Honoré de Balzac: Wikis


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Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac on an 1842 daguerreotype
by Louis-Auguste Bisson
Born 20 May 1799(1799-05-20)
Tours, France
Died 18 August 1850 (aged 51)
Paris, France
Occupation Novelist
Spouse(s) Ewelina Hańska

Honoré de Balzac (French pronunciation: [ɔnɔʁe də balzak]) (20 May 1799 – 18 August 1850) was a French novelist and playwright. His magnum opus was a sequence of almost 100 novels, short stories and plays collectively entitled La Comédie humaine, which presents a panorama of French life in the years after the fall of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1815.

Due to his keen observation of detail and unfiltered representation of society, Balzac is regarded as one of the founders of realism in European literature. He is renowned for his multi-faceted characters; even his lesser characters are complex, morally ambiguous and fully human. Inanimate objects are imbued with character as well; the city of Paris, a backdrop for much of his writing, takes on many human qualities. His writing influenced many famous authors, including the novelists Marcel Proust, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, Fedor Dostoyevski, Gustave Flaubert, Marie Corelli, Henry James, Jack Kerouac, and Italo Calvino as well as important philosophers such as Friedrich Engels. Many of Balzac's works have been made into films, and they continue to inspire other writers.

An enthusiastic reader and independent thinker as a child, Balzac had trouble adapting to the teaching style of his grammar school. His willful nature caused trouble throughout his life, and frustrated his ambitions to succeed in the world of business. When he finished school, Balzac was apprenticed as a legal clerk, but he turned his back on law after wearying of its inhumanity and banal routine. Before and during his career as a writer, he attempted to be a publisher, printer, businessman, critic, and politician. He failed in all of these efforts. La Comédie Humaine reflects his real-life difficulties, and includes scenes from his own experience.

Balzac suffered from health problems throughout his life, possibly due to his intense writing schedule. His relationship with his family was often strained by financial and personal drama, and he lost more than one friend over critical reviews. In 1850, he married Ewelina Hańska, his longtime love; he died five months later.

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Honoré Balzac was born into a family which had struggled to achieve respectability. His father, born Bernard-François Balssa, was one of eleven children from a poor family in Tarn, a region in the south of France. In 1760 the elder Balzac set off for Paris with only a Louis in his pocket, determined to improve his social standing; by 1776 he had become Secretary to the King's Council and a Freemason. (He had also changed his name to that of an ancient noble family, and added – without any official cause – the aristocratic-sounding de.)[1] After the Reign of Terror (1793–94), he was sent to Tours to coordinate supplies for the Army.[2]

Balzac's mother, born Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, came from a family of haberdashers in Paris. Her family's wealth was a considerable factor in the match: she was eighteen at the time of the wedding, and Bernard-François fifty.[3] As British writer and critic V. S. Pritchett explained, "She was certainly drily aware that she had been given to an old husband as a reward for his professional services to a friend of her family and that the capital was on her side. She was not in love with her husband."[4]

Honoré (so named after Saint Honoré of Amiens, who is commemorated on 16 May, four days before Balzac's birthday) was actually the second child born to the Balzacs; exactly one year previous, Louis-Daniel had been born, but he lived for only a month. Afterwards, a third child was born, named Simone deHudsone.[5] Honoré's sisters Laure and Laurence were born in 1800 and 1802, and his brother Henry-François in 1807.[6][7]

Early life

Immediately after his birth, Honoré was sent to a wet-nurse; the following year he was joined by his sister Laure and they spent four years away from home.[8] (Although Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's influential book Émile convinced many mothers of the time to nurse their own children, sending babies to wet-nurses was still common among the middle and upper classes.) When the Balzac children returned home, they were kept at a frigid distance by their parents, which affected the author-to-be significantly. His 1835 novel Le Lys dans la Vallée features a cruel governess named Miss Caroline, modeled after his own care-giver.[9]

The Collège de Vendôme – engraving by A. Queyroy

At the age of eight Balzac was sent to the Oratorian grammar school at Vendôme, where he studied for seven years. His father, seeking to instil the same hardscrabble work ethic which had gained him the esteem of society, intentionally sent very little spending money to the boy. This made him the object of ridicule among his much wealthier schoolmates.[10][11]

Balzac had difficulty adapting to the rote style of learning at the school. As a result, he was frequently sent to the "alcove," a punishment cell reserved for disobedient students.[12] (The janitor at the school, when asked later if he remembered Honoré, replied: "Remember M. Balzac? I should think I do! I had the honour of escorting him to the dungeon more than a hundred times!")[13] Still, his time alone gave the boy ample freedom to read every book which came his way.

Balzac worked these scenes from his boyhood – as he did many aspects of his life and the lives of those around him – into La Comédie Humaine. His time at Vendôme is reflected in Louis Lambert, his 1832 novel about a young boy studying at an Oratorian grammar school at Vendôme. The narrator says : "He devoured books of every kind, feeding indiscriminately on religious works, history and literature, philosophy and physics. He had told me that he found indescribable delight in reading dictionaries for lack of other books."[14]

But though his mind was receiving nourishment, the same could not be said for Balzac's body. He often fell ill, finally causing the headmaster to contact his family with news of a "sort of a coma".[15] When he returned home, his grandmother said: "Voilà donc comme le collège nous renvoie les jolis que nous lui envoyons!" ("Look how the academy returns the pretty ones we send them!")[16] Balzac himself attributed his condition to "intellectual congestion", but his extended confinement in the "alcove" was surely a factor. (Meanwhile, his father had been writing a treatise on "the means of preventing thefts and murders, and of restoring the men who commit them to a useful role in society", in which he heaped disdain on prison as a form of crime prevention.)[17]

In 1814 the Balzac family moved to Paris, and Honoré was sent to private tutors and schools for the next two and a half years. This was an unhappy time in his life, during which he attempted suicide on a bridge over the Loire River.[18]

In 1816 Balzac entered the Sorbonne, where he studied under three famous professors. François Guizot, who later became prime minister, was Professor of Modern History. Abel-François Villemain, a recent arrival from the Collège Charlemagne, delivered lectures on French and classical literature to packed audiences. And – most influential of all – Victor Cousin's courses on philosophy encouraged his students to think independently.[19]

Once his studies were completed, Balzac was persuaded by his father to follow him into the law; for three years he trained and worked at the office of Victor Passez, a friend of the family. It was during this time that he began to understand the vagaries of human nature. In his 1840 novel Le Notaire, Balzac wrote that a young person in the legal profession sees "the oily wheels of every fortune, the hideous wrangling of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human heart grappling with the Penal Code."[20]

Drawing of Balzac in the mid-1820s, attributed to Achille Devéria

In 1819 Passez offered to make Balzac his successor, but his apprentice had had enough of the law. He despaired of being "a clerk, a machine, a riding-school hack, eating and drinking and sleeping at fixed hours. I should be like everyone else. And that's what they call living, that life at the grindstone, doing the same thing over and over again…. I am hungry and nothing is offered to appease my appetite."[21] He announced his intention to be a writer.

The loss of this opportunity caused serious discord in the Balzac household, although Honoré was not turned away entirely. Instead, in April 1819, he was allowed to live in the French capital – as English critic George Saintsbury describes it – "in a garret furnished in the most Spartan fashion, with a starvation allowance and an old woman to look after him", while the rest of the family moved to a house twenty miles [32 km] outside Paris.[22]

First literary efforts

Balzac's first project was a libretto for a comic opera called Le Corsaire, based on Lord Byron's The Corsair. Realizing he would have trouble finding a composer, however, he turned to other pursuits.

In 1820, he completed the five-act verse tragedy Cromwell. Although it pales in comparison to later works, some critics consider it a quality text.[23][24] When he finished, Balzac went to Villeparisis and read the entire work to his family; they were unimpressed.[25] He followed this effort by starting (but never finishing) three novels: Sténie, Falthurne, and Corsino.

