The Utopian Narration of La Comédie Humaine: Balzac’s Quest for the Ideal Novel

Harsh Trivedi, French Studies, University of Sheffield

Illusions Perdues and the ‘grand network’

The quest for perfection, unity, and totality is a recurring theme in Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine (a collection of almost a hundred novels and short stories) and is often reflected in the motivations of its numerous characters. Be it Frenhofer’s obsession of depicting the ‘ideal feminine beauty’ on canvas (Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnnu), Balthazar Claës’s manic fixation on finding the elementary particles of matter (La Recherche de l’Absolu), or Gambara’s quest to comprehend and manipulate the very substance of sound and create the ideal musical instrument (the ‘panharmonicon’) in the eponymous short story, La Comédie Humaine is replete with characters preoccupied with chasing impossible ideals. Balzac perpetually engaged with the prevalent ideas about ‘unity’ in the first half of the 19th century as can be seen from the fact that he closely followed the famous ‘debate of the naturalists’ between Geoffrey Saint-Hillaire and Cuvier about the ‘unity of composition’ and often demonstrated his appreciation for arguments on both sides in his fictions.

This article explores the fictive works (literary works created by Balzac’s characters) present as fragments inside Illusions Perdues, the most central and pivotal of the novels that constitute Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine. These fictive works (Les Marguerites – a collection of sonnets, L’Archer de Charles IX – a historical novel à la Walter Scott) penned by Lucien de Rubempré, undergo a series of transformations and collective rewriting in order to achieve a literary ideal. This article demonstrates how these transformations represent a threefold hierarchy in Balzac’s conception of the ideal novel and his desire to surpass it – a) ‘Walter Scott’s historical novel’, b) the ‘Balzacian novel’ which improves upon many aspects of Scott’s ‘monotonous’ characterisation and narration, and finally c) the ‘ideal’ novel (an unnamed fictive novel penned by Daniel d’Arthez written with the sole aim of studying the resources of language itself) – which will help us comprehend the inherent mechanisms of the text of La Comédie Humaine that constantly propel it to exceed itself.

Published between 1837 and 1843 and classified into the sub-section Scènes de la vie de province of the Étude de mœurs section of La Comédie Humaine, Illusions Perdues recounts the adventures and misadventures of Lucien de Rubembpré and David Séchard in their respective quests for literary glory and scientific innovation. In a letter to Eveline Hanska (a long-time correspondent and eventually the wife of Balzac) written on the 2nd of March 1843, Balzac himself refers to this novel as “l’œuvre capitale dans l’œuvre”. This centrality of Illusions Perdues can be accounted for by two reasons. Firstly, because of its position in the grand network of the novels and short stories of La Comédie Humaine, Illusions Perdues can be seen as a microcosm of this network as it functions as the transition between two large sub-sections of La Comédie Humaine (Scènes de la vie de province and Scènes de la vie parisienne). Due to this, the novel has the advantage of containing a maximum number of reappearing characters from Balzac’s other novels and can be perceived as the central crossroad for many of La Comédie Humaine’s key characters. The novel also contains a large number of what Dominique Massonnaud terms ‘recurring structures’ of the Balzacian universe. By ‘recurring structures’ she alludes to the innumerable instances of auctorial interventions, the perpetual announcements about works that are yet to come, and the constant references to other novels and short-stories of La Comédie Humaine. According to Massonnaud, these recurring structures that reinforce the unity of the grand ensemble at the heart of every novel, are particularly present in Illusions Perdues.[1] The second reason for the centrality of Illusions Perdues in the network of La Comédie Humaine is the auto-reflexive nature of the novel. This refers to the fact that Illusions Perdues is a novel that demonstrates an active recognition of (and reflects upon) its process of production, publication and reception, and its own poetics vis-à-vis the prevalent literary models of the European novel during the first half of the 19th century. It is perhaps this combination of the microcosmic and auto-reflexive nature of Illusions Perdues that give it a privileged status when it comes to the study of La Comédi Humaine, as Soritirois Paraschas remarks:

