Honore de Balzac
Honoré de Balzac (May 20, 1799 – August 18, 1850) was a French novelist recognized as one of the founders of realism in European fiction. An immensely productive, if uneven writer, Balzac intended his massive (and ultimately incomplete) body of novels and stories, collectively entitled The Human Comedy (La Comédie humaine), to present a broad panorama of French society in the period of the Restoration (1815-1830) and the July Monarchy (1830-1848).
Balzac meticulously reconstructed French urban working class and provincial life, yet he was uniquely unsentimental in his perspective. This is notable because Balzac wrote during the Romantic era, a period in which sentiment and gothic melodrama—particularly the novels of Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo, and the paintings of Eugene Delacroix—enjoyed immense popularity. The works of Balzac and fellow French realists Gustave Flaubert and Stendhal, in contrast, were criticized as vulgar and cynical, although they are now considered by scholars as the most significant and influential works of nineteenth-century French literature.
Balzac believed that Romanticism, with its focus on individualism and sentimentality, failed to present a meaningful perspective on society. The goal of his Human Comedy, stated expressly in his preface, was to study the "social species" the way a scientist would examine the phenomena of the natural world.
His early training as a journalist informs his prose with precision, conciseness of diction, and attention to the drama of everyday life. In this respect, Balzac is distinctly modern before there was a term "modernism." His focus on the details of the actual world is similar to William Carlos Williams' maxim for modernist poetry, that there will be "No ideas but in things"—in other words, that all writing will be based on observed facts. Yet unlike modern novelists such as James Joyce, Balzac rendered human life not as an impersonal, directionless experience but governed within a recognizable moral framework, where ignoble acts or virtuous deeds bore moral consequences. Although not a moralist in any sense, Balzac, as well as the great Russian realistic novelists of the later nineteenth century, used the realistic form to more authentically, less didactically, present life, with its social protocols and hypocrisies, as the source material of art.
Balzac's influence among subsequent novelists as an observer of society and human psychology would be difficult to overestimate. Many authors throughout the world—from Leo Tolstoy in Russia, Ernest Hemingway and Tom Wolfe in America, Marcel Proust in France, or Robert Musil in Germany—would admit their immense debt to Balzac and his commitment to the truth.
Balzac was born at Tours, Indre-et-Loire, France in the rue de l'Armée Italienne (Street of the Italian Army), into a well-to-do bourgeois family. His father was a regional administrator during the French Revolution. He was educated at the spartan College of the Oratorians at Vendôme, and then in Paris (from 1816), where he matriculated in jurisprudence, then worked as clerk to an advocate. He soon drifted towards journalism, contributing to political and artistic reviews set up by a new generation of intellectuals who viewed the cultural debris of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire, and the complacency of the restored monarchy with a mixture of cynicism, idealism and regret. By 1830 political discontent had swelled enough to overturn the Bourbon monarchy for good. The new regime of the 'bourgeois monarch' Louis Philippe, which lasted until nearly the end of Balzac's life, is the context of most of his novels.
The journals to which he contributed were increasingly looking for short fiction, which Balzac was able to provide. A collection Scènes de la vie privée (Scenes from Private Life) came out in 1829, and was well received: these were tales told with a journalistic eye which looked into the fabric of modern life and did not shun social and political realities. Balzac had found a distinctive voice.
He had already turned out potboiler historical novels in the manner of Sir Walter Scott and Anne Radcliffe, on commission from publishers, but only under pseudonyms. With Le dernier Chouan (1829) he entered the mainstream as an author of full-length, serious fiction. This sober tale of provincial France in Revolutionary times was soon overshadowed by the success in 1831 of La peau de chagrin (“The Goat-skin”), a fable-like tale delineating the excesses and vanities of contemporary life. With public acclaim and the assurance of publication, Balzac's subsequent novels began to shape themselves into a broad canvas depicting the turbulent unfolding of destinies amidst the visible finery and squalor of Paris, and the dramas hidden under the surface of respectability in the quieter world of provincial family life.
