Honoré de Balzac

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Honoré de Balzac
BirthplaceTours, Indre-et-Loire, France

Balzac, Honoré de


Born May 20, 1799, in Tours; died Aug. 18, 1850, in Paris. French writer.

Balzac’s father came from the peasant family Balssa and changed his surname upon becoming a civil servant, since he considered it plebeian. Balzac studied at the College de Vendôme and at a Paris law school; at the same time he practiced in a notary office. In his youth he considered philosophy his calling. Later, choosing the career of a man of letters, he made no distinction between the concepts of “artist” and “philosopher.” He was strongly influenced by the materialism of the French enlightenment. Around 1832 he came to legitimism as a consequence of his merciless criticism of the dominant bourgeois relations. According to Balzac, monarchy was a stable form of state power which could bridle the selfishness of the bourgeoisie and promote economic and moral progress; the Catholic religion was also an antidote for this selfishness. Balzac was twice a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies, but he lost on both occasions (in 1832 and 1848). Twice he was unsuccessful in elections to the Académie Française (January 1849). In 1832 a correspondence began between Balzac and E. Hanska, a woman of the Polish aristocracy who lived in Russia. He traveled to see her in St. Petersburg in 1843 and in the Ukraine in 1847 and 1848. They were married five months before his death.

Between 1822 and 1825, Balzac published eight novels under various pseudonyms (Jean-Louis and others). In these works he collected all sorts of adventures which were true to life. Balzac’s chief literary teachers were F. Rabelais, Molière, and W. Scott. His novel The Wild Ass’s Skin (1830–31) Balzac called the starting point of his work. Combining romantic imagery, symbolism, and vivid picturesque-ness with sober analysis, Balzac imprinted the atmosphere of Paris after the revolution of 1830 on this work. A murderer-banker directs public opinion by means of a venal press, and the ascendancy of bourgeois selfishness destroys convictions and beliefs. The young Raphael de Valentin, who betrays himself, nonetheless retains his contempt for those who master life. Balzac depicted the complex nature of men of that period, the tragedy of passion, the world of science, and the ever-increasing fleetness of life.

In 1834, Balzac conceived the notion of linking his works since 1829 with his future works by means of common protagonists. He combined them in an epic which was later called La Comedie humaine. Balzac conceived an all-embracing artistic investigation of French society and man that embodied the idea of universal interdependence in the world. The philosophical framework of this artistic structure was made up of 18th century materialism, theories from the natural science of Balzac’s times, and peculiarly combined elements of mystical doctrines. La Comédie humaine has three sections: (1) studies of morals and manners, comprising scenes of private life, provincial life, Parisian life, political life, military life, and country life; (2) philosophical studies; and (3) analytic studies. These constitute, as it were, three circles of a spiral which connects facts to causes and principles. (See the foreword to Chelovecheskaia komediia, in Sobr. soch., vol. 1, Moscow, 1960.)La Comédie humaine includes 90 stories and novels.

The source of the drama of La Comédie humaine lies in the dramatic nature of the period and of human existence. Balzac understood the individual’s dependence on society and history as no writer had before him. He depicted aristocrats who lose their prestige and honor under the influence of “vulgar monied upstarts” (Maxime de Trailles, Rastignac, and others); smart dealers and men of ambition face to face with their victims; the legalization of robbery, betrayal, and sordid machinations out of which great fortunes grow (Gobseck, 1830, Eugenie Grandet, 1833, The Nucingen House, 1838, The Peasants, 1844, Cousin Pons, 1846–47, and so forth); the choice for a young person between death, a vegetative existence, and moral degradation (Rastignac, Lucien de Rubempré, and Marcas); the prostitution of art (Lost Illusions, 1837–43, and A Daughter of Eve, 1838); the tragedy of a scholar and inventor; and the countless tragedies caused by the supremacy of the principles of sale and purchase in family and personal relations.