Indeed, in many ways, Illusions Perdues is a scale model of La Comédie Humaine : it is one of the novels which contain the highest concentration of reappearing characters ; it is a novel that moves from the provinces to Paris, depicts the life of provincial aristocracy, government officials, the professions of the printer, the publisher, the author, the journalist, the actress, the provincial lawyer and the worlds of the book trade and of boulevard theatre ; at the same time, it is a study of the phenomenon that brings all of these together, the commodification of literature, culture and social life, expressed through the overarching metaphor of prostitution. In representing society as a spectacle, the ‘coulisses’ of the book trade and the life of authors, the novel approximates the very structure of La Comédie Humaine, as Balzac had described it already in 1834 through a theatrical metaphor: ‘the manners [Études de mœurs] are the spectacle, the causes [Études philosophiques] are the backstage area and the stage machinery. The principles [Études analytiques] are the author’ [‘[l]es mœurs sont le spectacle, les causes sont les coulisses et les machines. Les principes, c’est l’auteur.] [2]

It is exactly this proximity of the novel to the totality of the work that makes it particularly interesting for our study of fictive works as our findings have potential implications for the entirety of La Comédie Humaine when it comes to the presence of inserted fictive works.

À nous deux Walter Scott: the poetics of the Balzacian novel

Lucien, the protagonist of the novel, having courted Mme de Bargeton in Angouleme, is convinced by her to follow her to Paris. He dreams of the literary glory that he presumes awaits him at the capital and is certain of the immediate success of his historical novel L’Archer de Charles IX. However, on his arrival in Paris, Lucien loses his illusions on both fronts. Mme de Bargeton puts an end to her liaison with him as she learns that maintaining any relations with the son of a pharmacist might be detrimental to her efforts at climbing the social ladder in the high societies of Paris. And when he goes to try his luck at the publication houses in Paris, Lucien discovers that literature as it was practised in the French capital was nothing but another dishonourable business with profit at all costs being its sole guiding principle..

Let us first examine Lucien’s poetic work, for the narrator of Illusions Perdues constantly reminds the reader that Lucien was, above all, a poet. However, in the Balzacian context, being a poet rarely refers to the ability   to compose beautiful poetry, but rather alludes to a romantic temperament often linked with unproductivity and inactivity. This becomes rather obvious when one looks at the mediocrity of Lucien’s verses and his motivations behind composing Les Marguerites (a collection of fifty sonnets of which we only find four in the novel: La Pâquerette, La Marguerite, Le Camélia and Le Tulipe). Despite the warnings of Daniel d’Arthez, Lucien could not help giving in to the seductions of the life of vice as presented to him by Étienne Lousteau, the Parisian journalist, who corrupts the young poet. Lucien desperately seeks out an audience with the journalist and eventually convinces him to judge his poetic composition. And thus, it is under the trees of the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, that Lousteau and the reader discover the sonnets of Lucien. The poet begins his performance with a sort of ‘preface’ that deserves to be examined:

‘The sonnet, monsieur,’ said he, ‘is one of the most difficult forms of poetry. It has fallen almost entirely into disuse. No Frenchman can hope to rival Petrarch; for the language in which the Italian wrote, being so infinitely more pliant than French, lends itself to play of thought which our positivism (pardon the use of the expression) rejects. So it seemed to me that a volume of sonnets would be something quite new. Victor Hugo has appropriated the old, Canalis writes lighter verse, Beranger has monopolized songs, Casimir Delavigne has taken tragedy, and Lamartine the poetry of meditation.’[3]

A first glance at this preface of Les Marguerites is enough to inform the reader that Lucien had taken to poetry and specifically to writing sonnets, above anything else, to distinguish himself and hence succeed. He does not speak of any of his inspirations or of any ambitions to reveal a certain poetic truth. Also, the fact that the sonnets that Lucien reads out to Lousteau were not written in reality by the same poet (Balzac, not at all gifted when it came to poetry, had commissioned the sonnets from his friends. La Pâquerette and Le Camélia were composed by Charles Lassailly, while La Tulipe was penned by Théophile Gautier) indicates that Balzac did not wish to endow the sonnets with any profound unity apart from a superficial floral theme. This is a phenomenon which manifests itself multiple times in Illusions Perdues, every time Lucien takes to writing poetry, it is either for a material gain or a social advantage. And so we find him in the first part of the novel, dedicating a poem called ‘À Elle’ to Mme Bargeton in the hope of seducing her and using her social standing to his advantage, while at the end of the second part of the novel we find him composing songs in order to earn two hundred francs which he desperately needed to pay for the funeral of Coralie, a young actress who sacrificed herself (in vain) to help Lucien succeed in his quest for literary glory in Paris. The mediocre poetry of Lucien only serves his pragmatic and material ends in Illusions Perdues.

