Chabert into relation to her, by proposing a form of mutual legal recognition, that Derville first responds to Chabert's cry:

“This is a serious matter,” [Derville] said at last, somewhat mechanically. … “I need to think about this case with a clear head; it is quite unusual.”

“Well,” the Colonel answered coldly, raising his head proudly, “if I lose, I may die, but not alone.” Suddenly the old man disappeared, and the eyes of a young soldier ignited with the fires of desire and vengeance.

“We might have to compromise,” said the lawyer.

“Compromise?” repeated Colonel Chabert. “Am I dead or am I alive?”

“Monsieur,” continued the lawyer, “I hope you will follow my advice. Your cause is mine.”

[CC, p. 34]

While Chabert's claim is a cry for retribution, Derville's response translates this symmetry of destruction into the reciprocal recognition of a settlement.9 He recognizes in the cry the claim, that is, the claim for rights, which thus permits him to accord the unrecognizable figure before him the recognition of a human being. Explaining clamly to Chabert that his wife is remarried, has children, and has manipulated the inheritance in a way that makes it untraceable to Chabert, the lawyer offers a solution that will not return Chabert to the past he once lived but will allow some recompense for its loss.

Indeed, as the lawyer makes clear, the need for a negotiation of a legal solution imposes itself precisely because Chabert's claim to survival comes into direct confrontation with that of his wife. Upon hearing the news of her husband's death on the battlefield, Mme. Chabert had, we are told, remarried an aristocratic count, the Count Ferraud, whose name she proceeded to take as her own and with whom she had two children. Working with her pension from Chabert's death and with her inheritance, she had made use of the monetary swings of the early Restoration to manipulate this sum into a small fortune, thus providing a place for herself in Restoration society as a wealthy and aristocratic countess. But her husband, the count, now has ambitions of his own and, she senses, has been looking for an excuse to divorce her so as to marry into the royal family and have a chance at becoming a peer of France, an excuse that Chabert's return and her unwitting bigamy would provide. If Chabert feels he cannot quite come alive, then, if he suffers a social death through what constitutes his wife's survival, Mme. Ferraud is horrified that he cannot quite die, that his survival means likewise a social death for her. The lawyer's offer of compromise thus mediates between two opposing claims to survival.

The conflict and the compromise, moreover, take place as a negotiation about, and through, property; it is through property (his name, marriage, and money) that Chabert makes a claim for his identity, and it is through property (her wealth and marriage) that the wife resists. But it is also because this property is ultimately negotiable that the claim can become a settlement and be recognized on both sides.10 Derville thus suggests that Chabert give up his claim to the marriage (by annulling the marriage contract) if Mme. Ferraud agrees to grant Chabert his identity (by annulling the death certificate). Derville convinces Chabert to negotiate, in addition, because he cannot afford a lawsuit and will ultimately lose his name, while Derville convinces the wife to negotiate, so that she can avoid the consequences of a lawsuit that would expose her bigamy to her husband. Chabert's identity as a living Colonel Chabert (through the annulment of the death certificate) and the wife's identity as Mme. Ferraud (through the annulment of the previous marriage contract to Chabert) are thus established and brought into relation to each other as reciprocal acts of annulment that treat the establishment of identity as a kind of exchange of properties. The right to property, by establishing an analogy between the asymmetrical needs and claims of Chabert and his wife—between the man who has as yet no property and the woman who is at risk of losing hers—thus becomes the mediating term by which the law brings the two parties together and whose principle governs the very form of the compromise. In this sense the claim to property—in its powers not only to recognize, but to constitute, a recognizable symmetry of identities—becomes the epitome of the right to claim that is also the necessity of the mutual recognition of one another's rights.11


The legal remedy of compromise is also repesented, in the story, as an act of remembering. In effecting Chabert's legal rebirth through the compromise—by associating and recognizing his life with a legal form—Derville could be said to reenact Chabert's rebirth from the pit as the memory of an earlier, legal birth, the birth of man as a subject of rights in the legal act of foundation constituted by the Revolution. The law, in resuscitating Chabert, thus remembers through him the legal foundation of the subject created by the Declaration, as a “juridical person” recognizable through his very right to claim and, specifically, the right to claim his property. Against the background of the reduced notion of property as mere possession, Derville thus resuscitates, with Chabert, the sense in which the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, rather than recognizing the human through his property, precisely constituted the subject as proprietor, as the one who is recognized through his very right to claim.12

