Printer Friendly

Speculation and gender exploitation in Balzac's Scenes de la Vie de Province.

The political turmoil that reigned in France from the revolution of 1789 until the end of Balzac's life played a central role in his oeuvre. The era was so marked with rebellion and agitation that one can easily forget that another revolution figures into Balzac's plotlines. The Industrial Revolution, and specifically the transfer of economic power from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, imposed a new set of economic imperatives that served to destabilize sentimental and family life. Balzac reinforces the connection between revolution and the dissolution of the family by adapting a particular character type that appears frequently in the provincial novels: a young girl exploited either by her family or by bourgeois society. (1) By inserting this new character type into more traditional narratives of the provinces, he illustrates the human cost of the modernization and capitalism that had already begun to renew France. At the same time he demonstrates how these changes subordinate the family, and especially female children, to economic concerns.

An analysis of what the activity of speculation means in the work of Balzac will establish how and in what measure it pervades the plots of the novels in Scenes de la vie de Province. Although numerous critics have recently shown how the economic changes in France during the period play a pivotal role in the short story L'Illustre Gaudissart (1833), none have made the connection between Balzac's depiction of capitalism and its indelible relationship to the exploitation of young women. (2) These speculative processes inspire Balzac's characters to forsake their family and sentimental life in order to advance materially. Among the many examples of the commodification of human life, those of Pierrette (1840), the titular hero of her novel, and Flore Brazier, whose pejorative nickname gives La Rabouilleuse (1841-3) its name, are particularly instructive. Balzac weaves the themes of love and money so tightly that at times his characters, especially those with little economic autonomy such as women and children, become both objects of desire and commodities subject to the economic turbulence of the era. (3) These same themes drive the plot of Ursule Mirouet (1841), a novel that refracts the image of the exploited girl and offers an alternate vision of the future of France: a future where the youth, protected by societal and affective bonds from the economic prerogatives that governed bourgeois society, can succeed and advance in the world. (4) As Andre Wurmser points out, Balzac's portrayal of marriage differs significantly from earlier writers, such as Moliere, for whom a sensible marriage is based on love: in Balzac's world, conjugal relations exist solely to develop, consolidate, and transmit wealth. (5) This perspective will not only elucidate the dramatic construction of these individual works, but will also indicate a narratological procedure that pervades his oeuvre.

Throughout the Scenes de la vie de Province, Balzac insists on the importance of speculation in post-revolutionary French society. Identified by Pierre Barberis as that which marks the originality of modern capitalism, speculation becomes far more than a simple economic activity, and will affect every level of society in Balzac's world. (6) His novels abound with examples of speculation on traditional commodities and on land: characters such as du Bousquier (La Vieille Fille, 1836) Felix Grandet, and Descoings (La Rabouilleuse) amass wealth precisely by these means. In speaking of Felix Grandet, Maurice Bardeche explains--in terms that could apply to any of these characters--that one might take him "pour un paysan, pour un avare terrien, en realite, il a le genie de la speculation. Il a compris qu'en temps de revolution il faut acheter et il faut stocker." (7) Even in its infancy, speculation influenced new markets as well, particularly the products and transactions made possible by the progression of nascent capitalism. For example, at the end of La Rabouilleuse, Philippe Bridau loses the fortune he had just obtained from his uncle when he succumbs to the machinations of du Tillet and Nucingen. The two bankers convince him to invest all his liquid assets in the financial markets, and specifically on the future of the economy. Philippe, who wishes to double his millions, gambles that the economy will rise, whereas Nucingen and du Tillet, "qui crurent a une revolution, jouerent a la baisse contre lui." (8) Although the reference to the July Revolution imposes itself, Balzac may well be alluding to the Industrial Revolution that had already begun to indelibly change France. (9) As Bernard Guyon notes, when Balzac speaks of the "demenagement de 1830," he defines exactly "cette revolution manquee qui fut seulement la consecration politique d'un phenomene economique et social deja ancien: le passage du pouvoir reel des mains d'une classe vaincue: l'Aristocratie, a celles de la classe victorieuse: la Bourgeoisie, pour qui la valeur supreme est l'Argent." (10) The exigencies of this new economic order had the capacity to reshape the power structure of the government both in Paris and in the provinces.

