Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Balthazar Claes

Balthazar Claes (bahl-tah-ZAHR klehs), the head of an old and respected family in Flanders who devotes his life and fortune to an attempt to discover the philosopher’s stone, the substance believed to have the power of transmuting base metals into gold. When the story begins, he is roughly fifty years old but appears at least ten years older: His tall figure is stooped, his unkempt hair falls to his shoulders, his cheeks are hollow, and his face is pale and wrinkled. His eyes betray a keen intelligence and long days and nights of work in his home laboratory. He believes that he is working for the glory and enrichment of his family, but most of the time he barely acknowledges their existence. To obtain material and equipment for his experiments, he squanders three huge fortunes. He dies a broken old man, only to cry “Eureka!” with his last breath.

Joséphine de Temninck Claes

Joséphine de Temninck Claes (zhoh-say-FEEN deh tehm-NEENK), the adored and adoring wife of Balthazar, about forty years of age. Despite her rich, aristocratic Spanish family and her exceptional beauty, she had not expected to find a loving husband because she limps and has one shoulder higher than the other. Balthazar sees only her beautiful face and beautiful soul. Although she always has been a submissive wife and has loved her four children less than she has loved her husband, she has qualms of conscience when she realizes that Balthazar will leave the children destitute if he continues to spend his money and her inheritance so recklessly. She extracts from him a promise to give up his research. His subsequent frustration and despair induce her to absolve...

(The entire section is 731 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The tension in The Quest of the Absolute results from two kinds of conflicts: between characters and within characters. At the beginning of their relationship, Josephine and Balthazar had a conventional nineteenth century marriage. Balthazar was in charge; he cherished and provided for Josephine, and in return, she obeyed and loved him. Two events bring problems and conflict: Balthazar’s insistence on putting his work ahead of both his marriage and his family, and Josephine’s realization that she has a responsibility for their children which in this case conflicts with her duty to obey her husband. In addition to this disruptive disagreement, Balthazar is torn between the demands of his genius and his love for his family, and Josephine is torn between her love for her husband and her love for her children.

Honore de Balzac describes Balthazar as a forceful, brilliant man whose features remind one of those of a dedicated priest. Certainly he has inherited his single-minded devotion to duty from an ancestor who died in the cause of freedom. (Because Balzac spent his own life obsessively pursuing various commercial ventures in quest of wealth, thereby losing all that he made by his writing, he could understand Balthazar’s similar personality.) Other characters are affected by this trait as well. Copying his master, the valet Lemulquinier is possessed by the idea of the absolute, and his increasing quarrels with the other servants reflect the...

(The entire section is 572 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bertault, Philippe. Balzac and the Human Comedy, 1963.

Lawton, Frederick. Balzac, 1910.

Maurois, Andre. Prometheus: The Life of Balzac, 1965.

Pritchett, V.S. Balzac, 1973.

Saintsbury, George. A History of the French Novel to the Close of the Nineteenth Century. Vol. 2, 1919.