Balzac/Chapter XIV

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Balzac by Frederick Lawton
Chapter XIV: The Comedie Humaine

The idea of joining his separate books together and forming them into a coherent whole was one that matured slowly in Balzac's mind. Its genesis is to be found in his first collection of short novels published in 1830 under the titles: Scenes of Private Life, and containing The Vendetta, Gobseck, The Sceaux Ball, The House of the Tennis-playing Cat, A Double Family, and Peace in the Household. Between these stories there was no real connexion except that certain characters in one casually reappeared or were alluded to in another. By 1832, the Scenes of Private Life had been augmented, and, in a second edition, filled four volumes. The additions comprised The Message, The Bourse, The Adieu, The Cure of Tours, and several chapters of The Woman of Thirty Years Old, some of which had previously come out as serials in the Revue de Paris or the Mode.

It has already been related how the novelist all at once realized what a gain his literary production might have in adopting a plan and building up a social history of his epoch. And, in fact, this conception did stimulate his activity for some time, serving too, as long as it was uncrystallized, to concentrate his visions upon objective realities.

Needing, between 1834 and 1837, a more comprehensive title for the rapidly increasing list of his works, he called them Studies of Manners and Morals in the Nineteenth Century, subdividing them into Scenes of Private Life, Scenes of Parisian Life, and Scenes of Provincial Life. However, some things he had written were classible conveniently neither under the specific names nor under the generic one. These outsiders he called Tales and Philosophic Novels, subsequently shortening the title, between 1835 and 1840, to Philosophic Studies. The question was what wider description could be chosen which might embrace also this last category. Writing to Madame Hanska in 1837, he used the expression Social Studies, telling her that there would be nearly fifty volumes of them. Either she, or he himself, must, on reflection, have judged the title unsatisfactory, for no edition of his works ever bore this name. Most likely the thought occurred to him that such an appellation was more suitable to a strictly scientific treatise than to fiction.

The expression Comedie Humaine, which he ultimately adopted, is said to have been suggested to him by his whilom secretary, the Count Auguste de Belloy, after the latter's visit to Italy, during which Dante's Divine Comedy had been read and appreciated. But already, some years prior to this journey, the novelist would seem to have had the Italian poet's masterpiece before his mind. In his Girl with the Golden Eyes, he had spoken of Paris as a hell which, perhaps, one day would have its Dante. De Belloy's share in the matter was probably an extra persuasion added to Balzac's own leaning, or the Count may have been the one to substitute the word human.[1]

Madame Hanska was at once informed of the choice. "The Comedie Humaine, such is the title of my history of society depicted in action," he told her in September 1841. And when, between 1841 and 1842, Hetzel, together with Dubochet and Turne, brought out sixteen octavo volumes of his works illustrated, they each carried his name, while a preface set forth the reasons which had led the author to choose it. Thereafter, every succeeding edition was similarly styled, including Houssiaux' series in 1855, and the series of Calmann-Levy, known as the definitive one, between 1869 and 1876.

Against the appellation itself no objection can reasonably be made. Balzac's fiction takes in a world—an underworld might appropriately be said—of Dantesque proportions. As soon as it was fully fledged, it started with a large ambition. "My work," he said to Zulma Carraud in 1834, "is to represent all social effects without anything being omitted from it, whether situation of life, physiognomy, character of man or woman, manner of living, profession, zone of social existence, region of French idiosyncrasy, childhood, maturity, old age, politics, jurisdiction, war." And in the Forties the same intention was stated as clearly. "I have undertaken the history of the whole of society. Often have I summed up my plan in this simple sentence: A generation is a drama in which four or five thousand people are the chief actors. This drama is my book."

When Hetzel decided to publish a so-far complete edition of the Comedie, he induced the novelist to insert a preface composed for the occasion. Balzac wished at first to use an old preface that he had written in conjunction with Felix Davin, and placed, under the latter's signature, at the beginning of the Study of Manners and Morals in the Nineteenth Century. Hetzel objected to this, and urged that so important an undertaking ought to be preceded by an author's apology. His advice was accepted, and the preface was developed into a veritable doctrine and defence. Here are some of its essential passages:—

"The Comedie Humaine," says Balzac, "first dawned on my brain like a dream—one of those impossible projects, it seemed, that are caressed and allowed to fly away; a chimera which smiles, shows its woman's face, and forthwith unfolds its wings, mounting again into a fancied heaven. But the chimera, as many chimeras do, changed into reality. It had its commands and its tyranny to which I was obliged to yield.

