Honoré de Balzac 1799-1850
French short fiction writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Balzac's short fiction works from 1990 to 1997. For discussion of Balzac's short fiction career prior to 1990, see SSC, Volume 5.
Balzac is generally considered to be the greatest nineteenth-century French novelist. His importance rests on his vast work La comédie humaine (1842-53; The Human Comedy), which consists of more than ninety novellas and stories. Critics generally concur that his genius lies in his accurate use of observation and detail, his inexhaustible imagination, and his authentic portraits of men, women, and their physical environments. Considered an early exponent of realism, Balzac is praised for providing a comprehensive portrait of the French society of his day.
Born on May 20, 1799, Balzac led a solitary childhood and received little attention from his parents. He lived with a wet nurse until the age of three, and at eight he was sent to board at the Oratorian College at Vendôme. Later, his family moved from Tours to Paris, where Balzac completed his studies. He received his law degree in 1819; however, to his parents' disappointment, he announced that he intended to become a writer. From 1819 to 1825 Balzac experimented with literary forms, including verse tragedy and sensational novels and stories, which he wrote under various pseudonyms. He considered these works to be stylistic exercises; they were conscious efforts to learn his craft, as well as his only means of support. At one point in his career he abandoned writing to become involved in a series of unsuccessful business ventures. Balzac returned to writing, but despite eventual renown, money problems continued to haunt him throughout his life.
Le dernier Chouan; ou, La Bretagne en 1800 (1829; The Chouans) was Balzac's first critically successful work and the first to appear under his own name. The novel La Physiologie du mariage; ou, Méditations de philosophie éclectique (The Physiology of Marriage) and the collection of short stories Scènes de la vie privée, both published in 1830, further enhanced his reputation. These works also appealed to female readers, who valued his realistic and sympathetic portraits of women as vital members of society. In 1832 Balzac received a letter from one of his female admirers signed l'Étrangère (the Stranger). The writer expressed her admiration for Scènes de la vie privée and chided Balzac for the ironic tone in his newest work, La peau de chagrin (1831; The Magic Skin). Later she revealed her identity as Madame Hanska, the wife of a wealthy Polish count. Balzac and Madame Hanska carried on an extended liaison through letters and infrequent visits. For nine years after her husband's death in 1841, she refused to remarry; her eventual marriage to Balzac just five months before his death came too late to ease the author's financial troubles.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Although Balzac wrote what he intended to be short stories, most of these short pieces eventually became part of a longer work. Because of this, it is difficult to make clear distinctions between his longer and short works. Eventually, they all became part of La comédie humaine, written between 1830 and 1850 and considered to be Balzac's finest achievement. His preface to the 1842 collection outlines the goal of his writings. He refers to himself as “secretary to French society” and expresses his desire to describe and interpret his era. Balzac considered it possible to classify social species as the naturalists had classified zoological species. By organizing his stories into groups that depict the varied classes and their milieu, his work reveals his belief that environment determines an individual's development. La comédie humaine includes three main sections: the Etudes analytiques, Etudes philosophiques, and the bulk of his work, the Etudes de moeurs, which he further divided into the Scènes de la vie de province, Scènes de la vie parisienne, Scènes de la vie politique, Scènes de la vie militaire, Scènes de la vie de compagne, and Scènes de la vie privée, a title he had previously used for a collection of short stories. Balzac attempted to portray all levels of contemporary French society, but he did not live long enough to complete the work.
Many of Balzac's most discussed works, such as La fille aux yeux d'or (1834) and Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu (1831; The Unknown Masterpiece), are variously categorized as novels, novellas, and short stories by critics. In his effort to achieve a complete representation of society, Balzac included in his work not only virtue, faithfulness, and happiness, but also squalor, misery, chicanery, sexual perfidy, and greed. Many nineteenth century readers and critics found his work to be depressing and, more frequently, they considered his representation of life immoral. Others contended that Balzac was a realist and merely depicted society as he witnessed it. Modern critical interest in Balzac attests to his enduring importance. Much of the recent criticism on his fiction focuses on intertextuality in his fiction and in the works of others that have followed. There is also interest in examining sexuality and gender in Balzac's writings. His ability to blend realistic detail, acute observation, and visionary imagination is still considered to be the author's greatest artistic gift. Balzac's popularity continues unabated, as successive generations look to his fiction for a universal as well as personal view of human existence.