Balzac suggests that this process, in which Parisians unearth riches buried in the provinces and take them back to Paris, forms a critical part of the important changes in the country's economic networks; by encouraging provincial misers to invest their fortunes, these Parisians reinstate a circular flow of capital, or the continual reinvestment or expenditure of revenues, and consequently ensure the continued growth of capitalism. (11) As Marco Diani points out, Balzac also sees the circulation of money as a creative wellspring: money "est revelateur d'un processus beaucoup plus essentiel au centre de la vie sociale. Il est en effet fondamentalement mouvement incessant, dynamisme, creation, circulation. A cet egard 'thesauriser est un crime social,' equivalent economique du celibat." (12) In the short story that immediately follows La Rabouilleuse, Balzac makes the idea explicit by presenting us with a potent symbol of this economic process: the traveling salesman Felix Gaudissart, who diffuses new ideas and economic processes of Paris and exchanges them for the money hidden in the provinces. The insurance policies that Gaudissart sells have a purely speculative value. Instead of providing financial security, they commodify abstract or potential values, and if the firms that issue them collapse, they become worthless. (13) Balzac explains that the buying and selling of the abstract had already begun, and that since "1830, plus specialement, les idees devinrent des valeurs ... S'il ne se trouve pas d'idees a vendre, la Speculation tache de mettre des mots en faveur" (4:566).

This image of a France constantly changing and developing highlights the means by which economic obligations take precedence over those of the family or the emotions. Reexamining the case of Eugenie Grandet will demonstrate the pervasiveness of speculation within post-revolutionary France, but more importantly, the means by which characters and sentiments become commodified. The daughter of a rich wine merchant in the sleepy town of Saumur, Eugenie should easily find a husband, but much like the wine and gold he stockpiles while waiting for a higher price, her father hoards her away and uses her as a bargaining chip with which he manipulates the other wealthy families of the town. A marriage to Eugenie would permit them to potentially inherit the immense Grandet fortune, and Felix recognizes and exploits the monetary value of his daughter's potential conjugal future. According to Marx, a commodity must have a use value (in this case, Eugenies reproductive and conjugal potential) and a social value for others (access to the Grandet genealogy): "to become a commodity, a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use-value, by means of an exchange." (14) Thus, Eugenies value as a potential spouse leads to her commodification, and this value persists as long as she is unmarried. Her fathers obsessive desire for control over the family's fortune, which she will inherit, ensures her continued celibacy. The arrival of her Parisian cousin Charles provokes a monumental change for Eugenie, who, just like her father, speculates on the marriage market. Bored by her uneventful life, she represents, according to Bardeche, "un cas particulierement saisissant de ce phenomene auquel Balzac rattache tout: la puissance de l'idee, la puissance d'une idee unique, d'un sentiment unique dans un milieu parfaitement vide." (15) Love offers her the possibility of a new life with Charles, and consequently she speculates on their shared future.

The power that Bardeche speaks of, however, operates at the level of the novel's dramatic construction rather than that of the plot. In Balzac's world, the drive to succeed materially often supersedes sentimental attachment, and Charles' desire to make money and advance socially is stronger than his desire for Eugenie. The cousins fall in love in Saumur, but Charles must leave the country and attempt to make his fortune overseas. Eugenie, who emulates her speculating father, gives him her dowry, a collection of gold coins, as startup capital, and in exchange, she receives a promise that he will return and that they will marry. Charles abandons her, however, and while he voyages overseas, discovers that "le meilleur moyen d'arriver a la fortune etait, dans les regions intertropicales, aussi bien quen Europe, d'acheter et de vendre des hommes" (3:1181). Thus, Balzac gives concrete examples of speculation, not only on commodities and sentiments, but on human life as well. Furthermore, his comment that the slave trade is equally influential in Europe as it is elsewhere implies that this commerce existed--albeit less openly--in a nation that affirmed outwardly the liberty and equality of all its citizens.

Eugenie Grandet is one of many novels in Scenes de la vie de Province that examine the harmful effects of social speculation on family and emotional life. For example, in Pierrette, Balzac introduces us to a character type who figures prominently in his image of France under the July Monarchy. Pierre Citron notes that Balzac employs this character type frequently: that of Pierrette will reappear as Ursule Mirouet and as Flore Brazier in La Rabouilleuse. (16) As he points out, they are orphans received by strangers, but more importantly, each of these young women becomes an object, a commodity subject to the laws of supply and demand, and one whose reproductive, genealogical, or sexual value provide impetus to the dramatic construction of these novels and parallel the monetary fortunes at the center of the plotlines. When Barberis observes that if "le mythe de la paternite est au centre de la mythologie balzacienne, les parents de fait, les parents non choisis, sont le plus souvent la premiere figure, pour les enfants, de la dure loi du monde," he touches on an essential truth of Balzacian family dynamics: that the code civil that regulated French society saw both women and children as the chattel of their male relatives. (17) In the case of Pierrette, this orphan girl is acquired and abused by her cousins, Jerome-Denis and Sylvie Rogron. Balzac, who always chooses his characters' names very carefully, indicates her objectification by calling her "Pierrette," a word that referred almost exclusively to a token used in a childrens game. (18) Thus, her name suggests that she lacks agency and exists at the mercy of her legal guardians while indicating the powerless role she will play.

