The revolutionary dialectic of Balzac’s 'Human Comedy'

Honoré de Balzac is renowned as a prolific literary genius and was one of Marx and Engels’ favourite authors. He was a pioneer of the Realist style that would be taken up by such famous authors as Émile Zola and Charles Dickens. In this article, Ben Curry explores Balzac’s Realist method, the predominant themes of his vast body of work, known collectively as The Human Comedy, and the fascinating paradox that lies at its heart.

"You’re deluding yourself, dear angel, if you imagine that it’s King Louis-Philippe that we’re ruled by, and he has no illusions himself on that score. He knows, as we all do, that above the Charter there stands the holy, venerable, solid, the adored, gracious, beautiful, noble, ever-young, almighty, Franc!"

The period between the great revolutions of 1789 and 1848 was one of unprecedented upheaval in France. This was the epoch of the galloping advance of the French bourgeoisie. At its outset, this class formed part of the oppressed ‘Third Estate’ under the absolutist Bourbon regime; by its close, it was the undisputed ruling class and had begun to transform French society in its own image.

Contemporary with this era of storm and stress, at one and the same time its historian and the artist who best depicted its moving spirit, lived one of the giants of world literature, the father of the Realist novel, Honoré de Balzac.

Balzac, a favourite of Marx and Engels, was no revolutionary. Quite the contrary. And yet, Engels was able to say of his immense literary output: “There is the history of France from 1815 to 1848… And what boldness! What a revolutionary dialectic in his poetical justice!”

A lifetime of furious nocturnal work, fuelled by immense quantities of coffee (it is estimated that he drank 500,000 cups in his lifetime!), sent Balzac to a tragically early grave at the age of just 50. In two decades of work, however, Balzac penned no fewer than 90 novels, novellas and short stories – 60 of them full-length novels, and dozens of them masterpieces in their own right.

But Balzac’s novels, great as they are taken singly, cannot be fully appreciated other than in connection with each other. His tremendous opus, known collectively as The Human Comedy, represents a single, masterful panorama of French society from the fall of Napoleon until 1848: Paris and the provinces; soldiers, police spies and politicians; aristocrats and peasants; bankers, artists, journalists, bureaucrats, criminals and courtesans – all are expertly depicted with strokes that cut straight to the heart of their world.

More than a portrayal of French society, it portrays bourgeois society as it was and as it is: petty, grasping and brutal.

The Realist novel

Balzac was born in 1799, the same year that Napoleon overthrew the Directory, marking the closing chapter of the French Revolution that had aroused and dashed such immense illusions among the downtrodden masses of France.

One form of exploitation had been exchanged for another. In the words of Marx and Engels, “for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions,” the bourgeoisie “substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

With the victory of the bourgeoisie, the authors of The Communist Manifesto explained how man was “at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” In the volumes of The Human Comedy, Balzac’s art acted like powerful smelling salts, assisting in sobering up this world whose illusions were crashing down around it, forcing it to look reality in the face.

Instead of a retreat into an idealised past in the Romantic style then all the rage in France, we find the present, with its sores and all, fully on display. Balzac’s method was wholly materialist. Under the banner of ‘Realism’, it represented a new departure in literature and the arts at large.

Stefan Zweig, in his essay on the genius of Balzac, gives a vivid description of his method:

“The idea – which he christened ‘Lamarckism’, and which Taine was later to petrify into a formula – that every multiplicity reacts upon a unity with no less vigour than does a unity upon a multiplicity, that each individual is a product of climate, of the society in which he is reared, of customs, of chance, of all that fate has brought his way, that each individual absorbs the atmosphere by which he is surrounded as he grows to adulthood and in his turn radiates an atmosphere which others will absorb; this universal influence of the world within and the world without upon the formation of character, became an axiom with Balzac. Everything flows into everything else; all forces are mobile, and not one of them is free – such was his view.”

Although Balzac explicitly rejected the label ‘materialist’, what is this but a clearly materialist method? And, what is more, it is an extremely dialectical method.

Balzac intended The Human Comedy to be a complete, living representation of all the “social species” that inhabit the world, not simply a dry accumulation of ‘facts’. No art can ever hope to chronicle every one of society’s details; nor does it need to. The real purpose of art is to reach beyond the accidental in order to grasp deeper, more essential truths. Balzac didn’t need to portray 30 million Frenchmen and women to give a portrait of France. It was enough to capture the essential types of the age. With his pen, the 2,000 or so characters of The Human Comedy sufficed for this task.

In The Human Comedy – perhaps counterintuitively for a work of Realism – we find men and women painted in bold, exaggerated colours, as Renaissance painters used the method of chiaroscuro, the bold opposition of dark and light, to highlight the drama in human expressions and motion. Balzac’s characters are frequently depicted as unusually singular in their passions. But they are all the more real for that fact: they form archetypes of their class and of their motivating passions.