This act of resurrecting the original legal meaning of the revolutionary subject is thus also represented in Balzac's text as the possibility of recreating a smooth succession between past and present and incorporating the legal history of the Revolution and postrevolutionary periods (the extended history of the Revolution as the foundation of modern law) into the continuity of a nontraumatic history. Moving between Chabert (who is trying to live like a Napoleonic colonel) and his wife (who is trying to live the life of a Restoration countess), Derville ultimately convinces both of them to come to his office to negotiate the settlement, which he stages in a highly theatrical gesture by directing Chabert, dressed in the uniform of the Imperial Guard, and his wife, dressed in her most glorious Restoration garb, to sit in separate rooms while he moves between them, reading the settlement.13 In this scene, Derville symbolically crosses the gap between Empire and Restoration—the end of the Napoleonic Empire represented by the moment of Chabert's so-called death—and turns it into the legal memory of the Revolution, not as the “endless abyss” that cannot be bridged, but as a beginning with an end, a moment in the past that gives meaning and sense to the history that it created. He also, in this sense, restores Napoleon in history, not as the conqueror who spread the Code through catastrophic wars, but as the ruler responsible for creating a place of memory in the Code.14 The legal settlement of property, the remedy to historical trauma proposed by Derville, thus situates the legal Code as a place of memory, the memory of the Revolution as the beginning of a continuous and comprehensible history and the recognition of the human as, precisely, the reflection and embodiment of the Code.



Yet if, on the one hand, Derville's listening acts as a kind of legal memory of the history of the law, it also comes to enact something within that history that it still fails to comprehend.

This incomprehension occurs, moreover, around the very problem of property. While Derville seems able to appreciate what it means for Chabert not to have property, he appears to misunderstand what it means for his wife to cling so desperately to it. Indeed, while Chabert tells Derville directly what he refers to as “‘the secret of my situation’” (CC, p. 19), that is, of his burial and return from underneath the corpses, the wife does not fully reveal to Derville what the narrator calls the “secrets of her conduct deep in her heart” (CC, p. 59), another burial and another story that is not possessed by the wife any more than Chabert's story is possessed by him. Mme. Ferraud's exchange of husbands and manipulation of her inheritance from Chabert is in fact an attempt, we are told, to hide her own past life in a brothel, the place from which Chabert had originally taken her and which she is still trying to forget in her marriage to Count Ferraud and in her attempt to become a “proper lady.” But Count Ferraud is himself trying to escape another past: the history of his own father, who lost his property during the Terror, a loss of status that Count Ferraud himself is desperately attempting to repair in his ambitions to become a peer of France. In the negotiation of the settlement, then, the problem of property, even while it brings Chabert and Mme. Ferraud in relation to each other, also represents an abyss of history that cannot be fully grasped by the legal Code.15 For them, indeed, the law represents not what brings them into history but what keeps them out of it. The relation to one another is determined, thus, not through their established identities and histories but through what, in each history, neither can fully possess.

Indeed, Mme. Ferraud is no more a Restoration countess than Chabert can be said to be, properly speaking, a colonel of the Empire. Her desperate attempts to hide her past indicate, in fact, the ways in which she has not quite managed to achieve the period role that she wishes to portray. And this is linked, moreover, to the way in which the law has harmed not only Chabert but her as well; for the Civil Code in fact restricted the rights of women over spousal property in the rules of inheritance.16 What Chabert and Mme. Ferraud truly share, indeed, is the way in which neither is quite situated within the period he or she wishes to represent; Chabert is too late to be, any longer, a colonel of the Empire, and Mme. Ferraud has not yet achieved the full status of a countess of the Restoration.17 In this sense, their communication with each other, in the negotiation, takes place across their secrets, from one abyss to another, a story that is carried on beneath the negotiation Derville is so valiantly attempting to maneuver.18

Property is, in other words, not only the rational principle by which the negotiation becomes possible, but also, in the story, the one thing that escapes all rational principles and hence causes the compromise ultimately to fail.


Indeed, the story of the settlement—which is the story of the capacity of the law to recognize and to remember history as the history of the legal subject—ultimately turns into the story of its failure: of the reenactment of another aspect of the law's own history that the language and memory of the Code does not fully comprehend. It is, moreover, precisely around the monetary terms of the property settlement that the failure of the compromise takes place. Sitting in separate rooms as Derville walks between them and reads the paper, Chabert and his wife listen quietly until the matter of the property settlement is broached:

“But that is much too much!” said the Countess. …

“What do you want, Madame?”