In 1821 Balzac met the enterprising Auguste Lepoitevin, who convinced the author to write short stories, which Lepoitevin would then sell to publishers. Balzac then quickly turned to longer works, and by 1826 he had written nine novels, all published under pseudonyms and often produced in collaboration with other writers.[26] For example, the scandalous novel Vicaire des Ardennes (1822) – banned for its depiction of nearly-incestuous relations and, more egregiously, of a married priest – was attributed to a 'Horace de Saint-Aubin'.[27] These books were potboiler novels, designed to sell quickly and titillate audiences. In Saintsbury's view, "They are curiously, interestingly, almost enthrallingly bad."[28] He indicates that Robert Louis Stevenson tried to dissuade him from reading these early works of Balzac's.[29] American critic Samuel Rogers, however, notes that "without the training they gave Balzac, as he groped his way to his mature conception of the novel, and without the habit he formed as a young man of writing under pressure, one can hardly imagine his producing La Comédie Humaine."[30] Biographer Graham Robb suggests that as he discovered the Novel, Balzac discovered himself.[31]

Also during this time, Balzac wrote two pamphlets in support of primogeniture and the Society of Jesus. The latter, regarding the Jesuit order, illustrated his life-long admiration for the Catholic Church. Later, in a preface to La Comédie Humaine, he wrote: "Christianity, and especially Catholicism, being a complete repression of man's depraved tendencies, is the greatest element in Social Order."[32]

Laure Junot, Duchesse d'Abrantès

"Une bonne spéculation"

In the late 1820s, Balzac also dabbled in several business ventures, a penchant his sister blamed on the temptation of an unknown neighbor.[33] The first of these was a publishing enterprise which turned out cheap one-volume editions of French classics including the works of Molière. This business failed miserably, with many of the books "sold as waste paper".[34] Balzac had better luck publishing the memoirs of Laure Junot, Duchesse d'Abrantès – with whom he also had an affair.[35]

Borrowing money from his family and other sources, he tried again as a printer and then as a typefounder. But as with the publishing business, Balzac's inexperience and lack of capital caused his ruin in these trades. He gave the businesses to a friend (who made them successful) but carried the debts for many years.[34] In April 1828, he owed his own mother 50,000 francs.[36]

This penchant for une bonne spéculation never left Balzac. It resurfaced painfully much later when – as a renowned and busy author – he traveled to Sardinia in the hopes of reprocessing the slag from the Roman mines in that country. Toward the end of his life, he became captivated by the idea of cutting 20,000 acres (81 km2) of oak wood in Ukraine and transporting it for sale in France.[34]

La Comédie Humaine and literary success

In 1832 (after writing several novels), Balzac conceived the idea for an enormous series of books that would paint a panoramic portrait of "all aspects of society." When the idea struck, he raced to his sister's apartment and proclaimed: "I am about to become a genius."[37] Although he originally called it Etudes des Mœurs, it eventually became known as La Comédie Humaine, and he included in it all of the fiction he published in his lifetime under his own name. This was to be Balzac's life work and his greatest achievement.

After the collapse of his businesses, Balzac traveled to Brittany and stayed with the de Pommereul family outside Fougères. It was here that he drew inspiration for Les Chouans (1829), a tale of love gone wrong amid the Chouan royalist forces.[26] A supporter of the crown himself, Balzac paints the counter-revolutionaries in a sympathetic light – even though they are the center of the book's most brutal scenes. This was the first book Balzac released under his own name, and it gave him what one critic called "passage into the Promised Land".[38] It established him as an author of note (even if the surface owes a debt to Walter Scott) and provided him with a name outside the pseudonyms of his past.

Soon afterwards, around the time of his father's death, Balzac wrote El Verdugo – about a 30-year-old man who kills his father (Balzac was 30 years old at the time). This was the first work signed "Honoré de Balzac". Like his father, he added the aristocratic-sounding particle to help him fit into respected society, but it was a choice based on skill, not birthright. "The aristocracy and authority of talent are more substantial than the aristocracy of names and material power", he wrote in 1830.[39] The timing of the decision was also significant. Robb frames it this way: "The disappearance of the father coincides with the adoption of the nobiliary particle. A symbolic inheritance."[40] Just as his father had worked his way up from poverty into respectable society, Balzac considered toil and effort his real mark of nobility.

When the July Revolution overthrew Charles X in 1830, Balzac declared himself a Legitimist, supporting Charles' House of Bourbon – but with qualifications. He felt that the new July Monarchy (which claimed widespread popular support) was disorganized and unprincipled, in need of a mediator to keep the political peace between the King and insurgent forces. He called for "a young and vigorous man who belongs neither to the Directoire nor to the Empire, but who is 1830 incarnate…."[41] He planned to be such a candidate, appealing especially to the higher classes in Chinon. But after a near-fatal accident in 1832 (he slipped and cracked his head on the street), Balzac decided not to stand for election.[42]

1831 saw the success of La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass's Skin), a fable-like tale about a despondent young man named Raphaël de Valentin who finds an animal skin promising great power and wealth. He obtains these things, but loses the ability to manage them. In the end, his health fails and he is consumed by his own confusion. Balzac meant the story to bear witness to the treacherous turns of life, its "serpentine motion."[43]

In 1833, Balzac released Eugénie Grandet, his first best-selling novel.[44] A story about a young lady who inherits her father's miserliness, it also became the most critically acclaimed book of his career. The writing is simple, yet the individuals (especially the bourgeois title character) are dynamic and complex.[45]

Balzac's house in Paris, seen from the Rue Berton. Today the Maison de Balzac is one of Paris's three literary museums.

Le Père Goriot (Old Father Goriot, 1835) was his next big success, in which Balzac transposes the story of King Lear to 1820s Paris in order to rage at a society bereft of all love save the love of money. The centrality of a father in this novel matches Balzac's own position – not only as mentor to his troubled young secretary, Jules Sandeau,[46] but also the fact that he had (most likely) fathered a child, Marie-Caroline, with his otherwise-married lover, Maria Du Fresnay.[47]

In 1836, Balzac took the helm of the Chronique de Paris, a weekly magazine of society and politics. He tried to enforce strict impartiality in its pages and a reasoned assessment of various ideologies.[48] As Rogers notes, "Balzac was interested in any social, political, or economic theory, whether from the right or the left."[49] The magazine failed, but in July 1840, he founded another publication called the Revue Parisienne. It lasted for only three issues.[50]

These dismal business efforts – and his misadventures in Sardinia – provided an appropriate milieu in which to set the two-volume Illusions Perdues (Lost Illusions, 1843). The novel concerns Lucien de Rubempré, a young poet trying to make a name for himself, who becomes trapped in the morass of society's darkest contradictions. Lucien's journalism work is informed by Balzac's own failed ventures in the field.[48] Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (The Harlot High and Low, 1847) continues Lucien's story. He is trapped by the Abbé Herrera (Vautrin) in a convoluted and disastrous plan to regain social status. The book undergoes a massive temporal rift; the first part (of four) covers a span of six years, while the final two sections focus on just three days.[51]

Le Cousin Pons (1847) and La Cousine Bette (1848) tell the story of Les Parents Pauvres (The Poor Relations). The conniving and wrangling over wills and inheritances reflects the expertise gained by the author as a young law clerk. Balzac's health was deteriorating by this point, making the completion of this pair of books a significant accomplishment.[52]

Many of his novels were initially serialized, like those of Dickens. Their length was not predetermined. Illusions Perdues extends to a thousand pages after starting inauspiciously in a small-town print shop, whereas La Fille aux yeux d'or (Tiger-eyes, 1835) opens with a broad panorama of Paris but becomes a closely plotted novella of only fifty pages.

Work habits

Balzac's work habits are legendary – he did not work quickly, but toiled with an incredible focus and dedication. His preferred method was to eat a light meal at five or six in the afternoon, then sleep until midnight. He then rose and wrote for many hours, fueled by innumerable cups of black coffee. He would often work for fifteen hours or more at a stretch; he claimed to have once worked for 48 hours with only three hours of rest in the middle.[53]

First page of the first proofs of Béatrix

He revised obsessively, covering printer's proofs with changes and additions to be reset. Balzac sometimes repeated this process during the publication of a book, causing significant expense for both himself and the publisher.[54] As a result, the finished product was frequently quite different from the original book. While some of his books never reached a finished state, some of those – such as Les employés (The Government Clerks, 1841) – are nonetheless noted by critics.[55]

Although Balzac was "by turns a hermit and a vagrant",[56] he managed to stay connected to the social world which nourished his writing. He was friends with Théophile Gautier and Pierre-Marie-Charles de Bernard du Grail de la Villette, and he knew Victor Hugo. Nevertheless, he did not spend as much time in salons and clubs as did many of his characters. "In the first place he was too busy", explains Saintsbury, "in the second he would not have been at home there…. [H]e felt it was his business not to frequent society but to create it."[57] He would, however, often spend long periods staying at Château de Saché, near Tours, the home of his friend Jean de Margonne, his mother's lover and father to her youngest child. Many of Balzac's tormented characters were conceived in the small second-floor bedroom. Today the Château is a museum dedicated to the author's life.

