Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In this novel, Balzac attempts to define genius and to trace its effects on those who live too close to its flame. At one point, he compares genius to vice in that both involve excess. The difference is that vice is selfish, while genius is self-consuming. Certainly Balthazar hopes to attain wealth by discovering the secret of the universe, and he frequently assures his family that he will compensate them for their sacrifices. Nevertheless, it is clear that any wealth that he acquires will be merely a by-product of his success. His mistress is not wealth but science. It is evidence of Balzac’s own genius that he can sympathize with Balthazar, understanding that men such as him have been responsible for the progress of mankind, while also understanding that the families of such dreamers have often suffered and that the geniuses themselves have frequently been destroyed by their own intensity.

Balzac also examines the nature of love. Josephine’s feeling for her husband is based upon a compound of gratitude, insecurity, and real devotion. Unfortunately, the intensity of her love for him, which in its own way resembles his love of science, weakens her. Even to save her children, she can-not deny this passion.

In their relationship, which is just as affectionate as that of her parents,Marguerite and Emmanuel are far wiser. Neither sacrifices his identity or his reason for the other. If they avoid the appealing but destructive love which Josephine evinces, however, it should be remembered that these more fortunate lovers live in the real world, not in the world of genius.

Can love exist in the same environment with genius? When Josephine weeps, the scientist Balthazar recites the formula for tears; when she is dying, he resents the interruption to his work. Only occasionally does he become aware of anyone’s suffering. Not until the end of his life, when children throw stones at him and his assistant, shouting that they are madmen or sorcerers, does he catch a glimpse of the way in which the real world views him. Thus Balzac presents his problem and asks his question. As a realist, he describes results. He does not solve the problem of love versus genius, nor does he suggest a basis for their coexistence.