History of Literature

Honore de Balzac


Honore de Balzac



Honoré de Balzac

French author
original name Honoré Balssa
born May 20, 1799, Tours, France
died August 18, 1850, Paris

French literary artist who produced a vast number of novels and short stories collectively called La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy). He helped to establish the traditional form of the novel and is generally considered to be one of the greatest novelists of all time.

Early career
Balzac’s father was a man of southern peasant stock who worked in the civil service for 43 years under Louis XVI and Napoleon. Honoré’s mother came from a family of prosperous Parisian cloth merchants. His sister Laure (later de Surville) was his only childhood friend, and she became his first biographer.

Balzac was sent to school at the Collège des Oratoriens at Vendôme from age 8 to 14. At Napoleon’s downfall his family moved from Tours to Paris, where he went to school for two more years and then spent three years as a lawyer’s clerk. During this time he already aimed at a literary career, but as the writer of Cromwell (1819) and other tragic plays he was utterly unsuccessful. He then began writing novels filled with mystic and philosophical speculations before turning to the production of potboilers—gothic, humorous, historical novels—written under composite pseudonyms. Then he tried a business career as a publisher, printer, and owner of a typefoundry, but disaster soon followed. In 1828 he was narrowly saved from bankruptcy and was left with debts of more than 60,000 francs. From then on his life was to be one of mounting debts and almost incessant toil. He returned to writing with a new mastery, and his literary apprenticeship was over.

Two works of 1829 brought Balzac to the brink of success. Les Chouans, the first novel he felt enough confidence about to have published under his own name, is a historical novel about the Breton peasants called Chouans who took part in a royalist insurrection against Revolutionary France in 1799. The other, La Physiologie du mariage (The Physiology of Marriage), is a humorous and satirical essay on the subject of marital infidelity, encompassing both its causes and its cure. The six stories in his Scènes de la vie privée (1830; “Scenes from Private Life”) further increased his reputation. These long short stories are for the most part psychological studies of girls in conflict with parental authority. The minute attention he gave to describing domestic background in his works anticipated the spectacularly detailed societal observations of his later Parisian studies.

From this point forward Balzac spent much of his time in Paris. He began to frequent some of the best-known Parisian salons of the day and redoubled his efforts to set himself up as a dazzling figure in society. To most people he seemed full of exuberant vitality, talkative, jovial and robustious, egoistic, credulous, and boastful. He adopted for his own use the armorial bearings of an ancient noble family with which he had no connection and assumed the honorific particle de. He was avid for fame, fortune, and love but was above all conscious of his own genius. He also began to have love affairs with fashionable or aristocratic women at this time, finally gaining that firsthand understanding of mature women that is so evident in his novels.

Between 1828 and 1834 Balzac led a tumultuous existence, spending his earnings in advance as a dandy and man-about-town. A fascinating raconteur, he was fairly well received in society. But social ostentation was only a relaxation from phenomenal bouts of work—14 to 16 hours spent writing at his table in his white, quasi-monastic dressing gown, with his goose-quill pen and his endless cups of black coffee. In 1832 Balzac became friendly with Éveline Hanska, a Polish countess who was married to an elderly Ukrainian landowner. She, like many other women, had written to Balzac expressing admiration of his writings. They met twice in Switzerland in 1833—the second time in Geneva, where they became lovers—and again in Vienna in 1835. They agreed to marry when her husband died, and so Balzac continued to conduct his courtship of her by correspondence; the resulting Lettres à l’étrangère (“Letters to a Foreigner”), which appeared posthumously (4 vol., 1889–1950), are an important source of information for the history both of Balzac’s life and of his work.

To clear his debts and put himself in a position to marry Madame Hanska now became Balzac’s great incentive. He was at the peak of his creative power. In the period 1832–35 he produced more than 20 works, including the novels Le Médecin de campagne (1833; The Country Doctor), Eugénie Grandet (1833), L’Illustre Gaudissart (1833; The Illustrious Gaudissart), and Le Père Goriot (1835), one of his masterpieces. Among the shorter works were Le Colonel Chabert (1832), Le Curé de Tours (1832; The Vicar of Tours), the trilogy of stories entitled Histoire des treize (1833–35; History of the Thirteen), and Gobseck (1835). Between 1836 and 1839 he wrote Le Cabinet des antiques (1839), the first two parts of another masterpiece, Illusions perdues (1837–43; Lost Illusions), César Birotteau (1837), and La Maison Nucingen (1838; The Firm of Nucingen). Between 1832 and 1837 he also published three sets of Contes drolatiques (Droll Stories). These stories, Rabelaisian in theme, are written with great verve and gusto in an ingenious pastiche of 16th-century language. During the 1830s he also wrote a number of philosophical novels dealing with mystical, pseudoscientific, and other exotic themes. Among these are La Peau de chagrin (1831; The Wild Ass’s Skin), Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (1831; The Unknown Masterpiece), Louis Lambert (1834), La Recherche de l’absolu (1834; The Quest of the Absolute), and Séraphîta (1834–35).

In all these varied works Balzac emerged as the supreme observer and chronicler of contemporary French society. These novels are unsurpassed for their narrative drive, their large casts of vital, diverse, and interesting characters, and their obsessive interest in and examination of virtually all spheres of life: the contrast between provincial and metropolitan manners and customs; the commercial spheres of banking, publishing, and industrial enterprise; the worlds of art, literature, and high culture; politics and partisan intrigue; romantic love in all its aspects; and the intricate social relations and scandals among the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie.

No theme is more typically Balzacian than that of the ambitious young provincial fighting for advancement in the competitive world of Paris. Balzac admired those individuals who were ruthless, astute, and, above all, successful in thrusting their way up the social and economic scale at all costs. He was especially attracted by the theme of the individual in conflict with society: the adventurer, the scoundrel, the unscrupulous financier, and the criminal. Frequently his villains are more vigorous and interesting than his virtuous characters. He was both fascinated and appalled by the French social system of his time, in which the bourgeois values of material acquisitiveness and gain were steadily replacing what he viewed as the more stable moral values of the old-time aristocracy.