In Le père Goriot (Old Father Goriot, 1835), his next big success, he transposed the story of William Shakespeare’s King Lear to 1820s Paris to show that the only "legitimacy" left in the modern world was the law of influence and connections. His novels are unified by a vision of a world in which the social and political hierarchies of the Ancien Régime had been replaced by a pseudo-aristocracy of favoritism, patronage and commercial fortunes, and where a "new priesthood" of financiers had filled the gap left by the collapse of organized religion. "There is nothing left for literature but mockery in a world that has collapsed," he remarked in the preface to La peau de chagrin, but the cynicism grew less as his oeuvre progressed and he revealed great sympathy for those whom society pushes to one side when the old certainties have gone and everything is in flux.
Along with shorter pieces and novellas there followed notably Les Illusions Perdues (“Lost Illusions,” 1843), Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (“The Harlot High and Low,” 1847), Le Cousin Pons (1847) and La Cousine Bette (1848). Of novels in provincial settings Le curé de Tours (The Vicar of Tours, 1832), Eugénie Grandet (1833), Ursule Mirouet (1842) and Modeste Mignon (1844) are highly regarded.
Many of his novels were initially serialized, like those of Charles Dickens, but in Balzac's case there was no telling how many pages the stories would cover. Illusions perdues extends to a thousand pages after starting inauspiciously in a small-town print shop, whereas La fille aux yeux d'Or (“Tiger-eyes,” 1835) opens grandly with a panorama of Paris but ties itself up as a closely-plotted novella of only 50 pages.
Balzac's work habits were legendary—he wrote for up to 15 hours a day, fueled by innumerable cups of black coffee, and without relinquishing the social life which was the source of his observation and research. (Many of his stories originate from fragments of the plot overheard at social gatherings, before uncovering the real story behind the gossip.) He revised obsessively, sending back printer's proofs almost entirely obscured by changes and additions to be reset. His ever-expanding plans for new works and new editions of old ones took its toll on even a sturdy physique like his. There was unevenness in his prodigious output, but some works that are really no more than works-in-progress, such as Les employés (“The Government Clerks,” 1841), are of serious academic interest.
Curiously, he continued to worry about money and status even after he was rich and respected, believing he could branch out into politics or into the theater without slowing the pace of production on his novels. His letters and memoranda reveal that ambition was not only ingrained in his character, but acted on him like a drug—every success leading him on to enlarge his plans still further—until around 1847, when his strength began to fail. A polarity can be found in his cast of characters between the profligates who expend their life-force and the misers who live long but become dried-up and withdrawn. His contemporary, Victor Hugo, exiled himself to Guernsey in disgust at French politics, but lived on to write poems about being a grandfather decades after Balzac's death. Balzac, by temperament, was more like the young and reckless heroes of his fictions, unable to draw back or curtail his vision.
In 1849, as his health was failing, Balzac traveled to Poland to visit Eveline Hanska, a wealthy Polish lady, with whom he had corresponded for more than 15 years. They married in 1850, and Balzac died three months later.
He lies buried in the cemetery of Père Lachaise, overlooking Paris, and is commemorated by a monumental statue commissioned by Auguste Rodin, standing near the intersection of Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard Montparnasse. "Henceforth," said Victor Hugo at his funeral, "men's eyes will be turned towards the faces not of those who are the rulers but of those who are the thinkers."
La Comédie humaine
La Comédie humaine (1799 – 1850) is the title of Honoré de Balzac's project, a multi-volume collection of interlinked novels and stories depicting French society in the period of the Restoration and the July Monarchy 1815-1848. La Comédie humaine consists of 95 finished works (stories, novels or analytical essays) and 48 unfinished works (some existing only as titles). It does not include Balzac's five theatrical plays or his collection of humorous tales, the Contes drolatiques (1832-1837). Even in its unfinished state, it represents an immense literary endeavor, larger in scope and length than possibly any other literary work undertaken in recent history, and comparable perhaps only to the output (again, with an admitted debt to Balzac's example) of William Faulkner's series of interlinked novels and stories on the history of the American South.
