Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570
Louis Lambert (lwee lahm-BEHR), called Pythagoras by his schoolmates, a sensitive young philosophy student at a private secondary school. He is an intellectual prodigy subject to flights of mysticism, resembling a youthful Balzac. As he enters boarding school at the age of fourteen, he is slight but powerful and dark-haired, with a pronounced forehead and striking eyes. He is tanned and healthy, but after only a few months of a rigid school regime, he becomes pale, sickly, and depressed. Having been accustomed to guiding his own education, he cannot adapt to being told what to study and when and misses the outdoors and his freedom. Reserved and retiring, Lambert is reluctant to participate in classes and recreational activities and consequently is treated as lazy, recalcitrant, and antisocial by faculty and fellow students. Derisively nicknamed Pythagoras, he succeeds in acquiring only one friend, the narrator. After leaving school, he spends three years in Paris, engaging in scientific studies, but he is alone and destitute. Lambert’s attempts to formulate a unifying theory of the universe, one that would account for spiritual phenomena as well as for matter and motion, lead him to further social isolation, intellectual isolation, and finally a cataleptic state, interpreted by most as insanity. His love for Pauline de Villenoix, rather than drawing him out of himself, seems to hasten his degeneration and early demise at the age of twenty-eight.
The narrator, nicknamed the Poet, Lambert’s only school chum, a dreamy, romantic reader and writer of poetry, somewhat resembling Balzac as a young man. Later, he writes books, including the account of the companion he admired so greatly. He claims only to begin to grasp at the age of thirty the ideas expounded by Lambert at fourteen. Losing contact after school, he does not see Lambert again until a chance meeting with Lambert’s uncle, who relates the tale of his engagement to Mlle de Villenoix, his catalepsy on the eve of their wedding, and his continued incapacity. Visiting Lambert and noting all that the uncle and Pauline tell him, and reading Lambert’s notes and letters, the narrator reconstructs the story, suspecting that what the uncle names madness is precipitated by passionate love and might be, as Pauline believes, a form of premature entrance into the spiritual realm. Despite promises to return, the narrator comes back only to visit Lambert’s grave, fearful that the influence of Lambert’s ideas and magnetic personality might lead him far from ordinary social living into the dangers of metaphysical speculation.
Pauline de Villenoix
Pauline de Villenoix (poh-LEEN deh veel-NWAH), Lambert’s fiancée, the embodiment of his ideal of an angel. Beautiful, charming, meditative, and heir to her grandfather’s fortune, she is refused admittance to aristocratic circles because of her illegitimate birth and Jewish ancestry. She loves Lambert and, after great effort, persuades her uncle (her legal guardian), who had hoped to arrange a more prestigious alliance, to approve their marriage. When Lambert falls into a state of catalepsy just before the projected wedding, she takes him to her estate, where she devotedly cares for him until his death three years later. Refusing to believe him insane, considering him only transcended to a higher world, she looks forward to the day when she can join him in the spiritual realm after death. She will allow God his intellect if she can claim his heart.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535
Louis occupies center stage for most of the narrative, with the other characters taking up a necessarily small place in the novel. The narrator, for example, is intent upon filling in only enough background about Louis’ family, uncle, and fiancee to add continuity to his tale, which showcases the mental life of his friend. Each of the characters is sharply drawn and carefully described with the characteristic realism that Balzac developed in his fiction. None, however, including the narrator, distracts the reader from focusing on Louis, and all exist in the narrative only in relation to him.
Balzac has noted that this novel was among his most difficult to write, because it contains so much of himself and embodies the research he had done on mysticism, both ancient and modern. Louis, indeed, replicates that research, converses about it with the narrator, writes of it in letters to his uncle, and infuses it into the letters he writes to his “angel,” Pauline, who later records twenty-two fragments of his lucidly mad thoughts. These fragments, complemented by fifteen more that the narrator recalls, sketch out Louis’ notions of the divine, of flesh becoming word, of the animate existence of thought and will, and of the relation of motion to number and of all to unity.
Louis Lambert, then, exists primarily as the spokesman for Balzac’s reflections on spiritual matters and their intersection with the physical world. Yet Balzac undercuts his character by making him so thoroughly obsessed with the world of ideas that he is incapable of functioning in any practical way. The man of genius is also the victim of that genius; the thinker is ultimately unable to voice his thought; the spiritual man, by neglecting the physical world, is not equipped to survive in it. Like many protagonists of Romantic fiction, Louis is a seeker after something that does not exist, or, if it does exist, does so imperfectly. This fruitless quest is the burden of Balzac’s treatment of character and the viewpoint that Louis personifies: Genius is self-destructive.
Balzac’s irony extends to Pauline, who not only refuses to accept Louis’ madness but also believes that he is sane, and who herself is nearly mad. She believes that Louis is in direct communication with a spirit world and that he is the medium through which eternal truths are spoken. For all of her blindness, Pauline is one of Balzac’s great creations, a model for his other characters who exemplify a particular virtue. Her steadfast devotion to Louis and her self-sacrifice to care for him make her a remarkable antithesis to him. He has sacrificed himself for ideas and lives catatonically; she has devoted herself to him and can survive despite the burden she has undertaken.
Each of the minor characters—Louis’ parents, his uncle, some schoolmates and masters—is drawn with such fidelity to detail and habit of speech, with such realistic rendering of situation, that, like the characters of most great writers, they have their own existence. While they enter and exit as needed to illustrate Louis’ conditions and reflections, each could, like the narrator, reenter at any time to give his or her account of this man of genius.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 34
Besser, Gretchen. Balzac’s Concept of Genius, 1969.
Curtius, Ernst R. Balzac, 1933.
Evans, Henri. Louis Lambert et la philosophie de Balzac, 1951.
Le Yaouanc, Moise. Nosgraphie de l’Humanite balzacienne, 1959.
McCormick, Diana Festa. Honore de Balzac, 1979.
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