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.
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,...
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