Honore de Balzac
In Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine we see the beginnings of history treated as a serious novelistic subject, a subject that would dominate much of 19th-century literature and find masterful expression in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Knowledge of historical context is crucial to an understanding of Balzac’s thematic concerns as an artist, as well as to a basic understanding of his characters’ motives and fortunes. The Napoleonic Wars, Restoration, and 1830 Revolution, all events experienced by the young Balzac, were defining moments in the nation’s history and were readily invoked by intellectuals to explain the circumstances, national or domestic, of Balzac’s time.
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, France restored the Bourbon regime under Louis XVIII and Charles X. The Restoration had managed to absorb the republican changes of the Revolution and Napoleon, but, when in 1829, King Charles X revoked the charter which guaranteed a free press among other things, the people, led by the middle class, staged a successful revolution. Charles abdicated, and, under the new King Louis-Philippe a constitutional monarchy was established which had to answer to the Chamber of Deputies, an institution equivalent to the British House of Commons. Composed mainly of wealthy middle class entrepreneurs, the Chamber of Deputies moved rapidly to divide the large family estates that dominated the nation’s feudal past and to base France’s economy on the principles of finance. This was the political and economic system under which Balzac labored as an artist, and one in which he saw the seeds of destruction for the glories of Napoleonic and dynastic France.
Much of this history can be deduced from the details of Cousin Bette, and we can gather Balzac’s attitude about these historical changes in the novel’s nostalgic and apprehensive tone. Balzac, whose father was a supplier to Napoleon’s army, laments the Empire’s military defeat, but, more significantly, he mourns what he felt to be the loss of the noble values of its past. He believed France had become a nation of shopkeepers upholding the morality of self-interest and survival. The heroic past is remembered in Cousin Bette as a period of conjugal, social, and professional harmony. Baroness Adeline Hulot recalls that her husband’s infidelities began with the dissolution of the empire; and her daughter Hortense is said to be the product of “true love.” Throughout the novel, the narrator, along with Hulot and other personages of the old guard, lament the changing times, the loss of the great hereditary estates, and, with them, the proper patrons of art. “Every-thing bears the stamp of personal interest,” in a nation where the men are judged by the shrewdness of their speech not the bravery of their deeds; they are but “walking coffins containing the Frenchmen of former France.” At the novel’s conclusion, Dr. Bianchon offers diagnoses not only of the ailing Baroness and Bette, but of the state itself. “Lack of religion and the encroachment of everything of finance” is to blame for all the social evils. “Noble disinterestedness, and talent, and service to the state, were thought worthy of esteem; but nowadays the law makes money the measure of everything.”
While Cousin Bette is an astute, and, at times, propagandistic, analysis of French social history, the novel is also a compelling portrayal of human, ahistorical passions, particularly of desire and vengeance. Hulot is the consummate slave to Eros, responsible for all the woe his family and comrades endure. Humiliated professionally and socially, he persists like some abstract figure of desire, taking on pseudonyms (all anagrams of his real name), attaching himself to one then another teenage mistress in ever more squalid corners of the city, reduced to nothing but his desire. Hulot is certainly repulsive as a human being, but there is something magnificent about his undeviating devotion to a single passion: sexual passion untarnished and undeterred by sentiment, by social life, by anything outside itself. In Bette, Balzac has added another masterful portrait to his gallery of human souls tyrannized by singular passions. Lisbeth Fischer, whose physical and moral ugliness is the antithesis to the saintly grace and beauty of her cousin Adeline, concentrates all her talents and energies onto the secret vengeance of the Hulot family. As she succeeds with her intricate machinations, the discrepancy between her humble status (despite her kinship to the Hulot family, she is referred to, like a servant, by her nickname “Bette”) and the actual power she wields becomes almost grotesque. While there is something formulaic about this character driven by revenge, Balzac spends ample time on the causes of her hatred and jealousy; and in discussing her childhood, he anticipates Freud’s theories on early trauma and unresolved emotions, and the manifestation of these traumas as adult neuroses.
