Balzac, Honoré de
BALZAC, Honoré de
Nationality: French. Born: Tours, 20 May 1799. Education: Pension Le Guay-Pinel, Tours, 1804-07; Collège de Vendome, 1807-13; L'Institution Lepître, Paris, 1815; L'Institution Ganzer et Beuzelin, Paris, 1815-16; attended law lectures, the Sorbonne, Paris, Baccalaureat of Law 1819. Family: Married Mme. Hanska (Eve Rzewuska) in 1850. Career: Clerk for M. Guillonnet de Merville, 1816-18, and M. Passez, 1818-19; writer, editor, magazine writer: obtained printer's license, 1826-28; owner, La Chronique de Paris, 1835-36; editor, La Revue Parisienne, 1840; president, Société des Gens de Lettres, 1839. Awards: Chevalier, Legion of Honor, 1985. Died: 18 August 1850.
The Human Comedy, edited by George Saintsbury. 40 vols., 1895-98.
Ouvres complètes, edited by Marcel Bouteron and Henri Longnon.40 vols., 1912-40.
La Comédie humaine, edited by Marcel Bouteron. 11 vols., 1951-58; revised edition, edited by Pierre-George Castex and Pierre Citron, 1976—.
Collected Short Stories (in French), edited by A.W. Raitt. 1979.
Scènes de la vie privée. 1830; augmented edition, 1832.
Romans et contes philosophiques. 1831.
Contes bruns, with Philarète Chasles and Charles Rabou. 1832.
Les Salmigondis: Contes de toutes les coleurs. 1832; as La Comtesse à deux maris, in Scènes de la vie privée, 1835; as Le Colonel Chabert, in Comédie humaine, 1844.
Les Cent Contes Drolatiques. 3 (of an intended 10) vols., 1832-37;Quatrième dixain (fragments); 1925; translated as Contes drolatiques (in English), 1874.
Nouveaux contes philosophiques. 1832.
Le Provincial à Paris (includes Gillette, Le Rentier, El Verdugo).1847; as Gillette, or The Unknown Masterpiece, 1988.
Selected Short Stories. 1977.
L'Héritage de Birague, with Le Poitevin de Saint-Alme and Etienne Arago. 1822.
Jean-Louis; ou, La Fille trouvée, with Le Poitevin de Saint-Alme. 1822.
Clotilde de Lusignan; ou, Le beau juif. 1822.
Le Centenaire; ou, Les Deux Beringheld. 1822; as Le Sorcier, inOeuvres complètes de Horace de Saint-Aubin, 1837.
Le Vicaire des Ardennes. 1822.
La Dernière Fée; ou, La Nouvelle Lampe merveilleuse. 1823.
Annette et le criminel. 1824.
Wann-Chlore. 1825; as Jane la pâle, in Oeuvres complètes, 1836.
Le Dernier Chouan; ou, Le Bretagne au 1800. 1829; revised edition, as Les Chouans; ou, Le Bretagne en 1799, 1834; as Le Chouan, 1838; as The Chouans, 1893.
Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de la révolution française, with Lheritier de l'Ain. 1829.
La Physiologie du mariage; ou, Méditations de philosophie éclectique. 1829; as The Physiology of Marriage, 1904.
Le Peau de chagrin. 1831; edited by S. de Sasy, 1974; as The Magic Skin, 1888; as The Wild Ass's Skin, in Human Comedy, 1895-98.
Le Médecin de campagne. 1833; excerpt, as Histoire de Napoléon.1833; edited by Patrick Barthier, 1974.
Études de moeurs au XIXe siècle. 12 vols., 1833-37; includes reprints and the following new works:
La Fleur des pois. 1834.
La Recherche de l'absolu. 1834; as Balthazar; or, Science and Love, 1859; as The Alchemist, 1861; as The Quest of the Absolute, in Human Comedy, 1895-98; as The Tragedy of a Genius, 1912.
Eugénie Grandet. 1833; translated as Eugenie Grandet, 1859.
La Femme abandonnée. 1833.
La Grenadière. 1833.
L'illustre Gaudissart. 1833.
La Vieille Fille. 1837.
Illusions perdues (part 1: Les deux poètes). 1837.
Les Marana. 1834.
Histoire des treize. 1834-35; as History of the Thirteen, 1974; translated in part as The Mystery of the Rue Soly, 1894, The Girl with the Golden Eyes, 1928, and The Duchess of Langeais, 1946.
Le Père Goriot. 1835; translated as Pere Goriot, 1886; as Old Goriot, 1991.
Le Livre mystique (includes Louis Lambert and Séraphita).1835; translated as Louis Lambert and Seraphita, 2 vols., 1889; Séraphita, 1989.
Études philosophiques. 20 vols., 1835-40; includes reprints and the following new works:
Un Drame au bord de la mer. 1835.
Melmoth réconcilié. 1836.
La Messe de l'Athée. 1837.
Facino cane. 1837.
Les Martyrs ignorés. 1837.
Le Secret des Ruggieri. 1837.
L'Enfant maudit. 1837.
Une Passion dans le désert (novella). 1837; as A Passion in the Desert, 1985.
Le Lys dans la vallée. 1836; as The Lily of the Valley, 1891.
L'Excommuniée, with Auguste de Belloy, in Oeuvres complètes de Horace de Saint-Aubin. 1837.
La Femme supérieure. 1837; as Les Employés, 1865; as Bureaucracy, 1889.
Histoire de César Birotteau. 1838; as History of the Grandeur and Downfall of Cesar Birotteau, 1860; as The Bankrupt, 1959.
La Femme supérieure, La Maison Nucingen, La Torpille. 1838.
Les Rivalités en province. 1838; as Le Cabinet des antiques(includes Gambara), 1839; as The Jealousies of a Country Town, in Human Comedy, 1895-98.
Gambara; Adieu. 1839; translated as Gambara, in Human Comedy, 1895-98.
Une Fille d'Eve (includes Massimilla Doni). 1839; as A Daughter of Eve and Massimilla Doni, in Human Comedy, 1895-98.
Un Grand Homme de province à Paris (Illusions perdues 2). 1839; as A Great Man of the Provinces in Paris, 1893.
Beatrix; ou, Les Amours forcées. 1839; edited by Madeleine Fergeaud, 1979; translated as Beatrix, 1895.
Pierrette. 1840; translated as Pierrette, 1892.
Physiologie de l'employé. 1841.
Physiologie du rentier de Paris et de province, with Arnould Frémy. 1841.
Le Curé de village. 1841; as The Country Parson, in Human Comedy, 1895-98.
Oeuvres complètes: La Comédie humaine. 20 vols., 1842-53; includes reprints and the following new works:
Albert Savarus. 1842; translated as Albert Savarus, 1892.
Autre étude de femme. 1842.
Illusions perdues (part 3). 1843; parts 1 and 3 translated as Lost Illusions, 1893.
Esquisse d'homme d'affaires; Gaudissart II; Les Comédiens sans le savoir. 1846.
Un Épisode sous la terreur; L'Envers de l'histoire contemporain; Z; Marcas. 1846; L'Envers… translated as Love, 1893.
Ursule Mirouët. 1842; translated as Ursula, 1891.
Scènes de la vie privée et publique des animaux. 1842.
Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées. 1842; as Memoirs of Two Young Married Women, 1894.
Une Tenebreuse Affaire. 1842; edited by René Guise, 1973; as The Gondreville Mystery, 1898; as A Murky Business, 1972.
Les Deux Frères. 1842; as Un Ménage de garçon en province, inComédie humaine, 1843; as La Rabouilleuse, in Oeuvres complètes, 1912; edited by René Guise, 1972; as The Two Brothers, 1887; as A Bachelor's Establishment, in Human Comedy, 1895-98; as The Black Sheep, 1970.
Un Début dans la vie (includes La fausse maîtresse). 1844.