These topics provided material largely unknown, or unexplored, by earlier writers of French fiction. The individual in Balzac’s stories is continually affected by the pressure of material difficulties and social ambitions, and he may expend his tremendous vitality in ways Balzac views as socially destructive and self-destructive. Linked with this idea of the potentially destructive power of passionate will, emotion, and thought is Balzac’s peculiar notion of a vital fluid concentrated inside the person, a store of energy that he may husband or squander as he desires, thereby lengthening or shortening his vital span. Indeed, a supremely important feature in Balzac’s characters is that most are spendthrifts of this vital force, a fact that explains his monomaniacs who are both victim and embodiment of some ruling passion; avarice, as in the main character of Gobseck, a usurer gloating over his sense of power, or the miserly father obsessed with riches in Eugénie Grandet; excessive paternal affection, as in the idolatrous Learlike father in Le Père Goriot; feminine vindictiveness, as evidenced in La Cousine Bette and a half-dozen other novels; the mania of the art collector, as in Le Cousin Pons; the artist’s desire for perfection, as in Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu; the curiosity of the scientist, as in the fanatical chemist of La Recherche de l’absolu; or the vaulting and frustrated ambition of the astonishingly resourceful criminal mastermind Vautrin in Illusions perdues and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. Once such an obsession has gained a hold, Balzac shows it growing irresistibly in power and blinding the person concerned to all other considerations. The typical structure of his novels from the early 1830s onward is determined by this approach: there is a long period of preparation and exposition, and then tension mounts swiftly to an inevitable climax, as in classical tragedy.

La Comédie humaine
The year 1834 marks a climax in Balzac’s career, for by then he had become totally conscious of his great plan to group his individual novels so that they would comprehend the whole of contemporary society in a diverse but unified series of books. There were to be three general categories of novels: Études analytiques (“Analytic Studies”), dealing with the principles governing human life and society; Études philosophiques (“Philosophical Studies”), revealing the causes determining human action; and Études de moeurs (“Studies of Manners”), showing the effects of those causes, and themselves to be divided into six kinds of scènes—private, provincial, Parisian, political, military, and country life. This entire project resulted in a total of 12 volumes (1834–37). By 1837 Balzac had written much more, and by 1840 he had hit upon a Dantesque title for the whole: La Comédie humaine. He negotiated with a consortium of publishers for an edition under this name, 17 volumes of which appeared between 1842 and 1848, including a famous foreword written in 1842. In 1845, having new works to include and many others in project, he began preparing for another complete edition. A “definitive edition” was published, in 24 volumes, between 1869 and 1876. The total number of novels and novellas comprised in the Comédie humaine is roughly 90.

Also in 1834 the idea of using “reappearing characters” matured. Balzac was to establish a pool of characters from which he would constantly and repeatedly draw, thus adding a sense of solidarity and coherence to the Comédie humaine. A certain character would reappear—now in the forefront, now in the background, of different fictions—in such a way that the reader could gradually form a full picture of him. Balzac’s use of this device places him among the originators of the modern novel cycle. In the end, the total number of named characters in the Comédie humaine is estimated to have reached 2,472, with a further 566 unnamed characters.

In January 1842 Balzac learned of the death of Wenceslas Hanski. He now had good expectations of marrying Éveline, but there were many obstacles, not the least being his inextricable indebtedness. She in fact held back for many years, and the period of 1842–48 shows Balzac continuing and even intensifying his literary activity in the frantic hope of winning her, though he had to contend with increasing ill health.

Balzac produced many notable works during the early and mid-1840s. These include the masterpieces Une Ténébreuse Affaire (1841; A Shady Business), La Rabouilleuse (1841–42; The Black Sheep), Ursule Mirouët (1841), and one of his greatest works, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1843–47; A Harlot High and Low). Balzac’s last two masterpieces were La Cousine Bette (1847; Cousin Bette) and Le Cousin Pons (1847; Cousin Pons).

In the autumn of 1847 Balzac went to Madame Hanska’s château at Wierzchownia and remained there until February 1848. He returned again in October to stay, mortally sick, until the spring of 1850. Then at last Éveline relented. They were married in March and proceeded to Paris, where Balzac lingered on miserably for the few months before his death.

Balzac did not quite realize his tremendous aim of making his novels comprehend the whole of society at that time. His projected scenes of military and political life were only partially completed, and there were certain other gaps, for instance in regard to the new class of industrial workers. Nevertheless, few novelists have thronged their pages with men and women drawn from so many different spheres, nor with characters so widely representative of human passions and frailties, projected with dynamic and convincing force.

Balzac was notable for his peculiar methods of composition. He often began with a relatively simple subject and a brief first draft, but fresh ideas came crowding in during composition until finally the story expanded far beyond his first intention. The trouble lay in the fact that Balzac tended to expand and amplify his original story by making emendations after it had been typeset by the printers. The original skeleton of a story was thus filled out until it had reached the proportions of a full-length novel, but only at a ruinous cost of printer’s bills to its author. Even when the novel was in print he would frequently introduce new variations on his theme, as successive editions appeared.

Balzac’s method was almost invariably to reinforce, to emphasize, and to amplify. There are lengthy digressions in which he aired his remarkably detailed knowledge of legal procedures, financial manipulations, or industrial processes, but at its best his style is remarkably graphic, fast-moving and tersely epigrammatic but richly studded with sarcasm, wit, and psychological observation. His command of the French language was probably unrivaled, and he was also an outstanding master of dialogue. His sardonic humour saves his more pessimistic stories from being uniformly dark, and he had a real gift for comedy.

Balzac is regarded as the creator of realism in the novel. He is also acknowledged as having helped to establish the technique of the traditional novel, in which consequent and logically determined events are narrated by an all-seeing observer (the omniscient narrator) and characters are coherently presented. Balzac had exceptional powers of observation and a photographic memory, but he also had a sympathetic, intuitive capacity to understand and describe other people’s attitudes, feelings, and motivations. He was bent on illustrating the relation between cause and effect, between social background and character. His ambition was to “compete with the civil register,” exactly picturing his contemporaries in their class distinctions and occupations. In this he succeeded, but he went even further in his efforts to show that the human spirit has power over men and events—to become, as he has been called, “the Shakespeare of the novel.”


