The Human Comedy: Introductions & Appendix
Honore de Balzac

Etext prepared by Dagny,
and John Bickers,



Honore de Balzac
Introduction and brief biography by George Saintsbury.

List of titles in French with English translations and grouped
in the various classifications.

Author's introduction
Balzac's 1842 introduction to The Human Comedy.


/"Sans genie, je suis flambe!"/

Volumes, almost libraries, have been written about Balzac; and perhaps
of very few writers, putting aside the three or four greatest of all,
is it so difficult to select one or a few short phrases which will in
any way denote them, much more sum them up. Yet the five words quoted
above, which come from an early letter to his sister when as yet he
had not "found his way," characterize him, I think, better than at
least some of the volumes I have read about him, and supply, when they
are properly understood, the most valuable of all keys and companions
for his comprehension.

"If I have not genius, it is all up with me!" A very matter-of-fact
person may say: "Why! there is nothing wonderful in this. Everybody
knows what genius is wanted to make a name in literature, and most
people think they have it." But this would be a little short-sighted,
and only excusable because of the way in which the word "genius" is
too commonly bandied about. As a matter of fact, there is not so very
much genius in the world; and a great deal of more than fair
performance is attainable and attained by more or less decent
allowances or exhibitions of talent. In prose, more especially, it is
possible to gain a very high place, and to deserve it, without any
genius at all: though it is difficult, if not impossible, to do so in
verse. But what Balzac felt (whether he was conscious in detail of the
feeling or not) when he used these words to his sister Laure, what his
critical readers must feel when they have read only a very little of
his work, what they must feel still more strongly when they have read
that work as a whole--is that for him there is no such door of escape
and no such compromise. He had the choice, by his nature, his aims,
his capacities, of being a genius or nothing. He had no little gifts,
and he was even destitute of some of the separate and indivisible
great ones. In mere writing, mere style, he was not supreme; one
seldom or never derives from anything of his the merely artistic
satisfaction given by perfect prose. His humor, except of the grim and
gigantic kind, was not remarkable; his wit, for a Frenchman, curiously
thin and small. The minor felicities of the literature generally were
denied to him. /Sans genie, il etait flambe/; /flambe/ as he seemed to
be, and very reasonably seemed, to his friends when as yet the genius
had not come to him, and when he was desperately striving to discover
where his genius lay in those wonderous works which "Lord R'Hoone,"
and "Horace de Saint Aubin," and others obligingly fathered for him.

It must be the business of these introductions to give what assistance
they may to discover where it did lie; it is only necessary, before
taking up the task in the regular biographical and critical way of the
introductory cicerone, to make two negative observations. It did not
lie, as some have apparently thought, in the conception, or the
outlining, or the filling up of such a scheme as the /Comedie
Humaine/. In the first place, the work of every great writer, of the
creative kind, including that of Dante himself, is a /comedie
humaine/. All humanity is latent in every human being; and the great
writers are merely those who call most of it out of latency and put it
actually on the stage. And, as students of Balzac know, the scheme and
adjustment of his comedy varied so remarkably as time went on that it
can hardly be said to have, even in its latest form (which would
pretty certainly have been altered again), a distinct and definite
character. Its so-called scenes are even in the mass by no means
exhaustive, and are, as they stand, a very "cross," division of life:
nor are they peopled by anything like an exhaustive selection of
personages. Nor again is Balzac's genius by any means a mere
vindication of the famous definition of that quality as an infinite
capacity of taking pains. That Balzac had that capacity--had it in a
degree probably unequaled even by the dullest plodders on record--is
very well known, is one of the best known things about him. But he
showed it for nearly ten years before the genius came, and though no
doubt it helped him when genius had come, the two things are in his
case, as in most, pretty sufficiently distinct. What the genius itself
was I must do my best to indicate hereafter, always beseeching the
reader to remember that all genius is in its essence and quiddity
indefinable. You can no more get close to it than you can get close to
the rainbow, and your most scientific explanation of it will always
leave as much of the heart of the fact unexplained as the scientific
explanation of the rainbow leaves of that.

Honore de Balzac was born at Tours on the 16th of May, 1799, in the
same year which saw the birth of Heine, and which therefore had the
honor of producing perhaps the most characteristic writers of the
nineteenth century in prose and verse respectively. The family was a
respectable one, though its right to the particle which Balzac always
carefully assumed, subscribing himself "/de/ Balzac," was contested.
And there appears to be no proof of their connection with Jean Guez de
Balzac, the founder, as some will have him, of modern French prose,
and the contemporary and fellow-reformer of Malherbe. (Indeed, as the
novelist pointed out with sufficient pertinence, his earlier namesake
had no hereditary right to the name at all, and merely took it from
some property.) Balzac's father, who, as the /zac/ pretty surely
indicates, was a southerner and a native of Languedoc, was fifty-three
years old at the birth of his son, whose Christian name was selected
on the ordinary principle of accepting that of the saint on whose day
he was born. Balzac the elder had been a barrister before the
Revolution, but under it he obtained a post in the commissariat, and
rose to be head of that department for a military division. His wife,
who was much younger than himself and who survived her son, is said to
have possessed both beauty and fortune, and was evidently endowed with
the business faculties so common among Frenchwomen. When Honore was
born, the family had not long been established at Tours, where Balzac
the elder (besides his duties) had a house and some land; and this
town continued to be their headquarters till the novelist, who was the
eldest of the family, was about sixteen. He had two sisters (of whom
the elder, Laure, afterwards Madame Surville, was his first confidante
and his only authoritative biographer) and a younger brother, who
seems to have been, if not a scapegrace, rather a burden to his
friends, and who later went abroad.

The eldest boy was, in spite of Rousseau, put out to nurse, and at
seven years old was sent to the Oratorian grammar-school at Vendome,
where he stayed another seven years, going through, according to his
own account, the future experiences and performances of Louis Lambert,
but making no reputation for himself in the ordinary school course.
If, however, he would not work in his teacher's way, he overworked
himself in his own by devouring books; and was sent home at fourteen
in such a state of health that his grandmother (who after the French
fashion, was living with her daughter and son-in-law), ejaculated:
/"Voila donc comme le college nous renvoie les jolis enfants que nous
lui envoyons!"/ It would seem indeed that, after making all due
allowance for grandmotherly and sisterly partiality, Balzac was
actually a very good-looking boy and young man, though the portraits
of him in later life may not satisfy the more romantic expectations of
his admirers. He must have had at all times eyes full of character,
perhaps the only feature that never fails in men of intellectual
eminence; but he certainly does not seem to have been in his manhood
either exactly handsome or exactly "distinguished-looking." But the
portraits of the middle of the century are, as a rule, rather wanting
in this characteristic when compared with those of its first and last
periods; and I cannot think of many that quite come up to one's

For a short time he was left pretty much to himself, and recovered
rapidly. But late in 1814 a change of official duties removed the
Balzacs to Paris, and when they had established themselves in the
famous old /bourgeois/ quarter of the Marais, Honore was sent to
divers private tutors or private schools till he had "finished his
classes" in 1816 at the age of seventeen and a half. Then he attended
lectures at the Sorbonne where Villemain, Guizot, and Cousin were
lecturing, and heard them, as his sister tells us, enthusiastically,
though there are probably no three writers of any considerable repute
in the history of French literature who stand further apart from
Balzac. For all three made and kept their fame by spirited and
agreeable generalizations and expatiations, as different as possible
from the savage labor of observation on the one hand and the gigantic
developments of imagination on the other, which were to compose
Balzac's appeal. His father destined him for the law; and for three
years more he dutifully attended the offices of an attorney and a
notary, besides going through the necessary lectures and examinations.
All these trials he seems to have passed, if not brilliantly, yet

And then came the inevitable crisis, which was of an unusually severe
nature. A notary, who was a friend of the elder Balzac's and owed him
some gratitude offered not merely to take Honore into his office, but
to allow him to succeed to his business, which was a very good one, in
a few years on very favorable terms. Most fathers, and nearly all
French fathers, would have jumped at this; and it so happened that
about the same time M. de Balzac was undergoing that unpleasant
process of compulsory retirement which his son has described in one of
the best passages of the /Oeuvres de Jeunesse/, the opening scene of
/Argow le Pirate/. It does not appear that Honore had revolted during
his probation--indeed he is said, and we can easily believe it from
his books, to have acquired a very solid knowledge of law, especially
in bankruptcy matters, of which he was himself to have a very close
shave in future. A solicitor, indeed, told Laure de Balzac that he
found /Cesar Birotteau/ a kind of /Balzac on Bankruptcy/; but this may
have been only the solicitor's fun.

It was no part of Honore's intentions to use this knowledge--however
content he had been to acquire it--in the least interesting, if nearly
the most profitable, of the branches of the legal profession; and he
protested eloquently, and not unsuccessfully, that he would be a man
of letters and nothing else. Not unsuccessfully; but at the same time
with distinctly qualified success. He was not turned out of doors; nor
were the supplies, as in Quinet's case only a few months later,
absolutely withheld even for a short time. But his mother (who seems
to have been less placable than her husband) thought that cutting them
down to the lowest point might have some effect. So, as the family at
this time (April 1819) left Paris for a house some twenty miles out of
it, she established her eldest son in a garret furnished in the most
Spartan fashion, with a starvation allowance and an old woman to look
after him. He did not literally stay in this garret for the ten years
of his astonishing and unparalleled probation; but without too much
metaphor it may be said to have been his Wilderness, and his
Wanderings in it to have lasted for that very considerable time.

We know, in detail, very little of him during the period. For the
first years, between 1819 and 1822, we have a good number of letters
to Laure; between 1822 and 1829, when he first made his mark, very
few. He began, of course, with verse, for which he never had the
slightest vocation, and, almost equally of course, with a tragedy. But
by degrees and apparently pretty soon, he slipped into what was his
vocation, and like some, though not very many, great writers, at first
did little better in it than if it had not been his vocation at all.
The singular tentatives which, after being allowed for a time a sort
of outhouse in the structure of the /Comedie Humaine/, were excluded
from the octavo /Edition Definitive/ five-and-twenty years ago, have
never been the object of that exhaustive bibliographical and critical
attention which has been bestowed on those which follow them. They
were not absolutely unproductive--we hear of sixty, eighty, a hundred
pounds being paid for them, though whether this was the amount of
Balzac's always sanguine expectations, or hard cash actually handed
over, we cannot say. They were very numerous, though the reprints
spoken of above never extended to more than ten. Even these have never
been widely read. The only person I ever knew till I began this
present task who had read them through was the friend whom all his
friends are now lamenting and are not likely soon to cease to lament,
Mr. Louis Stevenson; and when I once asked him whether, on his honor
and conscience, he could recommend me to brace myself to the same
effort, he said that on his honor and conscience he must most
earnestly dissuade me. I gather, though I am not sure, that Mr.
Wedmore, the latest writer in English on Balzac at any length, had not
read them through when he wrote.