Rue Neuve Notre Dame in ParisIn politics, Balzac was the furthest thing from a revolutionary / Image: public domain

Baron de Nucingen stands in as the archetype of the whole class of millionaire bankers; Grandet plays the same role for misers; Gobseck for usurers; Crevel for bourgeois parvenus; Madame Marneffe for the bourgeois courtesan; de Rastignac and de Rubempré for ambitious provincials; and Vautrin for the whole criminal underclass of Paris.

Just as the chemist breaks down for analysis the innumerable compound substances of nature into their purified constituent elements, so Balzac sought to “analyse into its component parts the elements of that compound mass which we call ‘the people’”.

Balzac’s ability, as he put it, “to rise to the level of others”, “to espouse their way of life”, “to feel their rags on his shoulders” was something unequalled: “I looked into their souls without failing to notice externals, or rather I grasped these external features so completely that I straightaway saw beyond them.”

The aristocracy

In politics, Balzac was the furthest thing from a revolutionary. In his own words, “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.”

All his life, he vainly sought admittance into aristocratic high society. The letters he received from his readers among the bored and unappreciated wives of the aristocracy sent him into raptures. He would daydream of a marriage that would bring him a title and a fortune – something he would only achieve, but never enjoy, as a dying man. But such was the power of Balzac’s Realism, that we find here the true, unvarnished portrait of the aristocracy as a doomed class.

In the earliest novel in The Human Comedy, Les Chouans set in 1799, we meet the aristocratic leaders of the Chouannerie – a reactionary guerrilla rising in Brittany. In Les Chouans the Republican army is a disciplined fighting force, consisting of peasants who earnestly imagine their First Consul Napoleon to be the defender of the land they actually gained thanks to the Revolution. On the other hand the Chouan guerrillas, consisting of Breton peasants, are depicted as having joined the Royalist ranks merely to rob stagecoaches and the bodies of dead Republican soldiers – a practice solemnly sanctified at clandestine forest Masses by the Church.

As for their aristocratic leaders, we get their full measure when they confront their leader to greedily press their demands for titles, estates and archbishoprics as reward for their continued allegiance to the King.

In Lost Illusions and Père Goriot, we find the old nobility: petty, bigoted, two-faced and egotistical, restored once more in the saddle, thanks to the reactionary armies of Europe. But it was one thing for Louis XVIII to re-establish his Court and for the aristocracy to re-establish their salons in Paris, it was quite another to establish the old property relations on which the Ancien Régime once stood.

France had been changed irrevocably, and money formed the new axis around which it now turned. The rising bourgeoisie pressed against the old aristocracy in every sphere: in the theatre box, in politics, in the press. The faded nobles might scorn admitting the upstarts to their salons, but it was to the Stock Exchange that they entrusted their fortunes. It was to the bourgeois timber agents that they sold the wood felled from the forests of their manors, and it was to the bourgeois usurer that they turned to fund their marital infidelities.

In the provinces, where the nobility found itself on a slightly firmer footing, Balzac describes the most worthless rabble:

“All the people who gathered there had the most pitiable mental qualities, the meanest intelligence, and were the sorriest specimens of humanity within a radius of fifty miles. Political discussions consisted of verbose but impassioned commonplaces: the Quotidienne was regarded as lukewarm in its royalism; Louis XVIII himself was considered to be a Jacobin. The women were mostly stupid, devoid of grace and badly dressed; every one of them was marred by some imperfection; everything fell short of the mark, conversation, clothes, mind and body alike… Nevertheless, comportment and class consciousness, gentlemanly airs, the arrogance of the lesser nobility, acquaintance with the rules of decorum, all served to cloak the void within them.”

What is this if not a class that was doomed to extinction and deserving of its fate?

Balzac’s beloved Catholic Church is depicted as little better. Like all the last bastions of the old order, it found itself besieged from all directions and forced to become bourgeois itself: “It stoops, in the house of God, to a disgraceful traffic in pew rents and chairs… although it cannot have forgotten Christ’s anger when he drove the moneychangers from the Temple.” In birth, marriage and death, we find the representatives of the Church, with their palm extended, collecting their fee at every stage.

The bourgeois tragedy

The fruits of the Great French Revolution of 1789 were fought for and secured by the great, impoverished mass of the French people, aroused by the noblest passions. But they were harvested, in almost their entirety, by the grasping hands of the capitalist class.

These very real characters, winners and losers, were translated into fiction by Balzac’s masterly pen, into the protagonists of The Human Comedy.

The bourgeoisie are depicted not as cutouts of a social type, but as real, living men. We meet the banker in 1799, trying to protect and expand his fortune while remaining aloof from both Royalists and Republicans. We meet petty-bourgeois climbers, like the cooper Grandet, donning the red cap of liberty in order to raise themselves up with the rising tide in human affairs. In Célestin Crevel – a man grown rich as a perfumer to the reinstated aristocracy – Balzac gives us an immortal portrait of the morality of the bourgeoisie.

Throughout The Human Comedy we can read fictitious accounts of the numerous, real tragedies of what family life in particular becomes under capitalism. We find fathers swindling sons; men wooing women for dowries; adulterous fathers ruining families to support mistresses; daughters placed on bread and water by rich and ‘thrifty’ miser-fathers; husbands aiding their wives’ infidelities for career advancement; children treated as chattel by parents.

