Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Balzac was an indefatigable writer who produced close to one hundred novels and short stories, which he collectively titled La Comedie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1895-1896). They constitute one of the most impressive attempts to portray the complete spectrum of the human passions. Among these works, he referred to some as “Scenes of Provincial Life,” and to others as “Scenes of Parisian Life”; it is in the latter group that The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans falls. Seen from another perspective, the novel can also be understood as forming the third in a trilogy of novels focusing on Jacques Collin in his many incarnations, Pere Goriot and Lost Illusions being the first two.

One feature of Balzac’s work that demands comment is the frequency with which characters are repeated in his works. The practice seems justified in the light of his attempt to create one unified vision of human affairs, and most of the stories and novels are generally intelligible enough without reference to the previous related works, although that is not universally the case. The opening of The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans is puzzling to the reader who does not know from the two previous books about Collin and the escapades of Lucien. References to Coralie, for example, as well as the mysterious recognition of the bogus priest by Rastignac, can leave the reader wondering about what he has...

(The entire section is 445 words.)