Now I have, and a most curious study they are. Indeed I am not sorry,
as Mr. Wedmore thinks one would be. They are curiously, interestingly,
almost enthrallingly bad. Couched for the most part in a kind of
Radcliffian or Monk-Lewisian vein--perhaps studied more directly from
Maturin (of whom Balzac was a great admirer) than from either--they
often begin with and sometimes contain at intervals passages not
unlike the Balzac that we know. The attractive title of /Jane la Pale/
(it was originally called, with a still more Early Romantic avidity
for /baroque/ titles, /Wann-Chlore/) has caused it, I believe, to be
more commonly read than any other. It deals with a disguised duke, a
villainous Italian, bigamy, a surprising offer of the angelic first
wife to submit to a sort of double arrangement, the death of the
second wife and first love, and a great many other things. /Argow le
Pirate/ opens quite decently and in order with that story of the
/employe/ which Balzac was to rehandle so often, but drops suddenly
into brigands stopping diligences, the marriage of the heroine Annette
with a retired pirate marquis of vast wealth, the trial of the latter
for murdering another marquis with a poisoned fish-bone scarf-pin, his
execution, the sanguinary reprisals by his redoubtable lieutenant, and
a finale of blunderbusses, fire, devoted peasant girl with /retrousse/
nose, and almost every possible /tremblement/.

In strictness mention of this should have been preceded by mention of
/Le Vicaire des Ardennes/, which is a sort of first part of /Argow le
Pirate/, and not only gives an account of his crimes, early history,
and manners (which seem to have been a little robustious for such a
mild-mannered man as Annette's husband), but tells a thrilling tale of
the loves of the /vicaire/ himself and a young woman, which loves are
crossed, first by the belief that they are brother and sister, and
secondly by the /vicaire/ having taken orders under this delusion. /La
Derniere Fee/ is the queerest possible cross between an actual fairy
story /a la/ Nordier and a history of the fantastic and inconstant
loves of a great English lady, the Duchess of "Sommerset" (a piece of
actual /scandalum magnatum/ nearly as bad as Balzac's cool use in his
acknowledged work of the title "Lord Dudley"). This book begins so
well that one expects it to go on better; but the inevitable defects
in craftsmanship show themselves before long. /Le Centenaire/ connects
itself with Balzac's almost lifelong hankering after the /recherche de
l'absolu/ in one form or another, for the hero is a wicked old person
who every now and then refreshes his hold on life by immolating a
virgin under a copper-bell. It is one of the most extravagant and
"Monk-Lewisy" of the whole. /L'Excommunie/, /L'Israelite/, and
/L'Heritiere de Birague/ are mediaeval or fifteenth century tales of
the most luxuriant kind, /L'Excommunie/ being the best, /L'Israelite/
the most preposterous, and /L'Heritiere de Birague/ the dullest. But
it is not nearly so dull as /Dom Gigadus/ and /Jean Louis/, the former
of which deals with the end of the seventeenth century and the latter
with the end of the eighteenth. These are both as nearly unreadable as
anything can be. One interesting thing, however, should be noted in
much of this early work: the affectionate clinging of the author to
the scenery of Touraine, which sometimes inspires him with his least
bad passages.

It is generally agreed that these singular /Oeuvres de Jeunesse/ were
of service to Balzac as exercise, and no doubt they were so; but I
think something may be said on the other side. They must have done a
little, if not much, to lead him into and confirm him in those defects
of style and form which distinguish him so remarkably from most
writers of his rank. It very seldom happens when a very young man
writes very much, be it book-writing or journalism, without censure
and without "editing," that he does not at the same time get into
loose and slipshod habits. And I think we may set down to this
peculiar form of apprenticeship of Balzac's not merely his failure
ever to attain, except in passages and patches, a thoroughly great
style, but also that extraordinary method of composition which in
after days cost him and his publishers so much money.

However, if these ten years of probation taught him his trade, they
taught him also a most unfortunate avocation or by-trade, which he
never ceased to practise, or to try to practise, which never did him
the least good, and which not unfrequently lost him much of the not
too abundant gains which he earned with such enormous labor. This was
the "game of speculation." His sister puts the tempter's part on an
unknown "neighbor," who advised him to try to procure independence by
/une bonne speculation/. Those who have read Balzac's books and his
letters will hardly think that he required much tempting. He began by
trying to publish--an attempt which has never yet succeeded with a
single man of letters, so far as I can remember. His scheme was not a
bad one, indeed it was one which has brought much money to other
pockets since, being neither more nor less than the issuing of cheap
one-volume editions of French classics. But he had hardly any capital;
he was naturally quite ignorant of his trade, and as naturally the
established publishers and booksellers boycotted him as an intruder.
So his /Moliere/ and his /La Fontaine/ are said to have been sold as
waste paper, though if any copies escaped they would probably fetch a
very comfortable price now. Then, such capital as he had having been
borrowed, the lender, either out of good nature or avarice, determined
to throw the helve after the hatchet. He partly advanced himself and
partly induced Balzac's parents to advance more, in order to start the
young man as a printer, to which business Honore himself added that of
typefounder. The story was just the same: knowledge and capital were
again wanting, and though actual bankruptcy was avoided, Balzac got
out of the matter at the cost not merely of giving the two businesses
to a friend (in whose hands they proved profitable), but of a margin
of debt from which he may be said never to have fully cleared himself.

He had more than twenty years to live, but he never cured himself of
this hankering after /une bonne speculation/. Sometimes it was
ordinary stock-exchange gambling; but his special weakness was, to do
him justice, for schemes that had something more grandiose in them.
Thus, to finish here with the subject, though the chapter of it never
actually finished till his death, he made years afterwards, when he
was a successful and a desperately busy author, a long, troublesome,
and costly journey to Sardinia to carry out a plan of resmelting the
slag from Roman and other mines there. Thus in his very latest days,
when he was living at Vierzschovnia with the Hanska and Mniszech
household, he conceived the magnificently absurd notion of cutting
down twenty thousand acres of oak wood in the Ukraine, and sending it
/by railway/ right across Europe to be sold in France. And he was
rather reluctantly convinced that by the time a single log reached its
market the freight would have eaten up the value of the whole

It was perhaps not entirely chance that the collapse of the printing
scheme, which took place in 1827, the ninth year of the Wanderings in
the Wilderness, coincided with or immediately preceded the conception
of the book which was to give Balzac passage into the Promised Land.
This was /Les Chouans/, called at its first issue, which differed
considerably from the present form, /Le Dernier Chouan ou la Bretagne
en 1800/ (later /1799/). It was published in 1829 without any of the
previous anagrammatic pseudonyms; and whatever were the reasons which
had induced him to make his bow in person to the public, they were
well justified, for the book was a distinct success, if not a great
one. It occupies a kind of middle position between the melodramatic
romance of his nonage and the strictly analytic romance-novel of his
later time; and, though dealing with war and love chiefly, inclines in
conception distinctly to the latter. Corentin, Hulot, and other
personages of the actual Comedy (then by no means planned, or at least
avowed) appear; and though the influence of Scott is in a way
paramount* on the surface, the underwork is quite different, and the
whole scheme of the loves of Montauran and Mademoiselle de Verneuil is
pure Balzac.

* Balzac was throughout his life a fervent admirer of Sir Walter,
and I think Mr. Wedmore, in his passage on the subject, distinctly
undervalues both the character and the duration of this esteem.
Balzac was far too acute to commit the common mistake of thinking
Scott superficial--men who know mankind are not often blind to
each other's knowledge. And while Mr. Wedmore seems not to know
any testimony later than Balzac's /thirty-eighth/ year, it is in
his /forty-sixth/, when all his own best work was done, except the
/Parents Pauvres/, that he contrasts Dumas with Scott saying that
/on relit Walter Scott/, and he does not think any one will
re-read Dumas. This may be unjust to the one writer, but it is
conclusive as to any sense of "wasted time" (his own phrase)
having ever existed in Balzac's mind about the other.

It would seem as if nothing but this sun of popular approval had been
wanting to make Balzac's genius burst out in full bloom. Although we
have a fair number of letters for the ensuing years, it is not very
easy to make out the exact sequence of production of the marvelous
harvest which his genius gave. It is sufficient to say that in the
three years following 1829 there were actually published the
/Physiologie du Mariage/, the charming story of /La Maison du Chat-
que-Pelote/, the /Peau de Chagrin/, the most original and splendid, if
not the most finished and refined, of all Balzac's books, most of the
short /Contes Philosophiques/, of which some are among their author's
greatest triumphs, many other stories (chiefly included in the /Scenes
de la Vie Privee/) and the beginning of the /Contes Drolatiques/.*

* No regular attempt will after this be made to indicate the date of
production of successive works, unless they connect themselves
very distinctly with incidents in the life or with general
critical observations. At the end of this introduction will be
found a full table of the /Comedie Humaine/ and the other works.
It may perhaps be worth while to add here, that while the labors
of M. de Lovenjoul (to whom every writer on Balzac must
acknowledge the deepest obligation) have cleared this matter up
almost to the verge of possibility as regards the published works,
there is little light to be thrown on the constant references in
the letters to books which never appeared. Sometimes they are
known, and they may often be suspected, to have been absorbed into
or incorporated with others; the rest must have been lost or
destroyed, or, which is not quite impossible, have existed chiefly
in the form of project. Nearly a hundred titles of such things are

But without a careful examination of his miscellaneous work, which is
very abundant and includes journalism as well as books, it is almost
as impossible to come to a just appreciation of Balzac as it is
without reading the early works and letters. This miscellaneous work
is all the more important because a great deal of it represents the
artist at quite advanced stages of his career, and because all its
examples, the earlier as well as the later, give us abundant insight
on him as he was "making himself." The comparison with the early works
of Thackeray (in /Punch/, /Fraser/, and elsewhere) is so striking that
it can escape no one who knows the two. Every now and then Balzac
transferred bodily, or with slight alterations, passages from these
experiments to his finished canvases. It appears that he had a scheme
for codifying his "Physiologies" (of which the notorious one above
mentioned is only a catchpenny exemplar and very far from the best)
into a seriously organized work. Chance was kind or intention was wise
in not allowing him to do so; but the value of the things for the
critical reader is not less. Here are tales--extensions of the scheme
and manner of the /Oeuvres de Jeunesse/, or attempts at the
/goguenard/ story of 1830--a thing for which Balzac's hand was hardly
light enough. Here are interesting evidences of striving to be
cosmopolitan and polyglot--the most interesting of all of which, I
think, is the mention of certain British products as "mufflings."
"Muffling" used to be a domestic joke for "muffin;" but whether some
wicked Briton deluded Balzac into the idea that it was the proper form
or not it is impossible to say. Here is a /Traite de la Vie Elegante/,
inestimable for certain critical purposes. So early as 1825 we find a
/Code des Gens Honnetes/, which exhibits at once the author's legal
studies and his constant attraction for the shady side of business,
and which contains a scheme for defrauding by means of lead pencils,
actually carried out (if we may believe his exulting note) by some
literary swindlers with unhappy results. A year later he wrote a
/Dictionnaire des Enseignes de Paris/, which we are glad enough to
have from the author of the /Chat-que-Pelote/; but the persistence
with which this kind of miscellaneous writing occupied him could not
be better exemplified than by the fact that, of two important works
which closely follow this in the collected edition, the /Physiologie
de l'Employe/ dates from 1841 and the /Monographie de la Presse
Parisienne/ from 1843.