Let us now move on to Lucien’s historical novel, L’Archer de Charles IX. The first mention of the novel occurs in the text when Lucien tries to pitch it to the publishing houses in Paris. He presents his work as a historical novel written in the style of Walter Scott. This introduction to Lucien’s work informs the reader about its major themes and its ideological inclinations, without giving away any information about the plot of the novel or its characters. However, the fact that the Scottish novelist Walter Scott finds a mention in Lucien’s own description of his novel, is of great significance. Scott was one of Balzac’s biggest inspirations, especially during the latter’s formative years. And Scott’s model of the historical novel was rather dominant in the French literary landscape at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Although the first translation of a Scott novel (Guy Mannering) appeared in France as late as in 1816, the popularity of Scott’s fiction soon exploded and by 1824, more than 200,000 copies of his works had been sold in France, a number that reached up to 1,500,000 by 1830.[4] And as indicated by the depictions of publishing houses in Illusions Perdues, Walter Scott’s novels were enjoying great commercial success and the booksellers were desperately waiting and hoping for a ‘Walter Scott français’. And it is only after Lucien could convince Doguereau (head of a publishing house in Paris) of the proximity of L’Archer de Charles IX to the Scottian model of the historical novel, that he could persuade the latter to read his manuscript and eventually get an offer for publication. The first impressions of Doguereau after reading Lucien’s manuscript are quite telling of the nature of the novel as he immediately refers to Lucien as his Walter Scott en herbe (a budding Walter Scott). And hence it would not be implausible to infer that L’Archer de Charles IX, in its original version, was modelled on the historical novel à la Walter Scott.

As the narration continues, we learn that the offer that Doguereau makes to buy and publish Lucien’s manuscript is quite humiliating (four hundred francs with a contractual obligation to write two volumes per year for the next six years) and the young novelist declares that he would rather burn his manuscript than accept such terms of publication. Soon after this disillusionment, Lucien runs into Daniel d’Arthez (‘the ideal writer’ of the Balzacian universe), who, seeing him in tears, decides to help him by reading his manuscript and providing constructive criticism. The passage where Daniel analyses Lucien’s novel and talks about how he should go about improving it, is perhaps the most crucial passage of Illusions Perdues when it comes to the auto-reflexive nature of the work. Balzac reveals the poetics of the ‘Balzacian novel’ in this passage by distinguishing it from Walter Scott’s model of the historical novel. This passage also marks the commencement of the evolution and the transformation that L’Archer de Charles IX would eventually go through:

‘You have made a good start on the right way’, d’Arthez answered judicially, ‘but you must go over your work again. You must strike out a different style for yourself if you do not mean to ape Sir Walter Scott, for you have taken him for your model. You begin, for instance, as he begins, with long conversations to introduce your characters, and only when they have said their say do description and action follow this opposition, necessary in all work of a dramatic kind, comes last. Just put the terms of the problem the other way round. Give descriptions, to which our language lends itself so admirably, instead of diffuse dialogue, magnificent in Scott’s work, but colourless in your own. Lead naturally up to your dialogue. Plunge straight into the action. Treat your subject from different points of view, sometimes in a side-light, sometimes retrospectively; vary your methods, in fact, to diversify your work. You may be original while adapting the Scots novelist’s form of dramatic dialogue to French history. There is no passion in Scott’s novels; he ignores passion, or perhaps it was interdicted by the hypocritical manners of his country. Woman for him is duty incarnate. His heroines, with possibly one or two exceptions, are all alike; he has drawn them all from the same model, as painters say. They are, every one of them, descended from Clarissa Harlowe. And returning continually, as he did, to the same idea of woman, how could he do otherwise than produce a single type, varied only by degrees of vividness in the colouring? Woman brings confusion into Society through passion. Passion gives infinite possibilities. Therefore, depict passion; you have one great resource open to you, foregone by the great genius for the sake of providing family reading for prudish England. In France, you have the charming sinner, the brightly-coloured life of Catholicism, contrasted with sombre Calvinistic figures on a background of the times when passions ran higher than at any other period of our history.’[5]