“I want …”

“… him to remain dead,” Derville broke in quickly. …

“Monsieur,” said the Countess, “if it is a matter of 24,000 francs a year, then we will go to court …”

“Yes, we will go to court,” cried the muffled voice of the Colonel, who opened the door and suddenly appeared before his wife, one hand in his waistcoat and the other hanging by his side, a gesture given terrible significance by the memory of his adventure.

“It's him,” said the countess to herself.

“Too much?” repeated the old soldier. “I gave you nearly a million and you are haggling over my misery. We hold our property in common, our marriage is not dissolved …”

“But Monsieur is not Colonel Chabert!” cried the Countess, feigning surprise.

[CC, pp. 73-74]

Refusing the terms of the property settlement, the countess is suddenly confronted by the figure of Chabert in person, a direct confrontation that, rather than producing the recognition arranged by the legal papers, precisely produces the refusal of recognition that the settlement was supposed to correct. This encounter and this refusal of recognition indeed break the theatrical staging of memory that should bring Chabert to life and reenacts, once more, his death: a death that, it appears, could never quite be grasped within the Code's legal forms.

This return of death in the wife's refusal also brings back the return of Chabert's cry for vengeance:

“Well, Colonel,” [said Derville,] “I was right, wasn't I, to urge you not to come in? … You have lost our suit; your wife knows that you are unrecognizable.

“I will shoot her!”

“Madness! You will be caught and executed.”

[CC, pp. 74-75]

Rather than remembering (and correcting) the past of Chabert's life, the law becomes the very site of the reenactment of his death, of the original blow to his head that began the incomprehensible story of Chabert's death: “The poor Colonel … walked slowly down the steps of the dark staircase, lost in somber thoughts, perhaps overcome by the blow he had just suffered—so cruelly and deeply did it penetrate his heart” (CC, p. 75). In the reenactment of the death, the law becomes the scene, not simply of the memory of its own revolutionary past, but of a secret buried at the heart of this history, the inextricability of law and history that constitutes the foundation of the human as the legal subject and that enigmatically also constitutes history, precisely, as the history of a trauma.

It is then not only in the capacity of the law to remember but in the failure of memory within the law, Balzac suggests, that another truth of the revolutionary past begins to emerge. The nonfulfillment of the compromise, therefore, does not simply represent a failure of the law to understand or witness history; rather, it shows history as emerging (and being borne witness to) precisely through the law's failures. The scene of failed settlement thus reproduces the figure of the survivor at the moment of the intended compromise and recognition (the figure of the “‘nonproprietor,’ ‘devoid of property,’ or dispossessed” that, in Etienne Balibar's words, would be, precisely, a “contradiction in terms” within the framework of Revolutionary law [“W,” p. 217]). If the Code remembers the truth of revolutionary history as the right to claim—as a right recognizable through the very claim to property—the Code also inscribes within it the haunting figure of the survivor attending upon this very act, not as the one who speaks his rights but as the unspeakable, the mute survivor, attending upon and yet not recognized within the framework of revolutionary law.19 Between the possibility of compromise and its failure, then, the law serves, here, as a double site of witness: the witness of the human as a claim and the witness of the one who cannot be recognized as human. The law is at the same time a witness to the human grounded in the legal act of speech and a witness to the survivor appearing only as a muteness at the heart of the law.

The scene of failure thus also marks a peculiar doubling at the heart of revolutionary history: an entanglement of two histories founded precisely in the impossibility of their analogy and their negotiation. The failure of the compromise, indeed, represents not only the denial of Chabert's identity but also the denial of the divorce, a legal collapse that, paradoxically, binds the two parties around a gap, and resituates revolutionary history in the splitting and binding of these two incommensurable pasts.



It might appear that this failure establishes a relation between law and history in a kind of death drive that condemns the law to participate in the repetitions of an incomprehensible catastrophe.20 Indeed, many critics have read the end of the story simply as a confirmation of the failure of Chabert to attain his identity in a corrupt Restoration society.21 In the last section of the tale, Chabert, after leaving Derville's office, is seduced by his wife to go to her country estate, where she produces another theatrical setting, a setting in which she appears with her children before Chabert and convinces him that her own survival and the unity of her family depend upon his willingness to sign another legal paper in which he would give up his name and profess himself a fraud in exchange for a small pension. In an act of love, Chabert is about to agree to sign when he accidentally overhears his wife suggesting that he be locked up in a madhouse. At this moment Chabert steps before his wife, refuses to sign the paper, and promises never to reclaim his name, ultimately going off to live in a beggar's prison and, in the final scenes of the novel, in an almshouse.