Lost Illusions

Honore de Balzac


A kind of westernised Arabian Nights, Lost Illusions is one of the central works of Balzac's 17-volume Human Comedy (1842-46). This series of studies of contemporary life, set during the period of restored monarchy in France, aimed to show how social, economic, and political factors mold individual and collective destinies. In the famous "Avant-propos" (Foreword), dated 1842, which unifies the 90 or so novels, populated by 3,000 characters (many of them recurring), that comprise the series, Balzac provocatively described his work as that of a naturalist, comparing men and women of different social and financial stations to zoological species.
As self-appointed record-keeper of his epoch, Balzac was interested in "all of society," but most significantly, the upheavals related to money. Balzac's fictions draw our attention to the many contrasts that define different cultural domains: between the royalists and the liberals in political life, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, the hoarders and the squanderers, the virtuous and the depraved, Paris and the provinces. Steeped in the imagery of the theater, the three parts of Lost Illusions tell the story of the provincial poet Lucien de Rubempre who languishes in provincial Angouleme in the company of his alter ego David Sechard, nurturing hisambitions.Heis initiated into the Parisian literary, journalistic, and political world, and suffers successive disillusions. Marcel Proust praised the way in which Balzac's style aims "to explain," and is marked by its beautiful "naiveties and vulgarities." Some critics, on the other hand, while they celebrate Balzac's powers of observation, denigrate his "clumsy and inelegant style." From the first pages to the last, tost Illusions provides ample opportunity to share Proust's admiration for the writer.


Eugenie Grandet

Honore de Balzac


Like Walter Scott, Balzac wrote novels in part to clear debts and the pains of debt—capital accumulation and attendant moral corruption run right through Eugenie Grandet, which later became part of 8alzac's larger grouping of novels La Comedie Humaine. Amid robust, moral critique of greed and the poverty of provincial experience, this novel combines convincingly drawn human characters with a sociological grasp of deeper changes in French society.The realist representation of Eugenie's father as a tyrannical miser shows the workings of avarice not just as an individual "sin," but as a reflection of the secular nihilism of financial calculation in nineteenth-century capitalism.
The plot has a classical simplicity and causal circularity, unfolding a bourgeois tragedy which the narrator declares more cruel than any endured by the house of Atreus. Eugenie's father's fixation on monetary gain limits her experience, and ultimately destroys the family. The novel unveils the full damage done to Eugenie, though she asserts some moral dignity through acts of precise generosity. With a grasp of temporal cycles that prefigures Proust, Balzac dramatizes both the critical framework of individual actions and the wheels of generational change.Comic bathos tempers the stark social realism;the entertainment Balzac wrings from the judgments of his more or less omniscient narrator is surprising. An ideal introduction to one of the great realist novelists.



Type of work: Novel
Author: Honore de Balzac (1799-1850)
Type of plot: Naturalism
Time of plot: Early nineteenth century
Locale: Saumur, France
First published: 1833 (English translation, 1859)


Considered one of Balzac's most powerful works, Eugenie Grandet delineates the character of a miser whose calculating and inhumane parsimoniousness cripples the lives of his wife and his only child, Eugenie. The tale is told simply with an abundance of realistic detail characteristic of French naturalists such as Zola.


Principal Characters

Eugenie Grandet (oe-zha-пё' gran-da'), the young heiress to a fortune, who lives in the world but is not of it. Reared without a childhood in the penurious surroundings of Saumur, a provincial French town, Eugenie, for a brief period, lives for the love of her cousin, newly orphaned and a guest in the Grandet home. Strong of character and handsome in appearance, she pledges herself to young Charles Grandet and remains true to him throughout her life. As an obedient daughter of parents and church, she tries to live righteously but defies her father in the matter of love. Her kind ministrations to both her dying parents, her lifelong devotion to her one loyal friend, and her constancy of memory make her one of the most steadfast and pitiable of heroines. Her good deeds and her loving devotion to the poor whom she serves give her life tragic beauty.
Monsieur Grandet (тэ-syoe' grari-da'), her father, one of the most miserly figures in all literature. The author of the family tragedy, Goodman Grandet, as Balzac satirically calls him, is unyielding in his niggardliness without seeming to realize his great fault. He appears to be trying to clear his brother's good name by not allowing him to fall into bankruptcy, but in reality he profits from the delaying action. His towering anger at the least "extravagance" finally puts his devoted wife on her deathbed, and his unrelenting love of gold destroys the loving confidence of his daughter. Shrewd and grasping in his business deals, he has no redeeming features. Ironically enough, his fortune is finally put to good purposes through his daughter, who makes restitution for his wrongs.
Madame Grandet, his long-suffering wife, whose piety is taxed by the burden of her husband's stinginess. Accustomed to her hard lot and strengthened by her religion, Madame Grandet bows under her heavy yoke of work and harsh treatment until she takes up the cause of her daughter's right to love and devotes herself to the memory of that love. Still she prays for reconciliation, and when it comes she dies happy, without knowing her dowry is the reason for the deathbed forgiveness.
Charles Grandet (snarl), the dandified cousin of the heroine, who loses his fortune through his father's suicide but who regains a fortune through unscrupulous dealings financed, ironically, by Eugenie's gift of money to him. Heroic only in his unselfish grief for his father and generous only once in bestowing his love, Charles reveals a twisted mind tutored by a corrupt society. Outwardly prepossessing, inwardly vacillating, he chooses to disregard the one fine thing that was given him, a dowry of unselfish love, and bases his life on treachery, lechery, and adultery.
Nanon (na-non'), the faithful servant who loyally defends the indefensible in her master because it was he who raised her a full step in the social order. Large and mannish, Nanon manages the entire Grandet household with such efficiency as to cause admiration from the master, himself efficient and desperately saving. Her devotion to him, however, does not preclude rushing to the defense of his wife and daughter, the victims of his spite. Finally she marries the gamekeeper and together they rule the Grandet holdings for their mistress Eugenie.
Monsieur Cruchot (тэ-syoe' kriisho'), a notary and petty government official who becomes husband in name only to Eugenie. He feels that by marrying the name and inheriting the fortune his own name will become illustrious. His untimely death ends the reign of self-seeking misers.
Monsieur de Grassins (тэ-syoe' d3 grasan'), the provincial banker sent to Paris to act for M. Grandet at the time of his brother's bankruptcy. Attracted to the exciting life in the capital, he fails to return to Saumur.