This analysis of Lucien’s fictive work by Daniel d’Arthez reveals a clear opposition between two models of the novel that were quite prominent in the European literary landscape of the nineteenth century. Undoubtedly Balzac has immense admiration for Scott, but his critique of the Scottian model (that Lucien had imitated in L’Archer de Charles IX) by the intermediary of Daniel d’Arthez, almost takes the form of a manifesto of the Balzacian novel. When d’Arthez criticises the invariant structure of Scott’s novels (long dialogues to establish characters) and asks Lucien to invert it (dialogues becoming a consequence of actions) and diversify his style, Balzac seems to be alluding to his own model of the novel. In Balzac’s criticism of Scott’s inability to create diverse feminine characters (all symbolising virtue and duty), one can clearly sense an almost proud demonstration of the fact that La Comédie Humaine, on the other hand, contains a large variety of complex, diverse and nuanced feminine characters. In describing Walter Scott’s novels as ‘passionless’ and the English reader as prudish, Balzac seems to underline the fact that La Comédie Humaine did not hesitate in dealing with themes that were considered at the time to be suggestive or taboo, like infidelity, moral and political corruption, prostitution, homosexuality etc. Also, the suggestions made by d’Arthez to Lucien about exploiting the ‘accidents of passion’ and painting ‘the costumes and furniture, the houses and their interiors, and domestic life’, in order to reveal the ‘spirit of the time’ rather than laboriously narrating ascertained facts, exactly corresponds and sums up the project of writing La Comédie Humaine as elaborated by Balzac in his Avant-propos (Introduction) to the ensemble of his works.

Therefore, because of the presence of Lucien’s fictive work in the novel, Illusions Perdues acquires an auto-reflexive aspect in which not only the work becomes conscious of its own poetics, but it also exhibits a comprehension of the literary context within which it exists, all the while trying to forge a larger place in it. The reader does not need to turn to the first volume of La Comédie Humaine where in his Avant-propos, Balzac elaborates on the poetics of the grand ensemble of his works, as he finds the same information[6] (if not in the very same words) in the passage we have cited above. The presence of the fictive work in the text makes the reader conscious of the fact that he is not simply reading an isolated work called Illusions Perdues but rather a work that exists at the very heart of the grand network of La Comédie Humaine. Thus, fictive works like L’Archer de Charles IX contribute to the unity of Balzac’s works, allowing the diverse collection of short-stories and novels to exist as one singular system.

So begins the transformation of Lucien’s novel, which goes on from being an imitation of Scott’s historical novel to gradually becoming (over the course of many phases of rewriting and redrafting) a ‘Balzacian novel’. Daniel d’Arthez introduces Lucien to a group of intellectuals and artists called the Cénacle and they collectively take on the task of redrafting and transforming L’Archer de Charles IX. It is perhaps necessary to briefly study the occupations of the members of the Cénacle, as the group seems to symbolize the intellect of Balzac himself. The group was composed of Daniel d’Arthez, the writer par excellence of the Balzacian universe, Horace Bianchon, a genius of medical sciences, Léon Giraud, a profound philosopher and theorist who was capable of deconstructing all philosophical systems in the service of humanity, Joeseph Bridau, a brilliant painter, Fulgence Ridal, a playwright and a realistic philosopher, Meyraux, an outstanding scientist who supposedly ignited the famous debate of the naturalists (between Cuvier and Geoffroy Sainte-Hillaire), Louis Lambert, a philosopher who created a philosophical system about humanism, and finally Michel Chrestien, an extraordinary political thinker, whose ideas, if we are to believe the narrator, could change the face of the world.