After having made their fortune in Paris, the Rogrons return to their hometown, Provins, to retire and establish themselves in its bourgeois social world, but they are rejected and soon find themselves isolated. However, Sylvie, a skilled merchant who has "du bon sens et le genie de la vente" (4:43), conceives a plan: to obtain custody of their cousin and use her to reintegrate the family into provincial society. She hopes to make the town reconsider their judgments in light of her seeming generosity toward her niece, but in reality, the Rogrons have no interest in helping Pierrette. They had previously received a letter from Pierrettes grandparents imploring them to take charge of the girl before they left Paris, but at the time, they ignored it:
   Se charger d'une orpheline, d'une fille, d'une cousine qui, malgre
   tout, serait leur heritiere au cas ou ni l'un ni l'autre ne se
   marierait, il y avait la matiere a discussion ... Et si Rogron
   trouvait chaussure a son pied parmi les heritieres de Provins, ne
   valait-il pas mieux reserver toute leur fortune pour ses enfants?
   ... Les deux marchands se deciderent a refuser. (4:50)

A discussion that might have more suitably deliberated moral and ethical considerations instead takes the form of a cost-benefit analysis, and the question of Pierrette's welfare does not cross their minds. The Rogrons want to keep their money for themselves, and the decision seems irrevocable, so initially the two celibates see little value in the investment. After months of isolation from the community, however, Sylvie remembers her impoverished cousin, recognizes her potential as a pawn in the social chess game of the town.

The Rogrons invest in Pierrette by paying the costs of her education and for the clothes and accessories necessary for a young bourgeois girl to be a respectable candidate for marriage, but they recoup these expenditures, metaphorically speaking, by abusing her: "Les conseils que s'attirait Pierrette sur la tenue que doivent avoir les jeunes filles bien elevees, sur la modestie et sur l'economie, etaient le corollaire de ce theme principal: Pierrette nous ruine!" (4:81) The Rogrons begin to see her more as a financial responsibility than as a social asset, but of greater interest is the rigor with which they treat her as a commodity: Pierrette is constantly reminded that her value within society and within the family is wholly dependent on her use-value as a potential spouse. She must present herself as an eligible young woman in the town marriage market without costing her guardians too much in the process. Meanwhile, her avaricious cousins profit from her powerlessness by keeping her in a state of domestic servitude.

Despite the fact that her guardians were rejected, Pierrette finds great success in the social world. But at the same time, she becomes increasingly useless to the Rogrons, who remain outside the community. Pierrette's happiness makes Sylvie jealous of her niece, and at exactly this moment, Balzac unveils to us the true nature of the Rogron's intentions, that is, that they "avaient pris Pierrette pour eux et non pour elle: leurs sentiments, loin d'etre paternels, etaient entaches d'egoisme et d'une sorte d'exploitation commerciale" (4:81). This sentiment permits them to dispose of her as soon as her utility wanes, and as soon as her potential use-value as a bargaining chip disappears, so do those who might have defended Pierrette. Distracted by squabbles for power that define both the local politics of Provins as well as those of the provinces more broadly, the town's noble families abandon her to her brutal aunt. During this time, the Rogrons have formed a liberal political group that will rival the Tiphaines' royalist salon. They organize politically, establish a liberal newspaper, and in the elections of 1830, gain power over the local government. By the end of the novel, the Rogrons have succeeded in joining the high society of Provins, and the new imperatives of the political situation have drastically reshaped the social sphere of the town. Pierrette has disappeared, and only two characters will remember her appalling fate: Sylvie, consumed by suspicion and jealousy, allows Pierrette to die from an untreated head wound. The event serves as a test for the Rogrons, but as they have accrued a sufficient amount of political leverage, the tribunal drops the charges and they escape from justice. Pierrette had become a burden, a financial responsibility without further profit or value in the eyes of both her guardians and the general public, and that is why no one involved in her death has any remorse. Even after she dies, she is "exploitee par des ambitieux politiques et les calculateurs cupides de l'arrondissement." (19) Shocking as it is, the story of Pierrette is essentially that of investment that ends in a loss, a case of speculation on the value of the life of a girl that ends horribly. And Pierrette is by no means the only story in Scenes de la vie de Province that involves the exploitation and commodification of young women; nor is it the only Balzacian plot that revolves around the human costs of reckless speculation.