This hardly makes for a happy ending. But it is in this last part of the story, in the lingering afterlife of the relationship between Chabert and his wife and in the persistent survivals of Chabert past his repeated experiences of failure and death that, I would propose, the true potential of the compromise, as a beginning of a different form of historical witness, comes to be articulated. In Chabert's refusal of his wife's offer, I would argue—and in the manner it repeats and reclaims the catastrophe of the first scene of refusal—the story opens the possibility for Chabert to name himself anew, through the very failure to achieve his former identity.22 This new act creates a possibility that is born from, but not contained by, the law's previous attempt and failure to turn the past into an identity and a possession.

This possibility will appear in the moment of the second scene of signing, in which Chabert refuses to sign his wife's paper written up by the corrupt lawyer Delbecq. The scene is, in fact, a repetition of the scene of failure in Derville's office but in a form that reverses its effects. In this second scene, Chabert truly gives up vengeance for the first time and does so, moreover, as the making of a promise:

“Madame,” he said after staring at her a moment and forcing her to blush, “Madame, I do not curse you; I despise you. I thank fate for severing our ties. I do not even feel a desire for vengeance, I no longer love you. I want nothing from you. Live peacefully on the honor of my word; it is worth more than the scribblings of all the notaries in Paris. I will never lay claim to the name I may have made illustrious. I am nothing but a poor devil named Hyacinthe, who asks only for a good spot to sit in the sun. Farewell.”

[CC, pp. 89-90]

The act of refusal to sign the paper, here, is an act of renunciation. The giving up of vengeance, indeed, as the refusal to sign the legal agreement precisely repeats the legal failure of the previous scene, but does so not in the form of passive repetition but rather as a new kind of action: as a promise not to reclaim the name that was refused him in the first scene of signing. The self that emerges, here, is indeed not the self of the past—the “Chabert” that is no longer fully possible—but rather “Hyacinthe,” Chabert's given name, which emerges in the promise never to reclaim—that is, to refrain from repeatedly and compulsively returning to claim—the name Chabert.23 This is not a triumphant reassertion of identity but, instead, the peculiar capacity to name, precisely, his very survival in the form of an ultimate loss: “‘Not Chabert! Not Chabert!’” he says when he is addressed by his old name, “‘My name is Hyacinthe. … I am no longer a man, I am number 164, room 7’” (CC, p. 98).

We could say, then, that in the act of renunciation and promise, Chabert reclaims the failure of the law as the very condition of his freedom.24 In giving up the claim, Chabert could perhaps be said, in Lévinas's words, to retain a different kind of claim, the “claim to judge history—that is to say, to remain free with regard to events, whatever the internal logic binding them.”25 Chabert will retain, in the final scenes, an ongoing link to his military past—he continues to speak of Napoleon and addresses some passing Prussians with disdain—but he no longer appears to consider this past as a matter of his own possession. It constitutes, rather, a memory and a relation to history that, if they are Chabert's only remaining property, are no longer a property that could simply be possessed.


It is thus in this peculiar way in which Chabert lives on beyond his own name that his survival—and the traumatic history to which he bears witness—first becomes truly legible. No longer “a man,” as he says—that is, a subject defined entirely in the law's own terms—Chabert is nonetheless still recognizable as he appears again before the eyes of the lawyer. Precisely because he has failed; because he has survived beyond the name Chabert, can this figure and his history emerge to be read and witnessed in another way. In this act, indeed, Chabert is once again seen by the law, no longer recognized through the compromise but encountered in a scene of witnessing that also appears as Derville's own form of giving up.26

In the final lines of the story, thus, Derville, with the young lawyer Godeschal whom he has mentored, happen to pass Chabert as they are on the way to a town outside Paris. Chabert, covered in poor clothing and sitting outside an almshouse, is not recognizable to Godeschal but is immediately recognized by Derville. Standing in front of the man who now names himself by a number, Derville remarks on the fate of Chabert and ends with an impassioned speech to the young lawyer who was once his student:

“I have learned so much practicing my profession! … I have seen wills burned. I have seen mothers rob their children. … I cannot tell you everything I have seen because I have seen crimes that justice is powerless to rectify. In the end, none of the horrors that novelists believe they've invented can compare to the truth. You'll soon become acquainted with such charming things yourself; as for me, I am moving to the country with my wife. I am sick of Paris.”