"It was born from a comparison between humanity and animality. It would be an error to believe that the great quarrel which in recent times has arisen between Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire is concerned with a scientific innovation. The unity of composition involved in it had already, under other terms, occupied the greatest minds of the two preceding centuries. On reading over again the extraordinary works of such mystic writers as Swedenborg, Saint-Martin, etc., who have studied the relations of science with the infinite, and the writings of the finest geniuses in natural history, such as Leibnitz, Buffon, Charles Bonnet, etc., one finds in the monads of Leibnitz, in the organic molecules of Buffon, in the vegetative force of Needham, in the jointing of similar parts of Charles Bonnet—who was bold enough to write in 1760: 'The animal vegetates like the plant;' one finds, I say, the rudiments of the beautiful law of self for self on which the unity of composition reposes. There is only one animal. The Creator has made use only of one and the same pattern for all organized beings. The animal is a principle which acquires its exterior form, or, to speak more exactly, the differences of its form, in the surroundings in which it is called upon to develop. The various zoologic species result from these differences. The proclamation and upholding of this system, in harmony, moreover, with the ideas we have of the Divine power, will be the eternal honour of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who was the vanquisher of Cuvier on this point of high science, and whose triumph was acknowledged in the last article written by the great Goethe."

Continuing his exposition, the novelist says all men resemble each other, but in the same manner as a horse resembles a bird. They are also divided into species. These species differ according to social surroundings. A peasant, a tradesman, an artist, a great lord are as distinct from each other as a wolf is from a sheep. Besides, there is another thing peculiar to man, viz. that male and female are not alike, whereas among the rest of the animals, the female is similar to the male. The wife of a shopkeeper is sometimes worthy to be the spouse of a prince, and often a prince's wife is not worth an artist's. Then, again, there is this difference. The lower animals are strictly dependent on circumstances, each species feeding and housing itself in a uniform manner. Man has not such uniformity. In Paris, he is not the same as in a provincial town; in the provinces, not the same as in rural surroundings. When studying him, there are many things to be considered—habitat, furniture, food, clothes, language. In fine, the subject taken up by a novelist who wishes to treat it properly, comprises man as an integral portion of a social species, woman as not peculiarly belonging to any, and entourage from its widest circumference of country down to the narrowest one of home.

"But," he goes on, "how is it possible to render the drama of life interesting, with the three or four thousand varying characters presented by a society? How please at the same time the philosopher, and the masses who demand poetry and philosophy under striking images? If I conceived the importance and poetry of this history of the human heart, I saw no means of execution; for, down to our epoch, the most celebrated narrators had spent their talent in creating one or two typical characters, in depicting one phase of life. With this thought, I read the works of Walter Scott. Walter Scott, the modern trouvere, was then giving a gigantic vogue to a kind of composition unjustly called secondary. Is it not really harder to compete with the registry of births, marriages, and deaths by means of Daphnis and Chloe, Roland, Amadis, Panurge, Don Quixote, Manon Lescaut, Clarissa, Lovelace, Robinson Crusoe, Ossian, Julie d'Etanges, My Uncle Toby, Werther, Rene, Corinne, Adolphe, Gil Blas, Paul and Virginia, Jeanie Deans, Claverhouse, Ivanhoe, Manfred, Mignon, than to arrange facts almost similar among all nations, to seek for the spirit of laws fallen into decay, to draw up theories which lead people astray, or, as certain metaphysicians, to explain what exists? First of all, nearly all these characters, whose existence becomes longer, more genuine than that of the generations amid which they are made to be born, live only on condition of being a vast image of the present. Conceived in the womb of the century, the whole human heart moves beneath their outward covering; it often conceals a whole philosophy. Walter Scott, therefore, raised to the philosophic value of history the novel—that literature which from century to century adorns with immortal diamonds the poetic crown of the countries where letters are cultivated. He put into it the spirit of ancient times; he blended in it at once drama, dialogue, portraiture, landscape, description; he brought into it the marvellous and the true, those elements of the epopee; he made poetry mingle in it with the humblest sorts of language. But having less invented a system than found out his manner in the ardour of work, or by the logic of this work, he had not thought of linking his compositions to each other so as to co-ordinate a complete history, each chapter of which would have been a novel and each novel an epoch. Perceiving this want of connection, which, indeed does not render the Scotchman less great, I saw both the system that was favourable to the execution of my work, and the possibility of carrying it out. Although, so to speak, dazzled by the surprising fecundity of Walter Scott, always equal to himself and always original, I did not despair, for I found the reason of such talent in the variety of human nature. Chance is the greatest novelist in the world. To be fertile, one has only to study it. French society was to be the historian. I was to be only the secretary. By drawing up an inventory of virtues and vices, by assembling the principal facts of passions, by painting characters, by choosing the principal events of society, by composing types through the union of several homogeneous characters, perhaps I should succeed in writing the history forgotten by so many historians, that of manners and morals. With much patience and courage, I should realize, with regard to France in the nineteenth century, the book we all regret which Rome, Athens, Tyre, Memphis, Persia, India have not unfortunately left about their civilizations, and which like the Abbe Barthelemy, the courageous and patient Monteil had essayed for the Middle Ages, but in a form not very attractive."