In 1838, the same year that he wrote Pierrette, Balzac began to lay the framework of another work that treats these same themes: La Rabouilleuse. As Bardeche indicates, the novel is "une oeuvre vigoureuse, un des plus beaux et un des plus cruels des romans de Balzac ... la description la plus serree de la vie provinciale, avec son avarice, sa curiosite sournoise, sa peur du qu'en-dira-t-on, ses fortunes amassees en silence, ses secrets que couvre la nuit." (20) The novel's first section, initially published under the title Les Deux Freres, opens with the history of the Bridau brothers, but the story of Flore Brazier, a peasant girl who has nothing but her remarkable beauty, remains the heart of the novel. Balzac later emphasized her central position within the book by giving it the definitive title of La Rabouilleuse in the Furne edition of 1843. Although her role might at first seem inconsequential compared to those of Philippe and Joseph, further consideration will reveal both why and how Flore's role drives the plot of this Provincial drama.

The provincial setting of La Rabouilleuse quickly establishes the same economic and social exigencies that inspire the malfeasant actions of characters like Felix Grandet and Sylvie Rogron. Balzac describes Issoudun as a town where defying authority is traditional and where, like many Provincial towns, the inhabitants have a profound horror toward any kind of change. He places great emphasis on their rebellious attitude by mentioning the winemakers revolt of 1830, and as Nicole Mozet observes in her book La Ville de Province dans l'oeuvre de Balzac, the author searched through the province's distant past for the smallest signs of a rebellious spirit and suppressed those details that did not align with the image that he wanted to create. (21) Here, Balzac's historical inaccuracies matter less than the rigor with which he establishes in Issoudun an atmosphere of revolution and instability, the same atmosphere that valorizes the economic strategy of buying and stockpiling.

The old doctor Rouget, a variant on the miser character type, conducts his affairs following that same strategy. (22) After having inherited a fortune from his father-in-law Descoings, he invests it in businesses that dealt in commodities, such as farms and forges. But his purchases include more than just traditional forms of property. In that same year, Rouget buys Flore, an eleven-year-old girl, and Balzac leaves us no doubts as to his intentions. This old malefactor, who "mena toujours une vie debauchee" (4:276), first assures himself of her sexual innocence before revealing that he "voulait sans doute faire en petit ce que Louis XV fit en grand pour mademoiselle de Romans; mais il s'y prenait trop tard: Louis XV etait encore jeune, tandis que le docteur se trouvait a la fleur de la vieillesse" (4:390-1). (22) Rouget furnishes her with such lavish clothing, jewelry, and education that she becomes the envy of the other young bourgeois women of the town, but the text gives us no certainty as to why he invests so heavily in this girl, and in exactly the same way as the Rogrons invest in Pierrette.

Balzac remains equally ambiguous as to the conduct of the old doctor. On one hand he and Flore share some kind of sexual relationship:
   [L]e docteur eut les plaisirs de l'education de Flore, sans les
   ennuis que l'ambition et les pretentions de mademoiselle de Romans
   donnerent, dit-on, a Louis-le-Bien-Aime. La petite Rabouilleuse
   etait si contente, en comparant sa situation chez le docteur a la
   vie quelle eut menee avec son oncle Brazier, quelle se plia sans
   doute aux exigences de son maitre, comme eut fait une esclave en
   Orient. (4:392)