Catherine de Médicis expliquée; Le Martyr calviniste. 1845; translated as Catherine de' Medici, 1894.
Honorine (includes Un Prince de la Bohème). 1845.
Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes: Esther. 1845; as A Harlot's Progress, in Human Comedy, 1895-98; as A Harlot High and Low, 1970.
La Lune de miel. 1845.
Petites misères de la vie conjugale. 1845-46; as The Petty Annoyances of Married Life, 1861.
Un Drame dans les prisons. 1847.
Les Parents pauvres (includes La Cousine Bette and Le Cousin Pons). 1847-48; as Poor Relations, 1880; as Cousin Pons, 1886; as Cousin Betty, 1888.
La Dernière Incarnation de Vautrin. 1848.
Le Député d'Arcis, completed by Charles Rabou. 1854; as The Deputy of Arcis, 1896.
Les Paysans, completed by Mme. Balzac. 1855; as Sons of the Soil, 1890; as The Peasantry, in Human Comedy, 1895-98.
Les Petits Bourgeois, completed by Charles Rabou. 1856; as The Lesser Bourgeoisie, 1896; as The Middle Classes, 1898.
Sténie; ou, Les Erreurs philosophiques, edited by A. Prioult. 1936.
La Femme auteur et autres fragments inédits, edited by le Vicomte de Lovenjoul. 1950.
Mademoiselle du Vissard, edited by Pierre-George Castex. 1950.
Vautrin (produced 1840). 1840; translated as Vautrin, in Works, 1901.
Les Ressources de Quinola (produced 1842). 1842; as The Resources of Quinola, in Works, 1901.
Paméla Giraud (produced 1843). 1843; translated as Pamela Giraud, in Works, 1901.
La Marâtre (produced 1848). 1848; as The Stepmother, inWorks, 1901.
Le Faiseur (produced 1849). 1851; translated as Mercadet, inWorks, 1901.
L'École des ménages, edited by le Vicomte de Lovenjoul (produced 1910). 1907.
Du droit d'ainesse. 1824.
Histoire impartiale des Jésuites. 1824.
Code des gens honnêtes; ou, L'Art de ne pas être dupe des fripons. 1825.
Mémoires de Mme. la Duchesse d'Abrantes, with the duchess. vol.1 only, 1831.
Maximes et pensées de Napoléon. 1838.
Traité de la vie élégante. 1853.
Lettres à l'etrangère (to Mme. Hanska). 4 vols., 1899-1950.
Cahiers balzaciens, edited by Marcel Bouteron. 8 vols., 1927-28.
Le Catéchisme social, edited by Bernard Guyon. 1933.
Traité de la prière, edited by Philippe Bertault. 1942.
Journaux à la mer, edited by Louis Jaffard. 1949.
Correspondance, edited by Roger Pierrot. 5 vols., 1960-68.
Editor, Oeuvres complètes, by La Fontaine. 1826.
Editor, Oeuvres complètes, by Moliere. 1826.*
A Balzac Bibliography and Index by W. Hobart Royce, 1929-30; Bibliography of Balzac Criticism, 1930-1990 by Mark W. Waggoner, 1990.
Balzac and the Novel by Samuel G.A. Rogers, 1953; Balzac: A Biography, 1957, and Balzac's Comédie Humaine, 1959, both by Herbert J. Hunt; Balzac the European by Edward J. Oliver, 1959; Prometheus: The Life of Balzac by André Maurois, 1965; Balzac: An Interpretation of the Comédie Humaine by F.W.J. Hemmings, 1967; The Hero as Failure: Balzac and the Rubempré Cycle by Bernard N. Schilling, 1968; Balzac by V.S. Pritchett, 1973; Balzac's Comedy of Words by Martin Kanes, 1975;Balzac's Recurring Characters by Anthony Pugh, 1975; Balzac Criticism in France (1850-1900) by David Bellos, 1976; Balzac: Fiction and Melodrama by Christopher Prendergast, 1978; Balzac: Illusions Perdues by Donald Adamson, 1981; Balzac and His Reader by Mary Susan McCarthy, 1983; Balzac and the Drama of Perspective: The Narrator in Selected Works of La Comédie Humaine by Joan Dargan, 1985; Family and Plots: Balzac's Narrative Generations by Janet L. Beizer, 1986; The Golden Scapegoat: Portrait of the Jew in the Novels of Balzac by Frances Schlamovitz Grodzinsky, 1989; Balzac and Music: Its Place and Meaning in His Life and Work by Jean-Paul Barricelli, 1990; A Fable of Modern Art by Dore Ashton, 1991; The Sadomasochistic Homotext: Readings in Sade, Balzac, and Proust by Douglas B. Saylor, 1993; The Poetics of Death: The Short Prose of Kleist and Balzac by Beatrice Martina Guenther, 1996.* * *
For a writer who produced such in immense amount of serious fiction in a relatively brief life, Honoré de Balzac was a slow starter. It is meaningless to impose a rigid distinction between the short stories of 1830 to 1835 and the longer fictional pieces into which they were often dovetailed or absorbed. They became part of the coherent description of French society known from 1840 as La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy). In 1834, when Balzac first became aware of the inner coherence of his work, he thought it would be a general study of human behavior, which he intended to classify in an essay on human energy.
Although he did write what were always intended to be short stories, most of Balzac's short fiction originated as drafts or episodes for works that were to be serialized, expanded, or combined into novels. It is therefore understandable that, along with the rather dubious and experimental pastiche of Rabelais's manner in Les Cent Contes Drolatiques (Contes drolatiques or the "Droll Stories"), most of Balzac's short fiction should have been written while he was still feeling his way from the early pseudonymous potboilers, through the various "physiologies," "codes," and "arts," towards the novels with recurring characters, which started with La Père Goriot (Old Goriot), written from 1834 to 1835. Balzac's short fiction also must be seen against other contemporary vogues, for "scenes," semi-dramatic "proverbs," and for the mocking sketches of the freelance journalism to which, in articles for Le Voleur, La Mode, La Caricature, and Le Charivari, Balzac reverted around 1830. What Balzac specifically wrote as short fiction were the "contes," normally focusing on the narration of an event, and the "nouvelles," dealing with a rather more static situation or state of mind.
If Balzac had not gone on to write the novels, it is unlikely that the "Droll Stories" would be remembered. Balzac's decision to revive the bawdy medieval conte, whose point frequently lays in some mistaken, surprising, or grotesque sexual encounter, counter-balanced his increasing concern with the sentimental mystical values explored in Séraphita of 1834 to 1835 and Le Lys dans la vallée of 1835 to 1836. It gave expression to the sturdy, lusty side of his temperament, in some ways also both fastidious and feminine. The idea for the "Droll Stories" is contained in a satirical article printed in La Mode, in February 1830. In the course of that year, Balzac conceived the notion of transposing them into French renaissance language and style, both of which he sometimes got wrong, and of writing a hundred of them, as in Boccaccio's Decameron. The first tale, "The Archbishop," appeared in La Caricature on 4 November 1830, introducing Impéria, a Roman courtesan, in the early fifteenth century. Her adventures were going to be the subject of the first droll story, ten of which came out in April 1832, with a further ten in July 1833. Most of the third decade was destroyed in a warehouse fire in December 1835 and had to be rewritten for publication in 1837, and we have fragments of a fourth and a fifth decade.
They are almost all boisterous and often cruel stories of lechery and sexual and pecuniary trickery involving late medieval Touraine, the homeland Balzac shared with Rabelais. Very few of the characters are anything but pruriently enthusiastic at the prospect of erotic pleasure, and the women are as salacious in their attitudes as the men. It is the rather inept pseudo-medieval pastiche, with the narrative pace and focus of the sixteenth-century conte, its realistic rogues and spontaneous courtiers, which keeps the robust vulgarity from being titillatingly pornographic, and which allows the coarse subject matter, with its mischievous delight in trickery, fraud, and more serious misdemeanor, to be relieved by the occasional intrusion of real delicacy of feeling and lightness of touch.
