Inspired by Balzac’s contrasting ideas about the nature of the will and the expenditure of necessarily finite vital force, The Wild Ass’s Skin is the first and probably the greatest of Balzac’s “Philosophical Studies,” a subdivision of The Human Comedy. Raphaël de Valentin has run out of money and decides to throw himself in the River Seine. Waiting for nightfall, he enters an old curiosity shop, where an old man offers him a magical wild ass’s skin, un peau de chagrin (in French the latter word means both “shagreen,” or wild ass’s skin, and “grief” or “vexation”). The wishes of its possessor will be fulfilled but the skin will shrink in proportion to the number and strength of those wishes. When it has shrunk into nothing, its owner will die.
The old man has lived to a great age by avoiding desire and its turmoil; Raphaël declares that he wants to live to excess. Rushing from the shop, he falls in with friends who take him to an orgy. There he recounts at length to a fellow guest how years of contented denial and scholarly work in a garret were followed by the agony of his love for the heartless Countess Foedora, for whom he had squandered money earned by writing and gambling. The morning after the orgy, Raphaël learns that he has inherited the vast wealth he had wished for but sees that the skin has perceptibly shrunk. He realizes that he can do whatever he wants, but he wants now to do nothing and therefore husband his life.
He organizes a regime in which he is never obliged to express a wish. Cut off from almost all human contact, he effectively abdicates from life for the sake of going on living, constantly attempting the impossible task of repressing the slightest desire.
Raphaël again meets Pauline, the daughter of his former landlady, who had always loved him. Now she is rich and conforms to his idea of the perfect society lady. He is overwhelmed by her beauty and goodness, and he returns her feelings. There follow days of ecstasy. Sometimes Raphaël feels that love is worth its cost, but in fear he eventually flees Pauline. When she finds him he cannot control his desire, which causes the disappearance of the final remnant of the ass’s skin and therefore his death.
In a poor quarter of Paris, Raphael de Valentin walks hesitantly into a gaming room. Inside are the usual raffish hoodlums. To them, the young man appears marked for mischance. Raphael plays his last coin on a turn of the wheel and loses.
Resolved to commit suicide, he wanders to the Seine. For a time, he leans over the parapet of the Pont Royal and looks at the cold water below. Only the thought of the paid rescuers keeps him from jumping. He finally seeks shelter in an antique shop, where he poses as a customer. The proprietor, a wizened old man, takes him upstairs and shows him a piece of shagreen, or untanned animal skin, on which are engraved words in Sanskrit telling the power of the skin. The possessor of the skin will get anything he or she wishes for, but, in return, the wisher’s life will belong to the talisman, and he or she will die when the skin, shrinking with each wish, dwindles to nothingness.
Despite the antique dealer’s warning, Raphael recklessly takes the piece of skin and wishes for a great banquet furnished with much wine, carousing companions, and ladies of light virtue. As he leaves the shop, he meets his friends Rastignac and Émile, two penniless adventurers. They have a great scheme in mind for him—he is to be the editor of a new periodical backed by a rich banker. To celebrate the appointment, the banker is giving a banquet in Raphael’s honor that very evening. Disquieted only a little by the prompt and complete granting of his wish, Raphael goes willingly enough to the banquet.
A rich table is laid in the banker’s apartment. After eating and drinking far too...
(The entire section contains 1820 words.)
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