Marriage and later life

In February 1832, Balzac received a letter from Odessa – lacking a return address and signed only by "L'Étrangère" ("The Foreigner") – expressing sadness at the cynicism and atheism in La Peau de Chagrin and its negative portrayal of women. He responded by purchasing a classified advertisement in the Gazette de France, hoping that his secret critic would find it. Thus began a fifteen-year correspondence between Balzac and "the object of [his] sweetest dreams": Ewelina Hańska.[58]

Portrait of Ewelina Hańska by Holz von Sowgen (1825)

She was wed to a man twenty years older than herself: Wacław Hański, a wealthy Polish landowner living in Kiev; it was a marriage of convenience to preserve her family's fortune. In Balzac, Ewelina found a kindred spirit for her emotional and social desires, with the added benefit of feeling a connection to the glamorous capital of France.[59] Their correspondence reveals an intriguing balance of passion, propriety and patience; Robb says it is "like an experimental novel in which the female protagonist is always trying to pull in extraneous realities but which the hero is determined to keep on course, whatever tricks he has to use."[60]

When Wacław Hański died in 1841, his widow and her admirer finally had the chance to pursue their affections. Competing with the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, Balzac visited her in St. Petersburg in 1843 and impressed himself on her heart.[61] After a series of economic setbacks, health problems, and prohibitions from the Tsar, the couple was finally able to wed.[62] On 14 March 1850, with Balzac's health in serious decline, they drove from her estate in Wierzchownia (village of Verkhivnia) to a church in Berdyczów (city of Berdychiv, today in Ukraine) and were married. The ten-hour journey to and from the ceremony took a toll on both husband and wife: her feet were too swollen to walk, and he endured severe heart trouble.[63]

Although he married late in life, Balzac had already written two treatises on marriage: Physiologie du Mariage and Scènes de la Vie Conjugale. These works suffered from a lack of first-hand knowledge; Saintsbury points out that "Cœlebs cannot talk of [marriage] with much authority."[64] In late April the newly married couple set off for Paris. His health deteriorated on the way, and Ewelina wrote to her daughter about Balzac being "in a state of extreme weakness" and "sweating profusely".[65] They arrived in the French capital on 20 May, his fifty-first birthday.[66]

Balzac's monument at Cimetière du Père-Lachaise

Five months after his wedding, on 18 August, Balzac died. His mother was the only one with him when he expired; Mme. Hańska had gone to bed.[67] He had been visited that day by Victor Hugo, who later served as pallbearer and eulogist at Balzac's funeral.[68][69]

He is buried at the Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris. "Today", said Hugo at the ceremony, "we have a people in black because of the death of the man of talent; a nation in mourning for a man of genius."[70] The funeral was attended by "almost every writer in Paris", including Frédérick Lemaître, Gustave Courbet, Dumas père and Dumas fils.[71] Later, Balzac became the subject of a monumental statue by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, which stands near the intersection of Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard Montparnasse. Rodin featured Balzac in several of his smaller sculptures as well.

Writing style

The Comédie Humaine remained unfinished at the time of his death – Balzac had plans to include numerous other books, most of which he never started.[72] He frequently moved between works in progress, and "finished" works were often revised between editions. This piecemeal style is reflective of the author's own life, a possible attempt to stabilize it through fiction. "The vanishing man", writes Pritchett, "who must be pursued from the rue Cassini to … Versailles, Ville d'Avray, Italy, and Vienna can construct a settled dwelling only in his work."[37]


Balzac's extensive use of detail, especially the detail of objects, to illustrate the lives of his characters made him an early pioneer of literary realism.[73] While he admired and drew inspiration from the Romantic style of Scottish novelist Walter Scott, Balzac sought to depict human existence through the use of particulars.[74] In the preface to the first edition of Scènes de la Vie privée, he writes: "The author firmly believes that details alone will henceforth determine the merit of works…."[75] Plentiful descriptions of décor, clothing, and possessions help breathe life into the characters.[76] For example, Balzac's friend Hyacinthe de Latouche had knowledge of hanging wallpaper. Balzac transferred this to his descriptions of the Pension Vauquer in Le Père Goriot, making the wallpaper speak of the identities of those living inside.[77]

Some critics consider Balzac's writing exemplary of naturalism – a more pessimistic and analytical form of realism, which seeks to explain human behavior as intrinsically linked with the environment. French novelist Émile Zola declared Balzac the father of the naturalist novel.[78] Elsewhere, Zola indicated that, whereas Romantics saw the world through a colored lens, the naturalist sees through a clear glass – precisely the sort of effect Balzac attempted to achieve in his works.[79]


Balzac sought to present his characters as real people, neither fully good nor fully evil, but fully human. "To arrive at the truth", he wrote in the preface to Le Lys dans la vallée, "writers use whatever literary device seems capable of giving the greatest intensity of life to their characters."[80] "Balzac's characters", Robb notes, "were as real to him as if he were observing them in the outside world."[81] This reality was noted by playwright Oscar Wilde, who said: "One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of [Illusions Perdues protagonist] Lucien de Rubempré…. It haunts me in my moments of pleasure. I remember it when I laugh."[82]

At the same time, the characters represent a particular range of social types: the noble soldier, the scoundrel, the proud workman, the fearless spy, and the alluring mistress, among others.[83] That Balzac was able to balance the strength of the individual against the representation of the type is evidence of the author's skill. One critic explained that "there is a center and a circumference to Balzac's world."[84]

Balzac's use of repeating characters, moving in and out of the Comédie's books, strengthens the realist representation. "When the characters reappear", notes Rogers, "they do not step out of nowhere; they emerge from the privacy of their own lives which, for an interval, we have not been allowed to see."[85] He also used a realist technique which French novelist Marcel Proust later named "retrospective illumination", whereby a character's past is revealed long after she or he first appears.

1901 edition of The Works of Honoré de Balzac

A nearly infinite reserve of energy propels the characters in Balzac's novels. Struggling against the currents of human nature and society, they may lose more often than they win – but only rarely do they give up. This universal trait is a reflection of Balzac's own social wrangling, that of his family, and an interest in the Austrian mystic and physician Franz Mesmer, who pioneered the study of animal magnetism. Balzac spoke often of a "nervous and fluid force" between individuals, and Raphaël Valentin's decline in La Peau de Chagrin exemplifies the danger of withdrawing from the company of other people.[86]


Representations of the city, countryside, and building interiors are essential to Balzac's realism, often serving to paint a naturalistic backdrop before which the characters' lives follow a particular course. (This gave him a reputation as an early naturalist.) Intricate details about locations sometimes stretch for fifteen or twenty pages.[87] As he did with the people around him, Balzac studied these places in depth, traveling to remote locations and surveying notes he had made on previous visits.[88]

The influence of Paris permeates La Comédie. Nature takes a back seat to the artificial metropolis, in contrast to the depictions of weather and wildlife in the countryside. "If in Paris", Rogers says, "we are in a man-made region where even the seasons are forgotten, these provincial towns are nearly always pictured in their natural setting."[89] Balzac himself said, "the streets of Paris possess human qualities and we cannot shake off the impressions they make upon our minds."[90] His labyrinthine city provided a literary model used later by English novelist Charles Dickens and Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky.[91] The centrality of Paris in La Comédie Humaine is key to Balzac's legacy as a realist. "Realism is nothing if not urban", notes critic Peter Brooks; the scene of a young man coming into the city to find his fortune is ubiquitous in the realist novel, and appears repeatedly in Balzac's works, such as Illusions Perdues.[92][93]


Balzac's literary mood evolved over time from one of despondency and chagrin to one of solidarity and courage – but not optimism.[94] La Peau de Chagrin, among his earliest novels, is a pessimistic tale of confusion and destruction. But the cynicism declined as his oeuvre progressed, and the characters of Illusions Perdues reveal sympathy for those who are pushed to one side by society. As part of the 19th century evolution of the novel as a "democratic literary form", Balzac once wrote that "les livres sont faits pour tout le monde," ("these books are written for everybody").[95]

Balzac concerned himself overwhelmingly with the darker essence of human nature and the corrupting influence of middle and high societies.[96] He worked hard to observe humanity in its most representative state, frequently passing incognito among the masses of Parisian society to do research.[97] He used incidents from his life and the people around him, in works like Eugénie Grandet and Louis Lambert.[98]


Balzac was a highly conservative Royalist; in many ways, he is the antipode to Victor Hugo's democratic republicanism. [99] Nevertheless, his keen insight regarding working class conditions earned him the esteem of many Socialists and Marxists. He was the favorite writer of Engels.


