Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac

Beginning in the 1830s, the literary trend known as critical realism succeeded progressive romanticism as the predominant style and method of literature. The initiator of this school, which includes such authors as Charles Dickens, Stendahl, Leo Tolstoy and Jack London, was the French novelist Honoré de Balzac.

Honoré de Balzac was born in Tours, France, on May 20, 1799. His father was of peasant background, but by the time of Honoré’s birth he had become director of commissariat to Napoleon’s 22nd Division. In 1799, Napoleon himself was returning from Egypt to rule for fifteen years over half of Europe. The first years of Balzac’s life thus passed in the reign of Napoleon. At the age of 20, he rebelled against his father’s wishes by refusing to become a lawyer and announced to this family that he would be a writer. Under the picture of the Emperor Napoleon in his study he wrote: “What Napoleon could not do with the sword, I shall accomplish with the pen.”

His first literary effort was the play Cromwell which was poorly received. His father demanded that Balzac give up his dreams of a literary career and take up a more secure profession. However, instead, Balzac discovered the knack of writing cheap melodramas which he could sell to earn a living. He thought so little of them that he published them under a pseudonym. With dreams of becoming independently wealthy, between 1826 and 1828, Balzac entered into three business speculations in Paris which failed and left him in debt for 90,000 francs. After that he was forced to write prodigiously, living almost without sleep at his writing table and drinking countless cups of coffee, in order to pay off his creditors.

In 1829, Balzac published his first mature literary work, The Chouans, a novel about the suppression of the counter-revolution in Brittany in 1799. Chouan (the Bretton word for “the silent one” or “screech owl”) is a French nickname. It was used as a nom de guerre by the Chouan brothers, most notably Jean Cottereau, better known as Jean Chouan, who led a major revolt in Bas-Maine against the French Revolution. The revolt played out in three phases and lasted from spring 1794 to 1800. The uprising was provoked principally by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) and the mass conscription in 1793 (levée en masse), which was decided by the National Convention.

This novel was the first installment of what Balzac later called The Human Comedy. Inspired by his study of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Balzac decided to produce a cycle of novels, novelettes and short stories which would provide a realistic depiction of French society at that time. By 1833 he had outlined a plan for this monumental undertaking. Balzac died before completely fulfilling his plan but, even so, the collection consists of over four million words and about 95 separate titles of novels, novelettes and short stories.

Balzac created over 2,000 characters for this cycle, one fourth of whom reappear in different novels and stories. The Human Comedy is peopled with individuals who typify the strata and classes of French society they come from – the aristocracy, the wealthy capitalists, the small tradesmen, the peasants, government officials, artists, servants, etc. All the characters, their motives and their actions are described with extraordinary vividness. Some of the most famous novels in this cycle are Old Goriot, Eugénie Grandet, Cousin Pons, Cousin Bette, The Peasantry, The Country Doctor, etc. The French critic Hippolyte Taine called Balzac’s work the greatest gallery of human portraits since Shakespeare. Karl Marx used many characters from the works of Balzac to illustrate his ideas in Capital.

Honoré de Balzac died in Paris on August 18, 1850, after a long illness. On leaving Balzac’s death bed, Victor Hugo told his friends, “Gentlemen, at these moments the world is losing a great man.”

Balzac is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.