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Letters, lies, and legible urban space in Balzac's Ferragus.

IN his groundbreaking study of nineteenth-century Paris, Christopher Prendergast notes that "problems of readability and interpretation ... are ... in varying degrees of severity, problems in the history of the city throughout the whole of the nineteenth century" (Prendergast 11). Nineteenthcentury Parisian urban spaces, and the particular social landscapes associated with them, refuse clear interpretation. Indeed, observers who sought to make sense of Paris, to define or distill its identity as a coherent stable whole, to catalogue and classify the city and its inhabitants, were confronted with a decentred, unstable, and multifaceted city. For writers interested in urban observation, "reading" or "writing" Paris was continuously problematized; the city, unsettled by accelerating circulation and social flux, seemed to elude understanding. Balzac's 1833 novel Ferragus exemplifies on several levels this problem of readability, by which I mean the ability to decipher and interpret, and to produce a coherent meaning. In this preeminently Parisian novel, the city on the threshold of modernity is dominated by mobility, both real and symbolic. It is a site not only of constant construction and accelerating traffic, but also of rapidly shifting social class structure and of an increased circulation of money and women, a place characterized by what Prendergast calls "a developing urban phenomenology of speed" (Prendergast 193). Paris, in Balzac's words a "monstrueuse merveille, etonnant assemblage de mouvements, de machine et de pensees, la ville aux cent mille romans," repeatedly defies its characters' attempts to "read" it (Balzac 79).

This interpretative difficulty, however, is not limited to the city's physical and social landscapes. The problem of legibility is brought to the fore when quintessentially readable objects--letters--are presented as unreadable spaces. These letters circulate throughout the city and play a central role in the narrative. How can we understand letters that resist interpretation against the backdrop of the modern city that refuses to be "read"? Reading and deciphering urban space and the numerous letters become the key activities in this plot, which follows the main male characters (Auguste de Maulincour and Jules Desmarets) as they attempt to unravel the central mystery of the novel, the relationship between Mme Jules and the eponymous Ferragus. Their readings and misreadings lead them, and the reader, on a circuitous route through the city's complex topography, and the maze created by the letters.

This short novel features six letters which arrive at crucial points in the narrative and usually reverse the course of novelistic events. While there are other legible spaces in the novel, from city walls "vetus d'affiches" (79) to the title character Ferragus himself whose status as an escaped criminal is literally branded upon his body, none of these is as central to the novel's overall focus on legibility as the letters. The majority of them function as obstacles in the characters' search for transparency and for knowledge. Rather than serving as sources of revelation and discovery, the letters in Ferragus resist interpretation and function as tools of deception and duplicity. The most readable objects thus paradoxically come to embody unreadability. The unreadable modern city and the misinterpreted letters serve as mirror images of each other, as the letter plot is mapped onto an urban space in flux. Through a complex interplay between reading and misreading of letters and urban space, the novel questions the transparency of language and points to an instability of writing as a vehicle of truth within this ostensibly realist text. The letters, I propose, function as signposts of Balzac's faltering trust in the ability of visible--indeed, written--signs, to convey a coherent meaning. I do not, of course, suggest that such faltering was "intentional." It is, however, striking that a narrative that purports to understand and explain the visible world through meticulous observation and analysis contains numerous moments of crisis of interpretation that stem from characters' failure to interpret a written word: here, a letter. Beyond their obvious role as a narrative device, the letters in Ferragus display the narrative's self-consciousness and anxiety about its own limitations to make sense through language of the world in flux.