The Cénacle welcomes Lucien in its fold and aids him intellectually and financially. And even though Lucien gets seduced by the corrupt journalist Lousteau into leading the life of a dishonorable journalist, his friends at the Cénacle start redrafting L’Archer de Charles IX to help the young poet. Consequently, the fictive work of Lucien starts distancing itself from Scott’s model of the historical novel and L’Archer de Charles IX begins to resemble the Balzacian novel. After one of the many evenings of debauchery to which Lucien had accustomed himself in the company of Lousteau, the young poet returns home to find the revised manuscript on his desk and is quite surprised by the transformation that his novel had undergone. He finds that his mediocre prose had now become rich and flamboyant, the dialogue which was akin to idle gossip was now crisp and concise and seemed to reflect the spirit of the time. His character portraits, which were dry and lacking, were now vigorously coloured and based on physiological observations and as a consequence, infinitely livelier and more substantial.[7]

These changes reflected in the reworked draft of L’Archer de Charles IX tell us more about the Balzacian art of the novel rather than actually revealing anything further about Lucien’s novel which remains largely absent from the text. On a closer examination of the improvements made by d’Arthez and the Cénacle to Lucien’s manuscript, it becomes quite evident that the motivation behind the insertion of the fictive work in Illusions Perdues and its subsequent transformation is to elucidate the project of La Comédie Humaine and the poetics of the Balzacian novel. The modifications to the manuscript are related to ‘physiological observations’ and the ‘curios phenomena of human life’ being infused into ‘portraits’ of the characters, while the dialogues and the descriptions are modified to embody the ‘spirit of the time’. Any reader familiar with the Balzacian universe would remark in this passage, the echoes of Balzac’s literary ambitions as articulated by him in the Avant-propos, where Balzac evokes the necessity of ‘knowing everything’ if one wishes to represent an entire society and an epoch. And to accomplish this mammoth task of painting and studying the ‘mœurs’ (manners) of France in the early nineteenth century, the author of La Comédie Humaine needed to not only be a competent novelist, but also a good historian, artist and sociologist. And once the task of painting the society (Études de mœurs, the first section of La Comédie Humaine) is accomplished, the author must don the cap of a philosopher to analyse and draw conclusions about how ‘everything’ functions (Études analytiques, Études philosophiques, the second and third sections of La Comédie Humaine). And so, a novelist of such ambition must assemble in him the qualities of an artist, a scientist, a sociologist and a philosopher. These domains are represented in the novel by the members of the Cénacle, which can therefore be seen as a metaphor for the intellect and the literary ambitions of the author himself. The Balzacian novel, in managing to retain the threefold structure of La Comédie Humaine at the heart of every novel, aims to paint, analyse and draw conclusions, it holds true to the Balzacian desire of representing and explaining ‘everything’.

Thus far we have been able to study and analyse the fictive works of Lucien and their transformation and they seem to be depicting an almost evolutionary movement. We begin with a mediocre poetic work (Les Marguerites) that Lucien employs mostly for material gains and social advantage. We then move on to L’Archer de Charles IX which in its original version is an imitation of Scott’s model of the historical novel, and finally we get to the rewritten and redrafted manuscript which represents the Balzacian novel. This evolution seems to indicate a constant desire of the Balzacian text to perpetually push its own limits and to outdo itself continually. But even after outdoing and improving upon Walter Scott, would the Balzacian text’s inherent mechanisms cease to strive towards further perfection? The answer is no. We find evidence of this in the note that Daniel d’Arthez leaves on Lucien’s desk along with the redrafted manuscript: “Our friends are almost satisfied with your work, dear poet”.[8]

The use of the word ‘almost’ is a clear indicator of the immense challenge that Balzac takes upon himself. And it is here that the great ambition, as well as the malaise of the author of La Comédie Humaine, manifests itself. This ‘almost’ is the manifestation of Balzac’s desire to push the limits of writing, to create a colossal hybrid work that somehow manages to retain a perfect unity, a utopian narration that can articulate the unspeakable and the ideal. And this brings us to the final fictive work in Illusions Perdues, the mysterious novel of Daniel d’Arthez.

The ideal novel

If the two fictive works of Lucien are heavily fragmented and largely absent from the text, the fictive work of Daniel d’Arthez is even more so. There are only two instances in Illusions Perdues where d’Arthez’s book finds mention. In the first, it is described as a work of imagination that aims to study the resources of language itself and as a psychological work of great scope written in the form of a novel. In the second, it is simply called one of the most beautiful works of modern literature.

