(1861 – 1941)
Honore´ de Balzac, whose realist novels and plays focused on French society after the fall of Napole´on Bonaparte in 1815, was one of the most popular and influential European writers of the nineteenth century. His masterpiece La Come´die 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.
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, Napole´on 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 Napole´on 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 prive´e (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’E´ trange`re (the Stranger).
The writer expressed her admiration for Scenes de la vie prive´e 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 Come´die humaine. La Come´die 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 Come´die humaine includes three main sections: E´ tudes analytiques (Analytical studies), E´ tudes philosophiques (Philosophical studies), and the bulk of his work, E´ tudes 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 Come´die humaine, have been seriously influenced by his irresponsibility, his casual attitude toward contracts, his na¨ıvete´ about his purchases and investments, and perhaps even by his ridiculous appearance.
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 Euge´nie 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).
Critics often argue over whether it is more beneficial to study the stories in Balzac’s La Come´die humaine as individual works or as part of a cohesive whole. Early in his career, Balzac explained that hisworks 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 Fe´lix Davin, in the introduction to E´ tudes 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.
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.