It is well known that from the time almost of his success as a
novelist he was given, like too many successful novelists (/not/ like
Scott), to rather undignified and foolish attacks on critics. The
explanation may or may not be found in the fact that we have abundant
critical work of his, and that it is nearly all bad. Now and then we
have an acute remark in his own special sphere; but as a rule he
cannot be complimented on these performances, and when he was half-way
through his career this critical tendency of his culminated in the
unlucky /Revue Parisienne/, which he wrote almost entirely himself,
with slight assistance from his friends, MM. de Belloy and de
Grammont. It covers a wide range, but the literary part of it is
considerable, and this part contains that memorable and disastrous
attack on Sainte-Beuve, for which the critic afterwards took a
magnanimous revenge in his obituary /causerie/. Although the thing is
not quite unexampled it is not easily to be surpassed in the blind
fury of its abuse. Sainte-Beuve was by no means invulnerable, and an
anti-critic who kept his head might have found, as M. de Pontmartin
and others did find, the joints in his armor. But when, /a propos/ of
the /Port Royal/ more especially, and of the other works in general,
Balzac informs us that Sainte-Beuve's great characteristic as a writer
is /l'ennui, l'ennui boueux jusqu'a mi-jambe/, that his style is
intolerable, that his historical handling is like that of Gibbon,
Hume, and other dull people; when he jeers at him for exhuming "La
mere Angelique," and scolds him for presuming to obscure the glory of
the /Roi Soleil/, the thing is partly ludicrous, partly melancholy.
One remembers that agreeable Bohemian, who at a symposium once
interrupted his host by crying, "Man o' the hoose, gie us less o' yer
clack and mair o' yer Jairman wine!" Only, in human respect and other,
we phrase it: "Oh, dear M. de Balzac! give us more /Eugenie Grandets/,
more /Pere Goriots/, more /Peaux de Chagrin/, and don't talk about
what you do not understand!"

Balzac was a great politician also, and here, though he may not have
been very much more successful, he talked with more knowledge and
competence. He must have given himself immense trouble in reading the
papers, foreign as well as French; he had really mastered a good deal
of the political religion of a French publicist. It is curious to
read, sixty years after date, his grave assertion that "/La France a
la conquete de Madagascar a faire/," and with certain very pardonable
defects (such as his Anglophobia), his politics may be pronounced not
unintelligent and not ungenerous, though somewhat inconsistent and not
very distinctly traceable to any coherent theory. As for the
Anglophobia, the Englishman who thinks the less of him for that must
have very poor and unhappy brains. A Frenchman who does not more or
less hate and fear England, an Englishman who does not regard France
with a more or less good-humored impatience, is usually "either a god
or a beast," as Aristotle saith. Balzac began with an odd but not
unintelligible compound, something like Hugo's, of Napoleonism and
Royalism. In 1824, when he was still in the shades of anonymity, he
wrote and published two by no means despicable pamphlets in favor of
Primogeniture and the Jesuits, the latter of which was reprinted in
1880 at the last /Jesuitenhetze/ in France. His /Lettres sur Paris/ in
1830-31, and his /La France et l'Etranger/ in 1836, are two
considerable series of letters from "Our Own Correspondent," handling
the affairs of the world with boldness and industry if not invariably
with wisdom. They rather suggest (as does the later /Revue Parisienne/
still more) the political writing of the age of Anne in England, and
perhaps a little later, when "the wits" handled politics and society,
literature and things in general with unquestioned competence and an
easy universality.

The rest of his work which will not appear in this edition may be
conveniently despatched here. The /Physiologie du Mariage/ and the
/Scenes de la Vie Conjugale/ suffer not merely from the most obvious
of their faults but from defect of knowledge. It may or may not be
that marriage, in the hackneyed phrase, is a net or other receptacle
where all the outsiders would be in, and all the insiders out. But it
is quite clear that Coelebs cannot talk of it with much authority. His
state may or may not be the more gracious: his judgment cannot but
lack experience. The "Theatre," which brought the author little if any
profit, great annoyance, and a vast amount of trouble, has been
generally condemned by criticism. But the /Contes Drolatiques/ are not
so to be given up. The famous and splendid /Succube/ is only the best
of them, and though all are more or less tarred with the brush which
tars so much of French literature, though the attempt to write in an
archaic style is at best a very successful /tour de force/, and
represents an expenditure of brain power by no means justifiable on
the part of a man who could have made so much better use of it, they
are never to be spoken of disrespectfully. Those who sneer at their
"Wardour Street" Old French are not usually the best qualified to do
so; and it is not to be forgotten that Balzac was a real countryman of
Rabelais and a legitimate inheritor of /Gauloiserie/. Unluckily no man
can "throw back" in this way, except now and then as a mere pastime.
And it is fair to recollect that as a matter of fact Balzac, after a
year or two, did not waste much more time on these things, and that
the intended ten /dizains/ never, as a matter of fact, went beyond

Besides this work in books, pamphlets, etc., Balzac, as has been said,
did a certain amount of journalism, especially in the /Caricature/,
his performances including, I regret to say, more than one puff of his
own work; and in this, as well as by the success of the /Chouans/, he
became known about 1830 to a much wider circle, both of literary and
of private acquaintance. It cannot indeed be said that he ever mixed
much in society; it was impossible that he should do so, considering
the vast amount of work he did and the manner in which he did it. This
subject, like that of his speculations, may be better finished off in
a single passage than dealt with by scattered indications here and
there. He was not one of those men who can do work by fits and starts
in the intervals of business or of amusement; nor was he one who, like
Scott, could work very rapidly. It is true that he often achieved
immense quantities of work (subject to a caution to be given
presently) in a very few days, but then his working day was of the
most peculiar character. He could not bear disturbance; he wrote best
at night, and he could not work at all after heavy meals. His favorite
plan (varied sometimes in detail) was therefore to dine lightly about
five or six, then to go to bed and sleep till eleven, twelve, or one,
and then to get up, and with the help only of coffee (which he drank
very strong and in enormous quantities) to work for indefinite
stretches of time into the morning or afternoon of the next day. He
speaks of a sixteen hours' day as a not uncommon shift or spell of
work, and almost a regular one with him; and on one occasion he avers
that in the course of forty-eight hours he took but three of the rest,
working for twenty-two hours and a half continuously on each side
thereof. In such spells, supposing reasonable facility of composition
and mechanical power in the hand to keep going all the time, an
enormous amount can of course be accomplished. A thousand words an
hour is anything but an extraordinary rate of writing, and fifteen
hundred by no means unheard of with persons who do not write rubbish.

The references to this subject in Balzac's letters are very numerous;
but it is not easy to extract very definite information from them. It
would be not only impolite but incorrect to charge him with
unveracity. But the very heat of imagination which enabled him to
produce his work created a sort of mirage, through which he seems
always to have regarded it; and in writing to publishers, editors,
creditors, and even his own family, it was too obviously his interest
to make the most of his labor, his projects, and his performance. Even
his contemporary, though elder, Southey, the hardest-working and the
most scrupulously honest man of letters in England who could pretend
to genius, seems constantly to have exaggerated the idea of what he
could perform, if not of what he had performed in a given time. The
most definite statement of Balzac's that I remember is one which
claims the second number of /Sur Catherine de Medicis/, "La Confidence
des Ruggieri," as the production of a single night, and not one of the
most extravagant of his nights. Now, "La Confidence des Ruggieri"
fills, in the small edition, eighty pages of nearer four hundred than
three hundred words each, or some thirty thousand words in all. Nobody
in the longest of nights could manage that, except by dictating it to
shorthand clerks. But in the very context of this assertion Balzac
assigns a much longer period to the correction than to the
composition, and this brings us to one of the most curious and one of
the most famous points of his literary history.

Some doubts have, I believe, been thrown on the most minute account of
his ways of composition which we have, that of the publisher Werdet.
But there is too great a consensus of evidence as to his general
system to make the received description of it doubtful. According to
this, the first draft of Balzac's work never presented it in anything
like fulness, and sometimes it did not amount to a quarter of the bulk
finally published. This being returned to him from the printer in
"slip" on sheets with very large margins, he would set to work on the
correction; that is to say, on the practical rewriting of the thing,
with excisions, alterations, and above all, additions. A "revise"
being executed, he would attack this revise in the same manner, and
not unfrequently more than once, so that the expenses of mere
composition and correction of the press were enormously heavy (so
heavy as to eat into not merely his publisher's but his own profits),
and that the last state of the book, when published, was something
utterly different from its first state in manuscript. And it will be
obvious that if anything like this was usual with him, it is quite
impossible to judge his actual rapidity of composition by the extent
of the published result.

However this may be (and it is at least certain that in the years
above referred to he must have worked his very hardest, even if some
of the work then published had been more or less excogitated and begun
during the Wilderness period), he certainly so far left his eremitical
habits as to become acquainted with most of the great men of letters
of the early thirties, and also with certain ladies of more or less
high rank, who were to supply, if not exactly the full models, the
texts and starting-points for some of the most interesting figures of
the /Comedie/. He knew Victor Hugo, but certainly not at this time
intimately; for as late as 1839 the letter in which he writes to Hugo
to come and breakfast with him at Les Jardies (with interesting and
minute directions how to find that frail abode of genius) is couched
in anything but the tone of a familiar friendship. The letters to
Beyle of about the same date are also incompatible with intimate
knowledge. Nodier (after some contrary expressions) he seems to have
regarded as most good people did regard that true man of letters and
charming tale-teller; while among the younger generation Theophile
Gautier and Charles de Bernard, as well as Goslan and others, were his
real and constant friends. But he does not figure frequently or
eminently in any of the genuine gossip of the time as a haunter of
literary circles, and it is very nearly certain that the assiduity
with which some of his heroes attend /salons/ and clubs had no
counterpart in his own life. In the first place he was too busy; in
the second he would not have been at home there. Like the young
gentleman in /Punch/, who "did not read books but wrote them," though
in no satiric sense, he felt it his business not to frequent society
but to create it.

