French Literature Of The 19th Century:
The Romantic Novelists
Philosophers And Historians
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
As George Sand is the typical emotionalist in romance, Honoré de Balzac is the accepted type of the realists. She was a prose poet, revealing the joys and sorrows, the revolts and aspirations of individuals. He was the mechanical recorder of the people's daily life, yet was able to penetrate into the average man's personality. Honoré de Balzac was born in moderate circumstances in Touraine in 1799. His father wished him to study law, but a sister, who understood his character, helped him to devote himself to literature. His early novels were not read, but he per-severed in writing. A few years before Victor Hugo published his "Cromwell," Balzac had tried the same theme for a tragedy, but could not get it printed. At last, when he was thirty, his "Chouans," an historical romance after Scott's style, gained some favor. Then he published a rapid succession of stories, striking while the iron was hot. He was always fond of speculation, and made several ventures in trade, especially seeking to establish a large printing and publishing house, which loaded him with debt. In literature he undertook to make a modern "Human Comedy" to display all the types and varieties of human life and character. And so far as French character represents humanity in general he succeeded in depicting it with marvelous truth. Intense love of money was a part of his own character, and he makes it a universal ruling principle in his work. This binds him to a sordid view of life, and makes his stories less elevated in tone than a cheap daily newspaper. Balzac called himself the secretary of society and was indeed, by choice, a matter-of-fact reporter, and had scant regard for any higher life than the streets of Paris afforded. But his indomitable will and perseverance in his self-appointed task are beyond all praise. Twelve hours from midnight to noon he toiled at his desk, stimulating himself with strong coffee. He sacrificed himself to his ambition. He was engaged to a Polish Countess for sixteen years, and at last, when fifty-one, was married to her in March, 1850. He had looked forward to a happy old age as compensation for years of toil, but was disappointed, dying in the August after his marriage.
In the work which he had planned and systematically arranged, he claimed to have portrayed over two thousand distinct types of character. The idea of the vast comedy was not announced by him until 1842, when he had already been at work twelve years. He undertook to analyze and classify human life as the naturalist Buffon had done with the animal kingdom. The characters of his previous novels were arranged to suit his plan, and he set out to supply all missing parts. But being of plebeian birth, he could not study the patrician aright. He did not disguise his preference for the baser sort and baser side of life. Intellectually he was intense rather than comprehensive. Poetry and refined sensibility were alien to his habit and work. He was deficient in style, and this defect kept him from being recognized early. He had power but not grace, point without polish, and verbosity without fluency. Yet French critics, admirers and lovers of perfect style, have pronounced him the greatest novelist of the world. Taine has declared his works "the greatest storehouse of documents of human nature." If other students may not be able to accept this view and regard Balzac as the supreme master in modern fiction, they can still award him the full honor of being a founder of a grand school of novelists. They may admit that he has done more than any other single writer to intensify the study of human nature in the realistic way.
His "Comédie Humaine" was divided into three main sections Studies of Manners, Philosophic Studies, Analytic Studies. The studies of Manners comprise twenty-four stories grouped as Scenes of Private Life, ten stories of Provincial Life, three stories of Country Life, twenty stories of Parisian Life, and seven stories of Political and Military life. The Philosophical Studies comprise twenty stories and the Analytic Studies only two. The catalogue of these works is immense, and it is difficult to select those which far surpass others. Balzac has several portraits of misers; one of these is the father in "Eugenie Grandet," of whose greed the wife and daughter are victims. In "Cousin Pons," an old musician is preyed upon by rogues. In "Le Père Goriot," the father lives in a shabby boarding house, while his married daughters revel in luxury. In "The Greatness and Decline of César Birotteau" a perfumer who has worked his way to wealth, is made the victim of bankers. In the "Peau de Chagrin" (The Magic Skin) Raphael, the hero, has the skin of a wild ass as a talisman, by means of which his wishes can be readily obtained. But a serious condition is attached, that as the skin is diminished his life is shortened, and that every desire gratified takes a certain portion from the skin. It has been truly said that Balzac's own life is symbolized in this story.