Bust of Balzac by Auguste Rodin (1892), displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Balzac had a significant influence on the writers of his time and beyond. He has been compared to Charles Dickens and called an influence on him. Critic W. H. Helm calls one "the French Dickens" and the other "the English Balzac".[100] Another critic, Richard Lehan, says that "Balzac was the bridge between the comic realism of Dickens and the naturalism of Zola."[101]

French author Gustave Flaubert was also substantially influenced by Balzac. Praising his portrayal of society while attacking his prose style, Flaubert once wrote: "What a man he would have been had he known how to write!"[102] While he disdained the label of "realist", Flaubert clearly took heed of Balzac's close attention to detail and unvarnished depictions of bourgeois life.[103] This influence shows in Flaubert's work L'education sentimentale, which owes a debt to Balzac's Illusions Perdues.[104] "What Balzac started", says Lehan, "Flaubert helped finish."[105]

Marcel Proust similarly learned from the Realist example; he adored Balzac and studied his works carefully, although he criticised what he called Balzac's 'vulgarity'.[106][107] Balzac's story Une Heure de ma Vie (An Hour of my Life, 1822), in which minute details are followed by deep personal reflections, is a clear ancestor of the style used by Proust in À la recherche du temps perdu.[97] However, Proust wrote later in life that the contemporary fashion to rank Balzac higher than Tolstoy was 'madness'.[108]

Perhaps no author was more affected by Balzac than the American expatriate novelist Henry James. In 1878 James wrote with sadness about the lack of commentary attention paid to Balzac, and lavished praise on him in four essays (in 1875, 1877, 1902, and 1913). "Large as Balzac is", James wrote, "he is all of one piece and he hangs perfectly together."[109] He wrote with admiration of Balzac's attempt to portray in writing "a beast with a hundred claws."[110] In his own novels, James chose to explore more of the psychological motives of the characters and less of the historical sweep exhibited by Balzac – a conscious style preference. "[T]he artist of the Comédie Humaine", he wrote, "is half smothered by the historian."[111] Still, both authors used the form of the realist novel to probe the machinations of society and the myriad motives of human behavior.[105][112]

Balzac's vision of a society in which class, money and personal ambition are the major players has been endorsed by critics of both left-wing and right-wing political tendencies.[113] Marxist Friedrich Engels wrote: "I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together."[114] Balzac has received high praise from critics as diverse as Walter Benjamin and Camille Paglia.[115] In 1970 Roland Barthes published S/Z, a detailed analysis of Balzac's story Sarrasine and a key work in structuralist literary criticism.

Balzac has also influenced popular culture. Many of his works have been made into popular films and television serials, including Les Chouans (in 1947), Le Père Goriot (BBC mini-series, in 1968), and La Cousine Bette (BBC mini-series, in 1974, starring Margaret Tyzack and Helen Mirren; film in 1998, starring Jessica Lange). He is significantly included in François Truffaut's film, The 400 Blows (1959). As a screenwriter, Truffaut believed Balzac and Proust to be the greatest of French writers.[116] He was also adapted into a character in Orson Scott Card's alternate history series The Tales of Alvin Maker. Balzac is presented as a crude but deeply witty and insightful man. In 2000, Chinese author Dai Sijie published Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress), in which a suitcase filled with novels helps to sustain city youths sent to the countryside for "re-education" during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It was made into a film (adapted and directed by the author) in 2002. The Japanese rock band Balzac is also named in his honor.


Tragic verse

  • Cromwell (1819)

Incomplete at time of death

  • Le Corsaire (opera)
  • Sténie
  • Falthurne
  • Corsino

Published pseudonymously

As "Lord R'Hoone", in collaboration

  • L'Héritière de Birague (1822)
  • Jean-Louis (1822)

As "Horace de Saint-Aubin"

  • Clotilde de Lusignan (1822)
  • Le Centenaire (1822)
  • Le Vicaire des Ardennes (1822)
  • La Dernière Fée (1823)
  • Annette et le Criminal (Argow le Pirate) (1824)
  • Wann-Chlore (1826)

Published anonymously

  • Du Droit d'aînesse (1824)
  • Histoire impartiale des Jésuites (1824)
  • Code des gens honnêtes (1826)

Selected titles from La Comédie humaine


  • L'École des ménages (1839)
  • Vautrin (1839)
  • Les Ressources de Quinola (1842)
  • Paméla Giraud (1842)
  • La Marâtre (1848)
  • Mercadet ou le faiseur (1848)


  • Contes drolatiques (1832–37)
  • La Grande Bretèche
  • An Episode of terror


  1. ^ Robb, 4.
  2. ^ Robb, 5.
  3. ^ Robb, 5–6.
  4. ^ Pritchett, 23.
  5. ^ Robb, 6.
  6. ^ Robb, 8.
  7. ^ Robb, 18.
  8. ^ Pritchett, 25.
  9. ^ Robb, 9.
  10. ^ Pritchett, 26.
  11. ^ Robb, 14.
  12. ^ Pritchett, 29.
  13. ^ Champfleury (1878). Balzac au Collège. Patay. Quoted in Robb, 15.
  14. ^ Balzac (1832). Louis Lambert. Quoted in Pritchett, 29.
  15. ^ Robb, 22.
  16. ^ Saintsbury, "Honoré de Balzac", xi.
  17. ^ Robb, 24.
  18. ^ Robb, 30.
  19. ^ Robb, 48.
  20. ^ Balzac (1840). "Le Notaire". Quoted in Robb, 44.
  21. ^ Quoted in Pritchett, 42.
  22. ^ Saintsbury, "Honoré de Balzac", xiii.
  23. ^ Robb, 59.
  24. ^ Rogers, 19
  25. ^ Robb, 60.
  26. ^ a b Saintsbury, EB, 298.
  27. ^ Robb, 103.
  28. ^ Saintsbury, "Honoré de Balzac", xv.
  29. ^ Saintsbury, "Honoré de Balzac", xiv.
  30. ^ Rogers, 23.
  31. ^ Robb, 63.
  32. ^ Rogers, 15.
  33. ^ Saintsbury, "Honoré de Balzac", xvii.
  34. ^ a b c Saintsbury, "Honoré de Balzac", xviii.
  35. ^ Robb, 130.
  36. ^ Robb, 138.
  37. ^ a b Pritchett, 161.
  38. ^ Saintsbury, "Honoré de Balzac", xix.
  39. ^ Robb, 169.
  40. ^ Robb, 162.
  41. ^ Quoted in Robb, 190.
  42. ^ Robb, 193.
  43. ^ Robb, 178.
  44. ^ Pritchett, 155.
  45. ^ Rogers, 120.
  46. ^ Robb, 258.
  47. ^ Robb, 246.
  48. ^ a b Robb, 272.
  49. ^ Rogers, 18.
  50. ^ Robb, 326.
  51. ^ Rogers, 168.
  52. ^ Robb, 365.
  53. ^ Saintsbury, "Honoré de Balzac", xxvi.
  54. ^ Saintsbury, "Honoré de Balzac", xxvii.
  55. ^ Robb, 106.
  56. ^ Saintsbury, EB, 299
  57. ^ Saintsbury, "Honoré de Balzac", xxviii.
  58. ^ Robb, 223–224.
  59. ^ Robb, 227.
  60. ^ Robb, 230.
  61. ^ Robb, 340.
  62. ^ Pritchett, 261.
  63. ^ Pritchett, 261–262.
  64. ^ Saintsbury, "Honoré de Balzac", xxiv.
  65. ^ Quoted in Robb, p. 404.
  66. ^ Robb, p. 404.
  67. ^ Pritchett, 263.
  68. ^ Saintsbury, "Honoré de Balzac", xxxv.
  69. ^ Saintsbury, EB, 301.
  70. ^ Full text available at Victor Hugo Central.
  71. ^ Robb, 412.
  72. ^ Robb, 405.
  73. ^ Brooks, 16.
  74. ^ Brooks, 21.
  75. ^ Quoted in Rogers, 144.
  76. ^ Brooks, 26.
  77. ^ Robb, 152.
  78. ^ Robb, 421.
  79. ^ Brooks, 125.
  80. ^ Quoted in Rogers, 161.
  81. ^ Robb, 254.
  82. ^ Robb, 156.
  83. ^ Helm, 23.
  84. ^ Lehan, 45.
  85. ^ Rogers, 182.
  86. ^ Rogers, 73–74.
  87. ^ Helm, 5.
  88. ^ Bertault, 36.
  89. ^ Rogers, 62.
  90. ^ Balzac. Histoire des Treize: Ferragus, chef des dévorants, XIII, 13. Quoted in Rogers, 45.
  91. ^ Brooks, 22.
  92. ^ Brooks, 131.
  93. ^ Lehan, 204.
  94. ^ Helm, 130.
  95. ^ Quoted in Prendergast, 26.
  96. ^ Rogers, 128.
  97. ^ a b Robb, 70.
  98. ^ Robb and Pritchett cite specific examples, included in Biography, above.
  99. ^ [1]
  100. ^ Helm, 124.
  101. ^ Lehan, 38.
  102. ^ Quoted in Robb, 422.
  103. ^ Brooks, 54.
  104. ^ Brooks, 27.
  105. ^ a b Lehan, 48.
  106. ^ Brooks, 202.
  107. ^ Proust, 56ff.
  108. ^ Proust, 326.
  109. ^ James (1878), 89.
  110. ^ James (1914), 127.
  111. ^ James (1914), 115.
  112. ^ Stowe, 28–31.
  113. ^ Rogers, vii.
  114. ^ Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick Engels (1947). Literature and Art: Selections from Their Writings. New York. Quoted in Rogers, ix.
  115. ^ Robb, 423.
  116. ^ Truffaut, François et al. Correspondance, 1945-1984. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000. ISBN 0-815-41024-7. Page 61.