One may well believe the novelist when he explains that "it was no small task to depict the two or three thousand prominent figures of an epoch," representing typical phases in all existences, which, says he, "is one of the accuracies I have most sought for. I have tried to give a notion also of the different parts of our beautiful land. My work has its geography, as it has its genealogy and its families, its places and things, its persons and its facts, as it has its blazonry, its nobles and its commoners, its artisans and its peasants, its politicians and its dandies, its army, in fine, its epitome of life —all this in its settings and galleries."

The Human Comedy, as finally arranged and classified in 1845, had three chief divisions: Studies of Manners and Morals, Philosophic Studies, Analytic Studies; and the first of these was subdivided into Scenes of Private Life, Scenes of Provincial Life, Scenes of Parisian Life, Scenes of Military Life, Scenes of Political Life, Scenes of Country Life.

Even if we include the unwritten books, the diminution from first to second and from second to third is considerable. In the novelist's mind, this difference was intentional. According to his conception, the first large series represented the broad base of effects, upon which was superposed the second plane of causes, less numerous and more concentrated. In the latter, he strove to answer the why and wherefore of sentiments; in the former, to exhibit their action in varying modes. In the former, therefore, he represented individuals; in the latter, his individuals became types. All this he detailed to Madame Hanska, insisting on the statement that everywhere he gave life to the type by individualizing it, and significance to the individuals by rendering them typical. At the top of the cone he treated, in his analytical studies, of the principles whence causes and effects proceed. The manners and morals at the base, he said, were the spectacle; the causes above were the side-scenes; and the principles at the top were the author.

Coming to the subdivisions, he explains that his Scenes of Private Life deal with humanity's childhood and adolescence, and the errors of these, in short, with the period of budding passions; the Scenes of Provincial Life, with passions in full development—calculation, interest, ambition, etc.; the Scenes of Parisian Life, with the peculiar tastes, vices and temptations of capitals, that is to say, with passion unbridled. The interpretation assigned to these categories is a fanciful one. Passions are born and bred and produce their full effect in every place and phase of life. They may assume varying forms in divers surroundings, but such variation has no analogy with change of age. Only by forcing the moral of his stories was the author able to give them these secondary significations. Indeed, he was often in straits to decide in which category he ought to class one and another novel. Pere Goriot was originally in the Scenes of Parisian Life, where it has a certain raison d'etre. Ultimately, it found its way into the Scenes of Private Life. And a greater alteration was made by removing Madame Firmiani and the Woman-Study from the Philosophic Studies, and placing them also in the Private Life series.

Be it granted that the plan of the Comedy was grandiose in its scope; it was none the less doomed in its execution to suffer for its ambitiousness, since an attempt was made to subordinate imagination to science in a domain where the rights of imagination were paramount.

That which Balzac has best rendered in it is the struggle for life on the social plane; and that which forms its most legitimate claim to be deemed in some measure a whole is the general reference to this in all the so-called parts. Before the Revolution, the action of the law was narrower, being chiefly limited to members of one class. With the fall of ancient privilege the sphere of competition was opened to the entire nation; and, instead of nobles contending with nobles, churchmen with churchmen, tradesmen with tradesmen, there was an interpenetration of combatants over all the field of battle, or rather, the several smaller fields of battle became one large one. Balzac's fiction reproduces the later phase in minute detail, and, mostly, with a treatment suited to the subject.