The comparison between Flore and an oriental slave suggests the possibility that her elderly master forces himself on her, yet on the other hand, the narrator tells us explicitly that Flore remains an "honnete fille" until "neuf mois apres l'enterrement de son maitre, le quinze avril 1806" (4:400). Of greater significance, the language evokes Balzac's aforementioned proclamation in Eugenie Grandet that a form of slavery continues to be practiced in Europe. His two references in quick succession to Mademoiselle de Romans may indicate that Rouget wanted to use her to produce an heir, if not for himself then for his feeble-minded son Jean-Jacques. Even without marrying Flore, Jean-Jacques could have recognized their child as his legitimate heir, either in the way that Louis XV recognized the son of Mademoiselle de Romans, or that M. de la Baudraye accepts the illegitimate children of his wife and Lousteau as his own. Rouget wished to disinherit his daughter Agathe, and he might have preferred that his son reproduce rather than see his fortune pass to a daughter of whom he doubted his paternity. Perhaps he wanted Flore to be a governess for Jean-Jacques, but insufficient textual evidence exists to justify insistence on any of these possibilities. In the end, his reasons matter little: the doctor clearly makes a bad deal. He fails to exploit her use-value, and Rouget eventually leaves her, like his house and his fortune, to his son, who is dominated and eventually ruined by her. The fortune will pass to Agathe's sons, the Bridau brothers.

After the doctor's death, Jean-facques inherits Flore, paralleling the inheritances that form the crux of so many of Balzac's plots. This fact marks her indelibly as the property of the family and emphasizes the degree to which Rouget has objectified her. Her personality, never truly explored like that of Eugenie, becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate from the man who happens to be controlling her. At the beginning of her life with Jean-Jacques, she appears as weak and easy to control as he is; under the domination of Max, she learns to manipulate others, and after Philippe kills Max and takes control of the fortune, she becomes debauched by the pleasures of Parisian life. And as Allan Pasco points out:
   The title character quickly comes to represent less a character or
   even a role than the inheritance that passes from Dr. Rouget,
   partially and temporarily to Joseph, then, to her and to Philippe,
   and finally once again to Joseph [...]. She functions simply to
   represent or symbolize the inheritance. The novel's activity turns
   around her, in that she is the goal of all the other main
   characters who follow the money [...] [At] the effective end of the
   novel, Flore passes from the scene, for she no longer has sway over
   the inheritance. (24)

Flore becomes so objectified that she ceases to function as a character, and like Pierrette, the moment that her commodified value has been exploited, she is virtually forgotten. Although her nickname might indicate that she plays a central role because she "troubles the waters" of this small town, she does not exercise enough agency to fulfill this role.

Flore does not manipulate Jean-Jacques during the first years of their life together. Accustomed to yielding to his domineering father, Jean-Jacques submits to Flore willingly: "Durant ces neuf annees, Flore prit a la longue, insensiblement et sans le vouloir, un empire absolu sur son maitre ... Ce grand enfant alla de lui-meme au-devant de cette domination, en se laissant rendre tant de soins, que Flore fut avec lui comme une mere est avec son fils" (4:402-3). Likewise, Balzac explains that before Flore commences her affair with Max, she "eut pour les interets de ce garcon autant de tendresse et d'avidite que s'il s'agissait d'elle-meme." Flores maternal empathy and Jean-Jacques' total willingness to submit to her authority do not support the conventional interpretation of her character as a manipulative meddler. Finally, he reinforces the idea that in this drama, women have little power or agency, through the use of an allusion to Thomas Otway's play, Venice Preserv'd (1682), which emphasizes the vulnerability and lack of agency that characterized women's roles in society at the time. Balzac, who understands full well the power of fecund allusion, invites the reader to grasp that even during this period in which she exercises more power than at any other point, the male figures in Flores life nonetheless determine and define her character.

In order to explain the centrality of her character, thoroughly deprived of will and power, we must explore more subtle possibilities. She is not a devious agitator, like Philippe or Max, but a victim, a poor girl exploited at every moment, abused and forgotten by every man in her life, except feebleminded Jean-Jacques. She is passed from one master to another like the Rouget fortune. In the process, she emphasizes the doctor's ill-advised speculation, and she demonstrates just how badly he has miscalculated: Flore neither serves as his mistress, nor produces an heir, nor protects and cares for Jean-Jacques. Instead, like the jewels and expensive clothes she wears, Flore becomes an object of luxury and ostentation that attracts and seduces the greedy young men who will pilfer the Rouget fortune. Finally, Balzac completes this process of objectification and depersonalization by denying her the possibility of self-determination and by using her as a canvas upon which he paints the image of the human cost of the class antagonisms and unchecked speculation that were reshaping the social realities of France during the four decades following the Revolution.

