Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

Balzac combines the forms of personal recollection, letters, and fragmentary speeches in order to portray the man of genius overcome by his own quest for knowledge. The direction of this particular genius is mystical and scientific, as Louis seeks to integrate the thought of Pico della Mirandola, Blaise Pascal, Emanuel Swedenborg, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, Franz Mesmer, and others into a theory that would explain the mysteries of human life, thought, will, and the physical and spiritual universe. That the formulation is, by its nature, impossible does not diminish the importance or attractiveness of this quest.

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It should be emphasized that Louis Lambert does not contain a systematic statement of a clearly articulated philosophy. Rather, Balzac presents suggestions, hints, proclamations of theories, ideas, and propositions that he has gleaned from the arcana of the spiritual writing popular in his era. Electricity in the blood and other bodily fluids, phrenology, galvanic activity, mesmerism, angels, and the expansion of the soul all find a place in Louis’ intellectual world. Indeed, the theories about the physical and metaphysical world are so important in this novel that they overshadow both action and character development. This is a philosophical novel in which the ideas count for more than any other thing. That the ideas are not wholly realized or worked out is important; were they fully presented, Balzac would have no need to end with Louis’ madness. It is characteristic of Romantic thought and writing that incompleteness is preferable to closure.

In filling out his portrait, Balzac touches upon many themes common to the literature of the Romantic rebellion. The central issue of education hinges upon the notion of perfectibility and carries on the work begun by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in opposing the more traditional conception of education with an unsystematic but superior exploration of the universe of knowledge. The child prodigy, a staple of Romantic poetry and prose, encounters one of the foremost actual proponents of Romanticism, Madame de Stael, and becomes her spiritual heir. Personal tragedy, sentimentalized and exalted, is another of Romanticism’s sublime and noble burdens.

Each of these themes coalesces in the central figure, who is the ultimate Romantic hero. Louis is, supremely, one of the splendid isolates of Romanticism. The theme of alienating isolation is worked out in the child’s separation from his parents, his eventual isolation from his uncle (himself a social outcast), his parting from the narrator after college days spent isolated from the other students, and his isolation in madness on the eve of his marriage, which was to unite him with another human being. Indeed, in his last phase, it is evident that he is unaware of the existence of anyone but himself; thus, he is the personification of subjectivity.

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