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.
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.
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.
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.