Honore de Balzac
BORN: 1799, Tours, France
DIED: 1850, Paris, France
GENRE: Fiction, drama
La Comedie humaine (1842-1850)
Honore de Balzac. LAPI / Roger Viollet / Getty Images
Honore de Balzac, whose realist novels and plays focused on French society after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, was one of the most popular and influential European writers of the nineteenth century. His masterpiece La Comedie 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, Napoleon 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—Napoleon 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 privee (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’Etrangere (the Stranger). The writer expressed her admiration for Scenes de la vie privee 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 schemes 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 Comedie humaine.
La Comedie 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 Comedie humaine includes three main sections: Etudes analytiques (Analytical studies), Etudes philosophiques (Philosophical studies), and the bulk of his work, Etudes 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.
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 spearheading 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.
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 Comedie humaine, have been seriously influenced by his irresponsibility, his casual attitude toward contracts, his naivete 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 Eugenie 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 Comedie 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 Felix Davin, in the introduction to Etudes 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 Comedie 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.’’’
Despite the great length and ambitious scope of La Comeedie 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.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Balzac is best known and loved for his La Comedie 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 Cas- terbridge unfolds in the county seat of Dorchester, where town and farmland meet and mingle, collapsing into one another.
Responses to Literature
1. Discuss examples of exaggeration in La Comedie humaine. What role does exaggeration play in Balzac’s exploration of larger themes? How does it help or hinder our efforts to read La Comeedie humaine as a sociological document, a quasi-scientific examination of French society and culture?
2. 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-colorfal 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
Luldcs, George. Balzac et le realisme frangais. Trans. Paul Laveau. Paris: Maspero, 1967.
O’Connor, John R. Balzac’s Soluble Fish. Madrid: Turanzas, 1977.
Pasco, Allan H. Balzacian Montage: Configuring ‘‘La Comedie 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, Gaetan. Balzac par lui-meme. 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.
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