These same young men, here criminals, were also victims of these realities. Issoudun so thoroughly resists every sign of change that the town fails to capitalize on the benefits of the development of networks of transportation and communication that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. (25) For example, Balzac presents Nemours, the setting of Ursule Mirouet, as a fundamentally different environment than that of Issoudun: Nemours, close to Paris, served as a hub of the system of stagecoaches that covered France, whereas Issoudun fights to remain disconnected from the rest of the country. Crippled by their "esprit d'immobilisme" and their fear of economic change, the gerontocracy of Issoudun choose to isolate themselves at the cost of depriving their offspring of the opportunity to advance either in government or in commerce. Nemours may not be Paris, but whereas Desire Minoret has the chance to acquire "des idees qui ne lui seraient jamais venues a Nemours," to get "depouille de la peau du provincial," to come to understand "la puissance de l'argent," and to see "dans la magistrature un moyen d'elevation" (3:773), the young men of Issoudun have no options: "parmi les jeunes gens de la ville, plusieurs n'eurent aucune carriere a suivre, et ne surent que faire en attendant leur mariage ou la succession de leurs parents" (4:365). By denying their children the possibility of material advancement, the bourgeois gerontocracy condemns them to a life of idleness and criminality, and, as Balzac insists, bears the responsibility for the towns economic stagnation.

For Balzac, Issoudun represents the future of France if the bourgeoisie continues to frustrate the youth and dominate the economy and politics: "Uetat dans lequel le triomphe de la bourgeoisie a mis ce cheflieu d'arrondissement est celui qui attend toute la France et meme Paris, si la bourgeoisie continue a rester maitresse de la politique exterieure et interieure de notre pays" (4:363-4). Again, Balzac conceives of Nemours differently. The group that Dr. Minoret forms includes not only men of various professions, who stand for different elements of the bourgeoisie, but also different political and intellectual affiliations: believers and skeptics, liberals and royalists, Provincials and Parisians. These diverse characters share a devotion to others, a character trait that contrasts sharply with monomaniacal villains such as Rouget, Sylvie Rogron, and Minoret-Levrault. Throughout the novel, this group protects Ursule from her cousin MinoretLevrault and eventually ensures her successful marriage and ennoblement. Hence these men who wisely invest in honorable young women form an image that opposes that of the self-serving and egoistic villains of La Rabouilleuse and Pierrette.

An examination of these two novels must include a comparison between Ursule and Flore, because, as Nicole Mozet informs us, "Si Ion oppose leurs deux couples formes d'un vieillard et d'une petite fille, La Rabouilleuse peut etre consideree comme l'exact negatif d'Ursule Mirouet." (26) For example, Ursule and Flore are both orphans and surrounded by men who form irregular families for them. They become enemies of the bourgeoisie of their respective towns and targets for local gossip, and both play a central role in dramas that revolve around an inheritance. Their husbands take them to Paris where they join the aristocracy, although under entirely different circumstances. Whereas Ursule transforms into the marquise de Portenduere and lives in happiness, Flore becomes the comtesse de Brambourg and descends into her darkest role: that of a prostitute who dies ignominiously, almost certainly of syphilis or some other venereal disease. Finally, both of these novels end in an improbable fashion. At the end of La Rabouilleuse, the virtuous and hard-working painter Joseph inherits the title, the Parisian mansion, and the valuable paintings of his villainous brother. Likewise, God saves Ursule in an act of deus ex machina. Unlike Flore and Pierrette, Ursule represents a wise investment come to fruition; in her story, family and affective priorities trump Minoret-Levrault's political and economic calculus.

These unlikely denouements reinforce the idea that throughout La Comedie humaine, Balzac insists on the possibility of redemption. Even the villain Minoret-Levrault repents his crimes against Ursule, and after the death of his son, Desire, he gives Ursule his estate and four fifths of his income. He both redeems Ursule and actively pursues his own redemption: "Il est devenu l'homme le plus charitable, le plus pieux de Nemours; il est marguillier de la paroisse et la providence des malheureux" (3:986). By the end of the novel, his charitable occupations and selflessness align his character with those of Balzac's utopian heroes, such as Dr. Benassis from Le Medecin de campagne and Veronique Graslin from Le Cure de village. In Studies in European Realism, Lukacs describes these characters as penitents who "have each committed a great crime and thereby ruined their personal life and individual happiness. They both regard their personal life as ended and do their work as a religious penitence--on no other basis could the realist Balzac conceive of people willing and able to turn his Utopia into reality." (27) Prefigured by Dr. Minoret's conversion from an atheist "a la facon de M. de Wolmar dans La Nouvelle Heloise" (3:815) to a churchgoer, Minoret-Levrault's transformation marks the moment when, as Mortimer observes, "spirituality triumphs over materiality." (28) Ursule may be redeemed in the financial sense, but Minoret-Levrault's spiritual redemption ultimately provides a resolution to the dominant thematic conflict within the plot. Although the novel may purport to tell her story, in the end, Ursule's fate matters less than that of her repentant relative. Not only does such a reading resolve the plot dynamic more cleanly, it better accounts for Ursule's relative blandness and inability to resolve her own problems.

