The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans Themes

Honoré Balzac

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

One dominating theme of The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans is the terrifying power that love can exert over human lives. It is primarily his love for Lucien that drives Collin to his machinations, and it is his love for Calvi that rejuvenates Collin in prison after Lucien’s death. For Lucien, his love for Esther creates a focus for his life that goes beyond his hopes for social advancement. Esther’s love for Lucien is her only satisfaction in life. The melodramatic posturings of these two lovers provide some of the novel’s more preposterous scenes. Most driven and possessed of all in their apparently incessant sexual hunger are Mme de Maufrigneuse and Mme Serisy. Their love letters to Lucien are not revealed, but the accounts of them hint at their extreme salaciousness. Finally, it is the sexual desire of the ludicrous Baron, over sixty and past, so he thought, the age of such dangerous yearnings, that generates the whole swindle around which the plot of the first two books gathers. None of these loves could long survive without the strong erotic elements that foster them in the first place.

The corruption of the characters by lust is part of the generally pessimistic view of human nature that colors the whole novel; nowhere does there appear an admirable character. The higher levels of society are represented by the several women who at one time or another pursue Lucien, and by the extremely wealthy banker, Baron Nucingen, whose...

(The entire section is 411 words.)