He was, however, aided in the task of creation by the ladies already
spoken of, who were fairly numerous and of divers degrees. The most
constant, after his sister Laure, was that sister's schoolfellow,
Madame Zulma Carraud, the wife of a military official at Angouleme and
the possessor of a small country estate at Frapesle, near Tours. At
both of these places Balzac, till he was a very great man, was a
constant visitor, and with Madame Carraud he kept up for years a
correspondence which has been held to be merely friendly, and which
was certainly in the vulgar sense innocent, but which seems to me to
be tinged with something of that feeling, midway between love and
friendship, which appears in Scott's letters to Lady Abercorn, and
which is probably not so rare as some think. Madame de Berny, another
family friend of higher rank, was the prototype of most of his
"angelic" characters, but she died in 1836. He knew the Duchesse
d'Abrantes, otherwise Madame Junot, and Madame de Girardin, otherwise
Delphine Gay; but neither seems to have exercised much influence over
him. It was different with another and more authentic duchess, Madame
de Castries, after whom he dangled for a considerable time, who
certainly first encouraged him and probably then snubbed him, and who
is thought to have been the model of his wickeder great ladies. And it
was comparatively early in the thirties that he met the woman whom,
after nearly twenty years, he was at last to marry, getting his death
in so doing, the Polish Madame Hanska. These, with some relations of
the last named, especially her daughter, and with a certain "Louise"--
an /Inconnue/ who never ceased to be so--were Balzac's chief
correspondents of the other sex, and, as far as is known, his chief
friends in it.

About his life, without extravagant "pudding" of guesswork or of mere
quotation and abstract of his letters, it would be not so much
difficult as impossible to say much; and accordingly it is a matter of
fact that most lives of Balzac, including all good ones, are rather
critical than narrative. From his real /debut/ with /Le Dernier
Chouan/ to his departure for Poland on the long visit, or brace of
visits, from which he returned finally to die, this life consisted
solely of work. One of his earliest utterances, "/Il faut piocher
ferme/," was his motto to the very last, varied only by a certain
amount of traveling. Balzac was always a considerable traveler; indeed
if he had not been so his constitution would probably have broken down
long before it actually did; and the expense of these voyagings
(though by his own account he generally conducted his affairs with the
most rigid economy), together with the interruption to his work which
they occasioned, entered no doubt for something into his money
difficulties. He would go to Baden or Vienna for a day's sight of
Madame Hanska; his Sardinian visit has been already noted; and as a
specimen of others it may be mentioned that he once journeyed from
Paris to Besancon, then from Besancon right across France to
Angouleme, and then back to Paris on some business of selecting paper
for one of the editions of his books, which his publishers would
probably have done much better and at much less expense.

Still his actual receipts were surprisingly small, partly, it may be,
owing to his expensive habits of composition, but far more, according
to his own account, because of the Belgian piracies, from which all
popular French authors suffered till the government of Napoleon the
Third managed to put a stop to them. He also lived in such a thick
atmosphere of bills and advances and cross-claims on and by his
publishers, that even if there were more documents than there are it
would be exceedingly difficult to get at facts which are, after all,
not very important. He never seems to have been paid much more than
500 pounds for the newspaper publication (the most valuable by far
because the pirates could not interfere with its profits) of any one
of his novels. And to expensive fashions of composition and
complicated accounts, a steady back-drag of debt and the rest, must be
added the very delightful, and to the novelist not useless, but very
expensive mania for the collector. Balzac had a genuine taste for, and
thought himself a genuine connoisseur in, pictures, sculpture, and
objects of art of all kinds, old and new; and though prices in his day
were not what they are in these, a great deal of money must have run
through his hands in this way. He calculated the value of the contents
of the house, which in his last days he furnished with such loving
care for his wife, and which turned out to be a chamber rather of
death than of marriage, at some 16,000 pounds. But part of this was
Madame Hanska's own purchasing, and there were offsets of indebtedness
against it almost to the last. In short, though during the last twenty
years of his life such actual "want of pence" as vexed him was not
due, as it had been earlier, to the fact that the pence refused to
come in, but only to imprudent management of them, it certainly cannot
be said that Honore de Balzac, the most desperately hard worker in all
literature for such time as was allotted him, and perhaps the man of
greatest genius who was ever a desperately hard worker, falsified that
most uncomfortable but truest of proverbs--"Hard work never made

If, however, he was but scantily rewarded with the money for which he
had a craving (not absolutely, I think, devoid of a touch of genuine
avarice, but consisting chiefly of the artist's desire for pleasant
and beautiful things, and partly presenting a variety or phase of the
grandiose imagination, which was his ruling characteristic), Balzac
had plenty of the fame, for which he cared quite as much as he cared
for money. Perhaps no writer except Voltaire and Goethe earlier made
such a really European reputation; and his books were of a kind to be
more widely read by the general public than either Goethe's or
Voltaire's. In England (Balzac liked the literature but not the
country, and never visited England, though I believe he planned a
visit) this popularity was, for obvious reasons, rather less than
elsewhere. The respectful vogue which French literature had had with
the English in the eighteenth century had ceased, owing partly to the
national enmity revived and fostered by the great war, and partly to
the growth of a fresh and magnificent literature at home during the
first thirty years of the nineteenth in England. But Balzac could not
fail to be read almost at once by the lettered; and he was translated
pretty early, though not perhaps to any great extent. It was in
England, moreover, that by far his greatest follower appeared, and
appeared very shortly. For it would be absurd in the most bigoted
admirer of Thackeray to deny that the author of /Vanity Fair/, who was
in Paris and narrowly watching French literature and French life at
the very time of Balzac's most exuberant flourishing and education,
owed something to the author of /Le Pere Goriot/. There was no copying
or imitation; the lessons taught by Balzac were too much blended with
those of native masters, such as Fielding, and too much informed and
transformed by individual genius. Some may think--it is a point at
issue not merely between Frenchmen and Englishmen, but between good
judges of both nations on each side--that in absolute veracity and
likeness to life, in limiting the operation of the inner consciousness
on the outward observation to strictly artistic scale, Thackeray
excelled Balzac as far as he fell short of him in the powers of the
seer and in the gigantic imagination of the prophet. But the relations
of pupil and master in at least some degree are not, I think,

So things went on in light and in shade, in homekeeping and in travel,
in debts and in earnings, but always in work of some kind or another,
for eighteen years from the turning point of 1829. By degrees, as he
gained fame and ceased to be in the most pressing want of money,
Balzac left off to some extent, though never entirely, those
miscellaneous writings--reviews (including puffs), comic or general
sketches, political diatribes, "physiologies" and the like--which,
with his discarded prefaces and much more interesting matter, were at
last, not many years ago, included in four stout volumes of the
/Edition Definitive/. With the exception of the /Physiologies/ (a sort
of short satiric analysis of this or that class, character, or
personage), which were very popular in the reign of Louis Philippe in
France, and which Albert Smith and others introduced into England,
Balzac did not do any of this miscellaneous work extremely well. Very
shrewd observations are to be found in his reviews, for instance his
indication, in reviewing La Touche's /Fragoletta/, of that common
fault of ambitious novels, a sort of woolly and "ungraspable"
looseness of construction and story, which constantly bewilders the
reader as to what is going on. But, as a rule, he was thinking too
much of his own work and his own principles of working to enter very
thoroughly into the work of others. His politics, those of a moderate
but decided Royalist and Conservative, were, as has been said,
intelligent in theory, but in practice a little distinguished by that
neglect of actual business detail which has been noticed in his

At last, in the summer of 1847, it seemed as if the Rachel for whom he
had served nearly if not quite the full fourteen years already, and
whose husband had long been out of the way, would at last grant
herself to him. He was invited to Vierzschovnia in the Ukraine, the
seat of Madame Hanska, or in strictness of her son-in-law, Count
Georges Mniszech; and as the visit was apparently for no restricted
period, and Balzac's pretensions to the lady's hand were notorious, it
might have seemed that he was as good as accepted. But to assume this
would have been to mistake what perhaps the greatest creation of
Balzac's great English contemporary and counterpart on the one side,
as Thackeray was his contemporary and counterpart on the other,
considered to be the malignity of widows. What the reasons were which
made Madame Hanska delay so long in doing what she did at last, and
might just as well, it would seem, have done years before, is not
certainly known, and it would be quite unprofitable to discuss them.
But it was on the 8th of October 1847 that Balzac first wrote to his
sister from Vierzschovnia, and it was not till the 14th of March 1850
that, "in the parish church of Saint Barbara at Berditchef, by the
Count Abbe Czarski, representing the Bishop of Jitomir (this is as
characteristic of Balzac in one way as what follows is in another) a
Madame Eve de Balzac, born Countess Rzevuska, or a Madame Honore de
Balzac or a Madame de Balzac the elder" came into existence.

It does not appear that Balzac was exactly unhappy during this huge
probation, which was broken by one short visit to Paris. The interest
of uncertainty was probably much for his ardent and unquiet spirit,
and though he did very little literary work for him, one may suspect
that he would not have done very much if he had stayed at Paris, for
signs of exhaustion, not of genius but of physical power, had shown
themselves before he left home. But it is not unjust or cruel to say
that by the delay "Madame Eve de Balzac" (her actual baptismal name
was Evelina) practically killed her husband. These winters in the
severe climate of Russian Poland were absolutely fatal to a
constitution, and especially to lungs, already deeply affected. At
Vierzschovnia itself he had illnesses, from which he narrowly escaped
with life, before the marriage; his heart broke down after it; and he
and his wife did not reach Paris till the end of May. Less than three
months afterwards, on the 18th of August, he died, having been visited
on the very day of his death in the Paradise of bric-a-brac which he
had created for his Eve in the Rue Fortunee--a name too provocative of
Nemesis--by Victor Hugo, the chief maker in verse as he himself was
the chief maker in prose of France. He was buried at Pere la Chaise.
The after-fortunes of his house and its occupants were not happy: but
they do not concern us.

In person Balzac was a typical Frenchman, as indeed he was in most
ways. From his portraits there would seem to have been more force and
address than distinction or refinement in his appearance, but, as has
been already observed, his period was one ungrateful to the
iconographer. His character, not as a writer but as a man, must occupy
us a little longer. For some considerable time--indeed it may be said
until the publication of his letters--it was not very favorably judged
on the whole. We may, of course, dismiss the childish scandals
(arising, as usual, from clumsy or malevolent misinterpretation of
such books as the /Physiologie de Mariage/, the /Peau de Chagrin/, and
a few others), which gave rise to the caricatures of him such as that
of which we read, representing him in a monk's dress at a table
covered with bottles and supporting a young person on his knee, the
whole garnished with the epigraph: Scenes de la Vie Cachee. They seem
to have given him, personally, a very unnecessary annoyance, and
indeed he was always rather sensitive to criticism. This kind of
stupid libel will never cease to be devised by the envious, swallowed
by the vulgar, and simply neglected by the wise. But Balzac's
peculiarities, both of life and of work, lent themselves rather
fatally to a subtler misconstruction which he also anticipated and
tried to remove, but which took a far stronger hold. He was
represented--and in the absence of any intimate male friends to
contradict the representation, it was certain to obtain some currency
--as in his artistic person a sardonic libeler of mankind, who cared
only to take foibles and vices for his subjects, and who either left
goodness and virtue out of sight altogether, or represented them as
the qualities of fools. In private life he was held up as at the best
a self-centered egotist who cared for nothing but himself and his own
work, capable of interrupting one friend who told him of the death of
a sister by the suggestion that they should change the subject and
talk of "something real, of /Eugenie Grandet," and of levying a fifty
per cent commission on another who had written a critical notice of
his, Balzac's, life and works.*

* Sandeau and Gautier, the victims in these two stories, were
neither spiteful, nor mendacious, nor irrational, so they are
probably true. The second was possibly due to Balzac's odd notions
of "business being business." The first, I have quite recently
seen reason to think, may have been a sort of reminiscence of one
of the traits in Diderot's extravagant encomium on Richardson.

