Honoré de Balzac wrote Lost Illusions after he had finally succeeded in conceiving of his life’s work as a large, comprehensive, and accurate portrayal of contemporary French society. Almost every novel he would write or had written was to become a part of this larger entity, which he called The Human Comedy, in reference to the Italian epic poem La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) by Dante Alighieri. When Lost Illusions began appearing in serial form in 1837, Balzac’s conception of the narrative framework for his life’s work was taking shape as well. Balzac’s famous introduction to the first edition of The Human Comedy, in which he provides the theoretical basis for his enterprise, appeared in 1842, which is roughly when the three narratives that make up Lost Illusions were completed.
Lost Illusions concerns itself with the indissoluble relationship between art and money, a recurring obsession throughout Balzac’s work. The experiences of the two main characters, Lucien and David, illustrate the difficulty of escaping from the corrupting power of society, represented by market forces. At first readers see the two men as close friends, although physical and psychological opposites. David is the conscientious, unassuming, and quietly proud craftsman who hopes to become rich by marketing a new process for making paper. Lucien desires immortality as an author. David’s ambitions are to be useful to society while remaining in the provinces. Lucien is self-interested and sees his destiny in Paris.
When Lucien leaves to make a name for himself, however, he gradually comes to view his art as a business rather than as a vocation. As he squanders David’s money in the attempt to reach his goal, he justifies his actions as an investment in himself, which would pay off in the form of literary fame and of material wealth. The reader begins to realize that the two men’s fates are not only linked but also very similar and that David’s print business and Lucien’s writing are simply two aspects of the same industry. Another apparent difference is undermined when it becomes clear that Paris, rather than being the opposite of the provinces, is in truth simply the distillation of the corrupt way of life that exists everywhere.
Lucien’s downfall begins as soon as he arrives in Paris from Angoulême. Its causes reach back to the beginning of the novel when he tries his best to shine in the literary salon of Madame de Bargeton. His good looks and charm seduce her at least as much as his poetry. Hoping to make an impression in the big city, the first thing he does is buy the best clothes, boots, and accessories he can find. When he shows them off at the opera that same evening, however, he realizes that his flashy, off-the-rack wardrobe identifies him as a vulgar provincial. His quest for artistic success immediately becomes subordinate to the desire to appear successful, which he is never able to satisfy. Every time he feels he has achieved a goal, he learns that it is still beyond his grasp. From the beginning, therefore, the aspiring artist deviates from his proper path as a result of the corrupting forces that he is too weak to control.
Balzac’s pessimism about the fate of the individual in society is a constant in this novel and in most of his work. True feeling also is in doubt, since Lucien does not let the reader or himself know whether his love for Madame de Bargeton is genuine or whether he merely uses her as an instrument for the fulfillment of his...
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ambitions. Noble principles and abstractions repeatedly turn into their mundane counterparts: Love becomes prostitution; literature becomes journalism; greatness becomes material wealth. At the end of Lucien’s Parisian adventures, the mysterious Spanish priest who once saved him from suicide gives him a lesson in life that provides a summary of all his experiences in Paris as well as a blueprint for the future. Armed with this new pragmatism, the aspiring artist may, perhaps, conquer the world, which Lucien sets out to do in the sequel toLost Illusions.
Only through reading the novels that come before and after Lost Illusions does one fully realize the identity of the Spanish priest: He is Vautrin, a master criminal who escapes from the prison where he was sent in Balzac’s earlier novel, Le Père Goriot (1834-1835; Père Goriot, 1860). This revelation points out one of the most effective techniques of Balzac’s writing, the use of recurring characters throughout The Human Comedy. Alluding to characters and events from other novels and using the same characters from one novel to another, Balzac reinforces the impression that his great work constitutes a unified world, rather than a series of discrete narratives. A character—Eugène de Rastignac—in Père Goriot, for example, makes an appearance in Lost Illusions. Several other characters appear in the sequel to Lost Illusions and in other works, making the novel a meeting place not only of major Balzac themes but also of characters and of plots.
Not all is bleak in Lost Illusions. While in Paris, Lucien belongs to a group of young artists known as the Cenacle, led by the passionate Daniel d’Arthez. They are devoted to literature in its purest form. Lucien betrays the Cenacle (whose name alludes to Jesus and his disciples), and d’Arthez and the other members are not immune to corruption themselves, but the group nevertheless stands as a reminder of artistic achievement outside the marketplace. David’s process for manufacturing paper proves to be a success, confirming his genius as an inventor. His bankruptcy, caused by Lucien, may be considered a blessing in disguise, since it forces him away from a corrupt society in which an honest man such as he cannot succeed. Eve remains steadfastly devoted as a wife to David and a sister to Lucien, symbolizing the disinterested side of human nature and presenting a type of feminine ideal to which Balzac often returns. Such sentimental, transcendent values are common in Balzac.
With Lost Illusions, Balzac creates a new variation on the genre of the bildungsroman, or novel of formation. According to tradition, the hero of such a novel finds a place and achieves individual fulfillment when the institutions of society are in harmony with the individual’s ambitions. In Balzac, the opposite occurs: The hero succeeds when he gives up his individuality and idealism. By recognizing the alienation resulting from such a process, Balzac was a precursor to modern novelists. His characterization of art as a hostage to crass commercialism is an uncanny prefiguration of some of the concerns of artists of the twenty-first century.