  • Bertault, Philippe (1963). Balzac and The Human Comedy. English version by Richard Monges. New York: NYU Press. OCLC 344556.
  • Brooks, Peter (2005). Realist Vision. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300106807.
  • Helm, W. H. (1905). Aspects of Balzac. London: Eveleigh Nash. OCLC 2321317.
  • James, Henry (1878). French Poets and Novelists. New York: Grosset & Dunlap. OCLC 339000.
  • James, Henry (1914). Notes on Novelists. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. OCLC 679102.
  • Lehan, Richard (2005). Realism and Naturalism. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0299208702.
  • (French) Lotte, Fernand (1952). Dictionnaire biographique des personnages fictifs de la comédie humaine. Paris: Corti. ISBN 0320051846.
  • Prendergast, Christopher (1978). Balzac: Fiction and Melodrama. London: Edward Arnold Ltd. ISBN 0713159693.
  • Pritchett, V. S. (1973). Balzac. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. ISBN 039448357X.
  • Proust, Marcel (1994). Against Sainte-Beuve and Other Essays. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. ISBN 0140185259
  • Robb, Graham (1994). Balzac: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393036790.
  • Rogers, Samuel (1953). Balzac & The Novel. New York: Octagon Books. LCCN 75-076005.
  • Saintsbury, George (1901). "Honoré de Balzac". The Works of Honoré de Balzac (Vol. I, pp. vii–xivi). Philadelphia: Avil Publishing Company. OCLC 6314807.
  • Saintsbury, George Edward Bateman (1911). "Balzac, Honore de." The Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed., Vol. 3). New York: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Wikisource. Retrieved on 18 August 2007.
  • Stowe, William W (1983). "Systematic Realism". In Honoré de Balzac. Edited by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 0791070425.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Power does not consist in striking with force or with frequency, but in striking true.

Honoré de Balzac (May 20, 1799August 18, 1850) was a French novelist. Along with Flaubert, he is generally regarded as a founding father of realism in European literature.



  • Qui dépense trop n’est jamais riche.
  • Je suis un galérien de plume et d'encre.
    • I am a galley slave to pen and ink.
      • Letter to Zulma Carraud (1832-07-02), trans. C. Lamb Kenney
  • Penser, c'est voir! me dit-il un jour emporté par une de nos objections sur le principe de notre organisation. Toute science humaine repose sur la déduction, qui est une vision lente par laquelle on descend de la cause à l'effet, par laquelle on remonte de l'effet à la cause; ou, dans une plus large expression, toute poésie comme toute oeuvre d'art procède d'une rapide vision des choses.
    • "Thinking is seeing," said he one day, carried away by some objection raised as to the first principles of our organisation. "Every human science is based on deduction, which is a slow process of seeing by which we work up from the effect to the cause; or, in a wider sense, all poetry like every work of art proceeds from a swift vision of things."
  • Je préfère la pensée à l'action, une idée à une affaire, la contemplation au mouvement.
    • I prefer thought to action, an idea to a transaction, contemplation to activity.
      • Louis Lambert (1832), trans. Clara Bell
  • Tout pouvoir humain est un composé de patience et de temps.
    • All human power is a compound of time and patience.
  • La gloire est le soleil des morts.
  • L'égalité sera peut-être un droit, mais aucune puissance humaine ne saura le convertir en fait.
    • Equality may be a right, but no power on earth can convert it into fact.
  • La discrétion est le plus habile des calculs.
    • Discretion is the best form of calculation.
  • Le véritable amour est éternel, infini, toujours semblable à lui-même; il est égal et pur, sans démonstrations violentes; il se voit en cheveux blancs, toujours jeune de cœur.
    • True love is eternal, infinite, always like unto itself; it is equable, pure, without violent demonstration; white hair often covers the head, but the heart that holds it is ever young.
  • Mes avis sur vos relations avec les femmes sont aussi dans ce mot de chevalerie: Les servir toutes, n'en aimer qu'une.
    • My further advice on your relations to women is based upon that other motto of chivalry, "Serve all, love one."
      • Le lys dans la vallée (1836), trans. Katharine Prescott Wormeley, part II: First Love
  • Vous savez quelles sont mes religions. Je ne suis point orthodoxe et ne crois pas à l'Église romaine. Je trouve que s'il ya quelque plan digne du sien, ce sont les transformations humaines faisant marcher l'être vers des zones inconnues. C'est la loi des créations qui nous sont inférieures: ce doit être la loi des créations supérieures. Le swedenborgisme, qui n'est qu'une répétition, dans le sens chrétien, d'anciennes idées, est ma religion, avec l'augmentation que j'y fais de l'incompréhensibilité de Dieu.
    • You know what my religion is. I am not orthodox, and I do not believe in the Roman Church. I think that if there is a scheme worthy of our kind it is that of human transformations causing the human being to advance toward unknown zones. That is the law of creations inferior to ourselves; it ought to be the law of superior creations. Swedenborgianism, which is only a repetition in the Christian sense of ancient ideas, is my religion, with the addition which I wish to make to it of the incomprehensibility of God.
  • Le courant des affaires devant toujours s'expédier, il surnage une certaine quantité de commis qui se sait indispensable quoique congéable à merci et qui veut rester en place. La bureaucratie, pouvoir gigantesque mis en mouvement par des nains, est née ainsi. Si en subordonnant toute chose et tout homme à sa volonté, Napoléon avait retardé pour un moment l'influence de la bureaucratie, ce rideau pesant placé entre le bien à faire et celui qui peut l'ordonner, elle s'était définitivement organisée sous le gouvernement constitutionnel, nécessairement ami des médiocrités, grand amateur de pièces probantes et de comptes, enfin tracassier comme une petite bourgeoise.
    • As routine business must always be dispatched, there is always a fluctuating number of supernumeraries who cannot be dispensed with, and yet are liable to dismissal at a moment's notice. All of these naturally are anxious to be "established clerks." And thus Bureaucracy, the giant power wielded by pigmies, came into the world. Possibly Napoleon retarded its influence for a time, for all things and all men were forced to bend to his will; but none the less the heavy curtain of Bureaucracy was drawn between the right thing to be done and the right man to do it. Bureaucracy was definitely organized, however, under a constitutional government with a natural kindness for mediocrity, a predilection for categorical statements and reports, a government as fussy and meddlesome, in short, as a small shopkeeper's wife.
      • Les Employés [The Government Clerks] (1838), trans. James Waring; also known as Bureaucracy, or, A Civil Service Reformer.
  • Il y a deux musiques: une petite, mesquine, de second ordre, partout semblable à elle-même, qui repose sur une centaine de phrases que chaque musicien s'approprie, et qui constitue un bavardage plus ou moins agréable avec lequel vivent la plupart des compositeurs.
    • Music is of two kinds: one petty, poor, second-rate, never varying, its base the hundred or so phrasings which all musicians understand, a babbling which is more or less pleasant, the life that most composers live.
  • Qu'est-ce que l'Art, monsieur? C'est la Nature concentrée.
    • What is Art, monsieur, but Nature concentrated?
      • Illusions perdues, vol I: Un grand homme de province à Paris, 1re partie [Lost Illusions, vol. I: A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, part I] (1839), trans. Ellen Marriage, ch. I, section 5
  • Les hivers sont pour les femmes à la mode ce que fut jadis une campagne pour les militaires de l’empire.
    • The winters are to fashionable women what a campaign once was to the soldiers of the Empire.
  • Lorsque les femmes nous aiment, elles nous pardonnent tout, même nos crimes; lorsqu'elles ne nous aiment pas, elles ne nous pardonnent rien, pas même nos vertus!
    • When women love, they forgive everything, even our crimes; when they do not love, they cannot forgive anything, not even our virtues.
  • On amplifie également le malheur et le boneur, nous ne sommes jamais ni si malheureux, ni si heureux qu'on le dit.
    • People exaggerate both happiness and unhappiness; we are never so fortunate nor so unfortunate as people say we are.
      • Modeste Mignon (1844), trans. Katharine Prescott Wormeley, ch. XXIV: The Poet Feels That He Is Loved Too Well
  • Une jeune fille est comme une fleur qu'on a cueillie; mais la femme coupable est une fleur sur laquelle on a marché.
    • A young bride is like a plucked flower; but a guilty wife is like a flower that had been walked over.
  • Malheureusement, ce portrait ne corrigera personne de la manie d’aimer de anges au doux sourire, à l’air rêveur, à figure candide, dont le cœur est un coffre-fort.
    • Unfortunately her portrait will cure no one of the addiction to loving sweetly smiling angels with dreamy looks, innocent faces, and a strong-box for a heart.
      • La cousine Bette (1846), trans. Sylvia Raphael, ch. XXXVII: Moral reflections on immorality
  • Tuer un parent de qui l’on se plaint, c’est quelque chose; mais hériter de lui, c’est là un plaisir!
    • To kill a relative of whom you are tired, is something; but to inherit his property afterwards — that is a real pleasure!
  • Je voudrais, un jour, avoir un nom si connu, si populaire, si célèbre, si glorieux enfin, qu'il m'authorisât, à p[éter] dans le monde, et que le monde trouvât ça tout naturel.
    • I should like one of these days to be so well known, so popular, so celebrated, so famous, that it would permit me to break wind in society, and society would think it a most natural thing.