But there is a foretaste of the novels to come. Sharp perceptiveness about human motivation, wit, and self-parody betray the narrator's amusement at the naivete of his characters and even plots. There are isolated instances of heroism, and of a sense of honor or humor, and dramatic values are exploited. The narrator sometimes shows true sympathy or feeling for his characters, but on the whole the droll stories do not represent Balzac's sensibility at its most attractive. Real love overtakes Impéria, but when Véron, the most flamboyant literary and musical impresario in nineteenth-century Paris, was offered the story for the Revue de Paris, he turned it down, saying, "If possible, my dear Balzac, be chaste, even if only to show the full range of your talent."
The nouvelles, while intended for publication in the form in which they were written, differ from the contes, but still represent Balzac's real talent at an inchoate stage of its development. Of those written in the autumn of 1829, some were concerned to give impressions of domestic life and personal feelings, while others belong to the tradition of mystery, horror, and the fantastic. Six of these studies were grouped together in Scènes de la vie privée (Scenes of Private Life), but the titles of three were changed on subsequent rewriting.
"Domestic Peace" recounts the way in which an older woman guides a young wife to regain the lost affections of an errant husband, while "The Virtuous Woman" (later "A Double Family"), notable for its anti-clericalism, examines how a wife, dominated by a puritanical devotion, drives her husband into the arms of another woman, who disillusions him. The story "La Vendetta," about a Corsican family blood-feud, was much strengthened on rewriting years later, when Balzac added the father's gloating joy at the sudden death of the son-in-law who had brought him the news of his daughter's starvation. "The Dangers of Misconduct" (now "Gobseck") had begun as the physiology of a money-lender for Le Monde and centers on the greed of the comtesse de Restaud. The money-lender's character is fully developed in the 1835 revision, in which he sides with the dying Restaud against the comtesse and her lover. The comtesse has sold him her diamonds, an episode that links the nouvelle to the novelOld Goriot, but "Gobseck" remains a violent story about adultery, culminating in family break-up, while Old Goriot was the conscious foundation for the later panoramic survey of French society.
The best of the nouvelles is generally thought to be "Gloire et malheur," which later became "La Maison du chat-qui-pelote," about the domestic background of Augustine, a draper's daughter who marries a painter but can never rise above her family's shopkeeper values. It is an early Balzac study of feminine feeling. By 1832, however, Balzac had almost abandoned the short story as a literary form. Six tableaux of 1831 and 1832 were put together in 1834 as "Même histoire" and in 1842 were presented in a composite novel as "La Femme de trente ans." There is plenty of outside evidence that Balzac was a brilliant raconteur, and he did contribute two further short stories to a collaborative volume, Contes bruns, in 1832, but gradually the storytelling skills that suited short fiction made way for the lengthier studies of human behavior in his novels. His fictional imagination outgrew the short story.
—A. H. T. Levi
Balzac, Honoré de
Honoré de Balzac
BORN: 1799, Tours, France
DIED: 1850, Paris, France
GENRE: Fiction, drama
La Comédie humaine (1842–1850)
Honoré de Balzac, whose realist novels and plays focused on French society after the fall of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1815, was one of the most popular and influential European writers of the nineteenth century. His masterpiece La Comédie humaine (1842–1850), a multivolume work involving about one hundred interwoven novels and stories, has influenced writers as disparate as Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens, and Henry James, and continues to be regarded by critics as one of the most important and effective character studies to emerge from that century.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Estrangement and Ill-Fated Love The years before and after Balzac's birth saw great political upheaval in France. The French Revolution of 1789 brought a bloody end to the country's long-standing rule by monarchy, with many nobles publicly executed by beheading. Just a few years later, however, Napoléon Bonaparte led a coup that resulted in the establishment of his own monarchy of sorts, declaring himself emperor and appointing family members as rulers of regions he conquered. When Bonaparte was removed from power in 1815, the traditional French monarchy was reinstated, though the following decades would see still more upheaval; in 1848, another revolution once again unseated the monarchy, and another Bonaparte—Napoléon III—seized control of France and declared himself emperor. These uncertain times had a profound effect on the fiction Balzac would create.
Balzac, born in 1799 in Tours, France, had a solitary childhood and received little attention from his parents. He lived with a wet nurse until the age of three, and at eight was sent to board at the Oratorian College at Vendome. Later, his family moved from Tours to Paris, where Balzac completed his studies. He received his law degree in 1819; however, to his parents' disappointment, he announced that he intended to become a writer. From 1819 to 1825 Balzac experimented with several different literary forms and later wrote sensational novels and stories under various pseudonyms. He considered these works to be stylistic exercises; they were conscious efforts to learn his craft. They were also his only means of financial support, because he had been estranged from his family. At one point in his career he abandoned writing to become involved in a series of unsuccessful business ventures. Later, he returned to writing, but despite eventual renown, money problems continued to haunt him throughout his life.
Le dernier Chouan; ou, La Bretagne en 1800 (1829; The Chouans) was Balzac's first critically successful work and the first to appear under his own name, to which he added, in 1831, the wholly self-bestowed aristocratic particle de. The novel Physiologie du mariage; ou, Meditations de philosophie eclectique sur le bonheur et le malheur conjugal (The Physiology of Marriage) and the collection of short stories Scenes de la vie privée (Scenes from Private Life), both published in 1830, further enhanced his reputation. These works also increased his appeal to female readers, who valued his realistic and sympathetic portraits of women as vital members of society. In 1832 Balzac received a letter from one of his female admirers signed l'Étrangère (the Stranger). The writer expressed her
admiration for Scenes de la vie privée and chided Balzac for the ironic tone in his newest work, La peau de chagrin (Luck and Leather: A Parisian Romance, 1831). Later this stranger revealed her identity as Madame Hanska, the wife of a wealthy Polish count. Balzac and Madame Hanska carried on an extended liaison through letters and infrequent visits. For nine years after her husband's death in 1841, she refused to remarry; her marriage to Balzac just five months before his death, however, came too late to ease his financial troubles and just soon enough to leave her saddled with a mountain of his unpaid bills.
The Human Comedy, in Life as in Print Commentators on Balzac rarely fail to note his flamboyant lifestyle and eccentric work habits. He never completed a work before sending it to the printer; instead, he sent a brief outline and scrupulously composed the entire work on successive galley proofs. To be free of distractions, he began working at midnight and continued, with only brief interruptions, until midday, fueled by tremendous quantities of strong black coffee. After several months of this solitary, exhausting routine he would cease working and plunge into a frenzy of social activity, hoping to be admitted to the milieu of Parisian aristocracy. Balzac's ostentatious dress, extensive collection of antiques, outrageous printer's bills, and unsuccessful business kept him perennially short of money. Many critics believe that the pressure of mounting debts pushed him to write faster and thus contributed to the vast amount of material to be found in La Comédie humaine.
La Comédie humaine, a massive grouping of over ninety novels and short stories written between 1830 and 1850, is considered Balzac's crowning achievement. His preface to the 1842 collection outlines the goal of his writings. He refers to himself as “secretary to French society,” and expresses his desire to describe and interpret his era. Balzac considered it possible to classify social species as the naturalists had classified zoological species. By organizing his stories into groups that depict the varied classes and their milieus, Balzac reveals his belief that environment determines an individual's development. La Comédie humaine includes three main sections: Études analytiques (Analytical studies), Études philosophiques (Philosophical studies), and the bulk of his work, Études de moeurs (Studies of manners), which he further divided into scenes of provincial, Parisian, political, military, country, and private life. He intended to portray all levels of contemporary French society but did not live to complete the task. Balzac died in Paris in 1850.
