What narrative strategies might a writer employ to create a sense of unity and coherence? Think about the Aristotelian notions of time and place, and also the role and function of characters. In the nineteenth century Realism reflected, in the most direct way, the new social and political conditions of nineteenth-century man and woman. The culmination of the Enlightenment in first the American and then the French Revolutions gave Western humanity the material conditions in which self-consciousness about issues like Realism became possible.
The move towards political and social democracy in France was particularly significant for Realism, because art and literature also became democratised. The middle classes which were rapidly growing in number and the poor had been previously ignored, but in the nineteenth century they became important subjects for Realist writers and painters.
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Nothing was regarded as too ignoble or ugly to be painted. So Realism gained strength in the nineteenth century and it was associated, particularly in France, with the expression of new, radical forces. Although Realist modes of writing were established before the nineteenth century, Realism as a conscious mode was not possible, because individual perceptions of external reality were bound up still with metaphysical systems of belief and faith.
The novels of Balzac reflect these social and political changes, and The Human Comedy can be read as his attempt to represent contemporary French society in all its manifestations — the worst aspects alongside the best. He tells the story of his own times and life in post-revolutionary France. Contemporaneity was, she maintains, the most crucial element in Realist writing and painting. The past was no longer seen as the sole subject for art. It had to be about the here and now — what was tangible and visible, and could be established by material fact.
Balzac understood the social and economic shift away from the aristocratic in France to the mechanical and the bourgeois. This method of surveying and detailing the entire organism, the entire social spectrum, becomes a defining feature of writers, artists, philosophers and scientists right across Europe in the nineteenth century. The Realist novelist is often described metaphorically as a doctor who examines the parts of anatomy to understand the whole.
How successful do you think this metaphor is for describing the work of Balzac? Balzac described his role as a writer in as that of a humble copyist, but this comment should not be taken at face value. To what extent does Balzac transcribe in a literal sense his own life and times? Is it useful to see his characters as life-like or larger than life? What do you think they mean by that? In Old Goriot , for example, there are the microcosms of the Maison Vauquer and the fashionable parts of Paris.
Focus on the treatments of the servant figures in the novels — Nanon and Fat Sylvie. How does Balzac relate their social role to their function in the narrative structure? Contrast was one of the main principles around which Balzac constructed his novels, and he made particular use of character contrast. Indeed we might even point to a larger contrast between the moral behaviour of men and women in this novel. The miser Grandet lacks a moral sense and we see this in his behaviour and attitude to his wife. Only the women show a glimmering of human feelings, but they are a constituency without power or money.
Do you agree with this view? Compare the presentation of female characters in both novels. As well as arranging his characters in ways that invite comparison, Balzac uses character as a lens through which we view the vices and virtues of nineteenth-century French society. In Old Goriot , for example, Parisian society is shown to be greedy, corrupt and unjust through the thoughts and actions of greedy, corrupt and unjust individuals. Hardly a manifestation of the human condition is left unstirred; all desires, conscious and unconscious, licit and illicit, are given life within the hearts of the characters.
We catch their expressions as we would in real life, through actions or words, a gesture, a revealing glance, the tone of a voice, a hidden tear, a smile or laughter. We discern the nuances as the student Rastignac himself learns to do. Much has been written about the character of Vautrin based on a real criminal who became the Chief of Police. Look at the long conversation between Rastignac and Vautrin in the garden Chapter 2.
Is Balzac presenting us with a modern Garden of Eden scene? Note the ways in which Vautrin criticises society, and consider in particular his advice to Rastignac about adopting the same unscrupulous means as society in order to win through. The deathbed scenes in the novels are sites for melodrama, and you should think about the way that Balzac weaves together Realism and sensation, genre, mystery and melodrama. Do you agree with this comment that there is a conflict between these two tendencies, or does Balzac effect a successful compromise?
Look carefully at the portrayal of the characters of Goriot and Vautrin, for example. Consider the aura of mystery that surrounds both these characters at the opening of the story, and then compare this with the sensational and melodramatic death of Goriot and the arrest of Vautrin later on. How does the sensation, genre, mystery and melodrama surrounding the lives of these two characters contrast with the realistic portrayal of Rastignac and the Maison Vauquer?
Bibliography of Works Cited
How does Balzac gradually build a picture of Vautrin, one of his most celebrated characters, throughout the novel? Make a list of instances where Vautrin is seen though the eyes of others and where his character makes a more direct appeal to us through his own speech and action. The opposition between the city and the country goes back at least as far as the Alexandrian poets of the third century BC, but it also became a preoccupation of French Realist writers and artists in the nineteenth century, including Balzac, Gustave Flaubert and Zola.
They were interested in the effects of industrialisation and technology on traditional modes of life, and the role played by Paris as the cultural and economic centre of France. The difference between life in the capital and life in the provinces becomes a common theme in their novels. In many ways, Balzac is conducting an experiment through his fiction. Your current bid falls below the reserve price for this lot. Place one more bid to match the reserve price! You haven't bid on this lot yet. You can no longer place any bids on this lot.
La Comédie Humaine Series by Honoré de Balzac
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