Physiology of Marriage (1829)

Physiologie du Mariage. Trans. Joseph Walker McSpadden. English text here.

  • Le mariage est un combat à outrage avant lequel les deux époux demandent au ciel sa bénédiction, parce que s'aimer toujours est la plus téméraire des entreprises; le combat ne tarde pas à commencer, et la victoire, c'est-à-dire la liberté, demeure au plus adroit.
    • Marriage is a fight to the death, before which the wedded couple ask a blessing from heaven, because it is the rashest of all undertakings to swear eternal love; the fight at once commences and victory, that is to say liberty, remains in the hands of the cleverer of the two.
  • Qui ne voudrait pas rester persuadé que ces femmes sont vertueuses? Ne sont-elles pas la fleur du pays? Ne sont-elles pas toutes verdissantes, ravissantes, étourdissantes de beauté, de jeunesse, de vie et d'amour? Croire à leur vertu est une espèce de religion sociale; car elles sont l'ornement du monde et font la gloire de la France.
    • Who would not at the present moment wish to retain the persuasion that wives are virtuous? Are they not the supreme flower of the country? Are they not all blooming creatures, fascinating the world by their beauty, their youth, their life and their love? To believe in their virtue is a sort of social religion, for they are the ornament of the world, and form the chief glory of France.
      • Part I, Meditation II: Marriage Statistics
  • Flâner est une science, c'est la gastronomie de l'œil. Se promener, c'est végéter; flâner, c'est vivre... Flâner, c'est jouir, c'est recueillir des traits d'esprit, c'est admirer de sublimes tableaux de malheur, d'amour, de joie, des portraits gracieux ou grotesques; c'est plonger ses regards au fond de mille existences: jeune, c'est tout désirer, tout posséder; vieillard, c'est vivre de la vie des jeunes gens, c'est épouser leurs passions.
    • To saunter is a science; it is the gastronomy of the eye. To take a walk is to vegetate; to saunter is to live... To saunter is to enjoy life; it is to indulge the flight of fancy; it is to enjoy the sublime pictures of misery, of love, of joy, of gracious or grotesque physiognomies; it is to pierce with a glance the abysses of a thousand existences; for the young it is to desire all, and to possess all; for the old it is to live the life of the youthful, and to share their passions.
  • La vertu des femmes est peut-être une question de tempérament.
    • The virtue of women is perhaps a question of temperament.
      • Part I, Meditation IV, aphorism XIX
  • Les femmes les plus vertueuses ont en elles quelque chose qui n'est jamais chaste.
    • The most virtuous women have in them something that is never chaste.
      • Part I, Meditation IV, aphorism XX
  • L'amour est la plus mélodieuse de toutes les harmonies, et nous en avons le sentiment inné. La femme est un délicieux instrument de plaisir, mais il faut en connaitre les frémissantes cordes, en étudier la pose, le clavier timide, le doigté changeant et capricieux.
    • Love is the most melodious of all harmonies and the sentiment of love is innate. Woman is a delightful instrument of pleasure, but it is necessary to know its trembling strings, to study the position of them, the timid keyboard, the fingering so changeful and capricious which befits it.
  • Un homme ne peut se marier sans avoir étudié l'anatomie et disséqué une femme au moins.
    • A man ought not to marry without having studied anatomy, and dissected at least one woman.
      • Part I, Meditation V: Of the Predestined, aphorism XXVIII
  • La puissance ne consiste pas à frapper fort ou souvent, mais à frapper juste.
    • Power does not consist in striking with force or with frequency, but in striking true.
      • Part I, Meditation V: Of the Predestined, aphorism XLIII
  • Il est plus facile d'être amant que mari, par la raison qu'il est plus difficile d'avoir de l'esprit tous les jours que de dire de jolies choses de temps en temps.
    • It is easier to be a lover than a husband, for the same reason that it is more difficult to be witty every day, than to say bright things from time to time.
      • Part I, Meditation V: Of the Predestined, aphorism LXIX
  • La femme est une propriété que l'on acquiert par contrat, elle est mobilière, car la possession vaut titre; enfin, la femme n'est, à proprement parler, qu'une annexe de l'homme; or, tranchez, coupez, rognez, elle vous appartient à tous les titres.
    • The wife is a piece of property, acquired by contract; she is part of your furniture, for possession is nine-tenths of the law; in fact, the woman is not, to speak correctly, anything but an adjunct to the man; therefore abridge, cut, file this article as you choose; she is in every sense yours.
      • Part II, Meditation Number XII: The Hygiene of Marriage
  • Ainsi ne vous laissez jamais séduire par la fausse bonhomie des lits jumeaux.

    C'est l'invention la plus sotte, la plus perfide et la plus dangereuse qui soit au monde. Honte et anathème à qui l'imagina!

    • Do not therefore allow yourself to be led astray by the specious good nature of such an institution as that of twin beds.

      It is the silliest, the most treacherous, the most dangerous in the world. Shame and anathema to him who conceived it.