Works in Literary Context
Balzac's reputation as an artist is often tainted by the reputation for bad behavior he garnered while alive. Promiscuous in both romantic and financial affairs, Balzac was constantly in debt, and notorious for disreputable dealings. His life regularly fertilized his fiction; however, his literary reputation might have been still greater had he lacked such an open biography. Many responses to his masterpiece, La Comédie humaine, have been seriously influenced by his irresponsibility, his casual attitude toward contracts, his naïveté about his purchases and investments, and perhaps even by his ridiculous appearance.
A Focus on Character Like many great artists, Balzac made changes in the genres in which he worked: in particular, he achieved success in steering novels and short stories away from traditional forms. While the eighteenth-century novel was dominated by narration, Balzac's work focuses primarily on character and setting, studying society as a whole rather than an individual in particular. Though Balzac was more than willing to please his popular audience and provide melodramatic plots to sell his books, he was thoroughly committed to his oft-repeated desire to be the “secretary of his age.” While his books contain many wonderful tales, the stories are always subordinate to the overriding vision of the whole of his society. Unlike the normal plot-based novel—which may begin with birth and end with death, begin with a crisis and end with its resolution, or begin with an event and end with its cause and result—Balzac's novels conclude with an understanding of a character, such as Eugènie Grandet, or a type of person, such as a thirty-year-old woman, or the cause of a significant social phenomenon, such as the lust for gold and pleasure that
informs La Fille aux yeux d'or (The Girl with Golden Eyes, 1834).
The Parts and the Whole Critics often argue over whether it is more beneficial to study the stories in Balzac's La Comédie humaine as individual works or as part of a cohesive whole. Early in his career, Balzac explained that his works had appeared in seemingly random order as a result of changing fashion, or of his desire to fill out a volume, or to satisfy his need for variation or renew his inspiration during the gargantuan labors, and so on. Nonetheless, he said through the character of Félix Davin, in the introduction to Études philosophiques (Philosophic Studies, 1835–1840), “The author no more worried about these transpositions than an architect inquires about the place on the building site where the stones with which he is to make a monument have been brought.” Balzac himself, it seems, always thought of his works as parts of a whole. He put his creations into an explicit, skillfully constructed frame that often limited, defined, and intensified. The frame narrative usually set up a parallel or an opposition with the enclosed story operating rather like a tuning fork, beginning at some point to reverberate. The reader becomes increasingly conscious of the resonances as he or she proceeds through the fiction. One might call this frame its context, whether that means the entire cycle or the reality that served Balzac as a backdrop.
Works in Critical Context
Modern critical interest in Balzac attests to his enduring importance. His influence on the development of the novel in France is unsurpassed. Many critics contend that his use of the genre as social commentary steered the novel toward realism, and Balzac is now considered one of the world's greatest novelists. His ability to blend realistic detail, acute observation, and visionary imagination is considered his greatest artistic gift.
La Comédie humaine The morality of Balzac's works has long been debated. According to Ferdinand Brunetiere, “Balzac brought about a revolution in the novel by doing artistic work with elements reputed unworthy of art.” In his effort to achieve a complete representation of society, Balzac included in his world not only virtue, faithfulness, and happiness, but also squalor, misery, chicanery, sexual perfidy, and greed. Many nineteenth-century readers and critics found his work to be depressing, and, more frequently, they considered his representation of life immoral. Others contended that Balzac was a realist and merely depicted society as he saw it. British playwright Oscar Wilde wrote of Balzac that he “was of course accused of being immoral. Few writers who deal directly with life escape that charge. His answer to the accusation was characteristic and conclusive. ‘Whoever contributes his stone to the edifice of ideas,’ Balzac wrote, ‘whoever proclaims an abuse, whoever sets his mark upon an evil to be abolished, always passes for immoral. If you are true in your portraits, if by dint of daily and nightly toil, you succeed in writing the most difficult language in the world, the word immoral is thrown in your face.”’
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Balzac's famous contemporaries include:
John Keats (1795–1821): One of the key poets of the English Romantic movement, Keats was roundly denounced by critics during his lifetime but exerted a most profound influence on English and world poetry after his death.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882): The son of a Unitarian minister, Emerson was an American poet and philosophical essayist, generally credited with spear-heading the Transcendentalist movement in the United States.
Franz Schubert (1797–1828): An Austrian composer highly regarded for his melodic and harmonic compositions. Though Schubert died extremely young—at the age of thirty-one—his influence on music has been compared to that of Beethoven.
Brigham Young (1801–1877): An important early leader and organizer of the Mormon church in the United States, Young helped annex the territory of Utah for the federal government and was known by many as “the Mormon Moses.”
Tsar Nicholas I (1796–1855): Tsar Nicholas was known as the most reactionary of the Russian monarchs, seeing his role as being simply to autocratically rule over his people by whatever means necessary.
Despite the great length and ambitious scope of La Comédie humaine, most critics now agree that the work should be approached as a whole. Many praise Balzac's technique of using the same characters in several novels, depicting them at different stages in their lives. For some critics, this strengthens the believability of Balzac's fictional world and enables him to explore the psychology of individual characters more fully than would have been possible in a single novel. Henry James considered Balzac's portraits of people to be his greatest talent. In each of Balzac's memorable portraits, the essential characteristics of an individual are distilled into an embodiment and a reflection of an entire class. Balzac's accurate rendering of detail is generally attributed to his acute powers of observation; however, many critics, notably Charles Baudelaire and George Saintsbury, have emphasized other aspects of his work. They note that while he observed and recorded a wide variety of social milieus with objectivity and accuracy, his work also reveals a profound creative and imaginative power. Modern critics concur, finding Balzac's work to be a blend of acute observation and personal vision.
Responses to Literature
- Discuss examples of exaggeration in La Comédie humaine. What role does exaggeration play in Balzac's exploration of larger themes? How does it help or hinder our efforts to read La Comédie humaine as a sociological document, a quasi-scientific examination of French society and culture?
- Research Balzac's colorful personal life. What role did his lifestyle play in the development of his fiction? Comparing Balzac with one or two other authors with colorful or not-so-colorful lifestyles (for example, Flannery O'Connor or Henry James), would you say that a life of personal excitement is a crucial element of masterly fiction writing? Why or why not? Be sure to ground your response in research into the lives and works of actual authors.
- Consider class dynamics in Balzac's work. How does he portray the aristocracy's relationship with the lower classes? What messages does he seem to be sending? Do you believe work like his can have a specific social impact? Why or why not? Be sure to anchor your argument in actual research and analysis of the texts and the society they appeared in, rather than simply offering an unsupported opinion.
- Many critics have responded not only to Balzac's work, but to that of a variety of other authors, with the demand that it offer standards for moral behavior. Consider a few famous arguments for and against this position (you may want to start with John Milton's Areopagitica) and insert your voice into the debate on one side or the other. Using Balzac's writing as evidence, and responding to and citing other authors on this topic, make a case for why literature should or should not be expected to set moral standards for its readers to follow.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Balzac is best known and loved for his La Comédie humaine, a sprawling work that sets out a world that can only be grasped through immersion in a series of interrelated short stories and novels. Here are several works of fiction that represent key moments in the massive life-worlds created by other authors:
Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone (1997), a novel by J. K. Rowling. The popular author's record-breaking sensation sets up a magical world alongside and intertwined with the mundane world, one which is real only to those with an inborn magical ability. The series of seven Harry Potter volumes, of which this is the first, imagines a world nearly as complex and broad-ranging as many people's experience of our own.
The Sound and the Fury (1929), a novel by William Faulkner. American modernist Faulkner's highly acclaimed fourth novel represents one piece in the enormous puzzle that was Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional county in Mississippi that mirrored and almost exceeded Faulkner's own real-world Lafayette County.
