Authors: Honoré de Balzac

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

French novelist, dramatist, and short-story writer

May 20, 1799

Tours, France

August 18, 1850

Paris, France


Honoré de Balzac (bahl-zahk) was born Honoré Balzac in Tours, France, on May 20, 1799. His father, originally from the peasant stock of the Albigeois, had risen to become director of commissariat to Napoleon’s 22d Division. In 1799, Napoleon was returning from Egypt to rule for fifteen years over half of Europe. Thus the first years of Balzac’s life passed during the glorious reign of Napoleon, and the emperor’s career had a great effect on the young Balzac’s mind. {$I[AN]9810001521} {$I[A]Balzac, Honoré de} {$I[geo]FRANCE;Balzac, Honoré de} {$I[tim]1799;Balzac, Honoré de}

Honoré de Balzac

(Library of Congress)

From 1807 to 1814, Balzac was a student, first at the Collège des Oratoriens in Vendôme, then at L’Institut Lepître and L’Institut Ganser et Beuzelin, both in Paris. Balzac later spoke of these years as “brutalizing”; he found his school a prison. His schoolmates called him fat and redfaced; his masters thought him dull. Balzac found escape from his humiliations in the library. His appetite for reading was indiscriminate and insatiable: He read everything. There, in escape from the rigors of his schooling, he was laying the foundation for the vast store of knowledge that would later become a legend about him. These detested years in school fed his dreams of power and fame and filled him with contempt for anything less than complete possession of the world. Balzac seemed almost unable to distinguish his imaginings from actuality, and since imagination can always transcend reality, the world he knew was too small for him.

Leaving school, Balzac in 1816 entered the University of Paris to study jurisprudence. Napoleon had fallen, and France was in a state of calm. There were no worlds then to be conquered with arms, but his grandiose dreams of fame and conquest remained with Balzac as he studied law and worked to supplement his allowance in the office of a lawyer. His revolt came in 1819. Balzac left his law clerk’s stool and went home to announce that he would be an author. He wrote under a picture of the former emperor: “What Napoleon could not do with the sword, I shall accomplish with the pen.”

His family was thunderstruck, but Balzac was resolved. He arrived at a compromise with his father: He would go to Paris to write for two years; if in that time he did not succeed, he would enter a more secure profession. Balzac moved to a garret at 9 rue Lesdiguières, Paris, and began to write. When the two years were almost up, however, he had produced no work even hopeful of success except a play, Cromwell, which had come to nothing, and his father set a date for him to evacuate his room. Then he met a young man named Auguste Le Poitevin and, writing under various pseudonyms, began turning out hack work in collaboration with him. He made a little money and was granted a reprieve.

With Le Poitevin, Balzac had entered into complete literary prostitution. In 1821, he returned home but continued writing. His chief desire was to earn enough money to be freed from his family. He wrote at a prodigious rate, living almost without sleep at his writing table, stimulated by countless cups of coffee. At this time, he met with perhaps the most profound experience of his life and found his self-reliance, but not through his writing. He met Madame Laure de Berny. Madame de Berny was already forty-five, a grandmother with a daughter older than Balzac. Almost twenty-two, Balzac had never known love; he found it in this woman. The extent of her influence on his life can be seen in his saying: “There is nothing that can match the last love of a woman who is giving a man the fulfillment of his first love.”

Madame de Berny was the turning point in the development of his literary genius, but even she could not save his business sense. When the pressures of his association with her sent him again to Paris, between 1826 and 1828, Balzac entered into three business speculations that, having failed, saw him in debt for some ninety thousand francs. Ironically, having escaped the necessity of driving himself to write for freedom from his parents, he promptly made it necessary to write for freedom from his creditors. He continued to write at an incredible pace, turning out novels, essays, stories, articles, and pamphlets like a machine.