Readability in Ferragus is intricately connected to the notions of circulation and flux which serve as the novel's central metaphors. Everything is movement in this novel: the street traffic of carriages and cabriolets clogs Parisian streets causing chaos. As women of different social classes circulate from one quartier to another, they sometimes cross the boundaries of their social sphere and puzzle those who observe them. Indeed, the plot is set in motion when Auguste de Maulincour encounters Madame Jules, the very woman he has loved from a distance for a long time, in a disreputable corner of Paris, on rue Soly: "Elle, dans cette crotte, a cette heure!" (81). The shocking discrepancy between Mme Jules' social and moral status of a proper lady and the seedy street inhabited by the poor and downtrodden requires interpretation, and Maulincour launches his inquiry into Madame Jules's mysterious presence there. He defines his quest in explicitly readerly terms: "C'etait un roman a lire" (99). But the "novel" Maulincour is so eager to read resists legibility as he struggles to make sense of the incoherence between the social space of rue Soly and the social status of Mme Jules, an incoherence that also puts into question her virtue.

Circulating in the opposite direction, Ida Gruget, the young grisette who loves Ferragus, bursts into M and Mme Jules's elegant bourgeois salon with an accusation that Mme Jules stole her lover. With her feet exposed by all-too-revealing shoes and her bosom uncovered by a cheap cashmere shawl barely holding on her shoulders, Ida is just as incongruous in that salon as Mme Jules was on rue Soly in the opening pages of the novel. (1) Ida's intrusion into a social sphere that is not her own provokes a crisis of misinterpretation, as she seems to confirm M. Jules's suspicions about his wife's purported infidelity.

This movement of people from high to low and from low to high, and the blurring of social and urban boundaries highlights the interplay between the opacity and transparency of the city of Paris, which is fundamental to this novel's preoccupation with legibility. Indeed, this tension becomes clear in the opening pages of the novel, which set the stage for the dynamic of opacity and transparency in the letter plot. The first few paragraphs depict Parisian streets in anthropomorphic terms:

Il est dans Paris certaines rues deshonorees autant que peut l'etre un homme coupable d'infamie; puis il existe des rues nobles, puis des rues simplement honnetes, puis des jeunes rues sur la moralite desquelles le public ne s'est pas encore forme d'opinion; puis des rues assassines, [...] des rues estimables, des rues toujours propres, des rues toujours sales, des rues ouvrieres, travailleuses, mercantiles. (78)

These lines posit Parisian spaces as immanently readable and transparent: an observer can easily detect the streets' inner essence through a simple examination of their physical appearance (a typically Balzacian device). But when Mme Jules appears on rue Soly, this transparency quickly breaks down: the presence of Mme Jules in a place where she clearly does not belong, the pairing of a virtuous bourgeoise with a nefarious street blurs the picture-perfect image of a legible urban space that the first few paragraphs of the novel purport to present. Such misreadings of Mme Jules's movements through the city resonate with the misinterpretations of letters circulating in the novel.

Although there is only one truly epistolary novel in Balzac's La Comedie humaine, Memoires de deux jeunes mariees, he was clearly interested in the narrative potential of letters within a novel. (2) As Thomas Beebee indicates in his study of European epistolary fiction, Balzac's early readings included Rousseau and Richardson, as well as Mme de Sevigne, and their influence continued throughout his career (Beebee 175). Even though Ferragus is not an epistolary novel in the strict sense of the term, both the overwhelming presence of letters and the crucial role they play in the plot point to the importance Balzac accorded to them both as a narrative device and as a site of reflection on the nature of writing and reading themselves. In the tradition of Richardson and Rousseau, a letter is first and foremost a tool of self-expression and selfdiscovery, an articulation of its author's subjectivity. In Ferragus, however, Balzac follows much more in the footsteps of Choderlos de Laclos that in those of Richardson and Rousseau, in that he emphasizes the unsettling manipulative power of letters. Peter Brooks, writing about Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses, suggests that "the letter always calls our attention to itself as a speech act, as an instrument, even as a weapon, as a linguistic artifact that does not so much reflect reality as create it" (Brooks 540). This is also the case in Ferragus, where letters themselves thematize acts of reading and misreading, interpreting and misinterpreting. Above all, the duplicitous nature of many of these letters calls into question the transparency of language itself as well as its mimetic success.

Most letters in Ferragus are associated with a form of deceit. Either their content, or their method of delivery, is problematized. Some contain lies and some are written in code, some fall into the wrong hands, and some are simply falsified. In this quasi-detective novel, each time a letter appears in the narrative, it promises a revelation of the story's central enigma, an answer to the main character's quest for truth. Yet, for the most part this promise remains unfulfilled. There are, however, three letters that do not present a problem of interpretation, suggesting an occasional transparency of language. This simultaneous presence of legible and illegible letters mirrors the city's own dynamics of transparency and opacity.

Curiously, it is the three letters written by two central female characters-Mme Jules and Ida Gruget--that are "readable," for they not only contain truthful information but also reflect their authors' inner selves. The first letter, from Ida to Ferragus, falls out of the latter's pocket to find its way into the hands of Auguste de Maulincour, who seizes upon it as a possible solution to the mystery of Mme Jules's inexplicable presence on rue Soly. In fact, it is the material object of this purloined letter rather than its content that serves as a key which will open the door to Ferragus's apartment and will confirm Auguste's suspicion that this mysterious man is connected to Mme Jules. Written in phonetic spelling, Ida's letter perfectly captures the personality and social condition of her character through the very materiality of its writing. Ida's letter is a metonymy of its author, the writing itself embodying her essence. The error-ridden spelling and what the Balzacian narrator calls "la phrase naive" are consubstantial with the vulgar, uneducated, naive and yet utterly pitiful grisette whose letter expresses pain and pathos of a broken heart. The fact that the "original" of the letter, as the narrator informs us, contained no punctuation, reinforces the spontaneity and sincerity of the feelings that Ida's letter conveys. It is a true crie de coeur. This "poeme inconnu mais essentiellement parisien" (109) moves even the usually impassive Maulincour who for most of the novel is too self-absorbed to be concerned with anyone else's suffering but his own. Similarly, the second letter from Ida, her suicide note to her mother, embodies the ability of language to convey something essential about one's inner thoughts and feelings. The letter explains that she is taking her own life because she feels betrayed by Ferragus. Paradoxically, despite its deviations from proper "norm," Ida's inarticulate, brokendown language in fact conveys the stability of language as a vehicle of truth.

Like Ida, Mme Jules writes a letter intended to be read after her death. (3) Four pages long, this posthumous letter is the longest one, and also the last one in the novel. If Ida's letters are as awkward as Ida herself, Mme Jules's writing is elegant, gracious, and refined. This voice from beyond the grave is above all a voice of love. Its sincerity cannot be doubted because nothing is any longer at stake. It also serves a crucial function in the plot: the letter summarizes and explains all of the preceding events, and provides a new perspective on them. It retells the story of Mme Jules's life and love for her husband, and her devotion to her father, Ferragus, who has undertaken to change his identity to conceal his criminal background and his criminal past to protect his daughter's social standing. Functioning as a key to the novel that we have just read, Mme Jules's posthumous letter spells out the truth which we could only glean before in small bits, and puts together all pieces of the plot's puzzle. Thus, although in many ways it is the exact opposite of Ida's letter, Mme Jules's letter also stands for the stability--and reliability--of language. (4)

While Mme Jules's and Ida's letters embody readability, in the remaining three letters language is no longer a conduit of truth, a read able space that uncovers knowledge, but rather it is a space of deceit and deception. The instability of meaning in these letters reflects the flux of the city which produces them and in which they circulate.