Daniel d’Arthez’s fictive work is thus entirely absent from the text. This absence appears to be in accordance with the evolutionary movement of the fictive works that we have discussed in the previous part. And so, the novel contains four complete sonnets of Les Marguerites, Lucien’s mediocre work of poetry, the descriptions of the style of writing and the principal themes of L’Archer de Charles IX, Lucien’s novel that undergoes transformation (from being an imitation of Scott’s historical novel to the Balzacian novel) and finally, in the case of d’Arthez’s book, we don’t even find the mention of its title in Illusions Perdues.

The insistent reader will certainly turn to other works of La Comédie Humaine in order to find more about the masterpiece of d’Arthez, for the narrator peaks the reader’s curiosity by declaring that in the forthcoming works, d’Arthez was going to become one of the most illustrious writers of his time. But after having searched for the unknown masterpiece in other works of Balzac like Autre étdue de femme, Modeste Mignon, Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan, and other works of La Comédie Humaine where d’Arthez makes an appearance or is even mentioned, the reader still finds himself confronted with an absolute absence. The concluding sentences of the short story Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan, which also mark the last appearance of d’Arthez in La Comédie Humaine, perhaps best encapsulate this uncertainty that is introduced in the text because of the fragmented nature of the fictive works:

Depuis ce jour, il n’a plus été question de la princesse de Cadignan, ni de d’Arthez. La princesse a hérité de sa mère quelque fortune, elle passe tous les étés à Genève dans une villa avec le grand écrivain, et revient pour quelques mois d’hiver à Paris. D’Arthez ne se montre qu’à la Chambre, et ses publications sont devenues excessivement rares. Est-ce un dénoûment ? Oui, pour les gens d’esprit, non, pour ceux qui veulent tout savoir.[9]

Since that day nothing has been said of the Princess de Cadignan, nor of d’Arthez. The princess has inherited some fortune from her mother and she spends all her summers in a villa on the lake of Geneva, where the great writer joins her. She returns to Paris for a few months in winter. D’Arthez is never seen except in the Chamber. His writings are becoming exceedingly rare. Is this a conclusion? Yes, for people of sense; no, for persons who want to know everything.

If we were to follow the logic of the progression of absence in the fictive works ‘Les MargueritesL’Archer de Charles IX⎯the work of Daniel d’Arthez’, we would probably intuitively arrive at the most seductive conclusion: the novel talks about literary works that Balzac criticised (Les Marguerites), goes on to literature that Balzac produced himself (the redrafted version of L’Archer de Charles IX), and finally an idealist literary ambition that Balzac desired to achieve but never could accomplish (Daniel d’Arthez’s book). Although this explanation works very well with the image of Balzac as a novelist who died before he could give us the grand conclusion of his colossal work (La Comédie Humaine remains unfinished, Balzac intended to write a hundred and thirty-seven titles but could only manage ninety-seven before his demise), it is not quite accurate.

This absence must not be perceived as a lack but as the very essence of La Comédie Humaine. It is this incompleteness that endows Balzac’s work with infinite possibilities and makes it a labyrinth in motion, without a beginning, a centre or an end (and not a fixed ‘monument’, a metaphor that traditional Balzacian criticism was overly fond of). This ‘ideal’ novel of d’Arthez that claims to study the resources of language itself, and constantly escapes the grasp of the reader (due to fragmentation and absence), is La Comédie Humaine itself. It is Balzac’s response to silence and the end of narration. While getting lost in the numerous novels and short stories, searching desperately and failing to find the fictive work in its entirety, it dawns upon the reader that the unknown masterpiece of d’Arthez is La Comédie Humaine itself.

Balzac’s genius resides in constructing his work in such a manner, that the reader never has a global view of the network (or the ‘totality’) of La Comédie Humaine, and often fails to realise that he finds himself precisely at the place that he thinks he is searching for. Balzac manages to pull off this ‘ideal’ and ‘infinite’ work (d’Arthez’s fictive work and La Comédie Humaine), by creating this grand machine of microcosms that incessantly orient the reader towards each other. And so, the ‘totality’ that Balzac manages to achieve in his writing is a paradoxical totality, as it feeds off the fragmentation and incompleteness in the work. It is perhaps best articulated by the concluding sentence of Mireille Labouret’s work Structures reparaissantes dans La Comédie Humaine where Balzac’s work is described as ‘une totalité inachevée et cohérente [qui] reste à suivre et à poursuivre’ [10] (an incomplete but coherent totality which remains be followed up continually).