Brunetiere, whose chapter on the Comedy is written more gropingly than the rest of his study of the novelist, makes use of an ingenious comparison with intent to persuade that the stories had from the very first a predestined organic union, with ramifications which the author saw but obscurely and which were joined together more closely—as also more consciously—during the lapse of years. "Thus," he says, "brothers and sisters, in the time of their infancy or childhood, have nothing in common except a certain family resemblance—and this not always. But, as they advance in age, the features that individualized them become attenuated, they return to the type of their progenitors, and one perceives that they are children of the same father and mother. Balzac's novels," he concludes, "have a connection of this kind. In his head, they were, so to speak, contemporary."

The simile is not a happy one. It does not help to reconcile us to an artificial approximation of books that are heterogeneous, unequal in value, and, frequently, composed under influences far removed from the after-thought that was given to them by a putative father. Balzac was not well inspired in relating his novels to each other logically. Such natural relationship as they possess is that of issuing from the same brain, though acting under varying conditions and in different states of development; and it is true that, if the story of this brain is known, and its experiences understood, a certain classification might be made—perhaps more than one—of its creations, on account of common traits, resemblances of subject or treatment, which could serve to link them together loosely. But, between this arrangement and the artificial hierarchy of the Comedy, it is impossible to find a bridge to pass over.

One of the real links betwixt the novels is the reappearance of the same people in many of them, which thing is not in itself displeasing. It has the advantage of allowing the author to display his men and women in changed circumstances, to cast side-lights upon them, and to reveal them more completely. However, here and there, we pay for the privilege in meeting with bores whose further acquaintance we would fain have been spared. And then, also, we are likely enough to come across a hero or heroine as a child, after learning all about his or her maturer life; to accompany people to the grave and see them buried, and yet, in a later book, to be introduced to them as alive as ever they were. This is disconcerting. Usually, Balzac remembers his characters well enough to be consistent in other respects when he makes them speak and act, or lets us into his confidence about them. Still, he is guilty of a few lapses of memory. In The Woman of Thirty Years Old, Madame d'Aiglemont has two children in the early chapters; subsequently, one is drowned, and, instead of one remaining, we learn there are three—a new reading of Wordsworth's We are seven. Again, in the Lost Illusions, Esther Gobseck has blond hair in one description of her, and black in another. We are reduced to supposing she had dyed it. Mistakes of the kind have been made by others writers of fiction who have worked quickly. In the Comedy, the number of dramatis personae is exceedingly large. Balzac laughingly remarked one day that they needed a biographical dictionary to render their identity clear; and he added that perhaps somebody would be tempted to do the work at a later date. He guessed rightly. In 1893, Messrs. Cerfbeer and Cristophe undertook the task and carried it through in a book that they call the Repertory of the Comedie Humaine. All the fictitious personages or petty folk that live in the novelist's pages are duly docketed, and their births, marriages, deaths, and stage appearances recorded in this Who's Who, a big volume of five hundred and sixty-three pages, constituting a veritable curiosity of literature.

Much has been said in the preceding chapters of the large use Balzac made of his own life, his adventures, his experiences, in composing the integral portions of his Comedy, so that its contents, for any one who can interpret, becomes a valuable autobiography. And the lesser as well as the greater novels supply facts. In the Forsaken Woman, Madame de Beauseant, who has been jilted by the Marquis of Ajuda-Pinto, permits herself to be wooed by Gaston de Nueil, a man far younger than herself. After ten years, he, in turn, quits her to marry the person his mother has chosen for him; but, unable to bear the combined burden of his remorse and yearning regret, he commits suicide. This tale, like the Lily in the Valley, is a adaptation of Balzac's liaison with Madame de Berny. It was written in the very year he severed the material ties that bound them. The only distinction between his case and that of Gaston de Nueil was that he had no desire to kill himself, and was content to be no more than a friend, since he was the freer to flirt with Madame de Castries. And when the latter lady kept him on tenter-hooks, tormenting him, tempting him, but never yielding to him, he revenged himself by writing the Duchess de Langeais, attributing to the foolish old general his own hopes, fears, and disappointments at the hands of the coquettish, capricious duchess. "I alone," he said in a letter, "know the horrible that is in this narrative." And, if, in Albert Savarus, we have a confession of his political ambitions and campaigns, we get in Cesar Birotteau and the Petty Bourgeois his financial projects, which never brought him anything; in A Man of Business—as well as elsewhere—his continual money embarrassments. How deeply he felt them, he often lets us gather from his fiction. "I have been to a capitalist," he wrote in one of his epistles to Madame Hanska, "a capitalist to whom are due indemnities agreed on between us for works promised and not executed; and I offered him a certain number of copies of the Studies of Manners and Morals. I proposed five thousand francs with deferred payment, instead of three thousand francs cash. He refused everything, even my signature and a bill, telling me my fortune was in my talent and that I might die any time. This scene is one of the most infamous I have known. Some day I will reproduce it."