While his genius matured, his debts increased. He found his first fame in 1830 with Scenes from Private Life in two volumes. In 1831, he added the “de” to his name, obtained a larger apartment, a valet, and a horse and carriage, and he began to have political ambitions. In 1833, he met Éveline Hanska, a Russian noblewoman whom he courted for eighteen years before she became his wife. That was the pattern of his life: His dreams stayed always ahead of his achievement. Although the critic Hippolyte Taine called his work the greatest gallery of human portraits since William Shakespeare and Balzac was named a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1845, he died in Paris on August 18, 1850, blind, broken, and alone except for his mother, in a house not paid for, while the wife he had married only the March before waited indifferently in another room for his death.

In more than 350 titles, Balzac created and peopled a world of his own, often with more than a hundred characters in a single novel. In his work, Balzac despised detail. He sought to distill from the world its pure essence, its universal qualities. He held as an axiom that everything, singly and in combination, acts and reacts upon everything else: All forces are mobile, none free. Moreover, he believed that every life expends an equal sum of energy. One may dissipate that energy upon inconsequential matters and live many years, or one may concentrate that energy upon one ideal and live fewer years; but those who live quickly do not live a shorter time. Therefore, in a work of fiction, only monomaniacs are important. People are great insofar as they concentrate on one ideal, and tragedy occurs when such concentration is thwarted. Any motive is worthy of tragedy if followed by a single purpose.

Balzac sheers away great quantities of dross and reveals the basic motives that govern human action. His world is poorer than the real world, but it is more intense. His masterwork, in which his world is most fully depicted, is The Human Comedy. This work has a wholeness of conception perhaps unparalleled in literature. Balzac made the first arrangements for the collected edition in 1842. In that year, the first three volumes appeared. From 1843 to 1846, at the rate of two to four volumes per year, the first edition was completed at sixteen volumes. For this edition, Balzac wrote the celebrated foreword in which he outlines his plan for the various parts of The Human Comedy:

The Scenes from Private Life depict childhood and youth, with the false steps to which they are prone. The Scenes from Provincial Life show the age of passion, calculation, self-interest and ambition. The Scenes from Parisian Life portray finally the various tastes and vices, with all the unbridled forms of behavior of capital cities—for it is there that good and evil meet and have their strongest repercussions.

Dying in Paris in 1850, Balzac did not live to complete the Scenes from Military Life , which depict society “when it steps out of itself for the purpose of either defense or conquest,” and he barely began the planned Scenes from Rural Life. In 1847, Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons appeared as the last important works published in Balzac’s lifetime. Perhaps his greatest works, they crown his last misery. At the time they were published, Balzac was already dying of heart and digestive ailments.

