Collin says at one point, “If I were not a materialist, I shouldn’t be what I am!” This admission says much about the speaker. He is a cold-blooded manipulator of human lives, a brilliant but absolutely cynical rogue who is without scruple or transcendental conviction. Only in his love for the two young men, Theodore Calvi and Lucien de Rubempre, does he reveal any compassion for the fate of another human being; even that love is tainted by its perverse sexual motive and the Mephistophelian urge to control the lives of the two young men.
Collin had first met Calvi in 1819, when the youth, then eighteen, had been sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and became Collin’s chain-mate. When Collin engineered their clever escape in 1820, they accidentally became separated near Rochefort, and it was during Collin’s search for his mate that he met the feckless dandy Lucien. Transferring his affections immediately to his new friend, Collin promptly began scheming to establish Lucien in society, for, as Balzac says, “in Lucien he had seen a Jacques Collin, handsome, youthful, ennobled, in the position of an ambassador.”
Ultimately, it is difficult to make of Collin any kind of Satanic hero. He is that familiar Romantic figure, the man of great intelligence who uses his powers in the wrong cause, and it is easy to be moved by the sense of such a great waste in his deployment of these powers. Nowhere, however, does Balzac indicate that Collin is motivated by a conviction of having been wronged. He belongs in literature with such figures as William Shakespeare’s Iago and Herman Melville’s Claggart in Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924), villains whose behavior often seems prompted by no motive more obscure than the simple pleasure of manipulating and wrecking others’ lives. His psychology can perhaps best be explained by a deep alienation from society derived from his homosexuality and his resentment at not having been born to a station in life commensurate with his great abilities.
Collin is such a dominating figure in several of Balzac’s works that his past warrants close attention. Besides appearing prominently in two other novels, Pere Goriot and Illusions perdues (1837-1843; Lost Illusions, 1913), he was also the subject of the unsuccessful play Vautrin (1840; English translation, 1901). When he first appears as Vautrin in Pere Goriot (set in 1819-1820), he is forty years old. He is a short man, broad and powerful, of impressive appearance. He lives on a fund of money entrusted to him by his criminal friends, money they have to put in safekeeping while in prison. Eventually, he is apprehended and put in chains, and it is then that he meets Calvi. Collin reappears in Lost Illusions, in which he escapes from jail, murders the Abbe and takes the priest’s credentials, and then scars his face with vitriol to create a disguise. Collin turns up next in The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans with Lucien at the masquerade ball, where the criminal is recognized by Rastignac, one of the former boarders at the Pension Vauquer in Pere Goriot. Rastignac is shaken by the encounter but too frightened to reveal the priest’s true identity....
(The entire section is 1332 words.)