The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), a novel by Thomas Hardy. The British author's fictional Wessex County is one of literature's most carefully sustained imaginary landscapes, and the tragic and moving Mayor of Casterbridge unfolds in the county seat of Dorchester, where town and farmland meet and mingle, collapsing into one another.
Lukács, George. Balzac et le réalisme français. Trans. Paul Laveau. Paris: Maspero, 1967.
O'Connor, John R. Balzac's Soluble Fish. Madrid: Turanzas, 1977.
Pasco, Allan H. Balzacian Montage: Configuring “La Comédie humaine.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Paulson, William R. “Balzac.” In Enlightenment, Romanticism and the Blind in France. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Picon, Gaëtan. Balzac par lui-mème. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1956.
Prendergast, Christopher. Balzac: Fiction and Melodrama. London: Arnold, 1978.
———. The Order of Mimesis: Balzac, Stendhal, Nerval, Flaubert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Pugh, Anthony R. Balzac's Recurring Characters. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.
Balzac, Honoré de
BALZAC, HONORÉ DE
BALZAC, HONORÉ DE (1799–1850), French novelist best known for his La Comédie humaine.
Basically dishonest in love and business, Honoré de Balzac often carried on several affairs at once, even while courting Madame Evelina Hanska, the love of his life, and he viewed debt and contracts as little more than inconveniences until backed against a wall and threatened with prison. Nonetheless, despite his personal flaws, few would disagree that he was one of the great artists of the Western world, a master craftsman who invented devices that became commonplace in the subsequent novel. Proust took the basic idea for the organization of A la recherché du temps perdu from Balzac, and virtually all major writers that followed helped themselves to the devices he devised for making his characters come vibrantly alive. He wrote some ninety novels, thirty short stories, five plays, and numerous articles, essays, and letters. None of his fictive works are failures; all can still be read with pleasure. At least a dozen continue to strike readers with the admiration normally reserved for masterpieces. In the course of producing several thousand characters for La Comédie humaine, he helped bring the European novel to maturity
Though a thoroughly mediocre student, young Balzac managed to finish his coursework and in 1816 passed his baccalaureate in law. In the midst of the rejoicing, however, Balzac announced that the law was not for him; he would be a famous author. The family finally promised to support him for two years in a garret while he tried writing, but by 1821 he had still not published anything. He turned to potboilers. Although it is traditional for scholars to find evidence of Balzac's genius in these appalling novels, it takes a considerable amount of good will to do so. Balzac himself termed L'Héritière de Birague (1822) "veritable literary pig swill." But he was writing and learning the craft.
At least as important as his writing was the relationship he established with Madame Laure de Berny, a neighbor in Tours. She was born in 1777 and raised at Versailles under the monarchy. Not only had she retained the courtly graciousness of her youth, she had many amusing stories about the court. Balzac found her irresistible. Much of Balzac's vaunted insight into women was due to Mme de Berny's frankness. Mme de Berny did not occupy all of Balzac's time, however. He made another middle-aged conquest in an impoverished Napoleonic duchess, Mme d'Abrantès. While continuing to write, he was encouraged by some small critical success with Wann-Chlore (1826). Still, financial success eluded him.
Encouraged by his family, several friends, and his mistresses, he decided to become a businessman. The endeavor set a pattern that would be repeated with few variations through the course of his life. After becoming enthusiastic about some possibility, he invested what funds he had, borrowed more from family, friends, and mistresses, and, then, by one means or another, lost it all. Though the experiences always provided fodder for his creative works, they were otherwise disastrous.
Many of the elements of what would later become La Comédie humaine are apparent in Les Chouans, the novel Balzac published in 1829 and the first he signed with his own name (to which he added the aristocratic "de"). Although the work is held together by a melodramatic love affair that catered to the public's taste, the novelist rises above the popular elements with an artistic portrayal of his society. From 1829 until 1846, Balzac was to work at a fever pitch, often publishing five or six works a year, with as many others at various stages of completion.
Literary success arrived in 1831. With the acclaim of his novels, financial independence should have followed, but the bills for his tailor, for wine, bookbinding, gloves, entertaining, and finally for a tilbury carriage with a fashionable "tiger" to hold the whip were staggering. Since neither thrift nor moderation were a part of his character, he was forced to develop extraordinarily clever stratagems to avoid his creditors. Most important, he wrote furiously. The year 1831 brought another masterwork, La Peau de chagrin. Here, Balzac opens with an impoverished young man, Raphaël de Valentin, living in a garret and struggling to complete a seminal work on the human will. At the moment when Raphaël has been driven by poverty and failure to consider suicide, he is given a magic skin that permits him to do as he wishes by focusing his will. As he wills and receives his wish, however, the skin shrinks, thus reducing the span of his life.
The young novelist was receiving letters from female fans who recognized themselves in his characters. No one knows how many adventures they occasioned, but there were certainly several and at least one child. The most important letter arrived in 1832, signed L'Etrangère (the Foreigner or Stranger). A fabulously wealthy Polish countess, married to a man twenty-two years her senior, Evelina Hanska began an affair that was to last, more or less, until Balzac's death.
Eugénie Grandet, one of Balzac's most widely acclaimed masterpieces, appeared in 1833. In spite of being surrounded by gross materialism, the heroine establishes and pursues the spiritual values central to her love of Charles and of the Church. La Recherche de l'absolu (1834) considers another kind of spiritualism. Balthazar Claës, an insane scientist who suffers from the monomania that marks so many of Balzac's characters, focuses not on money but on the attempt to find the hypostasis or essential force underlying reality.
Scholars cite Le Père Goriot (1834–1835) as the work in which Balzac first made use of the device of systematically reappearing characters. For the novel, he took half a dozen characters from previous novels and short stories. He also mixed in the names of historic personages and added a number of new creations. Goriot's dual plots of a dying father and of a young man determined to use any means to rise in society are subordinated to the vision of a degraded world in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, where familial love has no more value than it will bring in cold cash.
In the midst of all this, Balzac was also writing articles, essays, and stories for various reviews and newspapers. Because of modern printing methods and machinery, high-volume, low-cost periodicals became possible. The addictive phrase "continued in the next installment" provided a faithful reader-ship, and "art" became the business of serialized novels. Editors and publishers solicited Balzac's work. Reading rooms waited impatiently for the next installments. Illusions perdues (1837–1843) describes the revolutionary changes taking place in printing and publication and, as well, the process of speculation, credit, debt, and bankruptcy.
No one could maintain Balzac's pace, and, in the midst of long hours with pen, manuscripts, and proofs, he had a stroke. It did not slow him for long, however. Soon he began an affair with the Countess Guidoboni-Visconti, continued his abundant correspondence with Mme Hanska claiming undying fidelity, and of course wrote more novels and short stories, including "La messe de l'athée" (1836), "Facino Cane" (1836), Gambara (1837), Les Employés (1837), and Massimilla Donni (1839). Another novel, Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau (1837), tells the story of one of the thousands who came to Paris to make their fortunes. Unlike many, César does very well, until his notary Roguin embezzles his money and flees. The novel continues the writer's investigation of the world of the small shopkeeper and the demon of speculation. In Béatrix (1839–1845), he told the thinly veiled story of Franz Liszt (1811–1886) and Marie-Catherine-Sophie d'Agoult (1805–1876), if not of George Sand (Amandine Dudevant, 1804–1876) and Jules Sandeau (1811–1883).
Eighteen forty-two was an important year for the novelist. Most significant was the publication of the first volume of his monumental cycle, La Comédie humaine. The collective title was shrewd. Not only did Comédie suggest the personal dramas that would satisfy the hungers of a nineteenth-century audience, it promised something with the significance and beauty of Dante's Divine Comedy. In the Avant-propos, Balzac announced that he was a naturalist who would study the various varieties of human beings—whether soldiers, shopkeepers, or criminals—in the same way that scientists investigate plants and animals. The size of Balzac's project and the ultimate shape were outlined several times. He explained that his cycle would be broken into three parts or études. The Études de mœurs (Studies of manners) would consider particular social "effects," with a view to universals and types. The subsequent Études philosophiques (Philosophical studies) would portray the causes: life struggling with desire. And in the terminal Études analytiques (Analytical studies), he would deal with the overriding principles that governed the preceding sections.