With the first of these charges he himself, on different occasions,
rather vainly endeavored to grapple, once drawing up an elaborate list
of his virtuous and vicious women, and showing that the former
outnumbered the latter; and, again, laboring (with that curious lack
of sense of humor which distinguishes all Frenchmen but a very few,
and distinguished him eminently) to show that though no doubt it is
very difficult to make a virtuous person interesting, he, Honore de
Balzac, had attempted it, and succeeded in it, on a quite surprising
number of occasions.

The fact is that if he had handled this last matter rather more
lightly his answer would have been a sufficient one, and that in any
case the charge is not worth answering. It does not lie against the
whole of his work; and if it lay as conclusively as it does against
Swift's, it would not necessarily matter. To the artist in analysis as
opposed to the romance-writer, folly always, and villainy sometimes,
does supply a much better subject than virtuous success, and if he
makes his fools and his villains lifelike and supplies them with a
fair contrast of better things, there is nothing more to be said. He
will not, indeed, be a Shakespeare, or a Dante, or even a Scott; but
we may be very well satisfied with him as a Fielding, a Thackeray, or
a Balzac. As to the more purely personal matter I own that it was some
time before I could persuade myself that Balzac, to speak familiarly,
was a much better fellow than others, and I myself, have been
accustomed to think him. But it is also some time since I came to the
conclusion that he was so, and my conversion is not to be attributed
to any editorial retainer. His education in a lawyer's office, the
accursed advice about the /bonne speculation/, and his constant
straitenings for money, will account for his sometimes looking after
the main chance rather too narrowly; and as for the Eugenie Grandet
story (even if the supposition referred to in a note above be
fanciful) it requires no great stretch of charity or comprehension to
see in it nothing more awkward, very easily misconstrued, but not
necessarily in the least heartless or brutal attempt of a rather
absent and very much self-centered recluse absorbed in one subject, to
get his interlocutor as well as himself out of painful and useless
dwelling on sorrowful matters. Self-centered and self-absorbed Balzac
no doubt was; he could not have lived his life or produced his work if
he had been anything else. And it must be remembered that he owed
extremely little to others; that he had the independence as well as
the isolation of the self-centered; that he never sponged or fawned on
a great man, or wronged others of what was due to them. The only
really unpleasant thing about him that I know, and even this is
perhaps due to ignorance of all sides of the matter, is a slight touch
of snobbishness now and then, especially in those late letters from
Vierzschovnia to Madame de Balzac and Madame Surville, in which, while
inundating his mother and sister with commissions and requests for
service, he points out to them what great people the Hanskas and
Mniszechs are, what infinite honor and profit it will be to be
connected with them, and how desirable it is to keep struggling
engineer brothers-in-law and ne'er-do-well brothers in the colonies
out of sight lest they should disgust the magnates.

But these are "sma' sums, sma' sums," as Bailie Jarvie says; and
smallness of any kind has, whatever it may have to do with Balzac the
man, nothing to do with Balzac the writer. With him as with some
others, but not as with the larger number, the sense of /greatness/
increases the longer and the more fully he is studied. He resembles, I
think, Goethe more than any other man of letters--certainly more than
any other of the present century--in having done work which is very
frequently, if not even commonly, faulty, and in yet requiring that
his work shall be known as a whole. His appeal is cumulative; it
repeats itself on each occasion with a slight difference, and though
there may now and then be the same faults to be noticed, they are
almost invariably accompanied, not merely by the same, but by fresh

As has been said at the beginning of this essay, no attempt will be
made in it to give that running survey of Balzac's work which is
always useful and sometimes indispensable in treatment of the kind.
But something like a summing up of that subject will here be attempted
because it is really desirable that in embarking on so vast a voyage
the reader should have some general chart--some notes of the soundings
and log generally of those who have gone before him.

There are two things, then, which it is more especially desirable to
keep constantly before one in reading Balzac--two things which, taken
together, constitute his almost unique value, and two things which not
a few critics have failed to take together in him, being under the
impression that the one excludes the other, and that to admit the
other is tantamount to a denial of the one. These two things are,
first, an immense attention to detail, sometimes observed, sometimes
invented or imagined; and secondly; a faculty of regarding these
details through a mental lens or arrangement of lenses almost peculiar
to himself, which at once combines, enlarges, and invests them with a
peculiar magical halo or mirage. The two thousand personages of the
/Comedie Humaine/ are, for the most part, "signaled," as the French
official word has it, marked and denoted by the minutest traits of
character, gesture, gait, clothing, abode, what not; the transactions
recorded are very often given with a scrupulous and microscopic
accuracy of reporting which no detective could outdo. Defoe is not
more circumstantial in detail of fact than Balzac; Richardson is
hardly more prodigal of character-stroke. Yet a very large proportion
of these characters, of these circumstances, are evidently things
invented or imagined, not observed. And in addition to this the
artist's magic glass, his Balzacian speculum, if we may so say (for
none else has ever had it), transforms even the most rigid observation
into something flickering and fanciful, the outline as of shadows on
the wall, not the precise contour of etching or of the camera.

It is curious, but not unexampled, that both Balzac himself when he
struggled in argument with his critics and those of his partisans who
have been most zealously devoted to him, have usually tried to exalt
the first and less remarkable of these gifts over the second and
infinitely more remarkable. Balzac protested strenuously against the
use of the word "gigantesque" in reference to his work; and of course
it is susceptible of an unhandsome innuendo. But if we leave that
innuendo aside, if we adopt the sane reflection that "gigantesque"
does not exceed "gigantic," or assert as constant failure of
greatness, but only indicates that the magnifying process is carried
on with a certain indiscriminateness, we shall find none, I think,
which so thoroughly well describes him.

The effect of this singular combination of qualities, apparently the
most opposite, may be partly anticipated, but not quite. It results
occasionally in a certain shortcoming as regards /verite vraie/,
absolute artistic truth to nature. Those who would range Balzac in
point of such artistic veracity on a level with poetical and universal
realists like Shakespeare and Dante, or prosaic and particular
realists like Thackeray and Fielding, seem not only to be utterly
wrong but to pay their idol the worst of all compliments, that of
ignoring his own special qualifications. The province of Balzac may
not be--I do no think it is--identical, much less co-extensive, with
that of nature. But it is his own--a partly real, partly fantastic
region, where the lights, the shades, the dimensions, and the physical
laws are slightly different from those of this world of ours, but with
which, owing to the things it has in common with that world, we are
able to sympathize, which we can traverse and comprehend. Every now
and then the artist uses his observing faculty more, and his
magnifying and distorting lens less; every now and then he reverses
the proportion. Some tastes will like him best in the one stage; some
in the other; the happier constituted will like him best in both.
These latter will decline to put /Eugenie Grandet/ above the /Peau de
Chagrin/, or /Le Pere Goriot/ above the wonderful handful of tales
which includes /La Recherche de l'Absolu/ and /Le Chef-d'oeuvre
Inconnu/, though they will no doubt recognize that even in the first
two named members of these pairs the Balzacian quality, that of
magnifying and rendering grandiose, is present, and that the martyrdom
of Eugenie, the avarice of her father, the blind self-devotion of
Goriot to his thankless and worthless children, would not be what they
are if they were seen through a perfectly achromatic and normal

This specially Balzacian quality is, I think, unique. It is like--it
may almost be said to /be/--the poetic imagination, present in
magnificent volume and degree, but in some miraculous way deprived and
sterilized of the specially poetical quality. By this I do not of
course mean that Balzac did not write in verse: we have a few verses
of his, and they are pretty bad, but that is neither here nor there.
The difference between Balzac and a great poet lies not in the fact
that the one fills the whole page with printed words, and the other
only a part of it--but in something else. If I could put that
something else into distinct words I should therein attain the
philosopher's stone, the elixir of life, the /primum mobile/, the
/grand arcanum/, not merely of criticism but of all things. It might
be possible to coast about it, to hint at it, by adumbrations and in
consequences. But it is better and really more helpful to face the
difficulty boldly, and to say that Balzac, approaching a great poet
nearer perhaps than any other prose writer in any language, is
distinguished from one by the absence of the very last touch, the
finally constituting quiddity, which makes a great poet different from

Now, when we make this comparison, it is of the first interest to
remember--and it is one of the uses of the comparison, that it
suggests the remembrance of the fact--that the great poets have
usually been themselves extremely exact observers of detail. It has
not made them great poets; but they would not be great poets without
it. And when Eugenie Grandet starts from /le petit banc de bois/ at
the reference to it in her scoundrelly cousin's letter (to take only
one instance out of a thousand), we see in Balzac the same
observation, subject to the limitation just mentioned, that we see in
Dante and Shakespeare, in Chaucer and Tennyson. But the great poets do
not as a rule /accumulate/ detail. Balzac does, and from this very
accumulation he manages to derive that singular gigantesque vagueness
--differing from the poetic vague, but ranking next to it--which I
have here ventured to note as his distinguishing quality. He bewilders
us a very little by it, and he gives us the impression that he has
slightly bewildered himself. But the compensations of the bewilderment
are large.

For in this labyrinth and whirl of things, in this heat and hurry of
observation and imagination, the special intoxication of Balzac
consists. Every great artist has his own means of producing this
intoxication, and it differs in result like the stimulus of beauty or
of wine. Those persons who are unfortunate enough to see in Balzac
little or nothing but an ingenious piler-up of careful strokes--a man
of science taking his human documents and classing them after an
orderly fashion in portfolio and deed-box--must miss this intoxication
altogether. It is much more agreeable as well as much more accurate to
see in the manufacture of the /Comedie/ the process of a Cyclopean
workshop--the bustle, the hurry, the glare and shadow, the steam and
sparks of Vulcanian forging. The results, it is true, are by no means
confused or disorderly--neither were those of the forges that worked
under Lipari--but there certainly went much more to them than the
dainty fingering of a literary fretwork-maker or the dull rummagings
of a realist /a la Zola/.