In La Comedie humaine, the typical conflicts which arise out of the “omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevo-lence of money” (H. Balzac, Sobr. soch., vol. 12, Moscow, 1960, p. 304) are very strongly expressed; this testifies to the author’s remarkable understanding of real relations. (See K. Marx, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 25, part 1, p. 46.) Balzac was the first to present the struggle for property and inheritance and the history of an estate, a store, or an invention not as an adjunct to the story but rather as its main theme. Balzac presented a history of French society from which F. Engels “... learned more . . . than from the books of all the experts in the history, economics, and statistics of this period combined” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 37, p. 36). Balzac exposed the material interests which underlie politics, state power, and law. However, his seriousness never turned into naturalistic fatalism. In La Comedie humaine, Balzac depicts the lofty principles of cooperation (Lost Illusions), kindness (Bourgeat in Mass for an Atheist and others), integrity of character (Chabert in Colonel Chabert), heroism (Goguelat in The Country Doctor), uprightness (Niseron in The Peasants), steadfastness of spirit (David Séchard in Lost Illusions and Gerard in The Village Priest), mutual devotion (Pons and Schmucke in Cousin Pons), and self-sacrifice and spiritual purity (Eugenie Grandet in the novel of the same name and Josephine Claës in In Search of the Absolute). In La Comédie humaine there are a number of seekers—the republican Chrestien, the scholar Claës, the philosopher Lambert, the artist Frenhofer, and the composer Gambara. They perish through the fault of society or are burned up in the processes of learning and creating. However, unlike the romantics, Balzac does not see the tragedy of seeking as absolute; frequently armed with irony, he searches for the preconditions of fruitful creative work (The Unknown Masterpiece, 1831, new edition 1837, and other philosophical studies). The focus of Balzac’s philosophical and artistic interests was the concept of the spiritual powers of man as the highest value.

Balzac’s heroes possess typical qualities, but in special concentrations, with heightened intellectuality, passion, and will. Gobseck is the “philosopher of usury,” Goriot the “Christ of paternal love,” Vautrin the “Napoleon of hard labor,” and Rastignac a “virtuoso” in the art of careerism. Their names have become epithets. Balzac considered artistic exaggeration to be a law which flows from the nature of artistic cognition and the perception of the reader—“. . . each typical character becomes majestic precisely because of his typicalness” (Sobr. soch., vol. 24, Moscow, 1960, pp. 222–23). Even with his sharp definition of the dominant character traits of many of his heroes, Balzac’s images remain complex and inexhaustible. With the passage of time, the figure of the bourgeois in Balzac’s books becomes more and more prosaic (from Gobseck to Vauvinet in Comedians Unknown to Themselves). Characteristic of Balzac is the detailed preparation for the drama by means of descriptions of place, milieu, and biographies of his heroes in their historical context (for example, Félix Grandet) to provide the social, historical, and psychological motivations for the action. His work is also marked by the swift development of events and the multiplicity of deeply intertwined lines of action, especially in his later novels.

Balzac published five plays including The Stepmother (1848). His Droll Stories (1832–37), written in the spirit of Rabelais and French folk works, is a distinctive monument to Balzac’s humanistic thought in the national traditions of French art.

In Russia, Balzac’s work became known as early as the beginning of the 1830’s. A. S. Pushkin, V. G. Belinskii, A. I. Herzen, I. S. Turgenev, L. N. Tolstoy, and particularly F. M. Dostoevsky and M. Gorky, upon whom he had considerable influence, showed an interest in his work. The first collected works of Balzac appeared in 20 volumes from 1896 to 1899. Balzac became extremely popular in the Soviet Union; three editions of his collected works have been published (the first edition, vols. 1–20, 1933–47). Soviet literary criticism has devoted much attention to problems of Balzac’s realism, one of the high points of world literature.


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Correspondance, vols. 1–4. Paris, 1960–66.
Lettres à l’étrangère, vols. 1–4. Paris, 1899–1950.
Lettres à Madame Hanska, vol. 1. Paris, 1967.
In Russian translation:
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