Despite Balzac’s overt aims of discrediting the administration of King Louis-Philippe and the Chamber of Deputies in favor of a centralized monarchy and reinvigorated national church, Cousin Bette, in its series of well-drawn portraits, never fails to honor the infinite complexity of the human soul regardless of historical context. Balzac’s fidelity to the truth of his own manifold experience of life, fortunately, prevents him from furnishing simple political solutions to the crises of his time, and enables him to write with the moral courage and earnestness found only in his century’s finest works of literature.
ABOUT HONORÉ DE BALZAC
Honoré de Balzac was born in 1799 at Tours, to Bernard-Francois Balzac, a servant, and Anne-Charlotte Sallambier. Put out to nurse at the age of four and later sent to boarding school, he had little contact with home. In 1814 the family moved to Paris, where Honoré continued his boarding-school education for two years, and then studied law at the Sorbonne. Balzac became a Bachelor of Law in 1819 but decided to begin a writing career, choosing to remain in Paris with the meager financial contributions of his family. The complete failure of his first literary effort, the play Cromwell, did not deter but redirected his artistic ambitions toward fiction. During the 1820s Balzac wrote various novels, both under different pen names and in collaboration; spent time in journalism; and tried to make money in printing and publishing ventures, whose lack of success laid the foundation for debts that plagued him for the rest of his life.
In 1829 Balzac published his first novel under his own name, Le Dernier Chouan (later Les Chouans), which was to become the first of those novels to be incorporated in his magnus opus, La Comedie Humaine. With the critical acclaim of Les Chouans and his collection of six stories called Scenes de la Vie Privee in 1830, Balzac entered the fashionable world of literary Paris, responding to it by adding the honorific “de” to his family name and adopting a luxurious life-style. Over the next twenty years Balzac remained a fixture of the Parisian social world, writing plays and articles and more than ninety novels and stories. In 1842 many of these were published in seventeen volumes as La Comedie Humaine, a monumental work containing more than 2000 characters, which forms the most comprehensive and brilliant social history of post Napoleonic France. Important works were still to come following the European revolutions of 1848, but after the publication of the magnificent paired novels Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons in 1847, Balzac’s health and creative talents quickly deteriorated.
In 1832, in his extensive fan-mail, Balzac received a letter from a Polish countess, whose elderly husband owned a vast estate in the Ukraine. The next year he met Countess Hanska in Switzerland, and in 1835 the couple agreed to marry after her husband’s death. For seventeen years, with intermissions, they conducted a voluminous correspondence, until their marriage finally took place in March 1850. Balzac died three months later in Paris.
- Some critics have claimed that Baroness Hulot’s patient response to her husband’s infidelities is a flat portrayal of the ideal wife, and have charged Balzac with an implicit endorsement of her passive, selfless stance. Given the circumstances of the novel, do you think her course of action, or inaction, is repugnant and totally inappropriate; and do you think that Balzac is approving or critical of her behavior?
- Though Balzac had very ambivalent feelings about Napoleon, he is partly responsible for the creation of the Napoleonic myth. Do you think Balzac presents the members of the imperial army, particularly Baron Hulst, Marshal Hulot, and Uncle Johann Fischer, as the embodiment of noble values standing honorably against the changing times, or are they faulted for inflexibility and for idealizing a past founded on aggression and tyranny?
- At the very center of the novel when Balzac philosophizes on art, he concludes that “constant labor is the law of art as well as the law of life.” Cousin Bette obviously provides many negative examples of this proverbial statement, but are there any positive cases in which this applies?
- When Balzac narrates the changing artistic and romantic fortunes of Count Wenceslas Steinbock, he implies that Bette’s relationship with the sculptor was important, even indispensable to his early success. How does this episode, and the professional failures Steinbock encounters after leaving Bette, problematize our interpretation of her?
- Although Balzac poignantly shows how the older generation is morally destroyed by the market economy of Post Napoleonic France, is Cousin Bette a convincing demonstration that the rule of money is inherently incompatible with the rule of morality?
- Baron Hulot’s son Victorin, who is clearly meant to represent the new bureaucracy, is vital to the survival of the Hulot family. What, if anything, does Balzac value in Victorin and his generation?