It was also in 1842 that Balzac learned that Mme Hanska's husband had passed away. Unfortunately, her ardor had cooled, and his staggering debts chained him to his desk. Even his now impoverished mother was beginning to press for repayment. In his late forties, as he approached the end of his life, he had no peace. Bailiffs beat on the doors of both his hideaways; his tilbury was seized; his investments in the Northern Railways had soured; Louise de Brugnol had stolen Mme Hanska's letters and was blackmailing him; the French Academy preferred mediocrities to him; jealous journalists pilloried him; and worst of all, his lifetime dream of marriage into aristocracy and wealth was crumbling around him. He fell into depression, unable to work.
Fortunately, his fire was reignited when Mme Hanska suddenly announced a visit to Paris. He found the energy to complete La Dernière Incarnation de Vautrin (1847, part four of Splendeurs et misères de courtisanes), and more important, since they represent two stars in his crown, he finished La Cousine Bette (1846) and Le Cousin Pons (1847). The terrible account of cousin Bette uses an everyday story of jealousy and weakness to demonstrate how France can be destroyed by its own demons, by the self-indulgence of the idle "haves" that was feeding the envious hatred of the "have-nots." Both of Les Parents pauvres paint a France where family, church, and state are so weakened that the depredations of self-centered greed and lust can be controlled only by an evil genius like Vautrin, who was named chief of police.
Balzac's health had definitely turned. His eyes were not functioning properly, he frequently had trouble getting his breath, and his heart was acting up. He wanted nothing so much as to flee Paris and marry his dream. Once he arrived at Mme Hanska's estates in Ukraine, he had another heart attack. Nonetheless, when Mme Hanska finally received the tsar's permission for the marriage, the dying Balzac and gout-suffering Mme Hanska made the long trip to the church in Berdichev and were married on 14 March 1850. Though he perked up on returning to Paris, Balzac was soon bedridden and would die just a few months later on 18 August. "La peau de chagrin," the magic skin, had shrunk to nothing.
Though Balzac's personal life was distressing, he was a genius, and he bestowed the work of a genius on the world. La Comédie humaine includes sufficiently numerous masterpieces to have made half a dozen writers famous. It stands comfortably with the great opuses of the Western world, and was to have enormous impact on the novel of France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Russia, England, and, as well, of the Americas. Looking at the matter more than a hundred years later, though Charles Baudelaire's aesthetic importance has been more profound, perhaps only François Rabelais (c. 1494–c. 1553) and Marcel Proust (1871–1922) rival Balzac in impact and only Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Voltaire (1694–1778), and Victor Hugo (1802–1885) have had more impressive international influence. Truly, Balzac was a giant.
Auerbach, Erich. "In the Hôtel de la Mole." In Mimesis, translated by W. R. Trask, 468–82. Princeton, N.J., 1953.
Barbéris, Pierre. Balzac et le mal du siècle. 2 volumes. Paris, 1970.
Bardèche, Maurice. Balzac, romancier. Paris, 1940.
Citron, Pierre. Dans Balzac. Paris, 1986.
Hemmings, F. W. J. Balzac: An Interpretation of La Comédie humaine. New York, 1967.
Larthomas, Pierre. "Sur le style de Balzac." L'Annéebalzacienne (1987): 311–327.
Maurois, André. Prometheus: The Life of Balzac. Translated by Norman Denny. London, 1965.
Pasco Allan H. Balzacian Montage: Configuring La Comédie humaine. Toronto, 1991.
Prendergast, Christopher. Balzac: Fiction and Melodrama. London, 1978.
Pugh, Anthony R. Balzac's Recurring Characters. Toronto, 1974.
Robb, Graham. Balzac: A Biography. London, 1994.
Allan H. Pasco
Honoré de Balzac
Honoré de Balzac
The French novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was the first writer to use fiction to convey the total social scene prevailing within one country at a particular period in its history. Commonly regarded as the founder of social realism, he also had affinities with the romantics.
Born at Tours on May 20, 1799, Honoré de Balzac was sent as a boarder, at the age of 8, to the Oratorian College of Vendôme, an old-fashioned school where the discipline was harsh and conditions primitive. The semiautobiographical work Louis Lambert (1832) gives a fairly faithful account of this period of Balzac's life. The boy sought refuge from his surroundings in books, but excessive reading eventually brought on some kind of nervous malady, and he was brought home in 1813. The following year his family moved to Paris, where he completed his secondary education and in 1819 took a degree in law. The not inconsiderable legal knowledge Balzac acquired at this time, both in the lecture hall and in the office of the solicitor for whom he worked, was put to good use in a number of the novels and stories of his maturity that turn on disputed legacies (Le Cousin Pons, 1846-1847), marriage settlements (Le Contrat de mariage, 1835), petitions in lunacy (L'Interdiction, 1836), and bankruptcy proceedings (César Birotteau, 1837; Illusions perdues, 1837-1843).
To his parents' disappointment, Balzac refused to enter the legal profession and instead declared his intention to devote himself to a literary career. His father gave him a small allowance on the understanding that at the end of 2 years he should produce a masterpiece or else abandon his ambitions. Although the expected great work did not materialize, Balzac persisted, and between 1820 and 1825 he wrote a number of sensational or humorous novels, some of them in collaboration with friends and none signed with his own name. These books were devoid of literary merit, but he earned his living by them and learned some useful lessons in the art of fiction.
Casting about for ways of making his fortune more rapidly, Balzac next set himself up as a publisher. In 1825, he launched one-volume editions of the works of the French authors Molière and La Fontaine, but they did not sell well. Undaunted, he acquired a printing business on borrowed capital and later a type foundry. These commercial ventures were also failures, and Balzac's brief business career ended in 1828, when his affairs were liquidated, leaving him with very large debts.
Thereafter he returned to literature and in 1829 published the first novel that he signed with his own name. This was Le Dernier Chouan (the title was changed in later editions to Les Chouans), a historical novel based on the Breton rebellion against the republican government in 1799. Balzac had undertaken careful research on the background, traveling to Britanny in order to ensure that his descriptions of the countryside and its inhabitants would be authentic. Since there was a vogue for historical novels, the book was well received. But real fame came to him 2 years later, when he published La Peau de chagrin, a semifantastic story in which the talismanic shagreen skin of the title is discovered to have the magical property of granting whatever wish the owner utters. Every time the skin is used in this way, however, it shrinks, and the young man who has acquired it knows that his own life-span contracts correspondingly. The tale thus becomes an allegory of the conflict between the will to enjoy and the will to survive, two principles which, according to Balzac, are utterly irreconcilable.
Author and Socialite
Throughout the 1830s Balzac engaged in furious activity, working hard and enjoying himself hugely, in reckless disregard of the moral he had enunciated in La Peau de chagrin. The constant struggle to earn enough to keep his creditors at bay drove him to impose on himself a timetable of work that eventually ruined even his robust constitution. And as the pressure of his commitments to publishers mounted, he increased his hours from 10 to 14 or even 18 a day, keeping himself awake by frequent cups of strong coffee.
Whenever Balzac earned a respite from his herculean toil, he would plunge into bouts of social dissipation which were only a little less exhausting. Though of sober disposition—he never drank to excess and considered the use of tobacco to be enfeebling—he enjoyed good food and was capable of devouring gargantuan meals. In appearance he was unprepossessing, a thick-set man with massive neck and fleshy chin, his enormous head crowned by a mop of greasy black hair. But his magnetic gaze unfailingly compelled attention. He did his best to offset the inelegance of his person by dressing splendidly and wearing ostentatious jewels. In spite of this strain of vulgarity, the liveliness of his conversation and the reputation his books had given him of being an expert on feminine psychology made him a welcome guest in a number of fashionable salons.