In conclusion, the fictive work of d’Arthez is Balzac’s answer to his fear of silence at the end of narration. It symbolises his perpetual promises of forthcoming works and grand conclusions (Études philosophiques and Études analytiques) and should be seen as an invitation for re-reading, so the reader may discover and rediscover the numerous references that interconnect the various novels and short-stories of La Comédie Humaine. It makes Balzac’s work, as suggested by Dominique Massonnaud, ‘œuvre longue à entrées multiples qui peut s’aborder par des morceaux détachés.’[11] Thus, it is not unexpected that d’Arthez’s fictive work finds a place in Illusions Perdues (l’œuvre capitale dans l’œuvre), a novel that marks the crucial transition between Scènes de la vie de province and Scènes de la vie parisienne. Illusions Perdues therefore demonstrates a great degree of auto-reflexivity as not only the novel demonstrates a consciousness about its position in the network of the works of La Comédie Humaine (and of La Comédie Humaine’s place in the literary context of its time), but it also functions as a microcosm of this network of interconnected narrations. Lastly, this function of the fictive works to generate auto-reflexivity that we have discussed in this article can be seen to have implications on the unity of the ensemble of Balzac’s works. For a work that is conscious of its own poetics and structure, and of its own literary ambitions and context, is undoubtedly a work that has a unity and can be said to function as a singular system despite being composed of many hybrid components. Therefore, the numerous novels and short-stories of La Comédie Humaine do not depend exclusively on recurring characters, interconnected plots, chronological links and recurring themes, in order to exist as one single work and to possess an almost impossible unity and consequently, a utopian narration.

The emergence of a ‘new’ Balzac

It would be incorrect to say that early Balzacian criticism did not engage with the notion of ‘totality’ in La Comédie Humaine. However, instead of viewing the Balzacian desire for totality as an element necessary for literary creation and on focusing on the dialectic between totality and fragmentation in Balzac’s works, early Balzacian criticism tends to project an overwhelming completeness on Balzac’s works (Georg Lukàcs, Pierre Barbéris, Pierre Citron, André Allemand, etc.). It is the more recent criticism on Balzac that focuses on the lacunae, the fragments and the absences in Balzac’s works, and juxtaposes it to his desire for totality.

This trend can be said to have begun with publications that appeared in the late nineties by Franc Schurewegen (Balzac contre Balzac[12]), Michel Butor (Le Marchand et le génie[13]) and Lucien Dällenbach. Dällenbach has written extensively on fragmentation, on the metaphor of totality, and on textual fluidity concerning La Comédie Humaine, which are important references for our work. His publications on the notion of ‘mise en abyme’ are equally significant for any study of fictive works. This trend paved way for many contemporary Balzacian critics like Dominique Massonaud, Nicole Mozet, Boris Lyon-Caen, Susi Pietri, Nathalie Solomon, etc., to explore the textual and philosophical significance of fragments in La Comédie Humaine.

The present study aligns itself in its approach and vision with this generation of Balzacian criticism. However, it must be noted that there is no work of Balzacian criticism that deals exclusively with the study of fictive works and their raison d’être in La Comédie Humaine. With this article, the author aims to fill this research void and initiate interest towards a comprehensive study of all fictive works in La Comédie Humaine within the context of the fragmentation/totality dialectic which is quite present in contemporary Balzacian criticism.


Primary sources : texts from La Comédie Humaine

Balzac, Honoré (de), La Comédie Humaine (Paris: Collection de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1976), Vol. I

Balzac, Honoré (de), La Comédie Humaine (Paris: Collection de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1976), Vol. III

Balzac, Honoré (de), La Comédie Humaine (Paris: Collection de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1976), Vol. V

Balzac, Honoré (de), La Comédie Humaine (Paris: Collection de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1976), Vol. VI

Balzac, Honoré (de), La Comédie Humaine (Paris: Collection de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1976), Vol. X

Balzac, Honoré (de), Lost Illusions, trans. by Ellen Marriage (Project Gutenberg. Retrieved June 10, 2019, from