The Story

In the French town of Saumur, old Grandet was a prominent personality, and the story of his rise to fortune was known throughout the district. He was a master cooper who had married the daughter of a prosperous wood merchant. When the new French Republic offered for sale the church property in Saumur, Grandet used his savings and his wife's dowry to buy an old abbey, a fine vineyard, and several farms. Under the Consulate he became mayor and grew still more wealthy. In 1806, he inherited three fortunes from his wife's mother, her grandfather, and her grandmother. By this time he owned the abbey, a hundred acres of vineyard, thirteen farms, and the house in which he lived. In 1811, he bought the nearby estate of an impoverished nobleman.
He was known for his miserliness, but he was respected for the same reason. His manners were simple, his table was meager, but his speech and gestures were the law of the countryside. His household consisted of his wife, his daughter, Eugenie, and a servant, Nanon. Old Grandet had reduced his wife almost to slavery, using her as a screen for his devious financial dealings. Nanon, who did all the housework, was gaunt and ugly but of great strength. She was devoted to her master because he had taken her in after everyone else had refused to hire her because of her appearance. On each birthday, Eugenie received a gold piece from her father and a winter and a summer dress from her mother. Each New Year's Day, Grandet would ask to see the coins and would gloat over their yellow brightness.
He begrudged his family everything except the bare necessities of life. Every day he would carefully measure and dole out the food for the household—a few lumps of sugar, several pieces of butter, and a loaf of bread. He forbade the lighting of fires in the rooms before the middle of November. His family, like his tenants, lived under the austere circumstances he imposed upon them.
The townspeople wondered whom Eugenie would marry. There were two rivals for her hand. One of them, M. Cruchot, was the son of the local notary. The other, M. de Grassins, was the son of the local banker. On Eugenie's birthday, in the year 1819, both called at the Grandet home. During the evening, there was an unexpected knock at the door, and in came Charles Grandet, the miser's nephew. Charles's father had amassed a fortune in Paris, and Charles himself, dressed in the most fashionable Parisian manner, was an example of Parisian customs and habits for these awkward, gawking provincials whom he tried to impress with his superior airs.
Eugenie outdid herself in an effort to make the visitor welcome, even defying her father in the matter of heat, candlelight, and other luxuries for Charles. Grandet was polite enough to his nephew that evening, as he read a letter Charles had brought from his father. Grandet's brother announced in a letter that he had lost his fortune, and he was about to commit suicide, and that he entrusted Charles to his brother's care. The young man was quite unaware of what his father had written, and when informed next day of his father's failure and suicide, he burst into tears and remained in his room for several days. Finally he wrote to a friend in Paris and asked him to dispose of his property and pay his debts. He gave little trinkets to Eugenie, her mother, and Nanon. Grandet looked at them greedily and said he would have them appraised. He informed his wife and daughter that he intended to turn the young man out as soon as his father's affairs were settled.
Charles felt there was a stain on his honor. Grandet felt so too, especially since he and his late brother had the same family name. In consultation with the local banker, M. de Grassins, he arranged a plan whereby he could save the family reputation without, at the same time, spending a penny. M. de Grassins went to Paris to act for Grandet. He did not return but lived a life of pleasure in the capital.
Meanwhile, Eugenie fell in love with Charles. Sympathizing with his penniless state, she decided to give him her hoard of coins so that he could go to the Indies and make his fortune. The two young people pledged everlasting love to each other, and Charles left Saumur.
On the following New Year's Day, Grandet asked to see Eugenie's money. Her mother, who knew her daughter's secret, kept silent. In spite of Eugenie's denials, Grandet guessed what she had done with the gold. He ordered her to stay in her room, and he would have nothing to do with either her or her mother. Rumors began to arise in the town. The notary, M. Cruchot, told Grandet that if his wife died, there would have to be a division of property—if Eugenie insisted on it. The village whispered that Mme. Grandet was dying of a broken heart and the maltreatment of her husband. Realizing that he might lose a part of his fortune, Grandet relented and forgave them both. When his wife died, he tricked Eugenie into signing over her share of the property to him.
Five years passed with no word from Charles to brighten Eugenie's drab existence. In 1827, when Grandet was eighty-two years old, he was stricken with paralysis. He died urging Eugenie to take care of his money.
Eugenie lived with old Nanon, still waiting for Charles to return. One day a letter came. Charles no longer wished to marry her. Instead, he hoped to marry the daughter of a titled nobleman and secure by royal ordinance his father-in-law's title and coat of arms. Eugenie released Charles, but M. de Grassins hurried to Charles and told him that his father's creditors had not been satisfied. Until they were, his fiancee's family would not allow a marriage. Learning of his predicament, Eugenie herself paid the debt, and Charles was married.
Eugenie continued to live alone. The routine of the house was exactly what it had been while Grandet lived. Suitors came again. Young de Grassins was now in disgrace because of the loose life his father was living in Paris, but M. Cruchot, who had risen to a high post in the provincial government, continued to press his suit. At last Eugenie agreed to marry him. providing he did not demand the prerogatives of marriage, for she would be his wife in name only. They were married only a short
time before M. Cruchot died. To her own property Eugenie added his. Nanon herself had married, and she and her husband stayed with Eugenie. Convinced that Nanon was her only friend, the young widow resigned herself to a lonely life. She lived as she had always lived in the bare old house. She had great wealth, but, lacking everything else in life, she was indifferent to it.


