Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561
An autobiographical fable of self-identity, Louis Lambert is one of a few principal works in his multinovel epic The Human Comedy (1829-1848) that Honore de Balzac explicitly called philosophical studies. Like most works in this genre, Louis Lambert lacks either action or plot development in the usual sense and reflects, rather, the intellectual growth of its protagonist from his childhood as a prodigy through his days at the College Vendome to his insanity and death. In tracing his own spiritual growth and passion for mysticism, Balzac reorders and rearranges his own experience into a fiction that both reflects his actual development as a thinker and organizes its presentation so that it resembles but does not equal the facts of his life. Balzac distances himself, however, by making Louis a philosopher, not a writer of fiction, and also by telling his story from the viewpoint of another character, the narrator, rather than in the first person.
The novel opens with a description of Louis’ intellectual childhood, his biblical reading to probe the mysteries of Scripture and his omnivorous reading of any other book that he could beg or borrow. Providentially encountering Madame de Stael, he is saved from a life of service in the army or in the Church and is to be educated at her expense. The bulk of the novel describes that education in the school of the Oratorians at Vendome, an education that Louis (nicknamed “Pythagoras”) and the narrator (nicknamed “the Poet”) achieve despite the ignorance and malice of their instructors and classmates.
Balzac’s descriptions of a highly regimented life at boarding school emphasize the uniformity of thought and performance that was its goal, and they also highlight the alienation of those who seek an education beyond the confines of a banal and structured curriculum. Ironically, Louis and the narrator are punished at every turn for not keeping up with the assigned studies that are, compared to the philosophical studies that they clandestinely pursue, dull and elementary. These secret studies, writings, and discussions occur at the risk of corporal punishment from the instructors and ridicule from the other schoolboys. When one of the fruits of Louis’ studies, “Treatise on the Will,” is discovered, it is indeed ridiculed, and both Pythagoras and the Poet continue to suffer the indignities and wretchedness of school for a short time longer until the narrator leaves the college.
The final phase of Louis’ life begins in Paris with a brief story, in which he discovers the vanity and inconsequence of Parisian life before he returns to Blois. Once in Blois, Louis courts Pauline de Villenoix and, on the eve of his wedding, is so overcome by the prospect of marrying the angelic Pauline that he becomes utterly insane. This madness is foreshadowed from the novel’s beginning and seems to be the inevitable outcome of a life devoted to exploring will, thought, and mysticism. It is the unfolding of the time-honored superstition that madness is the natural result of a life spent in study and meditation.
The narrator reenters Louis’ life by chance, having met Louis’ uncle and learned of his friend’s unfortunate state. His encounter with the mystically mad Louis and his caretaker-fiancee, his recording of aphorisms, and his reverence for Louis lead the narrator to wonder whether his friend is truly mad or is in a constant state of ecstasy.
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