Despite the novel's optimism, Ursule's character varies little from that of Flore or Pierrette. She is a flat character who does not change substantively at any point in the novel, and since she lacks the agency to help herself, God must intervene. Like Flore, she comes to embody her stolen fortune (the Doctor's inheritance) more than a real character, and her eventual restoration does not change the fact that throughout the novel, her societal worth depends wholly on her material value. Furthermore, as David Bell points out, she also resembles Flore in that she remains relatively immobile. (29) Much like Eugenie, Ursule can only resist outside influence by withdrawing from the world until male authority can redeem her. As Naomi Schor points out in her analysis of Eugenie Grandet, "it would appear that the female protagonist's melancholic retreat into narcissism may be the only form of autonomy available to her in a society where woman's assigned function in the Symbolic is to guarantee the transmission of the phallus." (10) In other words, the best defense the female character can muster against those who would spec ulate on her value is to withdraw from the market entirely. Pierrette and Flore are unable to do so and are subsequently destroyed.

For Ursule, however, this retreat is only temporary and her marriage to Savinien allows her to reintegrate into the genealogie economy from which Pierrette, Flore, and Eugenie (by her own choice) are excluded; Ursule's case complements and reflects those of her textual sisters. The marked polarity in these characters' fates underlines the relationship among the reckless speculation engendered by nascent capitalism, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the objectification of women. Perhaps her role in Minoret-Levrault's conversion indicates the conditions Balzac saw as necessary to the redemption of French society and of the bourgeoisie, but perhaps the most innovative quality of the novel is the means by which Balzac creates drama and poignant social commentary through the manipulation of stock characters. Balzac's portrayals of these women as commodities and objects of speculation in the hands of their male manipulators reveal his prescient understanding of the relationship between economic and gender exploitation. These formal innovations vividly demonstrate the human costs of the development of capitalism in France and the extent to which French society exploited women in order to maintain the patriarchal and economic prerogatives of the bourgeoisie.

Princeton University


(1.) Balzac is by no means the first author to make use of such a character, and as Allan Pasco points out in his article "The Allusive Complex of Balzac's Pierrette," French Forum 26 (2001): 28 no. 3., the story of "an abused child, while touching, was a commonplace in the novels that since the late eighteenth century had detailed the pathetic plight of legions of orphans. Some of these waifs, like Ducray-Duminils Dominique in Le Petit Carrillonneur of 1809, manage to rise to wondrous heights of joy and wealth, while others like the title character of Edouard Ourliac's Suzanne (1840) move from one disaster to another until they die a miserable death. Of course, Balzac frequently took the cliched character types and tired stories of popular novels and recast them into works of astonishing power."

(2.) Bernard Guyon, "Balzac, heraut du capitalisme naissant," Europe, Revue Litteraire Mensuelle 429 (1965): 126-45; Allan Pasco, "Balzac's 'L'illustre Gaudissart' and Nascent Capitalism," Symposium 60 (2007): 227-38 n. 4; Michael Tilby, "Playing with Risk: Balzac, the Insurance Industry and the Creation of Fiction," Journal of European Studies 41 (2011): 107-22 no. 2.

(3.) Armine Kotin-Mortimer, For Love or for Money: Balzac's Rhetorical Realism. (Ohio State U. Press, 2011), 5, identifies precisely these two themes as the "prime movers" that animate and energize the dramas of La Comedie humaine and as the means by which Balzac invents "a world in which Love needs money and vice versa; neither ever works alone, and it is the powerful interaction between them that defines La Comedie humaine. On such a basis, Balzac builds his particular brand of realism."

(4.) Andrew Watts, Preserving the Provinces: Small Town and Countryside in the Work of Honore de Balzac. (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007), 27, 241, argues that throughout La Comedie humaine, Balzac "took the growing revalorization of the provinces in the 1830s, and refracted it through the lens of his own literary enterprise" in such a way as to present these spaces as diverse and constantly evolving. Through an examination of his later novels, Watts also suggests that Balzac "recognized the provinces as moving out of isolation, and into an age of increased openness and social mobility."