Critical Evaluation

Eugenie Grandet is part of Honore de Balzac's grand design, La Comedie Humaine. Some say it is one of the best parts. Rather late in his prolific writing career, Balzac conceived the idea of arranging his novels, stories, and studies in a certain order. He described his plan in Avant-Propos (1842, although he claimed the idea originated in 1833), where he named the project La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy). Influenced by Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and Jean Lamarck, all naturalists, Balzac sought to apply their scientific principles—especially the taxonomic system—to literature, particularly for the purpose of organizing information. Balzac firmly believed that "social species" could be classified just as "zoological species" were, and he attempted to classify his fifty-odd previously written works as well as his future writings to fit such a scheme. To accommodate his plan, he adopted eight major topic headings: Scenes from Private Life, Scenes from Provincial Life, Scenes from Parisian Life, Scenes from Political Life, Scenes from Military Life, Scenes from Rural Life, Philosophical Studies, and Analytical Studies. The works were arranged, rearranged, and arranged again, ad infinitum. Eugenie Grandet was finally a Scene of Provincial Life. As a consequence of this ambitious organizational plan, Balzac exercised Procrustean prerogatives, tailoring his earlier output to his new standards. The results were predictably disastrous, but the literary qualities of the novels themselves—notably Eugenie Grandet—are irrefutable testimony to the triumph of art over science.
Balzac realized his goal of presenting typical human species in spite of, not because of, his "scientific" system of taxonomy. As the unsurpassed historian of the French middle class during the first half of the nineteenth century, he incarnated the stereotypes which were novel then but are well known today: the snob, the provincial, the prude, the miser, the lecher, and a great many others. He did so on the strength of his artistic skill and not by virtue of scientific analysis, for Balzac was not a systematic philosopher or a scientist but an artist. He wrote fine novels—even though they are often marred by his insen-sitivity to language and his proclivity for excessive details—which outlined the essential characteristics of the nineteenth century French middle class more clearly than anyone else has ever done. Matching Juvenal and Martial, Balzac satirized avarice, ambition, lust, vanity, and hypocrisy. Greed, however, was his bete noire and Monsieur Grandet his archetype. The author himself was something of a prototype.
Money is a pervasive theme in Balzac's novels, where its evil effects are resoundingly deplored. The figure of the greedy miser furnishes Balzac with one of his best characters, Grandet. Ironically, the novel reflects Balzac's own preoccupation with money and his desire to earn vast sums of it. Like many of his characters, he wanted wealth and social position. Early in his career, he was poor and constantly in debt; but even after his novels began earning him sizable sums, he was still constantly in debt because he lived an extravagant life-style well beyond his means. He never did learn how to manage money. When he was writing, he lived like a monk, working furiously for long hours with virtually no time out even for eating. When the novel was completed, however, Balzac devoted that same energy to nonstop revelry. His feasts were legendary, his capacity for fine foods gargantuan—one hundred oysters as an hors d'oeuvre, for example. His drinking and other debauches were no less excessive. He would agree with Monsieur Grandet that money is power and power is all that matters; therefore, money is the only important factor in life.
Balzac, however, wanted money for what it would buy, and Grandet wanted money for its own sake. Balzac cultivated the Dionysian life-style with the same single-minded dedication with which Grandet cultivated abstemiousness. Therein lies the difference between author and character. The former enjoyed a grand style; the latter took pleasure from self-denial. Yet Grandet dominates the novel just as he dominates his family. To be sure, the novel is entitled Eugenie Grandet, and it depicts the sterility of provincial life. Balzac's neat categories notwithstanding, Grandet dominates the story. He is the overwhelming force that determines the destiny of his wife—who is ultimately killed by his penny-pinching vindictiveness—and his daughter—who is emotionally warped by his miserly indoctrination. The novel is thus as much about Grandet as it is about Eugenie.
Monsieur Grandet is what literary critics call an undeveloped or a "flat" character. He undergoes no change in the course of the novel. From start to finish, he is venal and miserly. He experiences no enlightenment. In fact, Eugenie is the only character who undergoes change as she moves from innocence to experience. The others remain as they were at the beginning. More important, the emotional power which Grandet exercises as his prerogative kills his wife and permanently damages Eugenie. Although Eugenie knows nothing of Grandet's machinations in accumulating his fortune, she is nevertheless shaped by her father's influence. Grandet thus exerts his
wishes even beyond the grave, since his training of Eugenie—implicit or explicit—is reflected in her behavior long after he is dead. She adopts his parsimonious living habits, although she is publicly charitable. Seemingly without effort, she increases her fortune rather than depletes it. Her father taught her well. In this way, Gran-det rivals Eugenie as the novel's protagonist.
Eugenie would not be what she is without having grown up with such a father. The cause-effect matrix of this interpersonal relationship illustrates one of Balzac's major premises (which was to become a tenet of late nineteenth century literary naturalism): that the combined effects of genetics and environment cannot be surmounted. This phenomenon is labeled "determinism"—more precisely, "mechanistic determinism," to distinguish it from its religious counterpart of predestination. Eugenie is born into a given social environment with a given genetic makeup. She is unable to change those factors, yet they are the twin determinants of her fate. The novel traces her development up to the time when she accepts that fate which was foreordained at the outset: She is very, very rich and very, very unhappy. The inescapable forces of determinism thus work through to their inevitable conclusion.
Eugenie Grandet is an unusually moving novel, for the reader can hardly fail to sympathize with Eugenie while despising her father. It comes as something as a shock, then, to realize that Eugenie bore her father no malice. Even her vengeance of Charles's betrayal is so subtle that it is untainted; Charles is oblivious to subtlety, and the reader does not begrudge Eugenie her one, lone exercise of financial power. Balzac's incredible prestidigitation is at work here, manipulating the readers so that they accept the novel's point of view without imposing extraneous judgments. Truly, Eugenie Grandet is a tribute to the novelist's craft and art.



Le Pere Goriot

Honore de Balzac


This is the story of a wealthy businessman who bequeaths a fortune to his two ungrateful daughters. Living alone in a shabby boarding house so that he can continue to give what little he has to his avaricious offspring, he also befriends an ambitious young man named Rastignac who exploits their association to further his own social aspirations. As intrigue, betrayal, and even murder become implicated in the daughters' rise into high society, various villains ensure that the narrative is enlivened by some sensational plot twists. Essentially, though, it is Goriot's unreciprocated love for his daughters that is the central tragedy around which Balzac chronicles the broader social malaise.
Constituting one of the works in Balzac's epic series, La Comedie Humaine, Le Pere Goriot essentially transposes Shakespeare's King Lear to 1820s Paris. Against Goriot's selfless devotion to his family the novel explores in myriad ways how it is no longer filial bonds or ideals of community that sustains the social edifice, but a corrupt pseudo-aristocracy that is based on aggressive individualism and greed.
Although some may become impatient with the overly sinuous plot structure, it is Balzac's eye for detail and his gift for psychological realism that continue to inspire admiration.The sheer breadth of his artistic vision locates him firmly within the nineteenth-century tradition, but his narrative technique and attention to character still make Balzac a hugely important figure in modern fiction.