And he did, with many things else that happened to him in his dealings with his fellows. There is biography too, as well as autobiography in the Comedy—this notwithstanding his disclaimers. Exact portraiture he avoided for obvious reasons, but intentional portraiture he indulged in largely; and life and character were sufficiently near the truth for shrewd contemporaries to recognize the originals. To add one or two examples to the number already given. Claire Brunne (Madame Marbouty) seems to have suggested his Muse of the County, a Berrichon blue-stocking; Madame d'Agoult and Liszt became Madame de Rochfide and the musician Conti in Beatrix; a cousin of Madame Hanska, Thaddeus Wylezinski, who worshipped her discreetly, is depicted under the traits of Thaddeus Paz, a Polish exile in the False Mistress, who assumes a feigned name to conceal his love; Lamartine furnished the conception of the poet Canalis in Modeste Mignon, the resemblance being at first so striking that the novelist afterwards toned it away a little; and Monnier, the caricaturist, certainly supplied the essential elements in Bixiou, who is so well drawn in Cousin Bette and the Firm of Nucingen. The Baron Nucingen himself has some of the features of the James de Rothschild whom Balzac knew; and Rastignac embodied the author's impression of Thiers in the statesman's earlier years. One might go further and couple Delacroix the painter's name with that of Joseph Bridau in A Bachelor's Household, Frederick Lemaitre, the actor's, with Medal's in Cousin Pons, Emile de Girardin's with du Tillet's in Cesar Birotteau. At last, however, owing to the mingling of one personality with another, identification is increasingly difficult, unless the novelist comes to our assistance, as in the story Cousin Bette, where he confesses Lisbeth the old maid, to be made up out of three persons, Madame Valmore, Madame Hanska's aunt, and his own mother.

Summing up Balzac's entire literary production, which in Monsieur de Lovenjoul's catalogue occupies no fewer than fourteen pages, we find that it comprises, besides the ninety-six different works of the Comedie Humaine properly so called, ten volumes of his early novels; six complete dramatic pieces—one, the School for Husbands and Wives recently published;[2] thirty Contes Drolatiques; and three hundred and fourteen articles and opuscles, some of them fairly long, since the Reminiscences of a Pariah has a hundred and eighty-four pages octavo, the Theory of Walking fifty, the Code of Honest People a hundred and twelve, the Impartial History of the Jesuits eighty; these exclusive of the Revue Parisienne with its two hundred and twenty pages, which, as we have seen, was written entirely by himself. When we remember that the whole of this, with the exception of the early novels and six of the opuscles, was produced in twenty years, we can better appreciate the man's industry, which, as Monsieur Le Breton calculates, yielded an average of some two thousand pages, or four to five volumes a year.

In the miscellanies one meets with much that is curious, amusing, and instructive, quite worthy to figure in the Comedy—witty dialogues, light stories containing deductions a la Sherlock Holmes or Edgar Allan Poe, plenty of satire, sometimes acidulated as in his Troubles and Trials of an English Cat, and theories about everything, indicative of extensive reading, large assimilation and quick reasoning. The miscellanies really stand to the novels in the relation of a sort of prolegomenon. They serve for its better understanding, and are agreeable even for independent study.


  1. A communication has been made to me, while writing this book, by Monsieur Hetzel, the publisher, tending to show that his father, who was also known in the literary world, had a large share in the choice of the Comedie Humaine as a title.
  2. Played for the first time March 13, 1910, at the Odeon Theatre.