The title of the series is a reference to Dante's Divine Comedy. While Balzac sought the comprehensive scope of Dante, his title indicates the worldly, human concerns of a realist novelist. The Comédie humaine slowly evolved into a large project. The first of Balzac's works were written without any global plan (Les Chouans is a historical novel; La physiologie du mariage is an analytical study of marriage), but by 1830, Balzac began to group his first novels (Sarrasine, Gobseck) into a series entitled Scènes de la vie privée (“Scenes from Private Life”).
In 1833, with the publication of Eugénie Grandet, Balzac envisioned a second series entitled "Scènes de la vie de province" (“Scenes from Provincial Life”). Most likely in this same year Balzac came upon the idea of having characters reappear from novel to novel; the first novel to use this technique was le Père Goriot (1834-1835).
In a letter written to Madame Hanska in 1834, Balzac decided to reorganize his works in three larger groups, allowing him (1) to integrate his La physiologie du mariage into the ensemble and (2) to separate his most fantastic or metaphysical stories—like La Peau de chagrin (1831) and Louis Lambert (1832)—into their own "philosophical" section.
The three sections were:
- Etudes de Moeurs au XIXe siècle (“Studies of Manners in the Nineteenth Century”) - including the various "Scène de la vie…"
- Etudes philosophiques
- Etudes analytiques - including the "Physiology du mariage"
In this letter, Balzac went on to say that the Etudes de Moeurs would study the effects of society and touch on all genders, social classes, ages and professions. Meanwhile, the Etudes philosophiques would study the causes of these effects. Finally, the third "analytical" section would study the principles behind these phenomena. Balzac also explained that while the characters in the first section would be individualités typisées ("individuals made into types"), the characters of the Etudes philosophiques would be types individualisés (“types made into individuals").
By 1836, the Etudes de Moeurs was itself already divided into six parts:
- "Scènes de la vie privée"
- "Scènes de la vie de province"
- "Scènes de la vie parisienne"
- "Scènes de la vie politique
- "Scènes de la vie militaire"
- "Scènes de la vie de campagne"
In 1839, in a letter to his publisher, Balzac mentioned for the first time the expression Comédie humaine, and this title is in the contract he signed in 1841. The publication of the Comédie humaine in 1842 was preceded by an important preface describing his major principles and the work's overall structure. Claiming inspiration from the biologists Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Georges Cuvier, and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Balzac wrote that through the Comedie Humaine he sought to understand "social species" the way a biologist would analyze zoological species. He restates this position somewhat later in the same preface, by arguing that he views himself as a "secretary" who is transcribing his society's history. This view was no doubt influenced by Balzac's early work in journalism, and once again he stresses the importance of paying attention to the facts. Ultimately, his stated goal was to write a history of moeurs (customs, manners, morals) in order to observe not just the events of history, but the underlying forces and principles that shape it. His preface concludes with Balzac propounding his own belief in what he calls two great truths—religion and monarchy—and his great concern for understanding individuals within the context of their families.
Balzac's intended collection was never finished. As he continued to work on the project he continued to envision more and more additions, and by his death the projected Comedie humaine would have been, had it been finished, a truly mammoth body of text.
Representative Works in La Comédie humaine
Le Pere Goriot
Le Père Goriot was written between 1834-1835 when Balzac was 35 years old. It first appeared in serialized form in Revue de Paris in the fall of 1834 and in completed book form in 1835.
A part of La Comedie humaine, Pere Goriot is one of the minority of works from the larger project that works as a stand-alone novel. It represents Balzac's talents at their height in a complete form, and has been one of his most widely read novels, achieving such fame that the protagonist, Rastignac, has become synonymous to the French with a bright young man determined to succeed—perhaps at any cost. Like Charles Dickens' Hard Times, Goriot has become one of the most poignant depictions of impoverished life in early nineteenth-century Europe ever written.