Secondary sources : Balzacian criticism

Alling, Annika Mörte, ‘La fin du roman et le « sens ultime », Illusions Perdues de Balzac’, Orbis Litterarum 69:6, (2014), 470-507

Berthier, Patrick, ‘La critique littéraire dans « Illusions Perdues »’, L’Année Balzacienne, n*9 (2008/I), 63-80

Butor, Michel, Le Marchand et le génie, (Paris : Éditions de la Différence, 1998)

Duclos, Tania, ‘Intratextualité et intertextualité du personnage: réemploi et creation chez Balzac’, Lettres Romanes 71(1-2), (2017), 37-49

Dufour, Philippe, ‘Illusions Perdues : une histoire des mœurs langagières’, L’information littéraire, Vol.56, (2004/1), 14-23

Haggis, Donald, ‘The Poularity of Scott’s Novels in France and Balzac’s Illusions Perdues’, J. European Studies, xv, 21-29

Labouret, Mireille, ‘Romanesque et Répétition, Essai sur les strcutures reparaissantes dans La Comédie Humaine’, Dossier présenté en vue de l’HDR, (Paris: Univeristé Paris IV, 2008)

Massonnaud, Dominique, ‘Illusions Perdues, « l’œuvre capitale dans l’œuvre »’, Romanische Studien, 3(2016), 243-259

⎯, ‘Modalités et enjeux de la « revenance textuelle » dans La Comédie Humaine’, Lettres Romanes 71(1-2), (2017), 23-36

⎯, Faire Vrai, Balzac et l’invention de L’Œuvre-Monde (Genève: Librairie Droz S.A, 2014)

Miller, D.A., ‘Balzac’s Illusions Lost and Found’, Yale French Studies, No.67, Concepts of Closure, (1984), 164-181

Paraschas, Sotirios, ‘Illusions Perdues: Writers, Artists and the Reflexive Novel’, in The Cambridge Companion to Balzac, ed. by Owen Heathcore and Andrew Watts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 97-110

Piétri, Susi, ‘La Comédie Humaine de James: Figures de l’œuvre-monde’, L’Année Balzacienne, n*11 (2010/I), 365-440

Solomon, Nathalie, Balzac ou comment ne pas raconteur une histoire (Arras: Artois Presses Université, 2007)

Schuerewegen, Franc, Balzac contre Balzac, (Toronto : Les Éditions Paratexte, 1990)

Unwin, Timothy, ‘Les Maximes de Balzac: l’exemple d’Illusions Perdues’, Romance Notes, Vol.32, No.1, (1991), 55-61



[1] Dominique Massonnaud, ‘Illusions Perdues, « l’œuvre capitale dans l’œuvre »’, Romanische Studien, 3(2016), 243-259 (p.244)

[2] Sotirios Paraschas, ‘Illusions Perdues: Writers, Artists and the Reflexive Novel’, in The Cambridge Companion to Balzac, ed. by Owen Heathcore and Andrew Watts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 97-110 (p.107-107)

[3] Lost Illusions, 408

[4] Donald Haggis, ‘The Poularity of Scott’s Novels in France and Balzac’s Illusions Perdues’, J. European Studies, xv, 21-29 (p.21)

[5] Lost Illusions, 363-364

[6] Honoré de Balzac, La Comédie humaine (Paris: Collection de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1976), Vol. I, p.10-11

[7] Honoré de Balzac, La Comédie humaine (Paris: Collection de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1976), Vol.V, p.418

[8] (560).

[9] Honoré de Balzac, La Comédie humaine (Paris: Collection de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1976), Vol. VI, p.1004-1005

[10] Mireille Labouret, ‘Romanesque et Répétition,Essai sur les strcutures reparaissantes dans La Comédie humaine’, Dossier présenté en vue de l’HDR, (Paris: Univeristé Paris IV, 2008)

[11]  Dominique Massonnaud, Faire Vrai, Balzac et l’invention de L’Œuvre-Monde (Genève: Librairie Droz S.A, 2014), p.486

[12] Franc Schuerewegen, Balzac contre Balzac, (Toronto : Les Éditions Paratexte, 1990)

[13] Michel Butor, Le Marchand et le génie, (Paris : Éditions de la Différence, 1998)

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: