The French novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was the first writer to use fiction to convey the total social scene prevailing within one country at a particular period in its history. Commonly regarded as the founder of social realism, he also had affinities with the romantics.
Born at Tours on May 20, 1799, Honoré de Balzac was sent as a boarder, at the age of 8, to the Oratorian College of Vendôme, an old-fashioned school where the discipline was harsh and conditions primitive. The semiautobiographical work Louis Lambert (1832) gives a fairly faithful account of this period of Balzac's life. The boy sought refuge from his surroundings in books, but excessive reading eventually brought on some kind of nervous malady, and he was brought home in 1813. The following year his family moved to Paris, where he completed his secondary education and in 1819 took a degree in law. The not inconsiderable legal knowledge Balzac acquired at this time, both in the lecture hall and in the office of the solicitor for whom he worked, was put to good use in a number of the novels and stories of his maturity that turn on disputed legacies (Le Cousin Pons, 1846-1847), marriage settlements (Le Contrat de mariage, 1835), petitions in lunacy (L'Interdiction, 1836), and bankruptcy proceedings (César Birotteau, 1837; Illusions perdues, 1837-1843).
To his parents' disappointment, Balzac refused to enter the legal profession and instead declared his intention to devote himself to a literary career. His father gave him a small allowance on the understanding that at the end of 2 years he should produce a masterpiece or else abandon his ambitions. Although the expected great work did not materialize, Balzac persisted, and between 1820 and 1825 he wrote a number of sensational or humorous novels, some of them in collaboration with friends and none signed with his own name. These books were devoid of literary merit, but he earned his living by them and learned some useful lessons in the art of fiction.
Casting about for ways of making his fortune more rapidly, Balzac next set himself up as a publisher. In 1825, he launched one-volume editions of the works of the French authors Molière and La Fontaine, but they did not sell well. Undaunted, he acquired a printing business on borrowed capital and later a type foundry. These commercial ventures were also failures, and Balzac's brief business career ended in 1828, when his affairs were liquidated, leaving him with very large debts.
Thereafter he returned to literature and in 1829 published the first novel that he signed with his own name. This was Le Dernier Chouan (the title was changed in later editions to Les Chouans), a historical novel based on the Breton rebellion against the republican government in 1799. Balzac had undertaken careful research on the background, traveling to Britanny in order to ensure that his descriptions of the countryside and its inhabitants would be authentic. Since there was a vogue for historical novels, the book was well received. But real fame came to him 2 years later, when he published La Peau de chagrin, a semifantastic story in which the talismanic shagreen skin of the title is discovered to have the magical property of granting whatever wish the owner utters. Every time the skin is used in this way, however, it shrinks, and the young man who has acquired it knows that his own life-span contracts correspondingly. The tale thus becomes an allegory of the conflict between the will to enjoy and the will to survive, two principles which, according to Balzac, are utterly irreconcilable.
Throughout the 1830s Balzac engaged in furious activity, working hard and enjoying himself hugely, in reckless disregard of the moral he had enunciated in La Peau de chagrin. The constant struggle to earn enough to keep his creditors at bay drove him to impose on himself a timetable of work that eventually ruined even his robust constitution. And as the pressure of his commitments to publishers mounted, he increased his hours from 10 to 14 or even 18 a day, keeping himself awake by frequent cups of strong coffee.
Whenever Balzac earned a respite from his herculean toil, he would plunge into bouts of social dissipation which were only a little less exhausting. Though of sober disposition—he never drank to excess and considered the use of tobacco to be enfeebling—he enjoyed good food and was capable of devouring gargantuan meals. In appearance he was unprepossessing, a thick-set man with massive neck and fleshy chin, his enormous head crowned by a mop of greasy black hair. But his magnetic gaze unfailingly compelled attention. He did his best to offset the inelegance of his person by dressing splendidly and wearing ostentatious jewels. In spite of this strain of vulgarity, the liveliness of his conversation and the reputation his books had given him of being an expert on feminine psychology made him a welcome guest in a number of fashionable salons.
Balzac's lifework, apart from the early novels already mentioned and a few plays toward the end of his career, consists of a massive series of some 90 novels and short stories collected under the title La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy). It was not until 1841 that this title, probably suggested to him by Dante's Divine Comedy, made its appearance. The Human Comedy was subdivided into smaller cycles of novels: "Scenes of Private Life," "Scenes of Political Life," Scenes of "Parisian," "Provincial," "Country" Life, and so on. There was a separate group of "Philosophical Studies," in which Balzac gave freer rein to his love of the fantastic and the macabre and to his interest in metapsychical phenomena such as thought transference and mesmerism. The "Philosophical Studies" often have historical settings, whereas the rest of The Human Comedy consists of stories that are set in Balzac's own time and describe various aspects of French society during the period of the Bourbon restoration (1814-1830) and of the July Monarchy, which followed.