“I have seen plenty already,” Godeschal replied.

[CC, pp. 100-101]

This scene, I would propose, is an ultimate scene of legal witnessing, not as the memory Derville had hoped to accomplish with the compromise, but as the seeing of something he cannot completely tell: “I cannot tell you everything I have seen,” he says, “because I have seen crimes that justice is powerless to rectify.” In this scene, then, the lawyer appears, peculiarly, as witness to what cannot be told simply in legal terms. Seeing Chabert before him, the lawyer Derville comes to recognize, and to articulate, the law's own limits. In the face of his own failure, he speaks in a language that, like the novelist he invokes, can only approach but never fully capture the sight of the figure before him. The law bears witness, in this way, to what remains outside it. As such, this witness is not so much offered as a reflection on the past, but as a scene of teaching, as the words passed on to a student, and to a reader, who will learn from them only in the future.27


  1. Honoré de Balzac, Le Colonel Chabert, ed. Pierre Citron (Paris, 1961); trans. Carol Cosman, under the title Colonel Chabert (New York, 1997), pp. 1-2; hereafter abbreviated CC. The text of Le Colonel Chabert underwent a number of revisions and appeared over the course of its writing under several different titles. I quote from the critical edition of the novel, which is based on the 1832 text with a few later modifications.

  2. Pierre Gascar notes in his preface to his critical edition of the novel that the date of the decree that returns property to the aristocrats is somewhat later (December 1814) than the date of the Charter (June 1814). Balzac had given the proper date for the decree in another text; it is possible that he wished, here, to emphasize the link between the spirit of the Charter and the later decree concerning property. See Pierre Gascar, preface to “Le Colonel Chabertsuivi de trois nouvelles, ed. Patrick Berthier, 2d ed. (Paris, 1974), pp. 7-18.

  3. Quoted in François Furet, Revolutionary France 1770-1880, trans. Antonia Nevill (Oxford, 1995), p. 271. Article 11 of the Charter reads in French, “Toutes les recherches des opinions et votes émis jusqu' à la Restauration sont interdites. Le même oubli est commandé aux tribunaux et aux citoyens” (Charter of 1814, in J. P. T. Bury, France 1814-1940 [New York, 1989], pp. 301-2). The importance of forgetting is emphasized in the opening scene of the novel by the fact that the clerk, parodied in this scene, is repeatedly unable to remember the date of the Charter.

  4. The legal legacy of the Revolution is understood to include, here, both the explicit attempts at codification of the law and the formalization of governmental and political organization contained in constitutions and charters; both of these dimensions of legal history were an ongoing and central concern in the postrevolutionary decades.

  5. The Battle of Eylau was considered to have lost more officers than any other Napoleonic battle. The text Chabert refers to is an actual document that records the battle in detail. See Charles Theodore Beauvais de Preau, Victoires, conquêtes, désastres, revers, et guerres civiles des Français de 1792 à 1815, ed. Jacques Philippe Voïart and Ambroise Tardieu, 27 vols. (Paris, 1817-22), vol. 17. The name Chabert does not appear to refer to an actual Chabert involved in this battle but may be based on a number of different figures from this period. See the critical editions of Citron and Gascard for speculation concerning the possible sources of this name.

  6. Gascar presents this view clearly in his preface to the novel:

    The realism with which the war is presented here, a realism unprecedented in the history of literature, does not result simply from the sensibility of the writer who paints a picture of it. It is imposed on him by the novel aspect of armed confrontations. With Napoleon, that is to say with the utilization, thanks to conscription, of veritable human masses, with the progress of armaments … battles turn easily into carnage. Ten thousand Frenchmen fall at the battle of Eylau, in which Colonel Chabert takes part, and which led Napoleon to say, with crocodile tears, ‘This spectacle is made to inspire in princes the love of peace and the horror of war’”

    [Gascard, preface, pp. 9-10]

    On the profound effect of the outcome of the Battle of Eylau on Napoleon, see Jean-Paul Kauffmann, The Black Room at Longwood: Napoleon's Exile on Saint Helena, trans. Patricia Clancy (New York, 1999).