Although the title character, Père or Father Goriot, does appear in the book, the character at the center of the action is Eugène de Rastignac, a slightly idealistic and highly ambitious law student who lives in the same rundown boarding house in a seedy area of Paris as Goriot. Eugène decides to delay his studies for an attempt to enter into Parisian society, and chooses (with Goriot’s blessing) to pursue an adulterous affair with one of Goriot’s married daughters.
Part 1: Private lodgings
The novel begins with a lengthy description of Maison Vauquer, a “respectable” boarding house on the Rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève run by the widow Madame Vauquer. Balzac spends more than 30 pages describing the rundown residence in great detail, and helping to define the literary technique of realism, in which the writer seeks to convey information about the characters through the description of their milieu.
Balzac introduces us to the various residents of the Maison Vauquer. The “guests,” as Mme. Vauquer calls them, include Goriot, Eugène, a mysterious agitator named Vautrin, and a disinherited waif named Victorine Taillefer, among others. Goriot is the butt of many jokes at his housemates’ expense, and when two well-dressed, beautiful young women are seen visiting him, the tenants become suspicious. The women are in fact his daughters, and Goriot, an updated version of William Shakespeare's King Lear, is slowly bankrupting himself to support them, as their dissolute husbands have frittered away much of their dowries.
Part 2: Afternoon calls
Eugène, with some encouragement from Vautrin, decides to make a play to move into the noble social circle of Paris. He meets one of Goriot’s daughters (oblivious to the connection), Mme. Anastasie de Restaud; but his attempts to woo Mme. de Restaud come to a halt when he mentions Goriot’s name. Goriot explains to him the nature of his fractured relationships with his daughters, including how his sons-in-law have denied him the right to see them, and encourages Eugène to pursue his other daughter, the Mme. Delphine de Nucingen, married to a harsh German baron who is himself carrying on at least one extramarital affair.
Part 3: Entry into Society
In the meantime, Vautrin begins to hatch an alternate plan for Eugène. He argues that he should marry his fellow tenant Victorine, whose father has deprived her of her fortune but who will come into the money if her brother should meet an early demise. Vautrin offers to arrange for a duel where Victorine’s brother will be killed—and he doesn’t wait for Eugène to accept or decline it. Eugène, meanwhile, continues to pursue Mme. de Nucingen, and pesters his cousin, Mme. be Beauséant, to get him an invitation to a ball that his target will be attending. His cousin is busy trying to retain her current paramour, the Portuguese Marquis d’Ajuda-Pinto, who appears headed toward a marriage of his own that would end their affair. The marquis arranges for Eugène to meet Mme. de Nucingen after a show at the theater, where Eugène learns that she is destitute because her husband has given all of his fortune away to his mistress, a young and beautiful ballerina.
Part 4: Trompe-la-Mort
Vautrin sees that Eugène has fallen for a married noblewoman, and explains to Eugène the ever-increasing amounts of money he’ll have to spend to keep up appearances for that sort of life. Arguing that this is a hopeless endeavor, he tries to convince Eugène to pursue the soon-to-be-heiress Victorine. In exchange for getting rid of Victorine's brother, Vautrin wants part some money that Victorine will inherit so he can go to America, buy slaves, and live on a plantation. Eugène, realizing that the duel will take place that night, hopes to warn Victorine’s brother of the plot. Vautrin realizes Eugène's intentions, and intentionally drugs his wine so that he is unable to leave the boarding house. Vautrin, it turns out, is an escaped convict wanted by the Paris police for both his escapes from jail and for fraud and other crimes. The news soon arrives that Victorine’s brother has been killed in a duel. At a late breakfast, while this event is being discussed, Vautrin drinks coffee that has been laced with a mild poison designed to incapacitate him long enough for the two traitorous boarders to see a brand on his shoulder. They find it and send a signal, bringing the police in to arrest him.
Part 5: The Two Daughters
Both of Goriot’s daughters come to visit him to ask for help out of their financial jams. Goriot has arranged for a lawyer to extricate Delphine’s fortune from her husband’s grip, but Delphine says that her husband has invested all of her capital in risky business propositions and can’t liquidate them now. “Nasie” (Goriot and Delphine’s name for Anastasie) arrives second and reveals that she has been selling off the family jewelry—her own and her husband’s—to pay off her lover’s gambling debts. Goriot is crushed by his inability to fully help his daughters and ends up suffering a stroke. Eugène forges an IOU from Vautrin and uses it to calm Anastasie down.
Part 6: Death of a Father
Neither of Goriot’s daughters will respond to calls to come see their father before he dies. Realizing that they have abandoned him and that they have only been using him for his money, he rages about their mistreatment of him and the injustice of the situation. He falls into a coma before one daughter, Anastasie, arrives, and doesn’t regain consciousness. At his funeral, the only attendees are Eugène, a servant, and two paid mourners. Goriot’s savings were so meager that he is buried in a coffin procured through the medical school and the religious service is only vespers because a Mass would be too expensive. He is buried with a gold locket that has his daughters’ names on it; Mme. Vauquer had stolen it, but Eugène forces her to give it up so that Goriot can be buried with some memento of his daughters. Two carriages arrive in time for the procession, one from each of the daughters, but both are empty. Eugène, left alone at the grave, sheds a few tears, and then turns to see the heart of Paris beginning to shine as the evening lights come on. He declares, “Now I’m ready for you,” and goes to dine with Mme. de Nucingen.
Balzac's aim in La Comédie Humaine was to expose society and human behavior as it really was, in contrast to the competing Romanticism of the early- to middle-nineteenth century. The difference between appearances and reality weighs heavily in Le père Goriot, including the opening chapter, where the Maison Vauquer is described, from the perspective of Mme. Vaquer, as a "respectable" building from the outside but is shown to be a dated, worn, drab dwelling on the inside. Through the leading figure of Rastignac, Balzac contributes to the literary tradition of the bildungsroman—the novel of education, initiation, and coming of age—although the "education" that he receives is in the art of deceit and social climbing. Rastignac comes to Paris, sees that he desires money, women and status, and sets out to succeed, receiving advice and help from his aristocratic cousin Beauséant, the mysterious Vautrin, and Goriot. He then learns lessons and discovers the reality behind all the facades of these very different men.
Oscar Wilde once said, "The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac's." One of the reasons for this is Balzac's representation of the modern city. Paris from the start of the novel is a living, breathing self-contained entity into which persons enter, live and die lives that few know or care about. The city of Paris, which figures in the novel almost as a character in itself, is massive, bustling, all-encompassing. The city itself is an industrial metropolis, representative of the rapidly industrializing times in which Balzac was living. In a sense, Goriot is one of the first urban novels, explicitly addressing the emerging culture of city life, and the class struggles inherit therein. In some respects, Rastignac is one of most Balzac's most memorable characters specifically because he represents the clash between an ambitious, romantic youth and the massive, modern city of Paris.
Written between 1837 and 1843, Lost Illusions is often considered to be one of the finest of Balzac's 92 novels. It has gained a reputation, particularly among writers, for its realistic and scathing portrayal of writer’s life and the publication industry. Although cynical, Lost Illusions is one of Balzac's most successful works of truly realist literature, in that it displays an unflinching portrait of literary Paris and everyone in it, from writers and artists like the novel's struggling hero to publishers and editors, patrons and gentry. The novel famously begins with a small scene set in a typesetter's room, but quickly expands to become one of the longest and most ambitious of all Balzac's works.
The first section of the novel is entitled "The Two Poets," referring to the two youthful, idealistic friends who will open the story and provide its protagonists. The first of these two poets is Lucien Chandon (later called Lucien de Rubempre, borrowing the name of a distant, noble relative), who lives an ordinary, uninteresting life in a small provincial town but dreams of writing the greatest poems of his generation. His dreams are shared by the second of the two eponymous poets, David Sechard, the son of a local typesetter and printer who made a small fortune in the printing industry during the years of instability caused by Napoleon Bonaparte. Although Sechard yearns to be a poet like Lucien, he puts aside his artistic ambitions to manage his father's printing company, and with the money he can gather from this venture (along with more funds that Sechard, throughout the novel, will dream of acquiring through a variety of hopeless schemes) he promises to support Lucien in his ambitions to be a writer.