(5.) Andre Wurmser, La Comedie inhumaine. (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 614.

(6.) Pierre Barberis, Le monde de Balzac. (Paris: Arthaud, 1973), 233.

(7.) Maurice Bardeche, Balzac. (Paris: Julliard, 1980), 256.

(8.) Honore de Balzac, La Comedie humaine, ed. Pierre-Georges Castex, vols. 3-4. (Bibliotheque de la Pleiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 4:539. All quotations from Balzac's novels will be from this edition and indicate volume and page number.

(9.) Thomas Kemple, "Les Illusions speculaires du capitalisme: Balzac et Marx sur les fictions critiques de l'economie politique," Cahiers de Recherche Sociologique 26 (1996): 39-59, argues that both Marx and Balzac were keenly aware of the economic and social changes that were taking place in French society.

(10.) Guyon, "Balzac, heraut du capitalisme naissant," 128.

(11.) This process likewise resembles the Saint-Simonian concept of money "flowing" through the body politic like blood, as well as that of the industriel; as Robert B. Carlisle, The Proffered Crown: Saint-Simonianism and the Doctrine of Hope. (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1987), 31, explains, convincing this economic elite to invest in infrastructure and public works would lead to "an ever-expanding economy spilling over from the backward villages to the region, the nation, and the world in an endless and delirious process of productivity." Although Balzac incorporates Saint-Simonian language into Gaudissart's rhetoric, the influence of this school of thought on the author should not be overstated. See also Bruce Tolley, "Balzac et les saint-simoniens," l'Annee balzacienne (1966): 49-66.

(12.) Marco Diani, "La Revolution dans la forme : l'Inscription immaterielle de l'argent chez Balzac," Stanford French Review 15 (1991): 380 no. 3.

(13.) See Tilby, "Playing with Risk," 113.

(14.) Karl Marx, Capital: a Critique of Political Economy. Ed. Frederick Engels. (New York: International Publishers, 1974), 41.

(15.) Bardeche, Balzac, 257.

(16.) Pierre Citron, "Presentation et notes," La Comedie humaine, vol. 3 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966), 7.

(17.) Barberis, Le Monde de Balzac, 76. For more information concerning the legal status of women and children and the code civil, see Wurmser, Comedie Inhumaine, 612,28, and Marie-Henriette Faillie, La femme et le code civil dans la Comedie Humaine d'Honore de Balzac. Paris: Didier, 1968).

(18.) Dictionnaire de l'Acadamie francaise, 5th ed., s.v. "Pierrette."

(19.) Bardeche, Balzac, 455.

(20.) Ibid., 503.

(21.) Nicole Mozet. La Ville de Province dans l'oeuvre de Balzac. (Paris: sedes, 1982), 241.

(22.) Lukacs, in Studies in European Realism; a Sociological Survey of the Writings of Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Tolstoy, Gorki, and Others. (London: Merlin Press, 1972), 45, identifies a character type he refers to as an "epicurean miser," who is "concerned with scraping and saving, hoarding and swindling, like those others, but who at the same time creates an extremely comfortable life for himself."

(23.) Dussieux, Genealogie de la maison de Bourbon: de 1256 a 1871 (Paris, 1872), 108, identifies Mademoiselle de Romans as one of the many concubines of Louis XV, who notably gave birth to the "seul des batards de Louis XV qui ait ete reconnu, quoique irregulierement."

(24.) Allan Pasco, "Process Structure in Balzac's La Rabouilleuse," Nineteenth-Century French Studies 34, (2005): 21 no. 1-2.

(25.) For an analysis of the effects of these developments and their influence on Balzac's novels, see David Bell, Real Time; Accelerating Narrative from Balzac to Zola. (U. of Illinois Press, 2004).

(26.) Mozet, La Ville de Province, 237-38.

(27.) Lukacs, Studies in European Realism, 25.

(28.) Mortimer, For Love or for Money, 159.

(29.) Bell, Real Time, 27.

(30.) Naomi Schor, Breaking the Chain: Women, Theory, and French Realist Fiction (Columbia U. Press, 1985), 106.
COPYRIGHT 2014 University of Pennsylvania Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Decker, Robert
Publication:French Forum
Date:Mar 22, 2014
Previous Article:Elusive shores: Lamartine's Meditations and the art of poetry.
Next Article:Hygiene et education dans Un mariage scandaleux d'Andre Leo.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |