Places: The Wild Ass’s Skin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: La Peau de chagrin, 1831 (English translation, 1896)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Allegory

Time of work: 1829-1831

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedParisian gambling house

Parisian Wild Ass’s Skin, Thegambling house. Located at 36 Palais Royal, this is the place where Raphael loses the last of his money, save for the three sous he gives to beggars on the quai Voltaire.

Parisian antique shop

Parisian antique shop. The impossibly well-stocked treasure-house into which Raphael wanders from the quai Voltaire (having just been lost in contemplation of the Louvre, the towers of Notre-Dame and other similarly imposing edifices). Its wares include works of art from all over the world and from many different periods of history; each of its four galleries contains works more priceless than the last. The fateful piece of shagreen is mounted in significant opposition to a portrait of Jesus Christ painted by the fifteenth century old master who shared Raphael’s name.

Hôtel de Saint-Quentin

Hôtel de Saint-Quentin (oh-TEL deh sahn-ken-TA[N]). House in Paris’s rue des Cordiers in which Raphael lodges before his seduction by luxury; he selects it for its nearness to the former residence of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His room is a dirty, narrow, yellow-walled garret with a sloping ceiling and gaps between loose roof tiles that expose the sky. There he works without respite on his two literary projects for three years, as if dedicated to a fast, although his dreams are of wealth and conspicuous consumption. After ten months he becomes enamored of the landlady’s daughter Pauline, who reminds him of the heroine of Charles Perrault’s conte “Peau d’Ane” (“Donkey-skin”; Honoré de Balzac’s title is an ironic transfiguration of it). The point is carefully made that these are inapt surroundings for a man whose family name links him to Valencia and Valence, and to the throne of Byzantium.

*Rue Joubert

*Rue Joubert (rew zhew-BEHR). Site of the house where Raphael and his friends eat, drink, philosophize, and womanize orgiastically.

Fedora’s house

Fedora’s house. Luxurious establishment in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, appropriate as the residence of a character who is explicitly identified as a symbol of “Society.” It includes a Gothic boudoir and a gilded apartment in the style of King Louis XIV. The text observes that almost the whole of Paris separates it from the rue des Cordiers.

*Luxembourg Palace

*Luxembourg Palace. Parisian palace built in the seventeenth century for Marie de Medici. In its celebrated gardens Raphael meets Fedora in order to visit the museum and the Jardin des Plantes located in its grounds, where he begins courting her in earnest.

*Rue de Varennes

*Rue de Varennes (rew deh VAHR-en). Parisian location of the munificent residence that Raphael buys and refurbishes with his newly acquired wealth. Its doors are mechanically connected so that they all open whenever Raphael turns the handle of one of them, enabling him always to pass unhindered through his little empire. However, he lives there as a virtual recluse, shunning the society of his fellows.

*Paris Opéra

*Paris Opéra. Fulcrum of nineteenth century Parisian society, where everyone who is anyone is to be seen. It is, inevitably, there that Raphael meets Pauline again, having gone there to demonstrate his scorn for Fedora.

*Rue Saint-Lazare

*Rue Saint-Lazare (rew sah[n]-lah-zar). Location of Pauline’s new home, as the daughter of the newly discovered Baroness Gaudin.


*Aix-les-Bains (aks-lay-bayn). Town in southeastern France’s Savoie region renowned for its hot sulfur springs; a favorite spot for health-seeking Frenchmen to “take the waters.” Raphael’s futile search for a cure embraces a remarkable profusion of images of water, commencing with the duck pond, fortuitously situated between the wine market and the Salpêtrière hospital, where he meets Monsieur Lavrille, the first of several scientists who assure him–mistakenly–that the fatal skin can be stretched by technological means. (The irony of the fact that Monsieur Spieghalter’s house is in the rue de la Santé–“Health Street”–is noted in passing.) After the baths at Aix fail him, Raphael goes rowing on nearby Lake Bourget. After leaving Aix in the wake of the duel, he goes to a similar resort at Mont-Dore in the Auvergne, where he climbs the highest peak, the Pic de Sancy, before his brief reunion with Pauline. The last view the text offers of Pauline is an illusory glimpse of a quasi-elemental spirit on the river Loire, near Tours.

BibliographyKanes, Martin. Balzac’s Comedy of Words. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975. Chapter 3 deals with The Wild Ass’s Skin, exploring the problem of creativity.Pritchett, V. S. Balzac. London: Chatto and Windus, 1973. A chapter on The Wild Ass’s Skin puts the novel into its biographical context.Robb, Graham. Balzac. London: Picador, 1994. A comprehensive biographical and critical study. The Wild Ass’s Skin is discussed in chapter 8, “Absolute Power.”Testa, Carlo. Desire and the Devil: Demonic Contracts in French and European Literature. New York: Peter Lang, 1991. Part one of the study deals with “Balzac’s Laicized Demonism,” including a detailed analysis of The Wild Ass’s Skin.Weber, Samuel. Unwrapping Balzac: A Reading of “La Peau de chagrin.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979. The only full-length study of the work.
Categories: Places