The Human Comedy
Balzac's lifework, apart from the early novels already mentioned and a few plays toward the end of his career, consists of a massive series of some 90 novels and short stories collected under the title La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy). It was not until 1841 that this title, probably suggested to him by Dante's Divine Comedy, made its appearance. The Human Comedy was subdivided into smaller cycles of novels: "Scenes of Private Life," "Scenes of Political Life," Scenes of "Parisian," "Provincial," "Country" Life, and so on. There was a separate group of "Philosophical Studies," in which Balzac gave freer rein to his love of the fantastic and the macabre and to his interest in metapsychical phenomena such as thought transference and mesmerism. The "Philosophical Studies" often have historical settings, whereas the rest of The Human Comedy consists of stories that are set in Balzac's own time and describe various aspects of French society during the period of the Bourbon restoration (1814-1830) and of the July Monarchy, which followed.
Apart from the unifying element provided by a common historical background, Balzac also devised an original method of linking the novels by causing characters that he had introduced into one novel to reappear in subsequent stories. This practice, extended more and more as The Human Comedy took shape, enhanced the realistic illusion and also permitted Balzac to develop the psychology of individual characters more fully than would have been feasible within the limits of a single novel.
Social and Ethical Assumptions
In the important preface to his collected works that Balzac wrote in 1842, he defined his function as that of "secretary of French society." Accordingly, every class of people, from the cultivated aristocrat down to the brutish peasant, has a place in The Human Comedy. In the novel Le Père Goriot, lodging-house keepers, usurers, duchesses, students, retired clerks, and gangsters rub shoulders in a manner strangely convincing in spite of the inherent improbability of the situations.
Balzac often ascribed the basest motivations to his characters. He once wrote that the lust for gold and the search for pleasure were the sole principles that ruled humanity. Although capable of dramatizing cases of magnificent self-sacrifice or touching expiation (as he does in Le Lys dans la vallée, 1836, and Le Curé de village, 1838-1839), in the vast majority of instances Balzac presents naked self-seeking served by feverish energy and unflagging willpower. This is where the realism of his work shades off into something else. It was the French poet Baudelaire who first pointed out that Balzac was primarily a visionary, and it was he too who said that Balzac's characters were all replicas of their creator since they were all possessed of "genius." In the sense that single-minded determination to achieve one's aim is part of genius, the remark has considerable validity. The monomaniac-the man obsessed by some transcendent purpose or passion or perhaps by some vice, to the point of sacrificing his own comfort and the welfare of his dependents—is constantly encountered in Balzac's more impressive novels, among them Eugénie Grandet (1833), Le Père Goriot (1834), La Recherche de l'absolu (1834), and La Cousine Bette (1846).
It is true that Balzac was writing in an age characterized more by individual endeavor than by collective effort. This was a period when the struggle for existence among the poor or for social advancement among the less fortunate was at its fiercest. The rigidly hierarchical framework of society which had existed before the French Revolution had disappeared, and no solidly stratified social organization had yet replaced it. Balzac himself deplored the anarchic individualism that he observed around him, and in the comments strewn through his novels he argues desperately in favor of restoring the authority of central government under an absolute monarch as a means of extinguishing the jungle warfare of conflicting interests. Human nature, in his view, was fundamentally depraved; any machinery, legal, political, or religious, whereby the inherent wickedness of men could be held in check ought to be repaired and strengthened. But this teaching went against the tendencies of the age; toward the end of his career, in the mid-1840s, Balzac could see France heading for a new popular revolution which would finally sweep away the domination of "throne and altar." This gloomy prospect partly accounts for the deeper pessimism of his last works.
Marriage and Death
During his last years Balzac suffered increasingly from poor health, and his morale had been weakened by the constant frustrations and disappointments he endured in the one great love affair of his life. In 1832 he had received his first letter from Madame Hanska, the wife of a Polish nobleman who owned extensive estates in the Russian Empire. Balzac was flattered and excited, and he met her in Switzerland the following year. Thereafter they kept up an ardent correspondence, interrupted by occasional vacations spent together in different parts of Europe. In 1841 her husband died, but Madame Hanska obstinately refused to marry Balzac despite his earnest pleas. Only when he fell gravely ill, during a last visit to her mansion in the Ukraine, did she consent. The wedding took place at her home on March 14, 1850. The long journey back to France took a serious toll on Balzac's health, and he died in Paris on Aug. 18, 1850, only a few weeks after his return.
Herbert J. Hunt, Honoré de Balzac (1957) is a concise biography. More detailed is André Maurois, Prometheus: The Life of Balzac (1965; trans. 1965). Stefan Zweig, Balzac (1946; trans. 1947), still repays study. The fullest account of Balzac's literary output is Herbert J. Hunt, Balzac's Comédie Humaine (1959), in which the novels and other writings are studied in chronological order. In F.W.J. Hemmings, Balzac: An Interpretation of "La Comédie Humaine" (1967), an attempt has been made to trace certain thematic patterns in the work as a whole. A thorough study of The Comédie humaine is Félicien Marceau, Balzac and His World (1955; trans. 1967). Other useful general studies are Samuel Rogers, Balzac and the Novel (1953), and E.J. Oliver, Honoré de Balzac (1964). □
Balzac, Honoré de
BALZAC, HONORÉ DE
Honoré Balzac was born to an aspiring bourgeois family in Tours, France in 1799. The family later attributed itself an aristocratic particle, making him Honoré de Balzac. The famous writer died in Paris in 1850, having authored over ninety novels and numerous plays, articles, and short stories.
Balzac avoided the word "dandy" in his writings. In France in the 1830s and 1840s it had negative connotations of foppishness and English eccentricity. In his Traité de la vie élégante (Treatise on the Elegant Life) of 1830, he wrote: "In making himself a dandy, a man becomes a piece of boudoir furniture, an extremely ingenious mannequin, who can sit upon a horse or a sofa … but a thinking being … never." Despite his critiques of the dandy's intellect, he greatly admired masculine elegance and British tailoring. One of his most famous literary dandies, Henry de Marsay, epitomizes the sexual appeal and ambiguity of Balzac's version of the dandy. De Marsay was "[…] famous for the passions he inspired, especially remarkable because of his beauty, like that of a young girl, a soft, effeminate beauty, but counterbalanced by his steady, calm, wild and fixed gaze, like that of a tiger: he was loved and he caused fear" (Lost Illusions). Balzac's writings emphasized the contrast between the dandy's leisured cultivation of elegance and the dull soulless drudgery of the workingman's life. His philosophy stands at the cusp between a British model of dandyism as a phenomenon embedded in a specific social context and later nineteenth-century French and British ideas of the decadent dandy. He influenced writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Joris-Karl Huysmans, for whom the dandy was a heroic outsider rebelling against increasing industrialization and social uniformity.
Balzac cultivated his personal style and public image. At the end of 1830, he owed his tailor 904 francs, which was more than his entire yearly budget for food and lodging in Paris. As a young, upwardly mobile writer he described his extraordinary dress as a réclame or advertisement and claimed that his cane caused all of Paris
to chatter. Indeed, Balzac's accessories seem to have been particularly remarkable: he carried a monstrous cane studded with turquoise, wore coat buttons of elaborately carved gold, and modeled an astonishing variety of waistcoats and gloves. Despite his efforts at elegance, he did not always cut a fine figure and his flamboyant style was not always favorably received. Physically, he was short and squat, and he sacrificed attempts at personal hygiene when deeply involved in his work. Captain Gronow remarked that he wore sparkling jewels on dirty shirtfronts and diamond rings on unwashed fingers.