The first of these duplicitous letters comes to Auguste de Maulincour, from the chief of the police particuliere, assuring him of the death of Ferragus, a.k.a. Gratien Bourignard, the man Maulincour came increasingly to fear after several failed assassination attempts against him. The letter is conceived in so numerous terms of certainty that even the most naive of readers will raise eyebrows. For instance, the letter assures that "les soupcons que nous devions concevoir sur son identite ont pleinement ete detruits par les faits; ... le chef de la police de surete a fait toutes les verifications necessaires pour parvenir a une pleine certitude;... La moralite des temoins qui ont signe l'acte de deces, et les attestations de ceux qui ont soigne ledit Bourignard dans ses derniers moments ... ne nous ont pas permis de conserver les moindres doutes" (135). It is not entirely clear whether the chief of the police was fooled by Ferragus, or whether Ferragus fooled Maulincour by writing the letter himself, but Maulincour discovers that very evening at a ball that Ferragus is very much alive. An open confrontation with this sinister character leads to Maulincour's eventual demise, but not before he passes on to M. Jules his suspicions about Madame Jules's relationship with Ferragus. This brings about the second deceitful letter, which perfectly captures the manipulative power of language. Addressed to M. Jules, it comes ostensibly from the Baronne de Maulincour, Auguste's grandmother. When the letter arrives, Jules reads it "avec avidite" because the Baronne's signature titillates his curiosity and promises to reveal something essential about the mystery. Indeed, it informs Jules that Auguste has been very ill and has shown signs of "alienation mentale" (141). The letter thus urges Jules to disregard Auguste's accusations as products of his "chimeres." An attempt to distract Jules from pursuing his inquiry into Ferragus's shady connection with his wife, the letter turns out to be forged (presumably written by Ferragus himself). Confronted with this falsified letter, the Baronne is shocked to see a perfect imitation of her handwriting. She even must arm herself with a special tool, her "doubles besicles" (152) in order to decipher it and identify it as a fake: "S'il ne s'agissait pas d'une affaire recente, je m'y tromperais moi-meme" (153).

The final enigmatic letter stages in the most striking way the opacity of language. Addressed to Madame Jules and surreptitiously delivered to her residence by an old hag, the letter falls into the hands of her husband. Jules's entire quest for an explanation of the mysterious connection between his wife and Ferragus seems to hinge on this one letter: "En proie a une angoisse fievreuse, Jules decacheta la lettre" (157). Yet he discovers that it is written in code: "La lettre etait un non-sens continuel, et il fallait en avoir la clef pour la lire. Elle avait ete ecrite en chiffres" (157). This letter is thus literally unreadable. Its illegibility subverts the promise of immediate knowledge that it appeared to contain; the letter is both the knowledge and the obstacle to it. It also works as a mise-en-abime of the novel's plot as a whole, because it dramatizes this tale's obsession with interpretation and decoding, with the need to read beneath the surface, as well as brings to light the ultimate futility of any such enterprise. In fact, the ciphered letter remains unreadable, or misread, even when it is decoded with the help of a special stencil: the use of the familiar "tu," the proliferation of the terms of endearment, numerous references to his "affection," to her "amour" and to their "bonheur," all point to an illicit passion between Ferragus and Mme Jules, and Jules, along with the reader, will have to wait until the next chapter to find out that Ferragus is Mme Jules's father. The misreading of the letter is imprinted on the face of Jules's friend Jacquet who helps him to decipher it: "Jacquet regarda Jules avec une sorte de terreur honnete, qui comportait une compassion vraie" (160). Indeed, the face itself serves as a kind of legible space onto which the faulty meaning of the letter is projected. The ciphered letter which only yields distorted and misinterpreted knowledge thus stands for the instability of language and the difficulty of reading, of both textual and urban spaces. This, and other sequences of failed letter-reading reveal the narrative's self-consciousness about its own limitations to both make sense of the city it seeks to represent and to be legible itself. Through these moments of epistemological crisis, the text hints at its own doubt about the ability of language to successfully convey coherent meaning. For how can writing fulfil its mimetic function of representing the world if the world in question is in constant motion?