Type of work: Novel
Author: Honore de Balzac (1799-1850)
Type of work: Naturalism
Time of plot: с 1819
Locale: Paris
First published: Le Pere Goriot, 1835 (English translation, 1899)


A gallery of fascinating characters, each with his own intriguing history, is assembled in Mme. Vauquer's boarding-house. Among them is Father Goriot. Gradually, he squanders away his ample retirement funds to pay the bills of his two ungrateful and profligate daughters. Finally, he is buried in a pauper's grave, and his children do not even attend the funeral. Other stories and characters interweave within this larger frame. Most effective is the history of Eugene de Rastignac, a poor law student who is subtly transformed from a naive provincial into a Parisian gentleman.


Principal Characters

Father Goriot (go-губ'), a lonely old lodger at the pension of Madame Vauquer in Paris. Known to the other boarders as Old Goriot, he is a retired manufacturer of vermicelli who sold his prosperous business in order to provide handsome dowries for his two daughters. During his first year at the Maison Vauquer, he occupied the best rooms in the house; in the second year he asked for less expensive quarters on the floor above, and at the end of the third year he moved into a cheap, dingy room on the third story. Because two fashionably dressed young women have visited him from time to time in the past, the old man has become an object of curiosity and suspicion; the belief is that he has ruined himself by keeping two mistresses. Actually Old Goriot is a man in whom parental love has become an obsession, a love unappreciated and misused by his two selfish, heartless daughters, who make constant demands on his meager resources. After a life of hard work, careful saving, and fond indulgence of his children, he has outlived his usefulness and is now in his dotage. Happy in the friendship of Eugene de Rastignac, the law student who becomes the lover of one of the daughters, he uses the last of his money to provide an apartment for the young man, a place where Old Goriot will also have his own room. But before the change can be made the daughters drive their father to desperation by fresh demands for money to pay their bills. He dies attended only by Eugene and Bianchon, a poor medical student, and in his last moments he speaks lovingly of the daughters who have ruined him and made him the victim of their ingratitude. The daughters send their empty carriages to follow his coffin to the grave.
Countess Anastasie de Restaud (a-nastaze' дэ res-to'), the more fashionable of Old Goriot's daughters, constantly in need of money to indulge her extravagant tastes and to provide for her lover. Meeting her at a ball given by his distant relative, Madame de Beauseant. Eugene de Rastignac immediately falls in love with Anastasie. When he calls on her he finds Old Goriot just leaving. His mention of his fellow lodger causes Anastasie and her husband to treat the young law student with great coldness, and he realizes that he is no longer welcome in their house. Later Madame de Beauseant explains the mystery, saying that Anastasie is ashamed of her humble origins and her tradesman father.
Baroness Delphine de Nucingen (del-fen' da nu-san-zhan'), Old Goriot's second daughter, the wife of a German banker. Like her sister Anastasie, she married for position and money, but her place in society is not as exalted as that of the Countess de Restaud, who has been received at court. As a result, the sisters are not on speaking terms. Madame de Beauseant, amused by Eugene de Rastignac's youthful ardor, suggests that he introduce her to the Baroness de Nucingen in order to win Delphine's gratitude and a place for himself in Parisian society. Delphine accepts the young man as her lover. Though self-centered and snobbish, she is less demanding than her sister; she has asked for less, given more of herself, and brought more happiness to her father. When Old Goriot is dying, she goes to the Maison Vauquer at Eugene's insistence, but she arrives too late to receive her father's blessing.
Eugene de Rastignac (oezhen' da ras-tenyak'), an impoverished law student, the son of a landed provincial family. As ambitious as he is handsome, he is determined to conquer Paris. At first his lack of sophistication makes him almost irresistible to his relative, Madame de Beauseant, and Delphine de Nucingen, whose lover he becomes. He learns cynicism without losing his warm feelings; he never wavers in his regard for Old Goriot, and while he does not attend seriously to the law studies for which his family is making a great sacrifice, he manages to get on in fashionable society, where friendships and influence are important. The revelation of the ways of the world that he gains through the patronage of Madame de Beauseant, his love affair with Delphine, and his regard for Old Goriot, as well as the shabby activities in which he engages in order to maintain himself in the world of fashion, make him all the more ambitious and eager to succeed.
Madame Vauquer (vo-ka'), the sly, shabby, penurious owner of the Maison Vauquer, the perfect embodiment of the atmosphere that prevails in the pension. When Old Goriot first moves into her boardinghouse, she considers him as a possible suitor, but after he fails to respond to her coy attentions she makes him an object of gossip and ridicule.
Monsieur Vautrin (vo-tran'), a man who claims to be a former tradesman living at the Maison Vauquer. Reserved, sharp-tongued, secretive, he observes everything that goes on about him and is aware of Old Goriot's efforts to provide money for his daughters. Knowing that Eugene de Rastignac desperately needs money in order to maintain himself in society, he suggests that the young man court Victorine Taillefer, another lodger, an appealing young girl whose father has disinherited her in favor of her brother. Vautrin says that he will arrange to have the brother killed in a duel, a death that will make Victorine an heiress. He gives Eugene two weeks to consider his proposition. Eugene considers Vautrin a devil, but in the end, driven to desperation by his mistress, he begins to court Victorine. True to Vautrin's word, Victorine's brother is fatally wounded in a duel. Vautrin's scheme fails when he is arrested and revealed as a notorious criminal, Jacques Collin, nicknamed Trompe-la-Mort. Though his identity has been betrayed within the pension, he swears that he will return and continue his climb to good fortune by the same unscrupulous means used by those who call themselves respectable.
Victorine Taillefer (vek-toren'pr ta-yafeV), a young girl cast off by her harsh father, who has decided to make his son his only heir. She lives with Madame Couture at the Maison Vauquer.
Madame Couture (kootiir'), the widow of a public official and a lodger at the Maison Vauquer. A kindhearted woman, she fills the place of a mother in the lonely life of Victorine Taillefer.
Monsieur Poiret (pwa-ra'), a lodger at the Maison Vauquer. Gondureau, a detective, confides in him that he suspects that Monsieur Vautrin is in reality the famous criminal, Trompe-la-Mort.
Mademoiselle Michonneau (me-sho-no'), an elderly spinster living at the Maison Vauquer. Disliking Monsieur Vautrin, her fellow boarder, she agrees to put a drug in his coffee. While Vautrin is asleep, she discovers the brand of a criminal on his shoulder. Acting on this information, the police appear and arrest Vautrin.
Gondureau (gon-dii-ro'), the detective who is trying to track down Jacques Collin, called Trompe-la-Mort, a criminal who lives at the Maison Vauquer under the name of Vautrin. Gondureau arranges with Monsieur Poiret and Mademoiselle Michonneau to have Vautrin drugged in order to learn whether he bears a criminal brand on his shoulder.
Count Maxime de Trailles (mak-sem' da гга'уэ). an arrogant but impecunious young nobleman, the lover of Anastasie de Restaud. For his sake she helps to impoverish her father.
Madame de Beauseant (da bo-sa-yan'), a relative of Eugene de Rastignac. Aristocratic and high-minded, she is the ideal of inherited culture and good manners—kind. reserved, warmhearted, beautiful. Though saddened by the loss of her lover, she treats Eugene with great kindness, receives Delphine de Nucingen for his sake, and introduces the young man into fashionable Parisian society.
Bianchon (byan-shon'). a poor medical student living at the Maison Vauquer. Like Eugene de Rastignac. he befriends Old Goriot and attends him when the old man is dying. Bianchon extends friendship easily and allows warm human feelings to influence his relations with other people.
Sylvie (sel-ve'). the plump cook at the Maison Vauquer.
Christophe (kres-tof'), Madame Vauquer's man of all work.