In part, no doubt, and in great part, the work of Balzac is dream-
stuff rather than life-stuff, and it is all the better for that. What
is better than dreams? But the coherence of his visions, their bulk,
their solidity, the way in which they return to us and we return to
them, make them such dream-stuff as there is all too little of in this
world. If it is true that evil on the whole predominates over good in
the vision of this "Voyant," as Philarete Chasles so justly called
him, two very respectable, and in one case very large, though somewhat
opposed divisions of mankind, the philosophic pessimist and the
convinced and consistent Christian believer, will tell us that this is
at least not one of the points in which it is unfaithful to life. If
the author is closer and more faithful in his study of meanness and
vice than in his studies of nobility and virtue, the blame is due at
least as much to his models as to himself. If he has seldom succeeded
in combining a really passionate with a really noble conception of
love, very few of his countrymen have been more fortunate in that
respect. If in some of his types--his journalists, his married women,
and others--he seems to have sacrificed to conventions, let us
remember that those who know attribute to his conventions such a power
if not altogether such a holy influence that two generations of the
people he painted have actually lived more and more up to his painting
of them.

And last of all, but also greatest, has to be considered the immensity
of his imaginative achievement, the huge space that he has filled for
us with vivid creation, the range of amusement, of instruction, of
(after a fashion) edification which he has thrown open for us all to
walk in. It is possible that he himself and others more or less well-
meaningly, though more or less maladroitly, following his lead, may
have exaggerated the coherence and the architectural design of the
/Comedie/. But it has coherence and it has design; nor shall we find
anything exactly to parallel it. In mere bulk the /Comedie/ probably,
if not certainly, exceeds the production of any novelist of the first
class in any kind of fiction except Dumas, and with Dumas, for various
and well-known reasons, there is no possibility of comparing it. All
others yield in bulk; all in a certain concentration and intensity;
none even aims at anything like the same system and completeness. It
must be remembered that owing to shortness of life, lateness of
beginning, and the diversion of the author to other work, the
/Comedie/ is the production, and not the sole production, of some
seventeen or eighteen years at most. Not a volume of it, for all that
failure to reach the completest perfection in form and style which has
been acknowledged, can be accused of thinness, of scamped work, of
mere repetition, of mere cobbling up. Every one bears the marks of
steady and ferocious labor, as well as of the genius which had at last
come where it had been so earnestly called and had never gone away
again. It is possible to overpraise Balzac in parts or to mispraise
him as a whole. But so long as inappropriate and superfluous
comparisons are avoided and as his own excellence is recognized and
appreciated, it is scarcely possible to overestimate that excellence
in itself and for itself. He stands alone; even with Dickens, who is
his nearest analogue, he shows far more points of difference than of
likeness. His vastness of bulk is not more remarkable than his
peculiarity of quality; and when these two things coincide in
literature or elsewhere, then that in which they coincide may be
called, and must be called, Great, without hesitation and without




The form in which the Comedie Humaine was left by its author, with the
exceptions of /Le Depute d'Arcis (incomplete) and /Les Petits
Bourgeois/, both of which were added, some years later, by the Edition

The original French titles are followed by their English equivalents.
Literal translations have been followed, excepting a few instances
where preference is shown for a clearer or more comprehensive English

[Note from Team Balzac, the Etext preparers: In some cases more than
one English translation is commonly used for various translations/
editions. In such cases the first translation is from the Saintsbury
edition copyrighted in 1901 and that is the title referred to in the
personages following most of the stories. We have added other title
translations of which we are currently aware for the readers'



La Maison du Chat-qui Pelote
AT the Sign of the Cat and Racket

Le Bal de Sceaux
The Ball at Sceaux

La Bourse
The Purse

La Vendetta
The Vendetta

Mme. Firmiani
Madame Firmiani

Une Double Famille
A Second Home

La Paix du Menage
Domestic Peace

La Fausse Maitresse
The Imaginary Mistress

Etude de femme
A Study of Woman

Autre etude de femme
Another Study of Woman

La Grande Breteche
La Grand Breteche

Albert Savarus
Albert Savarus

Memoires de deux Jeunes Mariees
Letters of Two Brides

Une Fille d'Eve
A Daughter of Eve

La Femme de Trente Ans
A Woman of Thirty

La Femme abandonnee
The Deserted Woman

La Grenadiere
La Grenadiere

Le Message
The Message


Le Contrat de Mariage
A Marriage Settlement
A Marriage Contract

Un Debut dans la vie
A Start in Life

Modeste Mignon
Modeste Mignon



Le Colonel Chabert
Colonel Chabert

La Messe de l'Athee
The Atheist's Mass

The Commission in Lunacy

Pierre Grassou
Pierre Grassou


Ursule Mirouet
Ursule Mirouet

Eugenie Grandet
Eugenie Grandet

Les Celibataires:
The Celibates:

Le Cure de Tours
The Vicar of Tours

Un Menage de Garcon
A Bachelor's Establishment
The Two Brothers
The Black Sheep

Les Parisiens en Province:
Parisians in the Country:
L'illustre Gaudissart
Gaudissart the Great
The Illustrious Gaudissart

La Muse du departement
The Muse of the Department

Les Rivalites:
The Jealousies of a Country Town:
La Vieille Fille
The Old Maid

Le Cabinet des antiques
The Collection of Antiquities

Le Lys dans la Vallee
The Lily of the Valley

Illusions Perdues:--I.
Lost Illusions:--I.
Les Deux Poetes
The Two Poets

Un Grand homme de province a Paris, 1re partie
A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, Part 1

Illusions Perdues:--II.
Lost Illusions:--II.
Un Grand homme de province, 2e p.
A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, Part 2

Eve et David
Eve and David


Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtisanes:
Scenes from a Courtesan's Life:
Esther heureuse
Esther Happy

A combien l'amour revient aux vieillards
What Love Costs an Old Man

Ou menent les mauvais Chemins
The End of Evil Ways

La derniere Incarnation de Vautrin
Vautrin's Last Avatar

Un Prince de la Boheme
A Prince of Bohemia

Un Homme d'affaires
A Man of Business

Gaudissart II.
Gaudissart II.

Les Comediens sans le savoir
The Unconscious Humorists
The Unconscious Comedians

Histoire des Treize:
The Thirteen:

La Duchesse de Langeais
The Duchesse de Langeais

La Fille aux yeux d'or
The Girl with the Golden Eyes

Le Pere Goriot
Father Goriot

Grandeur et Decadence de Cesar Birotteau
The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau

La Maison Nucingen
The Firm of Nucingen

Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan
The Secrets of a Princess
The Secrets of the Princess Cadignan

Les Employes
The Government Clerks


Facino Cane
Facine Cane

Les Parents Pauvres:--I.
Poor Relations:--I.
La Cousine Bette
Cousin Betty

Les Parents Pauvres:--II.
Poor Relations:--II.
Le Cousin Pons
Cousin Pons

Les Petits Bourgeois
The Middle Classes
The Lesser Bourgeoise


Une Tenebreuse Affaire
The Gondreville Mystery
An Historical Mystery

Un Episode sous la Terreur
An Episode Under the Terror

L'Envers de l'Histoire Contemporaine:
The Seamy Side of History:
The Brotherhood of Consolation:
Mme. de la Chanterie
Madame de la Chanterie

The Initiate

Z. Marcas
Z. Marcas

Le Depute d'Arcis
The Member for Arcis
The Deputy for Arcis


Les Chouans
The Chouans

Une Passion dans le desert
A Passion in the Desert


Le Medecin de Campagne
The Country Doctor

Le Cure de Village
The Country Parson
The Village Rector

Les Paysans
The Peasantry
Sons of the Soil


La Peau de Chagrin
The Magic Skin

La Recherche de l'Absolu
The Quest of the Absolute
The Alkahest

Jesus-Christ en Flandre
Christ in Flanders

Melmoth reconcilie
Melmoth Reconciled

Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu
The Unknown Masterpiece
The Hidden Masterpiece

L'Enfant Maudit
The Hated Son


Massimilla Doni
Massimilla Doni

Les Marana
The Maranas


Le Requisitionnaire
The Conscript
The Recruit

El Verdugo
El Verdugo

Un Drame au bord de la mer
A Seaside Tragedy
A Drama on the Seashore

L'Auberge rouge
The Red Inn

L'Elixir de longue vie
The Elixir of Life

Maitre Cornelius
Maitre Cornelius

Sur Catherine de Medicis:
About Catherine de' Medici
Le Martyr calviniste
The Calvinist Martyr

La Confidence des Ruggieri
The Ruggieri's Secret

Les Deux Reves
The Two Dreams

Louis Lambert
Louis Lambert

Les Proscrits
The Exiles



In giving the general title of "The Human Comedy" to a work begun
nearly thirteen years since, it is necessary to explain its motive, to
relate its origin, and briefly sketch its plan, while endeavoring to
speak of these matters as though I had no personal interest in them.
This is not so difficult as the public might imagine. Few works
conduce to much vanity; much labor conduces to great diffidence. This
observation accounts for the study of their own works made by
Corneille, Moliere, and other great writers; if it is impossible to
equal them in their fine conceptions, we may try to imitate them in
this feeling.

The idea of /The Human Comedy/ was at first as a dream to me, one of
those impossible projects which we caress and then let fly; a chimera
that gives us a glimpse of its smiling woman's face, and forthwith
spreads its wings and returns to a heavenly realm of phantasy. But
this chimera, like many another, has become a reality; has its
behests, its tyranny, which must be obeyed.

The idea originated in a comparison between Humanity and Animality.

It is a mistake to suppose that the great dispute which has lately
made a stir, between Cuvier and Geoffroi Saint-Hilaire, arose from a
scientific innovation. Unity of structure, under other names, had
occupied the greatest minds during the two previous centuries. As we
read the extraordinary writings of the mystics who studied the
sciences in their relation to infinity, such as Swedenborg, Saint-
Martin, and others, and the works of the greatest authors on Natural
History--Leibnitz, Buffon, Charles Bonnet, etc., we detect in the
/monads/ of Leibnitz, in the /organic molecules/ of Buffon, in the
/vegetative force/ of Needham, in the correlation of similar organs of
Charles Bonnet--who in 1760 was so bold as to write, "Animals vegetate
as plants do"--we detect, I say, the rudiments of the great law of
Self for Self, which lies at the root of /Unity of Plan/. There is but
one Animal. The Creator works on a single model for every organized
being. "The Animal" is elementary, and takes its external form, or, to
be accurate, the differences in its form, from the environment in
which it is obliged to develop. Zoological species are the result of
these differences. The announcement and defence of this system, which
is indeed in harmony with our preconceived ideas of Divine Power, will
be the eternal glory of Geoffroi Saint-Hilaire, Cuvier's victorious
opponent on this point of higher science, whose triumph was hailed by
Goethe in the last article he wrote.