  7. On the notion of social death, see Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1982). One of the fundamental concerns in the novel is the relation between the social and the legal spheres as they became intertwined after the Revolution; property appears to be a point of linkage between the two realms and for this reason also links the formalities of the law to a realm not controlled by it. I am grateful to Michal Shaked for her insights into the legal significance of the right of property.

  8. Napoleon's name was officially and legally attached to the Code in 1807 and removed twice later by the Charters of 1814 and 1830; in 1852 it was finally reinstated “‘to pay homage to historical truth’” (Jean Carbonnier, “Le Code civil,” in Les Lieux de mémoire, ed. Pierre Nora, 3 vols. in 7 [Paris, 1986], 2:2:296; see also Joseph Goy, “Civil Code,” in Revolution, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, ed. Furet and Mona Ozouf [Cambridge, Mass., 1989], pp. 437-48). Napoleon's own sense of identification with the Code is expressed clearly in his proud words, “I have sown liberty lavishly wherever I have implanted my civil Code” (quoted in Carbonnier, “Le Code civil,” 2:2:299) and in his moving comment from St. Helena, “My true glory is not to have won forty battles; Waterloo will efface the memory of any number of victories. What nothing will efface, what will live eternally, is my Civil Code” (quoted in Goy, “Civil Code,” p. 442). The history of war during the Napoleonic period is thus inextricable from the history of law, a preplexing entanglement of law and violent conquest that Napoleon himself attempts to idealize in his monumentalization of the Code after his political exile.

  9. On the exemplary status of compromise as a legal principle, see Martin Shapiro, “Compromise and Litigation,” in Compromise in Ethics, Law, and Politics, ed. J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman (New York, 1979), pp. 163-75.

  10. The definition of property in the Code would appear to determine this negotiability in terms of the possessibility of property. The full definition reads: “Property is the right of enjoying and disposing of things in the most absolute manner, provided they are not used in a way prohibited by the laws or statutes” (The Code Napoleon; or, The French Civil Code, trans. barrister of the Inner Temple [New York, 1841]). This definition has led to many interpretations of the Code's mechanistic qualities, which are associated with Napoleon's dictatorial aims or the nature of imperial bourgeois society. See, for example, Jean-Louis Halperin, Histoire du droit privé français depuis 1804 (Paris, 1996); see also Elisabeth Sledziewski, Révolutions du sujet (Paris, 1989), and Xavier Martin, “Nature humaine et Code Napoléon,” Droits, no. 2 (1985): 177-228.

    However, the Code is also interpreted by some scholars as a compromise between competing notions of property that inscribes in it a history of the complexity and enigma of this notion. See for example Jacques Poumerade, “De la difficulté de penser la propriété (1789-1793),” in Propriété et Révolution, ed. Geneviève Koubi (Paris, 1990), 27-42. Koubi analyses what she calls the “ideological breach” in the notion of property at the heart of the Declaration, a breach signaled by the use of the singular term “property” and the plural term “properties” in articles 2 and 17, respectively. These two terms are associated, in her analysis, with notions of liberty, on the one hand, and power on the other. See her “De l'article 2 à l'article 17 de la Déclaration de 1789: La ‘Brèche’ dans le discours révolutionnaire,” in Propriété et révolution, pp. 65-84. Balzac's story indeed appears to center in part around the plurality of notions of property contained in the legal use of the word. Chabert's apparent identification of selfhood and property might perhaps be seen in terms of what Etienne Balibar calls the “juridical” (as opposed to economic) notion of property, the right to property that is very closely tied to a right to one's person and the right to oneself and one's labor, or what Margaret Jane Radin refers to as nonfungible property. See Etienne Balibar, “What Is a Politics of the Rights of Man?” Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy Before and After Marx, trans. James Swenson (New York, 1994), pp. 205-25, hereafter abbreviated “W”; and Margaret Jane Radin “Property and Personhood,” Stanford Law Review 34 (May 1982): 957-1015.