He patronized several famous tailors and these men, along with haberdashers, glovemakers, and other tradesmen, feature prominently in his novels. It is rumored that he had his clothing paid for by advertising certain tailors—including their names, addresses, and eulogies of their products—in his writing. For example, in the novel Lost Illusions (Illusions Perdues, 1837–1843) the young provincial poet Lucien de Rubempré is shamed when he pays cash for an ill-fitting, bright green ready-made suit and wears it to the Paris Opéra. The mature dandy Henry de Marsay insults Lucien, comparing him with a clothed tailor's mannequin. The next day he goes to Staub, who was one of Balzac's own tailors, and spends most of his yearly income on a new outfit. When he returns to his native Angoulême, he turns his new appearance to his advantage. In his skin-tight black trousers he attracts all of the noblewomen of the city. They flock to see him in his new role as a handsome lion or man of fashion. Balzac observes that the styles of the day were best suited to sculptural physiques: "Men still showed off their bodies, to the great despair of the thin or badly-built, and Lucien's form was Apollonian." The Staub suit transforms Lucien's existence in Paris, catapults him to instant notoriety and helps him launch his literary career. This novel celebrates the social power of dress and demeanor.
Honoré de Balzac's early journalistic writing pays particular attention to men's fashion. The most important publication related directly to dandyism is the Traité de la vie élégante (Treatise on the Elegant Life), which was published in Émile de Girardin's royalist review La Mode between 2 October and 6 November 1830. This text fictionalizes the British dandy George Brummell, whom he calls the "patriarch of fashion." Balzac uses him as a mouthpiece to expound his own principles on elegant dress and lifestyle. In the Treatise, he pioneered the concept of vestignomonie (vestignomony), a pun on the pseudoscience of physiognomy. While physiognomists claimed to be able to read human character from facial types and expressions, Balzac affirmed that clothing could be read and deciphered in the same way. Despite the seemingly increasing uniformity of dress in democratic, post-revolutionary France, Balzac claimed that it was easy for the observer to distinguish between men from various social strata and professions. He claimed that clothes revealed the Parisian doctor, aristocrat, or student from the neighborhoods of the Marais, the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the Latin Quarter or the Chaussée d'Antin.
While much of Balzac's early work was published in fashionable journals like La Mode, Le Voleur and La Silhouette, his later writings demonstrate a sustained interest in vestimentary style. Dress and clothing play a central role in the ninety-odd volumes of La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy) named as a pun on Dante's Divine Comedy. These novels constitute a panorama of French social life from the Revolution (1789) to the end of the July Monarchy (1848). The most important dandy figures in his novels include Eugène de Rastignac, Lucien de Rubempré, Maxime de Trailles, Charles Grandet, Georges Marest, Amédée Soulas, Lousteau, Raphael Valentin and Henry de Marsay. Some of his most important novels were Old Goriot, Eugénie Grandet, Lost Illusions, and Cousin Bette.
Balzac's detailed observations and extensive descriptions paint a vivid picture of the nuances of dress in his period and herald the importance given to fashion in realist literature. While Balzac's importance to the study of fashion is taken for granted in French literary criticism, many of his important journalistic texts have not yet been translated into English. Nonetheless, his novels contain some of the most engaging and sophisticated verbal descriptions of fashion in the history of literature.
See alsoFashion, Historical Studies of .
Balzac, Honoré de. Lost Illusions (Illusions perdues). Translated by Herbert J. Hunt. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1971.
——. Traité de la vie élégante, suivi de théorie de la démarche. Paris: Arléa, 1998.
Boucher, François, and Philippe Bruneau. Le vêtement chez Balzac, Paris: extraits de la Comédie humaine l'Institut Français de la Mode, 2001.
Fortassier, Rose. Les ecrivains français et la mode. Paris: Puf, 1988.
Moers, Ellen. The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm. London: Secker and Warburg, 1960.
Alison Matthews David
Balzac, Honoré de
HonorÉ de Balzac
The French novelist Honoré de Balzac was the first writer to use fiction to convey the social scene prevailing at a particular period in one country's history.
Honoré de Balzac was born in Tours, France, on May 20, 1799, the eldest son of four children of Bernard François and Anne Charlotte Balzac. His mother was thirty-two years younger than his father, and the young Honoré was taken into another home and cared for until the age of four. His mother saw the birth of her son as her duty and treated him indifferently. Her lack of affection overshadowed his childhood. Sent to boarding school at the age of eight, Honoré sought a place to escape from the fierce school discipline. He found this place in books. But excessive reading eventually brought on a nervous condition, which affected his health, and he was brought home in 1813. The following year his family moved to Paris, France, where he completed his secondary education in law.
Rebelling against his parents, Balzac refused to enter the legal profession and instead declared writing as his profession. Despite disappointment, his father provided a small allowance with the understanding that he had to be financially independent within two years. Working together with friends, Balzac wrote several sensational (superficial, appealing to the senses) novels, none signed with his own name. These books were without literary merit, but he earned his living by them.
Searching for ways to make his fortune more rapidly, Balzac next entered a series of business ventures using borrowed funds. These commercial ventures were also failures, leaving him with very large debts.
Thereafter he published the first novel that he signed with his own name. Le Dernier Chouan was a historical novel. Since historical novels were the fashion, the book was well received. But real fame came to him two years later, when he published La Peau de chagrin, a fantasy that acts as an allegory (a symbolic representation) of the conflict between the will to enjoy and the will to survive.
Author and socialite
The constant struggle to earn enough to keep his creditors at bay drove him to a timetable of work that eventually ruined his health. He increased his hours from ten to fourteen or even eighteen a day, keeping himself awake with frequent cups of strong coffee. Whenever Balzac took a break from his writing, he would frequent fashionable salons (stylish lounges), where he was well received by female readers.
The Human Comedy
Balzac's lifework consists of a series of some ninety novels and short stories collected under the title La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy ) in 1841. The Human Comedy was subdivided into smaller groups of novels: "Scenes of Private Life," "Scenes of Political Life," "Scenes of Parisian," "Provincial," and "Country Life." There was a separate group of "Philosophical Studies."
The novels were linked by both history and character. This practice enhanced the realistic illusion and also permitted Balzac to develop the psychology (involving the mind) of individual characters more fully than would have been feasible within the limits of a single novel.
Social and ethical assumptions
In a preface to his work in 1842, he defined his function as that of "secretary of French society." Accordingly, every class of people, from aristocrat to peasant, has a place in The Human Comedy.
Balzac often assigned the basest (lowest in value or quality) motivations to his characters. He once wrote that the lust for gold and the search for pleasure were the sole principles that ruled humanity. The monomaniac—the man obsessed by a purpose or passion, to the point of sacrificing his own comfort and the welfare of his dependents—is constantly encountered in Balzac's more impressive novels.
Balzac was writing in an age when the struggle for existence or social advancement among the poor was at its fiercest. Balzac himself disliked the disorderly individualism that he observed around him. Human nature, in his view, was basically depraved (morally wrong; evil); any machinery—legal, political, or religious—whereby the wickedness of men could be stopped, ought to be repaired and strengthened.
Marriage and death
During his last years Balzac suffered from poor health, and his morale had been weakened by the disappointments he endured in his one great love affair. In 1832 he had received his first letter from Madame Hanska, the wife of a Polish nobleman. Thereafter they kept up a correspondence, interrupted by occasional vacations spent together in different parts of Europe. In 1841 her husband died, but Madame Hanska obstinately refused to marry Balzac. Only when he fell gravely ill did she agree. The wedding took place at her home on March 14, 1850. The long journey back to France took a serious toll on Balzac's health, and he died on August 18, 1850.
For More Information
Keim, Albert, and Louis Lumet. Honoré de Balzac. New York: Haskell House, 1974.
Robb, Graham. Balzac: A Life. New York: Norton, 1994.
Balzac, Honoré de