Meanwhile, Lucien begins to write poems in earnest and soon develops into a minor celebrity in his little province. He soon attracts the attention of an older noblewoman, Madame de Bargeton, who takes Lucien in and encourages him to move to Paris and seek his fortune as a promising author. Lucien eagerly agrees, and, taking what little money he can borrow, moves to Paris and attempts to win fame and fortune amidst the Parisian elite. However, try as he might, every attempt of Lucien's to become a great poet is foiled.
His dreamy ambitions run into the wall of reality, and are gradually revealed to be the illusions they are. When Lucien submits his first volume of poems to a Parisian publisher, he is laughed out of the publishing house: not only are his poems bad, but even if they were good, there is no money in poetry anyway. Soon Madame de Bargeton, pressured by her fellow bourgeois, abandons her patronage of Lucien altogether, realizing that she had not discovered the next great French poet but simply fallen in love with a striking youth from the provinces. Lucien begs for more funds from Sechard, driving him and his family further into debt, and promptly squanders the funds on all the frivolous luxuries, such as fine clothes and boots, that he believes he will need in order to make a good impression as an artist. As the story continues, Lucien's hopes turn dimmer and dimmer; failing to write novels he entertains a brief career as a critic and journalist; failing at that, he becomes a pauper and gradually descends further and further into Paris' underbelly of corruption and crime.
In a sense, after the introductory chapter, the plot of Lost Illusions becomes an exercise in watching how many times Lucien can be disillusioned and defeated without giving up the greatest illusion of all: his belief in his own success.
Lost Illusions is a vituperative critique of the common Romantic ideal of artistic ambition and success. Balzac, who himself had been disillusioned from Romanticism, demonstrates the foibles of his character. Lucien, a child of Romanticism, is unable to cope in any way with the actualities of life in a city and the realities of being a writer and having to produce for a fickle and often unsympathetic reading public. Despite the fact that much of the novel's fun is had at Lucien's expense, who serves as a negative example of the delusions of young romantics, he is nonetheless, despite his foibles and incompetence, the book's sole sympathetic character. The reader can empathize with Lucien because, although he is foolish and young, his dreams are those of youth. Hence, despite the sarcastic tone the novel sometimes takes toward its hero, Balzac, as a writer, clearly feels some sympathy for his character. His real target is the cruelty of the publishing world that places such undue (and at times, truly unfair) pressures on a still-developing talent.
After his death Balzac became recognized as one of the fathers of realism in literature, and distinct in his approach from the "pure" Romantics like Victor Hugo. La Comédie humaine spanned more than 90 novels and short stories in an attempt to comprehend and depict the realities of life in contemporary bourgeois France. In the twentieth century his vision of a society in flux—where class, money and personal ambition were the major players—achieved the distinction of being endorsed equally by critics of left-wing and right-wing political tendencies.
He guided European fiction away from the overriding influence of Walter Scott and the Gothic school, by showing that modern life could be recounted as vividly as Scott recounted his historical tales, and that mystery and intrigue did not need ghosts and crumbling castles for props. Guy de Maupassant, Flaubert and Emile Zola were writers of the next generation who were directly influenced by him. Marcel Proust, whose project is perhaps the only French work comparable to Balzac's in scope, cited his immense debt to him.
Balzac, as an observer of society, morals and human psychology, continues to appeal to readers today. His novels have always remained in print. His vivid realism and his encyclopedic gifts as a recorder of his age outweigh the sketchiness and inconsistent quality of some of his works. Enough of them are recognized as masterpieces to warrant a comparison to Charles Dickens.
All links retrieved January 13, 2018.
- Works by Honoré de Balzac. Project Gutenberg
- Honore de Balzac, available for free via Project Gutenberg by Albert Keim and Louis Lumet
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