    For an analysis of the movement from earlier to later meanings of property in postrevolutionary law, see Sledziewski, Révolutions du sujet, who provides a remarkable analysis of what she calls the “slippage” in the notion of property from the Declaration to the Civil Code, which also accounts for the more reduced economic model in the Code. In her analysis, the slippage occurs because of the inherent tension between the subject as giver and receiver of the law arising in the self-declaration of 1789; this played itself out, historically, in the varying interpretations of property in the 1790's, during the repeated formulation of declarations and constitutions up until the Civil Code (and passed on, then, presumably, to the Restoration). On the complexity of the problem of codification in this period, see also Jean-Louis Halpérin, L'Impossible code civil (Paris, 1992). Several critics analyze the problem of property in terms of debates concerning Lockean and Rousseauist interpretations as they played themselves out over time. See Florence Gauthier, “L'Idée générale de propriété dans la philosophie du droit naturel et la contradiction entre liberté politique et liberté économique 1789-1795,” in La Révolution et l'ordre juridique privé: Rationalité ou scandle?” 2 vols. (Paris, 1988), 1:161-71, and Chantal Gaillard, La Révolution de 1789 et la propriété: La Propriété attaquée et sacralisée (Paris, 1991).

  11. The relation between the two characters that Derville attempts to establish, when he treats them as if they were two equal human beings before the law, thus harbors within it another kind of nonsymmetrical relation between someone not yet a person (Chabert) and someone already established as human (Mme. Ferraud). It is the difficulty of articulating the latter asymmetry with the need of the law for the symmetrical recognition between two parties that could be said to determine, in part, the development of the the plot as it proceeds from this point.

  12. In Sledziewski's words, the Declaration founds the “citizen-man” as “a juridical figure of individuality”: “The individual as the locus of right, that is to say, as the place where the law founds itself in right, and where subjective aspiration becomes right, requires the law: that is indeed the invention of the Revolution” (Sledziewski, Révolutions du sujet, p. 27). Balibar further notes that this is associated specifically with the “‘imprescriptible’” right to property, which thus defines this subject “in its essential characteristics” and thus constitutes it precisely as proprietor (“W,” p. 217). On the mutual “witnessing” permitted by the “autodeclaration” of rights, see Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory, trans. David Macey (Minneapolis, 1988).

  13. Balzac would appear, in this scene, to put on stage not only the two characters but precisely the highly theatrical language used by historians of the period to describe the Revolution; it is not only the artifice of the literary text but the language of historians that Derville thus imitates.

  14. Carbonnier writes beautifully of the Code as a place of memory in “Le Code Civil.” (For a broader discussion of “lieux de mémoire,” see Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de mémoire,Representations, no. 26 [Spring 1989]: 7-25.) On the relation between the founding act of declaration and the difficulties for a codified system to reflect the performative dimension of such an act, see Keith Michael Baker, “Fixing the French Revolution,” Inventing the French Revolution: Essays on French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 253-54, who writes illuminatingly on the double notion of constitution as both “institution” and “order” that operated in post-Revolutionary discussions. See also Jacques Derrida, “Declarations of Independence,” trans. Tom Keenan and Tom Pepper, New Political Science 15 (Summer 1986): 7-15, and Keenan, Fables of Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics (Stanford, Calif., 1997), esp. chap. 1, “Left to Our Own Devices: On the Impossibility of Justice,” pp. 7-42.

  15. Balzac uses the phrase “abyss of the Revolution” in reference to the words of Louis XVI, in the course of describing Monsieur Ferraud's personal history and his own relation to the revolutionary past (CC, p. 58). It is notable that the language describing the Revolution in French historiography also will at times describe the Revolution as an “enigma” (Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory, p. 37) or rupture or as an event not in time; see for example Furet and Ozouf, preface, A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, pp. xiii-xxii.

  16. The restriction of women's rights in the Code, a regression from Revolutionary principles, is generally associated with Napoleon's own views of women. It is clear that Mme. Ferraud's manipulation of the inheritance and of her husband's holdings is not only a matter of greed but an exercise of rights that had in fact been limited by imperial law; in this sense she too, like Chabert, is attempting to create herself and survive as a subject. Interestingly, Napoleon also said there was no place for “bastards” in society and restricted their inheritance rights; given Chabert's orphaned status, this places him, as well as Mme. Ferraud, in a marginal position in the world of the Civil Code. On these matters see Halpérin, Histoire du droit privé français depuis 1804.

  17. Colonel Chabert and Mme. Ferraud are frequently read in the critical literature as allegorical figures representing the Empire and the Restoration, respectively, and are likewise subjected to value judgements (Chabert's positive, Mme. Ferraud's negative). The peculiar inbetween status of these characters and the way in which history, in this text, appears to take place in the interstices between actual periods is not recognized. See for example Graham Good,