I, for my part, convinced of this scheme of nature long before the
discussion to which it has given rise, perceived that in this respect
society resembled nature. For does not society modify Man, according
to the conditions in which he lives and acts, into men as manifold as
the species in Zoology? The differences between a soldier, an artisan,
a man of business, a lawyer, an idler, a student, a statesman, a
merchant, a sailor, a poet, a beggar, a priest, are as great, though
not so easy to define, as those between the wolf, the lion, the ass,
the crow, the shark, the seal, the sheep, etc. Thus social species
have always existed, and will always exist, just as there are
zoological species. If Buffon could produce a magnificent work by
attempting to represent in a book the whole realm of zoology, was
there not room for a work of the same kind on society? But the limits
set by nature to the variations of animals have no existence in
society. When Buffon describes the lion, he dismisses the lioness with
a few phrases; but in society a wife is not always the female of the
male. There may be two perfectly dissimilar beings in one household.
The wife of a shopkeeper is sometimes worthy of a prince, and the wife
of a prince is often worthless compared with the wife of an artisan.
The social state has freaks which Nature does not allow herself; it is
nature /plus/ society. The description of social species would thus be
at least double that of animal species, merely in view of the two
sexes. Then, among animals the drama is limited; there is scarcely any
confusion; they turn and rend each other--that is all. Men, too, rend
each other; but their greater or less intelligence makes the struggle
far more complicated. Though some savants do not yet admit that the
animal nature flows into human nature through an immense tide of life,
the grocer certainly becomes a peer, and the noble sometimes sinks to
the lowest social grade. Again, Buffon found that life was extremely
simple among animals. Animals have little property, and neither arts
nor sciences; while man, by a law that has yet to be sought, has a
tendency to express his culture, his thoughts, and his life in
everything he appropriates to his use. Though Leuwenhoek, Swammerdam,
Spallanzani, Reaumur, Charles Bonnet, Muller, Haller and other patient
investigators have shown us how interesting are the habits of animals,
those of each kind, are, at least to our eyes, always and in every age
alike; whereas the dress, the manners, the speech, the dwelling of a
prince, a banker, an artist, a citizen, a priest, and a pauper are
absolutely unlike, and change with every phase of civilization.

Hence the work to be written needed a threefold form--men, women, and
things; that is to say, persons and the material expression of their
minds; man, in short, and life.

As we read the dry and discouraging list of events called History, who
can have failed to note that the writers of all periods, in Egypt,
Persia, Greece, and Rome, have forgotten to give us a history of
manners? The fragment of Petronius on the private life of the Romans
excites rather than satisfies our curiosity. It was from observing
this great void in the field of history that the Abbe Barthelemy
devoted his life to a reconstruction of Greek manners in /Le Jeune

But how could such a drama, with the four or five thousand persons
which society offers, be made interesting? How, at the same time,
please the poet, the philosopher, and the masses who want both poetry
and philosophy under striking imagery? Though I could conceive of the
importance and of the poetry of such a history of the human heart, I
saw no way of writing it; for hitherto the most famous story-tellers
had spent their talent in creating two or three typical actors, in
depicting one aspect of life. It was with this idea that I read the
works of Walter Scott. Walter Scott, the modern troubadour, or finder
(/trouvere=trouveur/), had just then given an aspect of grandeur to a
class of composition unjustly regarded as of the second rank. Is it
not really more difficult to compete with personal and parochial
interests by writing of Daphnis and Chloe, Roland, Amadis, Panurge,
Don Quixote, Manon Lescaut, Clarissa, Lovelace, Robinson Crusoe, Gil
Blas, Ossian, Julie d'Etanges, My Uncle Toby, Werther, Corinne,
Adolphe, Paul and Virginia, Jeanie Deans, Claverhouse, Ivanhoe,
Manfred, Mignon, than to set forth in order facts more or less similar
in every country, to investigate the spirit of laws that have fallen
into desuetude, to review the theories which mislead nations, or, like
some metaphysicians, to explain what /Is/? In the first place, these
actors, whose existence becomes more prolonged and more authentic than
that of the generations which saw their birth, almost always live
solely on condition of their being a vast reflection of the present.
Conceived in the womb of their own period, the whole heart of humanity
stirs within their frame, which often covers a complete system of
philosophy. Thus Walter Scott raised to the dignity of the philosophy
of History the literature which, from age to age, sets perennial gems
in the poetic crown of every nation where letters are cultivated. He
vivified it with the spirit of the past; he combined drama, dialogue,
portrait, scenery, and description; he fused the marvelous with truth
--the two elements of the times; and he brought poetry into close
contact with the familiarity of the humblest speech. But as he had not
so much devised a system as hit upon a manner in the ardor of his
work, or as its logical outcome, he never thought of connecting his
compositions in such a way as to form a complete history of which each
chapter was a novel, and each novel the picture of a period.

It was by discerning this lack of unity, which in no way detracts from
the Scottish writer's greatness, that I perceived at once the scheme
which would favor the execution of my purpose, and the possibility of
executing it. Though dazzled, so to speak, by Walter Scott's amazing
fertility, always himself and always original, I did not despair, for
I found the source of his genius in the infinite variety of human
nature. Chance is the greatest romancer in the world; we have only to
study it. French society would be the real author; I should only be
the secretary. By drawing up an inventory of vices and virtues, by
collecting the chief facts of the passions, by depicting characters,
by choosing the principal incidents of social life, by composing types
out of a combination of homogeneous characteristics, I might perhaps
succeed in writing the history which so many historians have
neglected: that of Manners. By patience and perseverance I might
produce for France in the nineteenth century the book which we must
all regret that Rome, Athens, Tyre, Memphis, Persia, and India have
not bequeathed to us; that history of their social life which,
prompted by the Abbe Barthelemy, Monteil patiently and steadily tried
to write for the Middle Ages, but in an unattractive form.

This work, so far, was nothing. By adhering to the strict lines of a
reproduction a writer might be a more or less faithful, and more or
less successful, painter of types of humanity, a narrator of the
dramas of private life, an archaeologist of social furniture, a
cataloguer of professions, a registrar of good and evil; but to
deserve the praise of which every artist must be ambitious, must I not
also investigate the reasons or the cause of these social effects,
detect the hidden sense of this vast assembly of figures, passions,
and incidents? And finally, having sought--I will not say having found
--this reason, this motive power, must I not reflect on first
principles, and discover in what particulars societies approach or
deviate from the eternal law of truth and beauty? In spite of the wide
scope of the preliminaries, which might of themselves constitute a
book, the work, to be complete, would need a conclusion. Thus
depicted, society ought to bear in itself the reason of its working.

The law of the writer, in virtue of which he is a writer, and which I
do not hesitate to say makes him the equal, or perhaps the superior,
of the statesman, is his judgment, whatever it may be, on human
affairs, and his absolute devotion to certain principles. Machiavelli,
Hobbes, Bossuet, Leibnitz, Kant, Montesquieu, /are/ the science which
statesmen apply. "A writer ought to have settled opinions on morals
and politics; he should regard himself as a tutor of men; for men need
no masters to teach them to doubt," says Bonald. I took these noble
words as my guide long ago; they are the written law of the
monarchical writer. And those who would confute me by my own words
will find that they have misinterpreted some ironical phrase, or that
they have turned against me a speech given to one of my actors--a
trick peculiar to calumniators.

As to the intimate purpose, the soul of this work, these are the
principles on which it is based.

Man is neither good nor bad; he is born with instincts and
capabilities; society, far from depraving him, as Rousseau asserts,
improves him, makes him better; but self-interest also develops his
evil tendencies. Christianity, above all, Catholicism, being--as I
have pointed out in the Country Doctor (/le Medecin de Campagne/)--a
complete system for the repression of the depraved tendencies of man,
is the most powerful element of social order.

In reading attentively the presentment of society cast, as it were,
from the life, with all that is good and all that is bad in it, we
learn this lesson--if thought, or if passion, which combines thought
and feeling, is the vital social element, it is also its destructive
element. In this respect social life is like the life of man. Nations
live long only by moderating their vital energy. Teaching, or rather
education, by religious bodies is the grand principle of life for
nations, the only means of diminishing the sum of evil and increasing
the sum of good in all society. Thought, the living principle of good
and ill, can only be trained, quelled, and guided by religion. The
only possible religion is Christianity (see the letter from Paris in
"Louis Lambert," in which the young mystic explains, /a propos/ to
Swedenborg's doctrines, how there has never been but one religion
since the world began). Christianity created modern nationalities, and
it will preserve them. Hence, no doubt, the necessity for the
monarchical principle. Catholicism and Royalty are twin principles.

As to the limits within which these two principles should be confined
by various institutions, so that they may not become absolute, every
one will feel that a brief preface ought not to be a political
treatise. I cannot, therefore, enter on religious discussions, nor on
the political discussions of the day. I write under the light of two
eternal truths--Religion and Monarchy; two necessities, as they are
shown to be by contemporary events, towards which every writer of
sound sense ought to try to guide the country back. Without being an
enemy to election, which is an excellent principle as a basis of
legislation, I reject election regarded as /the only social
instrument/, especially so badly organized as it now is (1842); for it
fails to represent imposing minorities, whose ideas and interests
would occupy the attention of a monarchical government. Elective power
extended to all gives us government by the masses, the only
irresponsible form of government, under which tyranny is unlimited,
for it calls itself law. Besides, I regard the family and not the
individual as the true social unit. In this respect, at the risk of
being thought retrograde, I side with Bossuet and Bonald instead of
going with modern innovators. Since election has become the only
social instrument, if I myself were to exercise it no contradiction
between my acts and my words should be inferred. An engineer points
out that a bridge is about to fall, that it is dangerous for any one
to cross it; but he crosses it himself when it is the only road to the
town. Napoleon adapted election to the spirit of the French nation
with wonderful skill. The least important members of his Legislative
Body became the most famous orators of the Chamber after the
Restoration. No Chamber has ever been the equal of the /Corps
Legislatif/, comparing them man for man. The elective system of the
Empire was, then, indisputably the best.

Some persons may, perhaps, think that this declaration is somewhat
autocratic and self-assertive. They will quarrel with the novelist for
wanting to be an historian, and will call him to account for writing
politics. I am simply fulfilling an obligation--that is my reply. The
work I have undertaken will be as long as a history; I was compelled
to explain the logic of it, hitherto unrevealed, and its principles
and moral purpose.

Having been obliged to withdraw the prefaces formerly published, in
response to essentially ephemeral criticisms, I will retain only one

Writers who have a purpose in view, were it only a reversion to
principles familiar in the past because they are eternal, should
always clear the ground. Now every one who, in the domain of ideas,
brings his stone by pointing out an abuse, or setting a mark on some
evil that it may be removed--every such man is stigmatized as immoral.
The accusation of immorality, which has never failed to be cast at the
courageous writer, is, after all, the last that can be brought when
nothing else remains to be said to a romancer. If you are truthful in
your pictures; if by dint of daily and nightly toil you succeed in
writing the most difficult language in the world, the word /immoral/
is flung in your teeth. Socrates was immoral; Jesus Christ was
immoral; they both were persecuted in the name of the society they
overset or reformed. When a man is to be killed he is taxed with
immorality. These tactics, familiar in party warfare, are a disgrace
to those who use them. Luther and Calvin knew well what they were
about when they shielded themselves behind damaged worldly interests!
And they lived all the days of their life.