Apart from the unifying element provided by a common historical background, Balzac also devised an original method of linking the novels by causing characters that he had introduced into one novel to reappear in subsequent stories. This practice, extended more and more as The Human Comedy took shape, enhanced the realistic illusion and also permitted Balzac to develop the psychology of individual characters more fully than would have been feasible within the limits of a single novel.
In the important preface to his collected works that Balzac wrote in 1842, he defined his function as that of "secretary of French society." Accordingly, every class of people, from the cultivated aristocrat down to the brutish peasant, has a place in The Human Comedy. In the novel Le Père Goriot, lodging-house keepers, usurers, duchesses, students, retired clerks, and gangsters rub shoulders in a manner strangely convincing in spite of the inherent improbability of the situations.
Balzac often ascribed the basest motivations to his characters. He once wrote that the lust for gold and the search for pleasure were the sole principles that ruled humanity. Although capable of dramatizing cases of magnificent self-sacrifice or touching expiation (as he does in Le Lys dans la vallée, 1836, and Le Curé de village, 1838-1839), in the vast majority of instances Balzac presents naked self-seeking served by feverish energy and unflagging willpower. This is where the realism of his work shades off into something else. It was the French poet Baudelaire who first pointed out that Balzac was primarily a visionary, and it was he too who said that Balzac's characters were all replicas of their creator since they were all possessed of "genius." In the sense that single-minded determination to achieve one's aim is part of genius, the remark has considerable validity. The monomaniac-the man obsessed by some transcendent purpose or passion or perhaps by some vice, to the point of sacrificing his own comfort and the welfare of his dependents—is constantly encountered in Balzac's more impressive novels, among them Eugénie Grandet (1833), Le Père Goriot (1834), La Recherche de l'absolu (1834), and La Cousine Bette (1846).
It is true that Balzac was writing in an age characterized more by individual endeavor than by collective effort. This was a period when the struggle for existence among the poor or for social advancement among the less fortunate was at its fiercest. The rigidly hierarchical framework of society which had existed before the French Revolution had disappeared, and no solidly stratified social organization had yet replaced it. Balzac himself deplored the anarchic individualism that he observed around him, and in the comments strewn through his novels he argues desperately in favor of restoring the authority of central government under an absolute monarch as a means of extinguishing the jungle warfare of conflicting interests. Human nature, in his view, was fundamentally depraved; any machinery, legal, political, or religious, whereby the inherent wickedness of men could be held in check ought to be repaired and strengthened. But this teaching went against the tendencies of the age; toward the end of his career, in the mid-1840s, Balzac could see France heading for a new popular revolution which would finally sweep away the domination of "throne and altar." This gloomy prospect partly accounts for the deeper pessimism of his last works.
During his last years Balzac suffered increasingly from poor health, and his morale had been weakened by the constant frustrations and disappointments he endured in the one great love affair of his life. In 1832 he had received his first letter from Madame Hanska, the wife of a Polish nobleman who owned extensive estates in the Russian Empire. Balzac was flattered and excited, and he met her in Switzerland the following year. Thereafter they kept up an ardent correspondence, interrupted by occasional vacations spent together in different parts of Europe. In 1841 her husband died, but Madame Hanska obstinately refused to marry Balzac despite his earnest pleas. Only when he fell gravely ill, during a last visit to her mansion in the Ukraine, did she consent. The wedding took place at her home on March 14, 1850. The long journey back to France took a serious toll on Balzac's health, and he died in Paris on Aug. 18, 1850, only a few weeks after his return.
Herbert J. Hunt, Honoré de Balzac (1957) is a concise biography. More detailed is André Maurois, Prometheus: The Life of Balzac (1965; trans. 1965). Stefan Zweig, Balzac (1946; trans. 1947), still repays study. The fullest account of Balzac's literary output is Herbert J. Hunt, Balzac's Comédie Humaine (1959), in which the novels and other writings are studied in chronological order. In F.W.J. Hemmings, Balzac: An Interpretation of "La Comédie Humaine" (1967), an attempt has been made to trace certain thematic patterns in the work as a whole. A thorough study of The Comédie humaine is Félicien Marceau, Balzac and His World (1955; trans. 1967). Other useful general studies are Samuel Rogers, Balzac and the Novel (1953), and E.J. Oliver, Honoré de Balzac (1964). □
Learn more about Honoré de Balzac