As Marx and Engels put it, “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.”

Criminals and capitalists

324px Vautrin Honoré DaumierBalzac’s critique touches in turn upon all aspects of bourgeois society / Image: public domain

Balzac’s critique touches in turn upon all aspects of bourgeois society, only a few of which can be mentioned here.

In Père Goriot, a retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear in the bourgeois age, the real hero of that story, if he can be called such, is Eugene de Rastignac, an impoverished provincial nobleman. A new arrival in Paris, he is drawn between two ways to make his fortune: the ‘honest’ method, of seducing one of Père Goriot’s daughters, made wealthy through marriage to the banker de Nucingen; or through a shortcut involving the shedding of blood, offered by the branded criminal Vautrin.

What is the difference? In the opinion of Vautrin, who counsels de Rastignac through his pangs of conscience, the difference is little more than moral and legal hypocrisy:

“There’s not one article [of the law] that does not lead to absurdity. The smooth-tongued man in his smart yellow gloves has committed murders without bloodshed, but someone has been bled all the same; the actual murderer has jemmied open a door; two deeds of darkness!”

The capitalist kills just as surely as the murderer, although without spilling a drop of blood himself. The words of condemnation thrown in the face of the whole of bourgeois society do not fail to hit their target on account of being placed in the mouth of a branded miscreant:

“Are you any better than us? The brand we bear on our shoulders is not as shameful as what you have in your hearts, flabby members of a putrid society.”

Ultimately, de Rastignac is forced to agree with Vautrin:

“He saw the world as it is: laws and morality unavailing with the rich, wealth the ultima ratio mundi. ‘Vautrin is right, wealth is virtue,’ he said to himself.”

The revolutionary dialectic of Balzac

The aristocracy was incapable of leading society; the bourgeoisie was unworthy. Ironically, in the closest thing to an autobiographical work, Lost Illusions, Balzac reserves his praises for the likes of Michel Chrestien, a revolutionary republican, whom he describes as “a political thinker of the calibre of Saint-Just and Danton”, and “one of the noblest creatures who ever trod on the soil of France”.

These words of unreserved praise are all the more remarkable for the irony that Balzac dispenses so freely in commenting on the actions of men and women of all classes throughout The Human Comedy. As Engels observed in an 1888 letter to Margaret Harkness:

“[The] only men of whom he always speaks with undisguised admiration, are his bitterest political antagonists, the republican heroes of the Cloître Saint-Méry, the men, who at that time (1830-6) were indeed the representatives of the popular masses. That Balzac thus was compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favourite nobles, and described them as people deserving no better fate; and that he saw the real men of the future where, for the time being, they alone were to be found – that I consider one of the greatest triumphs of Realism, and one of the grandest features in old Balzac.”

In his day, the cause of the bourgeois republic as yet represented progress relative to the outworn, lingering relics of feudalism. In the years depicted in The Human Comedy, the class that would come to challenge bourgeois rule, the working class, remained as yet a largely unorganised mass; only just becoming conscious of its own interests; scattered throughout small and medium-sized workshops. It is undistinguished from the general mass of the urban poor in Balzac’s novels.

Horace Vernet Barricade rue SoufflotBalzac saw that the ‘Kingdom of Reason’ that the revolutionary republicans aspired to was a chimera that could only end in the naked rule of the bourgeoisie / Image: public domain

But with his piercing insight, Balzac saw that the ‘Kingdom of Reason’ that the revolutionary republicans aspired to was a chimera that could only end in the naked rule of the bourgeoisie. In this assessment he was correct, and was proven so in the revolution that broke out in 1848, the same year that Balzac put down his pen for the very last time.

This was also the year in which the working class of Paris rose up for the first time, arms in hand, under its own banner. Reciprocally, the bourgeoisie recoiled in fear from its revolutionary tasks, stooped down and allowed itself to be yoked by the adventurer Louis Bonaparte, and demonstrated all the decadence, cowardice and paltriness that Balzac had shone a piercing light on.

What is left when we leave aside the reactionary dreams contained in Balzac’s work is a withering critique of bourgeois society and its hypocritical morality. The Realist method that he pioneered would inspire other great writers, like Charles Dickens and Emile Zola, to take up the task of depicting the conditions of the industrial proletariat. And it would also exert a fructifying influence on the authors of The Communist Manifesto, whose pages first saw the light of day in 1848, just as Balzac’s great literary career was drawing to a close.

In The Communist Manifesto – much like in The Human Comedy – we see the unstoppable wheels of history in motion. For the backward-looking Balzac, it was a matter of deep regret that this onward motion destroyed his idealised old society, with its deference to the King, God and the Family. But Marx and Engels, on the contrary, looked ahead and saw how this same destructive power that Balzac depicted was also a tremendous creative power. It was laying the basis for a new, classless society, in which all the vices of class society that capitalism had brought to their apex would be done away with forever.