When depicting all society, sketching it in the immensity of its
turmoil, it happened--it could not but happen--that the picture
displayed more of evil than of good; that some part of the fresco
represented a guilty couple; and the critics at once raised a cry of
immorality, without pointing out the morality of another position
intended to be a perfect contrast. As the critic knew nothing of the
general plan I could forgive him, all the more because one can no more
hinder criticism than the use of eyes, tongues, and judgment. Also the
time for an impartial verdict is not yet come for me. And, after all,
the author who cannot make up his mind to face the fire of criticism
should no more think of writing than a traveler should start on his
journey counting on a perpetually clear sky. On this point it remains
to be said that the most conscientious moralists doubt greatly whether
society can show as many good actions as bad ones; and in the picture
I have painted of it there are more virtuous figures than
reprehensible ones. Blameworthy actions, faults and crimes, from the
lightest to the most atrocious, always meet with punishment, human or
divine, signal or secret. I have done better than the historian, for I
am free. Cromwell here on earth escaped all punishment but that
inflicted by thoughtful men. And on this point there have been divided
schools. Bossuet even showed some consideration for great regicide.
William of Orange, the usurper, Hugues Capet, another usurper, lived
to old age with no more qualms or fears than Henri IV. or Charles I.
The lives of Catherine II. and of Frederick of Prussia would be
conclusive against any kind of moral law, if they were judged by the
twofold aspect of the morality which guides ordinary mortals, and that
which is in use by crowned heads; for, as Napoleon said, for kings and
statesmen there are the lesser and the higher morality. My scenes of
political life are founded on this profound observation. It is not a
law to history, as it is to romance, to make for a beautiful ideal.
History is, or ought to be, what it was; while romance ought to be
"the better world," as was said by Mme. Necker, one of the most
distinguished thinkers of the last century.

Still, with this noble falsity, romance would be nothing if it were
not true in detail. Walter Scott, obliged as he was to conform to the
ideas of an essentially hypocritical nation, was false to humanity in
his picture of woman, because his models were schismatics. The
Protestant woman has no ideal. She may be chaste, pure, virtuous; but
her unexpansive love will always be as calm and methodical as the
fulfilment of a duty. It might seem as though the Virgin Mary had
chilled the hearts of those sophists who have banished her from heaven
with her treasures of loving kindness. In Protestantism there is no
possible future for the woman who has sinned; while, in the Catholic
Church, the hope of forgiveness makes her sublime. Hence, for the
Protestant writer there is but one Woman, while the Catholic writer
finds a new woman in each new situation. If Walter Scott had been a
Catholic, if he had set himself the task of describing truly the
various phases of society which have successively existed in Scotland,
perhaps the painter of Effie and Alice--the two figures for which he
blamed himself in his later years--might have admitted passion with
its sins and punishments, and the virtues revealed by repentance.
Passion is the sum-total of humanity. Without passion, religion,
history, romance, art, would all be useless.

Some persons, seeing me collect such a mass of facts and paint them as
they are, with passion for their motive power, have supposed, but
wrongly, that I must belong to the school of Sensualism and
Materialism--two aspects of the same thing--Pantheism. But their
misapprehension was perhaps justified--or inevitable. I do not share
the belief in indefinite progress for society as a whole; I believe in
man's improvement in himself. Those who insist on reading in me the
intention to consider man as a finished creation are strangely
mistaken. /Seraphita/, the doctrine in action of the Christian Buddha,
seems to me an ample answer to this rather heedless accusation.

In certain fragments of this long work I have tried to popularize the
amazing facts, I may say the marvels, of electricity, which in man is
metamorphosed into an incalculable force; but in what way do the
phenomena of brain and nerves, which prove the existence of an
undiscovered world of psychology, modify the necessary and undoubted
relations of the worlds to God? In what way can they shake the
Catholic dogma? Though irrefutable facts should some day place thought
in the class of fluids which are discerned only by their effects while
their substance evades our senses, even when aided by so many
mechanical means, the result will be the same as when Christopher
Columbus detected that the earth is a sphere, and Galileo demonstrated
its rotation. Our future will be unchanged. The wonders of animal
magnetism, with which I have been familiar since 1820; the beautiful
experiments of Gall, Lavater's successor; all the men who have studied
mind as opticians have studied light--two not dissimilar things--point
to a conclusion in favor of the mystics, the disciples of St. John,
and of those great thinkers who have established the spiritual world--
the sphere in which are revealed the relations of God and man.

A sure grasp of the purport of this work will make it clear that I
attach to common, daily facts, hidden or patent to the eye, to the
acts of individual lives, and to their causes and principles, the
importance which historians have hitherto ascribed to the events of
public national life. The unknown struggle which goes on in a valley
of the Indre between Mme. de Mortsauf and her passion is perhaps as
great as the most famous of battles (/Le Lys dans la Vallee/). In one
the glory of the victor is at stake; in the other it is heaven. The
misfortunes of the two Birotteaus, the priest and the perfumer, to me
are those of mankind. La Fosseuse (/Medecin de Campagne/) and Mme.
Graslin (/Cure de Village/) are almost the sum-total of woman. We all
suffer thus every day. I have had to do a hundred times what
Richardson did but once. Lovelace has a thousand forms, for social
corruption takes the hues of the medium in which it lives. Clarissa,
on the contrary, the lovely image of impassioned virtue, is drawn in
lines of distracting purity. To create a variety of Virgins it needs a
Raphael. In this respect, perhaps literature must yield to painting.

Still, I may be allowed to point out how many irreproachable figures--
as regards their virtue--are to be found in the portions of this work
already published: Pierrette Lorrain, Ursule Mirouet, Constance
Birotteau, La Fosseuse, Eugenie Grandet, Marguerite Claes, Pauline de
Villenoix, Madame Jules, Madame de la Chanterie, Eve Chardon,
Mademoiselle d'Esgrignon, Madame Firmiani, Agathe Rouget, Renee de
Maucombe; besides several figures in the middle-distance, who, though
less conspicuous than these, nevertheless, offer the reader an example
of domestic virtue: Joseph Lebas, Genestas, Benassis, Bonnet the cure,
Minoret the doctor, Pillerault, David Sechard, the two Birotteaus,
Chaperon the priest, Judge Popinot, Bourgeat, the Sauviats, the
Tascherons, and many more. Do not all these solve the difficult
literary problem which consists in making a virtuous person

It was no small task to depict the two or three thousand conspicuous
types of a period; for this is, in fact, the number presented to us by
each generation, and which the Human Comedy will require. This crowd
of actors, of characters, this multitude of lives, needed a setting--
if I may be pardoned the expression, a gallery. Hence the very natural
division, as already known, into the Scenes of Private Life, of
Provincial Life, of Parisian, Political, Military, and Country Life.
Under these six heads are classified all the studies of manners which
form the history of society at large, of all its /faits et gestes/, as
our ancestors would have said. These six classes correspond, indeed,
to familiar conceptions. Each has its own sense and meaning, and
answers to an epoch in the life of man. I may repeat here, but very
briefly, what was written by Felix Davin--a young genius snatched from
literature by an early death. After being informed of my plan, he said
that the Scenes of Private Life represented childhood and youth and
their errors, as the Scenes of Provincial Life represented the age of
passion, scheming, self-interest, and ambition. Then the Scenes of
Parisian Life give a picture of the tastes and vice and unbridled
powers which conduce to the habits peculiar to great cities, where the
extremes of good and evil meet. Each of these divisions has its local
color--Paris and the Provinces--a great social antithesis which held
for me immense resources.

And not man alone, but the principal events of life, fall into classes
by types. There are situations which occur in every life, typical
phases, and this is one of the details I most sought after. I have
tried to give an idea of the different districts of our fine country.
My work has its geography, as it has its genealogy and its families,
its places and things, its persons and their deeds; as it has its
heraldry, its nobles and commonalty, its artisans and peasants, its
politicians and dandies, its army--in short, a whole world of its own.

After describing social life in these three portions, I had to
delineate certain exceptional lives, which comprehend the interests of
many people, or of everybody, and are in a degree outside the general
law. Hence we have Scenes of Political Life. This vast picture of
society being finished and complete, was it not needful to display it
in its most violent phase, beside itself, as it were, either in self-
defence or for the sake of conquest? Hence the Scenes of Military
Life, as yet the most incomplete portion of my work, but for which
room will be allowed in this edition, that it may form part of it when
done. Finally, the Scenes of Country Life are, in a way, the evening
of this long day, if I may so call the social drama. In that part are
to be found the purest natures, and the application of the great
principles of order, politics, and morality.

Such is the foundation, full of actors, full of comedies and
tragedies, on which are raised the Philosophical Studies--the second
part of my work, in which the social instrument of all these effects
is displayed, and the ravages of the mind are painted, feeling after
feeling; the first of the series, /The Magic Skin/, to some extent
forms a link between the Philosophical Studies and Studies of Manners,
by a work of almost Oriental fancy, in which life itself is shown in a
mortal struggle with the very element of all passion.

Besides these, there will be a series of Analytical Studies, of which
I will say nothing, for one only is published as yet--The Physiology
of Marriage.

In the course of time I purpose writing two more works of this class.
First the Pathology of Social Life, then an Anatomy of Educational
Bodies, and a Monograph on Virtue.

In looking forward to what remains to be done, my readers will perhaps
echo what my publishers say, "Please God to spare you!" I only ask to
be less tormented by men and things than I have hitherto been since I
began this terrific labor. I have had this in my favor, and I thank
God for it, that the talents of the time, the finest characters and
the truest friends, as noble in their private lives as the former are
in public life, have wrung my hand and said, Courage!

And why should I not confess that this friendship, and the testimony
here and there of persons unknown to me, have upheld me in my career,
both against myself and against unjust attacks; against the calumny
which has often persecuted me, against discouragement, and against the
too eager hopefulness whose utterances are misinterpreted as those of
overwhelming conceit? I had resolved to display stolid stoicism in the
face of abuse and insults; but on two occasions base slanders have
necessitated a reply. Though the advocates of forgiveness of injuries
may regret that I should have displayed my skill in literary fence,
there are many Christians who are of opinion that we live in times
when it is as well to show sometimes that silence springs from

The vastness of a plan which includes both a history and a criticism
of society, an analysis of its evils, and a discussion of its
principles, authorizes me, I think, in giving to my work the title
under which it now appears--/The Human Comedy/. Is this too ambitious?
Is it not exact? That, when it is complete, the public must pronounce.

PARIS, July 1842


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