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...
(The entire section is 402 words.)