Despite numerous instances of the breakdown of the transparency of language, the novel offers us an ultimately legible ending: the central mystery that propelled the plot forward is solved, and all that was obscure is dutifully explained, and spelled out in Mme Jules's letter. And yet, one of the final images of the novel perfectly captures its ambiguity about language. Standing on the edge of Pere-Lachaise, Jules, like Rastignac, observes the city from afar: "Puis Jules apercut a ses pieds dans la longue vallee de la Seine, entre les coteaux de Vaugirard, de Meudon, entre ceux de Belleville et de Montmartre, le veritable Paris, enveloppe d'un voile bleuatre, produit par ses fumees, et que la lumiere du soleil rendait alors diaphane" (188-189). Paris here is at once clothed--indeed enveloped--with a veil of hazy fog, and made translucent by sun light, at once exposed to the onlooker's gaze and concealed from it. The word "diaphane," signifying both "cloudy" and "sheer," "translucent" and "hazy," perfectly embodies the tension between legibility and illegibility, transparency and opacity that defines this novel, which, in the end, leaves us with a sense that nothing is stable, least of all the meaning of words.



Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982. Balzac, Honore. Ferragus in Histoire des treize. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1988.

--. Lettres a Mme Hanska. 5th ed. Vol. 1. Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1906.

Beebee, Thomas. Epistolary Fiction in Europe, 1500-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Brooks, Peter. "Words and 'The Thing.'" Ed. Dennis Hollier. A New History of French Literature. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Hamon, Phillippe. Expositions: Literature and Architecture in Nineteenth-Century France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Higonnet, Patrice. Paris, Capital of the World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Hiner, Susan. "Lust for Luxe: Cashmere Fever in Nineteenth-Century France." In Journal of Early Modern Cultural Studies 5.1 (2005).

Massol-Bedoin, Chantal. "L'Enigme de Ferragus: Du roman noir au roman realiste." L'Annee Balzacienne (1987): 59-77.

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Pold, Soren. "Panoramic Realism." Nineteenth-Century French Studies 29 (2000-2001): 47-63.

Prendergast, Christopher. Paris and the Nineteenth Century. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Smith, Nigel. "The Myth of the City in Balzac's Ferragus," Romance Notes 34.1 (1993): 39-45.

(1) The predominance of mobility as the modern city's central feature is evident even in Balzac's descriptions of nature which emphasize rapid movement. As the torrential rainwaters swirl around one of the main characters caught in the downpour, the rhythm of the description seems to reflect the city's speed: "L'eau ruisselait de toutes parts; elle bouillonait, elle sautillait, murmurait; elle crait, elle foisonnait sous le balai de la portiere" (104). The accumulation and rapid succession of verbs of movement mirrors the frenetic pace of the metropolis, with which even the nature has to keep up.

(2) Balzac also made use of a modified version of the epistolary form. For example, Le Lys dans la vallee, although technically an epistolary novel, deviates considerably from most other examples of the genre since it involves a single exchange between the protagonist and his mistress. The main narrative of several hundred pages is in the form of Felix de Vandenesse's letter to Natalie de Manerville. The latter's response that concludes the novel, occupies the space of a couple of pages, but is essential to the novel's meaning.

(3) In many ways, Ida serves as a foil to Mme Jules. Despite radical differences in their social and economic status and their style, there are numerous parallels in their destinies. The "voice beyond the grave" is yet another similarity shared by both female characters. For the connections and the oppositions between these two characters, see Hiner, "Lust for Luxe: Cashmere Fever in Nineteenth-Century France."

(4) Balzac himself was very proud of this letter. In his own love letter to Mme Hanska, he writes: " ... je suis desespere de ne pas savoir si vous avez fini Ferragus car la lettre de Mme Jules est une page pleine de larme et j'ai bien pense a vous, en vous offrant la, l'image de l'amour qui est dans mon coeur, l'amour que je veux et qui, chez moi, fut meconnu constamment" (Lettres a Mme Hanska 35).
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Author:Belenky, Masha
Publication:Romance Notes
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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