Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 826

The Wild Ass’s Skin is the first volume of the sprawling sequence of novels known as La Comédie humaine, or The Human Comedy, which occupied Honoré de Balzac between 1829 and 1848. The French title, La Peau de chagrin , embodies an untranslatable pun, in that the name...

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The Wild Ass’s Skin is the first volume of the sprawling sequence of novels known as La Comédie humaine, or The Human Comedy, which occupied Honoré de Balzac between 1829 and 1848. The French title, La Peau de chagrin, embodies an untranslatable pun, in that the name of the material of which the magical object is made (equivalent to the English shagreen) also carries the meaning that crosses directly into English in the word “chagrin”: a kind of vexation that grates continually and tortuously on the mind. When Raphael has acquired his talisman, he invites his friend Émile to bear witness to “how my chagrin will shrink”—and so it does, in both senses of the word. Unfortunately for Raphael, the shrinkage of the skin quickly reaches the point at which his own state of mind acquires a new and much sharper desperation; the temporary banishment of his chagrin merely serves to clear the way for a more profound and inescapable regret.

Balzac is famous as one of the boldest pioneers of narrative realism, and there are descriptive passages in The Wild Ass’s Skin that are closely observed studies of life in contemporary Paris, foreshadowing the naturalistic triumphs to come in literature. Before this, however, Balzac had written a number of pseudonymous thrillers heavily influenced by gothic tales of terror, and he understood well enough the imaginative power exerted by such motifs as the diabolical bargain. In bringing such a motif out of the quasi-medieval settings favored by the gothic novelists and planting it firmly in contemporary Paris, he was helping to pave the way for a distinctly modern kind of horror story as well as recruiting a useful allegorical device.

Like any modern hero would, Raphael looks to science for assistance when the power of his magic is exhausted, but science cannot help him; he has surrendered his soul to the judgment of superstition and must accept its cruel verdict. This is the fear that haunts all modern tales of unease: that knowing the truth might not be enough if there is some deeper and darker region of the mind that cannot and will not admit it. The juxtaposition of the gothic and the realistic in Balzac’s allegory thus anticipates later ideas regarding the uneasy relationship between the conscious and the unconscious minds, the one being unsafely held by reason and the other, unconquerably, by desire.

The final section of the book is called “The Agony” not so much because of the depth of Raphael’s anguish—agonie in French signifies a struggle against death rather than excruciating pain—as because of the way in which he is fatally divided against himself. No matter how anxious he becomes to preserve the skin by conserving his demands, he is helpless to prevent it from wasting away; he is not the master of his own desires, and his uncontrollable appetites destroy him by degrees. Such, Balzac implies, is the fate of anyone who cannot control his or her lusts. Pauline’s attempts to help Raphael serve only to prove to him that had he adopted a realistic view of his own potential and made a life with her much sooner, instead of chasing after the deceptive Foedora, he would have done far better in the long run.

To some extent, this message must be construed as an attack on the bourgeois materialism that Balzac affected to hate and despise (in himself as well as in others), but the allegory is not simply political. It cuts much deeper than that, to the root causes of human envy and human unhappiness. When Balzac wrote it, he had only just begun to accumulate the debts that were to burden him for the rest of his life, and he had only recently introduced into his name the fanciful “de” that laid false claim to an aristocratic heritage; even so, he clearly had an anxious understanding of where such pretentious follies might eventually lead him.

The motif of wish fulfillment in The Wild Ass’s Skin is obvious. Raphael is an ambitious writer who divides his time between a comedy and a study of the will; his tempter, Rastignac, initially bribes him away from these endeavors with commissions for vulgar hackwork, then seduces him into reckless gambling. Had he been left to his own devices, Raphael might still have been inclined to make a Faustian bargain with the devil, offering his soul for an enlightenment that might have made his work brilliant, but under Rastignac’s influence the treasures he claims are far more transitory. In real life, Balzac had it both ways; he obtained the transitory delights and a reputation as a man of considerable insight and ability, one of the great chroniclers of his age. Raphael de Valentin would doubtless have envied him, but the author of The Wild Ass’s Skin might well have felt fully entitled to say to his later self, “I told you so.”

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