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”)...
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