Author Works Long Fiction: La Comédie humaine, 1829-1848 (17 volumes; The Comedy of Human Life, 1885-1893, 1896 [40 volumes]; also known as The Human Comedy, 1895-1896, 1911 [53 volumes]; includes all of the following titles) Les Chouans, 1829 (The Chouans) Physiologie du mariage, 1829 (The Physiology of Marriage) Gobseck, 1830 (English translation) La Maison du chat-qui-pelote, 1830, 1869 (At the Sign of the Cat and Racket) Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, 1831 (The Unknown Masterpiece) La Peau de chagrin, 1831 (The Wild Ass’s Skin; also known as The Fatal Skin) Sarrasine, 1831 (English translation) Le Curé de Tours, 1832 (The Vicar of Tours) Louis Lambert, 1832 (English translation) Maître Cornélius, 1832 (English translation) La Femme de trente ans, 1832-1842 (includes Premières fautes, 1832, 1842; Souffrances inconnues, 1834-1835; À trente ans, 1832, 1842; Le Doigt de Dieu, 1832, 1834-1835, 1842; Les Deux Rencontres, 1832, 1834-1835, 1842; and La Vieillesse d’une mère coupable, 1832, 1842) Eugénie Grandet, 1833 (English translation, 1859) La Recherche de l’absolu, 1834 (Balthazar: Or, Science and Love, 1859; also known as The Quest of the Absolute) Histoire des treize, 1834-1835 (History of the Thirteen; also known as The Thirteen; includes Ferragus, chef des dévorants, 1834 [Ferragus, Chief of the Devorants; also known as The Mystery of the Rue Solymane]; La Duchesse de Langeais, 1834 [The Duchesse de Langeais]; and La Fille aus yeux d’or, 1834-1835 [The Girl with the Golden Eyes ]) Le Père Goriot, 1834-1835 (Daddy Goriot, 1860; also known as Père Goriot) Melmoth réconcilié, 1835 (Melmoth Converted) Le Lys dans la vallée, 1836 (The Lily in the Valley) Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau, 1837 (History of the Grandeur and Downfall of César Birotteau, 1860; also known as The Rise and Fall of César Birotteau) Illusions perdues, 1837-1843 (Lost Illusions) Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, 1838-1847, 1869 (The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans; includes Comment aiment les filles, 1838, 1844 [The Way that Girls Love]; À combien l’amour revient aux viellards, 1844 [How Much Love Costs Old Men]; Où mènent les mauvais chemins, 1846 [The End of Bad Roads]; and La Dernière incarnation de Vautrin, 1847 [The Last Incarnation of Vautrin]) Pierrette, 1840 (English translation) Le Curé de village, 1841 (The Country Parson) Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées, 1842 (The Two Young Brides) Une Ténébreuse Affaire, 1842 (The Gondreville Mystery) Ursule Mirouët, 1842 (English translation) La Cousine Bette, 1846 (Cousin Bette) Le Cousin Pons, 1847 (Cousin Pons, 1880) Short Fiction: Les Contes drolatiques, 1832-1837 (Droll Stories, 1874, 1891) Drama: Cromwell, wr. 1819-1820, pb. 1925 Vautrin, pr., pb. 1840 (English translation, 1901) La Marâtre, pr., pb. 1848 (The Stepmother, 1901, 1958) Le Faiseur, pr. 1849 (also known as Mercadet; English translation, 1901) The Dramatic Works, pb. 1901 (2 volumes; includes Vautrin, The Stepmother, Mercadet, Quinola’s Resources, and Pamela Giraud) Nonfiction: Correspondance, 1819-1850, 1876 (The Correspondence, 1878) Lettres à l’étrangère, 1899-1950 Letters to Madame Hanska, 1900 (translation of volume 1 of Lettres à l’étrangère) The Unpublished Correspondence of Honoré de Balzac and Madame Zulma Carraud, 1829-1850, 1937 Miscellaneous: The Works of Honoré de Balzac, ca. 1901 Œuvres complètes de Honoré de Balzac, 1912–40 (40 volumes; Marcel Bouteron and Henri Longnon, editors) Bibliography Beizer, Janet L. Family Plots: Balzac’s Narrative Generations. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. A careful study of the family and other hierarchies in Balzac’s novels. Argues that the structure of the family itself is an ordering principle of the fiction. Introduction clearly situates this work in the tradition of Balzac criticism while making clear how it differs from earlier studies. Bell, David F. Real Time: Accelerating Narrative from Balzac to Zola. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Cites examples from novels and short stories to explore how the accelerated movement of people and information in the nineteenth century was a crucial element in the work of Balzac and three other French authors. Bloom, Harold, ed. Honoré de Balzac. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. One in a series of books designed to introduce readers to the works of significant authors. In addition to Bloom’s introductory overview, features essays analyzing The Wild Ass’s Skin, Cousin Pons, Eugénie Grandet, Père Goriot, and Cousin Bette. Charlton, D. G., et al., eds. Balzac and the Nineteenth Century. Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1972. This volume of essays describes very well the profound influence of Balzac on important nineteenth century French writers such as Charles Baudelaire, Émile Zola, and Victor Hugo. This book also contains thoughtful interpretations of Balzac’s short stories by Anthony Pugh and Peter W. Lock. Festa-McCormick, Diana. Honoré de Balzac. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Provides an excellent introduction to the works of Balzac. Describes with much subtlety Balzac’s evolution as a novelist and offers insightful comments on his representations of women. Contains a very well annotated bibliography. Garval, Michael D. “Honoré de Balzac: Writing the Monument.” In “A Dream of Stone”: Fame, Vision, and Monumentality in Nineteenth-Century French Literary Culture. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004. Chapter on Balzac is part of a volume that describes how France in the nineteenth century developed an ideal image of “great” writers, viewing these authors’ work as immortal and portraying their literary successes in monumental terms. The work as a whole traces the rise and fall of this literary development by focusing on Balzac, George Sand, and Victor Hugo. Guenther, Beatrice Martina. The Poetics of Death: The Short Prose of Kleist and Balzac. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. Examines the short fiction of Balzac and Heinrich von Kleist, especially the theme of death in their works. Kanes, Martin, ed. Critical Essays on Honoré de Balzac. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Divided into sections on literary vignettes and essays (1837-1949) and critical essays (subsections covering periods from 1850 to 1990). Includes a detailed introduction, a bibliography, and an index. Madden, James. Weaving Balzac’s Web: Spinning Tales and Creating the Whole of “La Comédie humaine.” Birmingham, Ala.: Summa, 2003. Explores how Balzac structured his vast series of novels to create continuity both within and between the individual books. Describes how internal narration, in which characters tell each other stories about other characters, enables the recurring characters to provide layers of meaning that are evident throughout the series. Maurois, André. Prometheus: The Life of Balzac. Translated by Norman Denny. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. The standard biography of Balzac analyzes the author’s formative years, his place in the Parisian literary circles of the 1830’s and 1840’s, and his long relationship with Evelina Hanska. Makes judicious use of Balzac’s extant letters in order to give readers a sense of Balzac’s personality. Mileham, James. “Labyrinths in Balzac’s Ferragus.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 23 (Spring/Summer, 1995): 356-364. Discusses two sorts of images of the labyrinth in Balzac’s novella: the Cretan, which is deceptive, and the oneiric, which is dreamlike. Argues that in the novella the streets of Paris are basically a Cretan labyrinth, but that some of them are oneiric. Pritchett, V. S. Balzac. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973. Beautifully illustrated book by an eminent writer and literary critic enables readers to understand the milieu in which Balzac wrote. Presents interpretations of Balzac’s short stories and his novel The Wild Ass’s Skin that are especially thought-provoking. Includes a good bibliography of critical studies on Balzac. Robb, Graham. Balzac: A Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. Detailed biographical account of the life and work of Balzac focuses on his philosophical perspectives as well as on his fiction. Speculates on the psychological motivations underlying his work. Rogers, Samuel. Balzac and the Novel. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1953. Thoughtful study of Balzac’s narrative techniques and his use of recurring characters in The Human Comedy. Also describes Balzac’s portrayal of different social classes in his novels. Schlossman, Beryl. “Balzac’s Art of Excess.” MLN 109 (December, 1994): 872-896. Discusses Charles Baudelaire’s analysis of Balzac’s “aesthetic of excess” as a translation of the pictorial into language. Discusses Balzac’s use of language as visible form and paintings as linguistic discourse. Thomas, Gwen. “The Case of the Missing Detective: Balzac’s Une Ténébreuse Affaire.” French Studies 48 (July, 1994): 285-298. Discusses how Balzac, in his novel The Gondreville Mystery, anticipates a number of the conventions that would come to be associated with the detective story. Argues that Balzac retains gaps and indeterminacies in his work and that his final revelation is a literary device rather than a logical conclusion. Tilby, Michael, ed. Balzac. London: Longman, 1995. Includes literary criticism of Balzac's work as well as contextual background. Zweig, Stefan. Balzac. Translated by William Rose and Dorothy Rose, edited by Richard Friedenthal. New York: Viking Press, 1946. After Maurois, Zweig is the best biographer of Balzac. This fascinating book reads almost like a novel about the author’s life. Zweig’s tendency to offer his own interpretations of events makes his work more subjective than Maurois’s, and perhaps less reliable in some particulars, but it remains an excellent introduction for the nonspecialist.

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