The Story

There were many conjectures at Madame Vauquer's boardinghouse about the mysterious Monsieur Goriot. He had taken the choice rooms on the first floor when he first retired from his vermicelli business, and for a time his landlady had eyed him as a prospective husband. When, at the end of his second year at the Maison Vauquer, he had asked to move to a cheap room on the second floor, he was credited with being an unsuccessful speculator, a miser, and a moneylender. The mysterious young women who flitted up to his rooms from time to time were said to be his mistresses, although he protested that they were only his two daughters. The other boarders called him Father Goriot.
At the end of the third year, Goriot moved to a still cheaper room on the third floor. By that time, he was often the butt of jokes at the boardinghouse table, and his daughters rarely visited him.
One evening the impoverished law student, Eugene de Rastignac, came home late from the ball his wealthy cousin, Madame de Beauseant, had given. Peeking through the mysterious Goriot's keyhole, he saw him molding some silver plate into ingots. The next day he heard his fellow boarder, Monsieur Vautrin, say that early in the morning he had seen Father Goriot selling a piece of silver to an old moneylender. What Vautrin did not know was that the money thus obtained was intended for Goriot's daughter, Countess Anastasie de Restaud, whom Eugene had met at the dance the night before.
That afternoon Eugene paid his respects to the countess. Father Goriot was leaving the drawing room when he arrived. The countess, her lover, and her husband received Eugene graciously because of his connections with Madame de Beauseant, but when he mentioned they had the acquaintance of Father Goriot in common, he was quickly shown to the door, the count leaving word with his servant that he was not to be at home if Monsieur de Rastignac called again.
After his rebuff, Eugene went to call on Madame de Beauseant, to ask her aid in unraveling the mystery. She quickly understood what had happened and explained that de Restaud's house would be barred to him because both of Goriot's daughters, having been given sizable dowries, were gradually severing all connection with their father and therefore would not tolerate anyone who had knowledge of Goriot's shabby circumstances. She suggested that Eugene send word through Goriot to his other daughter, Delphine de Nucingen, that Madame de Beauseant would receive her. She knew that Delphine would welcome the invitation and would be grateful to Eugene and become his sponsor.
Vautrin had another suggestion for the young man. Under Madame Vauquer's roof lived Victorine Taillefer, who had been disinherited by her wealthy father in favor of her brother. Eugene had already found favor in her eyes, and Vautrin suggested that for two hundred thousand francs he would have the brother murdered, so that Eugene might marry the heiress. He was to have two weeks in which to consider the offer.
Eugene escorted Madame de Beauseant to the theater next evening. There he was presented to Delphine de Nucingen, who received him graciously. The next day he received an invitation to dine with the de Nucingens and to go to the theater. Before dinner he and Delphine drove to a gambling house where, at her request, he gambled and won six thousand francs. She explained that her husband would give her no money, and she needed it to pay a debt she owed to an old lover.
Before long Eugene learned that it cost money to keep the company of his new friends. Unable to press his own family for funds, he would not stoop to impose on Delphine. Finally, as Vautrin had foreseen, he was forced to take his fellow boarder's offer. The tempter had just finished explaining the duel between Victorine's brother and his confederate which was to take place the following morning when Father Goriot came in with the news that he and Delphine had taken an apartment for Eugene.
Eugene wavered once more at the thought of the crime which was about to be committed in his name. He attempted to send a warning to the victim through Father Goriot, but Vautrin, suspicious of his accomplice, thwarted the plan. Vautrin managed to drug their wine at supper so that both slept soundly that night.
At breakfast, Eugene's fears were realized. A messenger burst in with the news that Victorine's brother had been fatally wounded in a duel. After the girl hurried off to see him, another singular event occurred. After drinking his coffee, Vautrin fell to the ground as if he had suffered a stroke. When he was carried to his room and undressed, it was ascertained by marks on his back that he was the famous criminal, Trompe-la-Mort. One of the boarders, an old maid, had been acting as an agent for the police; she had drugged Vautrin's coffee so that his criminal brand could be exposed. Shortly afterward the police appeared to claim their victim.
Eugene and Father Goriot were preparing to move to their new quarters, for Goriot was to have a room over the young man's apartment. Delphine arrived to interrupt Goriot's packing. She was in distress. Father Goriot had arranged with his lawyer to force de Nucingen to make a settlement so that Delphine would have an independent income on which to draw, and she brought the news that her money had been so tied up by investments it would be impossible for her husband to withdraw any of it without bringing about his own ruin.
Hardly had Delphine told her father of her predicament when Anastasie de Restaud drove up. She had sold the de Restaud diamonds to help her lover pay off his debts, and she had been discovered by her husband. De Restaud had bought them back, but as punishment he demanded control of her dowry.
Eugene could not help overhearing the conversation through the thin partition between the rooms; when Anastasie said that she still needed twelve thousand francs for her lover, he forged one of Vautrin's drafts for that amount and took it to Father Goriot's room. Anastasie's reaction was to berate him for eavesdropping.
The financial difficulties of his daughters and the hatred and jealousy they had shown proved too much for Father Goriot. At the dinner table, he looked as if he were about to have a stroke of apoplexy, and when Eugene returned from an afternoon spent with his mistress, Delphine, the old man was in bed, too ill to be moved to his new home. He had gone out that morning to sell his last few possessions, so that Anastasie might pay her dressmaker for an evening gown.
In spite of their father's serious condition, both daughters attended Madame de Beauseant's ball that evening, and Eugene was too much under his mistress' influence to refuse to accompany her. The next day, Goriot was worse. Eugene tried to summon his daughters. Delphine was still abed and refused to be hurried over her morning toilet. Anastasie arrived at his bedside only after Father Goriot had lapsed into a coma and no longer recognized her.
Father Goriot was buried in a pauper's grave the next day, Eugene tried to borrow burial money at each daughter's house, but each sent word that they were in deep grief over their loss and could not be seen. He and a poor medical student from the boardinghouse were the only mourners at the funeral. Anastasie and Delphine sent
their empty carriages to follow the coffin. It was their final tribute to an indulgent father.


Critical Evaluation

Honore de Balzac's writing career spanned thirty years, from the decisive point in 1819 when he elected to abandon the study of law until his untimely death in 1850. His work up until 1829 consisted of novels, stories, and sketches on a variety of philosophical and social themes. They are, on the whole, undistinguished; Balzac later averred that the decade from 1819 until he began work on The Chouans in 1829 constituted his apprenticeship in the art of fiction. Certainly, the works of the last twenty years of his life show the benefits of that long period of development, both in stylistic and tonal precision and in general weight and narrative direction.
Many critics contend that the generative idea for The Human Comedy came to Balzac as he was writing Father Goriot, because in the manuscript the name of the young student is Massiac until in the scene of the afternoon call at Madame de Beauseant's house "Massiac" is abruptly scratched out and "Rastignac" inserted. The character Eugene de Rastignac had appeared in a minor role in The Wild Ass's Skin (1831), and the assumption is that the decision to reintroduce him at an earlier stage of his life in Father Goriot betokens a flash of creative light that revealed to the author a cycle of interconnected novels depicting every aspect of society and having numerous characters in common—The Human Comedy. That the idea came to him quite so suddenly is doubtful, since, as Henry Reed has pointed out, he had already decided to ring in Madames de Langeais and de Beauseant and the moneylender Gobseck, all of whom appear in previous works. It is certain, however, that Father Goriot is the first work in which the device of repetition occurs and in which the uncertain fates of two main characters, Eugene and Vautrin, point so obviously to other stories.
The novel began as a short story about parental obsession and filial ingratitude. Its title is most often translated into English as Father Goriot, losing the significance of the definite article. Its inclusion is not grammatically necessary in French, but the sense is more truly rendered as Goriot the Father. The point is that the condition of fatherhood absorbs the whole life and personality of old Goriot. At one time both a husband and a businessman, he has lost or given up these roles; he lives only in the paternal relation, existing at other times, in the boarders' neat phrase, as "an anthropomorphous mollusc." He seems, at first, horribly victimized, so betrayed and ill-repaid by his harpy daughters that his situation excites the silent sympathy of even such hard gems of the haute monde as the Duchesse de Langeais and Madame de Beauseant. His gratitude to his offspring for their least notice, slightingly and ungraciously bestowed as it may be, and his joyful self-sacrifice and boundless self-delusion fill the reader with pity. Was there ever, Balzac seems to ask, a parent so ill-used?
He is the author of his own distress. Balzac leaves no doubt that Goriot reared the two girls in such a way as to ensure that they would be stupid, vain, idle, and grasping women. "The upbringing he gave his daughters was of course preposterous." As he lies dying, his outburst of impotent rage reminds one of Lear; their situations are similar in that each in the folly of his heart wreaks his own ruin. Lear's abasement leads to self-recognition and moral rebirth, but Goriot clings to his delusion to the end, clings to it with a mad tenacity, demanding of unfeeling reality that it conform to his dream of the rewards due faithful parenthood. In fact, he is properly rewarded, for he has been a bad father, the worst of fathers. Parenthood being both privilege and trust, Goriot has enjoyed the first and betrayed the last, as he himself recognizes in a brief interval of lucidity: "The finest nature, the best soul on earth would have succumbed to the corruption of such weakness on a father's part." Indulging himself in the warmth of their goodwill, he has failed in his duty to their moral sense; they are, as adults, mirror images of his own monumental selfishness, made, as it were, of the very stuff of it: "It was I who made them, they belong to me."
To this "obscure but dreadful Parisian tragedy" is added the separate tales of Rastignac and Vautrin, each quite self-contained and yet bound to the other two by the most subtle bonds. One of these links is the recurrent reference to parenthood, good and bad. At every turn, some facet of the parent-child relation is held up for the reader's notice: the wretchedness of the cast-off child Victorine Taillefer, for example, so like Goriot's wretchedness; Madame de Langeais' disquisition on sons-in-law, later echoed by Goriot; the parental tone taken with Eugene both by Madame de Beauseant ("Why you poor simple child!" and in a different way by Vautrin ("You're a good little lad . . .") in giving him wicked worldly advice in contrast to the good but dull counsel of his own mother; the filial relationship that develops between Eugene and Goriot; even Vautrin's enormously ironic nicknames for his landlady ("Mamma Vauquer") and the police ("Father Cop").
Another element linking the haute monde, the Maison Vauquer, and the underworld is the fact that they are all partners in crime. Goriot. for example, made his original fortune in criminal collusion with members of the de Langeais family. Vautrin neatly arranges the death of Mademoiselle Taillefer's brother for the benefit of the half-willing Rastignac. The Baron de Nucingen invests Delphine's dowry in an illegal building scheme. Vautrin, Goriot, and Anastasie all resort to "Papa Gobseck" the moneylender. The reader hears a precept uttered by Madame de Beauseant ("in Paris, success is everything, it's the key to power") enunciated a few pages later by Vau-trin ("Succeed! . . . succeed at all costs"). The reader is clearly meant to see that whatever differences exist among the various levels of society, they are differences not of kind but of degree. Corruption is universal.



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