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Honoré de Balzac

Balzac, Honoré de (1799-1850), French author, one of the world's great novelists. Along with many short stories, plays, and essays, Balzac wrote La comédie humaine (1842-1848; translated as The Human Comedy, 1895-1900), a cycle of about 90 novels describing French society in detail.

Balzac was born in Tours. He inherited the exuberant temperament of his businessman father. His mother was a sensitive and moody woman interested in mystical doctrines. Balzac's own interest in the theories of Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, Austrian physician Franz Mesmer, and others may be explained in part by this early influence.

An undisciplined student in elementary school in Vendôme and high schools in Tours and Paris, Balzac worked briefly as a law clerk in Paris but spent most of his time devouring books of philosophical speculation. He began his literary career writing works that reflected a romantic sentimentality and his youthful intoxication with abstract theorizing.

Discouraged by his initial lack of literary success, Balzac turned to publishing to secure his financial future, but he soon plunged into debt. This was the first of several financial disasters in his life. Henceforth Balzac wrote, often for magazines, on a per-word basis in order to get out of debt, but he never completely succeeded in accomplishing this goal.

Balzac's first important novel was Les chouans (1829; The Chouans, 1899), based on civil war in the Vendée region of western France during the French Revolution (1789-1799). While it is clearly influenced by romanticism, a literary movement that emphasized individualism, imagination, and emotion, its historical accuracy and factual descriptions became hallmarks of Balzac's fiction. The relative success of Les chouans was followed by the resounding triumph of two philosophical novels, La peau de chagrin (1831; The Ass's Skin, 1899) and Louis Lambert (1832; translated 1899). Balzac's newly acquired fame enabled him to meet a Polish countess, Eveline Hanska. She became the great love of his life, and they finally married shortly before his death.

Balzac reached his full creative maturity between 1833 and 1835, when he wrote and published his masterpieces Le médicin de campagne (1833; The Country Doctor, 1899), Eugénie Grandet (1833; translated 1899), Père Goriot (1834; Old Goriot, 1899), and Le lys dans la vallée (1835; The Lily of the Valley, 1899). During this period he conceived of the idea of linking his novels into a larger whole. In this way he hoped to create a detailed depiction and study of French society from the Revolution to the ascendance of Louis Philippe to the throne in 1830. After 1834 Balzac wrote his novels with a view to inclusion in La comédie humaine, and a 17-volume edition under this title first appeared between 1842 and 1848.

Balzac's introduction to this edition reflects the impact of the groundbreaking theories of French scientists Jean Baptiste Lamarck and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire about the development of animal species. Balzac's scientific intention is evident in his use of the word studies to describe the three main groups of his works: "Analytic Studies," "Philosophical Studies," and "Studies of Manners." Balzac extended the ideas of Lamarck and Saint-Hilaire to human character and behavior, which he believed were determined by environment and heredity. His goal in La comédie humaine was to depict the human species in France with its many character types and associated behaviors from 1789 to 1830. This undertaking implied a significant degree of historical realism, and, in fact, Balzac is frequently cited as a forerunner of literary realism. Others see in Balzac characteristics of literary romanticism. A brief consideration of Balzac's novel Père Goriot confirms the correctness of both views.

In the novel Eugène Rastignac arrives in Paris from the provinces in 1819 to study law. He lives in a cheap boarding house, but through the influence of his aristocratic aunt frequents high society. Another resident of the boarding house is old Goriot, a retired merchant who lives humbly so that his two daughters may marry into nobility and live luxuriously. Rastignac meets these daughters in high society and through them becomes friends with Goriot. Vautrin, a mysterious and charismatic boarder, later found to be a notorious criminal, vies with Goriot as a father figure to Rastignac. Vautrin also tries to persuade Rastignac to marry yet another boarder, Mademoiselle Taillefer, who will inherit her father's entire fortune once Vautrin has murdered her brother. Eventually, the two selfish daughters bankrupt Goriot, who then dies of anguish; Vautrin kills Mademoiselle Taillefer's brother (although Rastignac has not entered into his conspiracy) and is arrested; and Rastignac alone accompanies old Goriot's coffin to a cemetery on the hill above Paris, where he dramatically shouts his defiance to the city below and to the Parisian world he had wanted to conquer.

In many ways Rastignac is a young, romantic hero, and Vautrin is the darkly enchanting antihero of much romantic literature. The thrilling and mysterious events and the pursuit of passions and dreams qualify as romantic themes. But the realistic background of the novel overwhelms these aspects. In 1819 France was attempting to retrieve its past as a monarchy, although the Revolution and the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte as French emperor had made this impossible. New fortunes had been established, and the new nobility created by Napoleon vied with the older, established families for power and prestige. Impoverished noblemen sold off their titles to the newly rich, and money emerged as the single source of power. The inhabitants of the boarding house reflect and symbolize the new materialism and its destructive forces.

Balzac's art is perhaps best described as heightened realism, in which selected details are emphasized and sometimes exaggerated. His goal to depict French society objectively was altered by his own artistic temperament and vision. His realism and his concept of the panoramic historical novel in many volumes had enormous influence on such authors as Émile Zola and Marcel Proust, both of whom also completed lengthy cycles of novels.

"Balzac, Honoré de," Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 99. © 1993-1998 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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