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literature

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Balzac, Honoré de (1799-1850)  

One of the masters of French nineteenth-century fiction, Balzac provocatively includes both lesbian and gay male characters in his novels.

Although Balzac was trained in the law, he turned his back on a conventional career as soon as his legal studies had been completed (1819) and promptly began to write fiction. In the hope of accumulating enough wealth to finance his writing, he undertook various business ventures and speculated extensively. These actions resulted not in independence but in mountainous debts from which neither the assistance of adoring women nor the output of his febrile imagination could free him. Balzac's more than ninety novels display an acute grasp of the inner workings of society and have earned him an undisputed place among the masters of French nineteenth-century fiction.

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In 1834, Balzac began to organize his novels into a systematic whole. They appeared in that form between 1842 and 1846 under the collective title La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy). Balzac intended the Comédie to be a comprehensive investigation into human behavior, touching on varied environments (such as the provinces and Paris) and on specific conditions (military life, political life). Although uneven in quality and scope, the result presents such a dazzling mixture of melodrama and insight, sociological detail and romantic portraits of all-consuming passion and ambition that Henry James declared Balzac to be "the first and foremost member of his craft."

Homosexuality surfaces only rarely in the Comédie humaine, but nevertheless Balzac endows its portrait with some of his most provocative material. In, for example, La Fille aux yeux d'or (The Girl with the Golden Eyes) (1834-1835), a lesbian relationship between Paquita Valdès and the Marquise de San-Réal turns tragic when Paquita introduces into their bed Henri de Marsay, a man and the Marquise's half-brother. De Marsay determines to kill Paquita on learning of her lesbianism, but the Marquise prevents him so that she can commit the act herself.

The ambiguous--indeed androgynous--nature of love (Paquita may come to prefer Henri to her lover; yet she is drawn to him through his resemblance to the Marquise) and the ambiguity of gender (whereas the male hero resolves to avenge his honor, his feminine half-sister accomplishes the act) are but some of the issues Balzac raises with this novel.

Balzac's account of the life of Jacques Collin (alias Vautrin, alias Abbé Carlos Herrera) embraces Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot) (1834-1835), Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions) (1837-1843), and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (Highs and Lows of Harlots) (1838-1847). It introduces the reader to the homosexual mores of Paris prisons and to a master criminal who by the scope of his powers and creative ambition has long been recognized as the character in the Comédie most reminiscent of its author.

That Collin's relationship with fellow convict Théodore Calvi and with Lucien de Rubempré is , critic Philippe Berthier has demonstrated beyond any doubt, but Balzac also makes the bond Mephistophelean and paternal, ruthless and loving. He establishes the criminality--legal as well as sexual--that places Collin outside the realm of "acceptable" behavior only to accentuate a grandeur and humanity by which Collin outstrips the corruption of his right-minded contemporaries. Indeed, when we last see Collin, he has just retired as head of the Sûreté (police)!

Does Collin mirror Balzac as writer and lover? Despite Balzac's well-documented adventures with numerous women, the memoirs of one contemporary, Philarète Chasles, implied the existence of homosexual feelings in Balzac, and Balzac's own letters occasionally betray strong emotional ties with various younger men whose careers he tried to advance. We may never know with certainty whether Jacques Collin represents a side of Balzac to which the writer allowed full satisfaction only in fiction, but the possibility provides yet one more reason to place him among Balzac's most remarkable creations.

Donald Stone

     

 
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    Bibliography
   

Berthier, Philippe. "Balzac et Sodome." L'Année balzacienne (1979): 147-177.

Courtivron, Isabelle de. "Weak Men and Fatal Women: The Sand Image." Homosexualities and French Literature. George Stambolian and Elaine Marks, eds. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978. 210-227.

Hunt, Herbert J. Balzac's Comédie Humaine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Stone, Donald  
    Entry Title: Balzac, Honoré de  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 26, 2002  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/balzac_h.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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