      • Part II, Meditation XVII, The Theory of the Bed, I: Twin Beds
  • Avoir sa belle-mère en province quand on demeure à Paris, et vice versa, est une de ces bonnes fortunes qui se rencontrent toujours trop rarement.
    • To be able to keep a mother-in-law in the country while he lives in Paris, and vice versa, is a piece of good fortune which a husband too rarely meets with.
      • Part III, Meditation XXV: Allies, Section II: Of the Mother-in-Law

The Wild Ass’s Skin (1831)

La Peau de chagrin. Also known as The Magic Skin. Trans. Ellen Marriage. French text here. English text here

Part I: The Talisman

  • Entre le joueur du matin et le joueur du soir il existe la différence qui distingue le mari nonchalant de l'amant pâmé sous les fenêtres de sa belle.
    • Between the daylight gambler and the player at night there is the same difference that lies between a careless husband and the lover swooning under his lady’s window.
  • Il existe je ne sais quoi de grand et d'épouvantable dans le suicide.
    • There is something great and terrible about suicide.
  • La pensée est la clef de tous les trésors, elle procure les joies de l'avare sans donner ses soucis. Aussi ai-je plané sur le monde, où mes plaisirs ont toujours été des jouissances intellectuelles.
    • Thought is a key to all treasures; the miser’s gains are ours without his cares. Thus I have soared above this world, where my enjoyments have been intellectual joys.
  • Le mal n'est peut-être qu'un violent plaisir. Qui pourrait déterminer le point où la volupté devient un mal et celui où le mal est encore la volupté ? Les plus vives lumières du monde idéal ne caressent-elles pas la vue, tandis que les plus douces ténèbres du monde physique la blessent toujours.
    • For pain is perhaps but a violent pleasure? Who could determine the point where pleasure becomes pain, where pain is still a pleasure? Is not the utmost brightness of the ideal world soothing to us, while the lightest shadows of the physical world annoy?
  • Quand le despotisme est dans les lois, la liberté se trouve dans les mœurs, et vice versa.
    • When law becomes despotic, morals are relaxed, and vice versa.
  • Le bonheur ne vient-il donc pas de l'âme?
    • But does not happiness come from the soul within?

Part II: A Woman Without a Heart

  • Je te le déclare, en mon âme et conscience, la conquête du pouvoir ou d'une grande renommée littéraire me paraissait un triomphe moins difficile à obtenir qu'un succès auprès d'une femme de haut rang, jeune, spirituelle et gracieuse.
    • I declare, on my soul and conscience, that the attainment of power, or of a great name in literature, seemed to me an easier victory than a success with some young, witty, and gracious lady of high degree.
  • Pour juger un homme, au moins faut-il être dans le secret de sa pensée, de ses malheurs, de ses émotions; ne vouloir connaître de sa vie que les événements matériels, c'est faire de la chronologie, l'histoire des sots!
    • If you are to judge a man, you must know his secret thoughts, sorrows, and feelings; to know merely the outward events of a man’s life would only serve to make a chronological table — a fool’s notion of history.
  • Peut-être veulent-elles [les femmes] un peu d'hypocrisie?
    • Women, perhaps, even require a little hypocrisy.
  • L'amour abstrait ne suffit pas à un homme pauvre et grand, il en veut tous les dévouements... La véritable épouse en cœur, en chair et en os, se laisse traîner là où va celui en qui réside sa vie, sa force, sa gloire, son bonheur.
    • Love in the abstract is not enough for a great man in poverty; he has need of its utmost devotion... She who is really a wife, one in heart, flesh, and bone, must follow wherever he leads, in whom her life, her strength, her pride, and happiness are centered.
  • La faute des hommes supérieurs est de dépenser leurs jeunes années à se rendre dignes de la faveur. Pendant qu'ils thésaurisent, leur force est la science pour porter sans effort le poids d'une puissance qui les fuit; les intrigants, riches de mots et dépourvus d'idées, vont et viennent, surprennent les sots, et se logent dans la confiance des demi-niais.
    • Ambitious men spend their youth in rendering themselves worthy of patronage; it is their great mistake. While the foolish creatures are laying in stores of knowledge and energy, so that they shall not sink under the weight of responsible posts that recede from them, schemers come and go who are wealthy in words and destitute of ideas, astonish the ignorant, and creep into the confidence of those who have a little knowledge.
  • Le calme et le silence nécessaires au savant ont je ne sais quoi de doux, d'enivrant comme l'amour. L'exercice de la pensée, la recherche des idées, les contemplations tranquilles de la science nous prodiguent d'ineffables délices, indescriptibles comme tout ce qui participe de l'intelligence, dont les phénomènes sont invisibles à nos sens extérieurs.
    • The tranquility and peace that a scholar needs is something as sweet and exhilarating as love. Unspeakable joys are showered on us by the exertion of our mental faculties; the quest of ideas, and the tranquil contemplation of knowledge; delights indescribable, because purely intellectual and impalpable to our senses.
  • L'étude prête une sorte de magie à tout ce qui nous environne.
    • Study lends a kind of enchantment to all our surroundings.
  • La vie d'un homme occupé à manger sa fortune devient souvent une spéculation; il place ses capitaux en amis, en plaisirs, en protecteurs, en connaissances.
    • The life of a man who deliberately runs through his fortune often becomes a business speculation; his friends, his pleasures, patrons, and acquaintances are his capital.
  • L'amour est une source naïve, partie de son lit de cresson, de fleurs, de gravier, qui rivière, qui fleuve, change de nature et d'aspect à chaque flot, et se jette dans un incommensurable océan où les esprits incomplets voient la monotonie, où les grandes âmes s'abîment en de perpétuelles contemplations.
    • Love is like some fresh spring, that leaves its cresses, its gravel bed and flowers to become first a stream and then a river, changing its aspect and its nature as it flows to plunge itself in some boundless ocean, where restricted natures only find monotony, but where great souls are engulfed in endless contemplation.
  • Un homme sans passion et sans argent reste maître de sa personne; mais un malheureux qui aime ne s'appartient plus et ne peut pas se tuer. L'amour nous donne une sorte de religion pour nous-mêmes, nous respectons en nous une autre vie; il devient alors le plus horrible des malheurs.
    • A penniless man who has no ties to bind him is master of himself at any rate, but a luckless wretch who is in love no longer belongs to himself, and may not take his own life. Love makes us almost sacred in our own eyes; it is the life of another that we revere within us; then and so begins for us the cruelest trouble of all.
  • Notre conscience est un juge infaillible, quand nous ne l'avons pas encore assassinée.
    • Conscience is our unerring judge until we finally stifle it.
  • Les musiciennes sont presque toujours amoureuses. Celle qui chantait ainsi devait savoir bien aimer.
    • Musicians are seldom unemotional; a woman who could sing like that must know how to love indeed.

The Vicar of Tours (1832)

Le curé de Tours. Trans. Katharine Prescott Wormeley. French text here. English text here.

  • Les gens sans esprit ressemblent aux mauvaises herbes qui se plaisent dans les bons terrains, et ils aiment d'autant plus être amusés qu'ils s'ennuient eux-mêmes.
    • Persons without minds are like weeds that delight in good earth; they want to be amused by others, all the more because they are dull within.
      • Ch. I
  • Les vieilles filles n'ayant pas fait plier leur caractère et leur vie à une autre vie ni à d'autres caractères, comme l'exige la destinée de la femme, ont, pour la plupart, la manie de vouloir tout faire plier autour d'elles.
    • Old maids who have never yielded in their habits of life or in their characters to other lives and other characters, as the fate of woman exacts, have, as a general thing, a mania for making others give way to them.
      • Ch. I
  • Entre personnes sans cesse en présence, la haine et l'amour vont toujours croissant: on trouve à tout moment des raisons pour s'aimer ou se haïr mieux.
    • Between persons who are perpetually in each other's company dislike or love increases daily; every moment brings reasons to love or hate each other more and more.
      • Ch. I
  • La vie habituelle fait l'âme, et l'âme fait la physionomie.
    • The habits of life form the soul, and the soul forms the physical presence.
      • Ch. II

Le Père Goriot (1835)

Trans. Ellen Marriage. French text here. English text here.

  • Le lendemain Rastignac s'habilla fort élégamment, et alla, vers trois heures de l'après-midi, chez madame de Restaud, en se livrant pendant la route à ces espérances étourdiment folles qui rendent la vie des jeunes gens si belle d'émotions: ils ne calculent alors ni les obstacles ni les dangers, ils voient en tout le succès, poétisent leur existence par le seul jeu de leur imagination, et se font malheureux ou tristes par le renversement de projets qui ne vivaient encore que dans leurs désirs effrénés; s'ils n'étaient pas ignorants et timides, le monde social serait impossible.
    • The next day Rastignac dressed himself very elegantly, and about three o'clock in the afternoon went to call on Mme. de Restaud. On the way thither he indulged in the wild intoxicating dreams which fill a young head so full of delicious excitement. Young men at his age take no account of obstacles nor of dangers; they see success in every direction; imagination has free play, and turns their lives into a romance; they are saddened or discouraged by the collapse of one of the visionary schemes that have no existence save in their heated fancy. If youth were not ignorant and timid, civilization would be impossible.
      • Part I
  • Notre cœur est un trésor, videz-le d'un coup, vous êtes ruinés. Nous ne pardonnons pas plus à un sentiment de s'être montré tout entier qu'à un homme de ne pas avoir un sou à lui.
    • Our heart is a treasury; if you pour out all its wealth at once, you are bankrupt. We show no more mercy to the affection that reveals its utmost extent than we do to another kind of prodigal who has not a penny left.
      • Part I
  • "Je réussirai!" Le mot du joueur, du grand capitaine, mot fataliste qui perd plus d'hommes qu'il n'en sauve.
    • "I shall succeed!" he said to himself. So says the gambler; so says the great captain; but the three words that have been the salvation of some few, have been the ruin of many more.
      • Part I
  • L'homme est imparfait. Il est parfois plus ou moins hypocrite, et les niais disent alors qu'il a ou n'a pas de mœurs.
    • Mankind are not perfect, but one age is more or less hypocritical than another, and then simpletons say that its morality is high or low.
      • Part II
  • Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu'il a été proprement fait.
    • The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.
      • Part II
      • A variant, "Behind every great fortune there is a great crime," has appeared as a quotation of Balzac; but it may have originated in a paraphrase in The Oil Barons: Men of Greed and Grandeur (1971) by Richard O'Connor, p. 47: "Balzac maintained that behind every great fortune there is a great crime."
  • - Je suis tourmenté par de mauvaises idées.
    - En quel genre? Ça se guérit, les idées.
    - Comment?
    - En y succombant.
    • "I am tormented by temptations."
      "What kind? There is a cure for temptation."
      "Yielding to it."
      • Part II

Seraphita (1835)

Séraphîta. Trans. Katharine Prescott Wormeley. English text here.

  • If we study Nature attentively in its great evolutions as in its minutest works, we cannot fail to recognize the possibility of enchantment — giving to that word its exact significance. Man does not create forces; he employs the only force that exists and which includes all others, namely Motion, the breath incomprehensible of the sovereign Maker of the universe.
    • Ch. 2: Seraphita
  • Wisdom is the understanding of celestial things to which the Spirit is brought by Love.
    • Ch. 3: Seraphita - Seraphitus
  • Man dies in despair while the Spirit dies in ecstasy.
    • Ch. 3: Seraphita - Seraphitus
  • The tiniest flower is a thought, — a life which corresponds to certain lineaments of the Great Whole, of which they have a constant intuition.
    • Ch. 3: Seraphita - Seraphitus
  • Clouds signify the veil of the Most High.
    • Ch. 3: Seraphita - Seraphitus
  • Science is the language of the Temporal world, Love is that of the Spiritual world. Thus man takes note of more than he is able to explain, while the Angelic Spirit sees and comprehends. Science depresses man; Love exalts the Angel. Science is still seeking, Love has found. Man judges Nature according to his own relations to her; the Angelic Spirit judges it in its relation to Heaven. In short, all things have a voice for the Spirit.
    • Ch. 3: Seraphita - Seraphitus
  • Remorse is impotence, impotence which sins again. Repentance alone is powerful; it ends all.
    • Ch. 3: Seraphita - Seraphitus
  • The most real of all splendors are not in outward things, they are within us.
    • Ch. 4: The Clouds of the Sanctuary
  • Nature knows nothing but solid bodies; your science deals only with combinations of surfaces. And so nature constantly gives the lie to all your laws; can you name one to which no fact makes an exception?
    • Ch. 4: The Clouds of the Sanctuary
  • White and shining virgin of all human virtues, ark of the covenant between earth and heaven, tender and strong companion partaking of the lion and of the lamb, Prayer! Prayer will give you the key of heaven! Bold and pure as innocence, strong, like all that is single and simple, this glorious, invincible Queen rests, nevertheless, on the material world; she takes possession of it; like the sun, she clasps it in a circle of light.
    • Ch. 6: The Road to Heaven

A Daughter of Eve (1839)

Une Fille d'Ève. Trans. R. S. Scott. French text here.

  • Les filles élevées comme vous l'avez été, dans la contrainte et les pratiques religieuses, ont soif de la liberté, désirent le bonheur, et le bonheur dont elles jouissent n'est jamais aussi grand ni aussi beau que celui qu'elles ont rêvé. De pareilles filles font de mauvaises femmes.
    • Girls brought up as you were, in a very strait-laced and puritan fashion, always pant for liberty and happiness, and the happiness they have never comes up to what they imagined. Those are the girls that make bad wives.
      • Ch. 2: Sisterly Confidences
  • La tyrannie produit deux effets contraires dont les symboles existent dans deux grandes figures de l'esclavage antique: Epictète et Spartacus, la haine et ses sentiments mauvais, la résignation et ses tendresses chrétiennes.
    • Tyranny produces two results, exactly opposite in character, and which are symbolized in those two great types of the slave in classical times — Epictetus and Spartacus. The one is hatred with its evil train, the other meekness with its Christian graces.
      • Ch. 3: The Story of a Happy Woman
  • Les mères de famille devraient rechercher de pareils hommes pour leurs filles: l'Esprit est protecteur comme la Divinité, le Désenchantement est perspicace comme un chirurgien, l'Expérience est prévoyante comme une mère. Ces trois sentiments sont les vertus théologales du mariage.
    • Mothers with marriageable daughters ought to look out for men of this stamp, men with brains to act as protecting divinity, with worldly wisdom to diagnose like a surgeon, and with experience to take a mother’s place in warding off evil. These are the three cardinal virtues in matrimony.
      • Ch. 3: The Story of a Happy Woman
  • L'homme qui peut empreindre perpétuellement la pensée dans le fait est un homme de génie; mais l'homme qui a le plus de génie ne le déploie pas à tous les instants, il ressemblerait trop à Dieu.
    • The man whose action habitually bears the stamp of his mind is a genius, but the greatest genius is not always equal to himself, or he would cease to be human.
      • Ch. 3: The Story of a Happy Woman
  • La bonté n'est pas sans écueils: on l'attribue au caractère, on veut rarement y reconnaître les efforts secrets d'une belle âme, tandis qu'on récompense les gens méchants du mal qu'ils ne font pas.
    • Kindness is not without its rocks ahead. People are apt to put it down to an easy temper and seldom recognize it as the secret striving of a generous nature; whilst, on the other hand, the ill-natured get credit for all the evil they refrain from.
      • Ch. 3: The Story of a Happy Woman
  • Cette bonhomie apparente qui séduit les nouveaux venus et n'empêche aucune trahison, qui se permet et justifie tout, qui jette les hauts cris à une blessure et la pardonne, est un des caractères distinctifs du journaliste. Cette camaraderie, mot créé par un homme d'esprit, corrode les plus belles âmes: elle rouille leur fierté, tue le principe des grandes œuvres, et consacre la lâcheté de l'esprit.
    • This surface good-nature which captivates a new acquaintance and is no bar to treachery, which knows no scruple and is never at fault for an excuse, which makes an outcry at the wound which it condones, is one of the most distinctive features of the journalist. This camaraderie (the word is a stroke of genius) corrodes the noblest minds; it eats into their pride like rust, kills the germ of great deeds, and lends a sanction to moral cowardice.
      • Ch. 4: A Man of Note
  • A quinze ans, ni la beauté ni le talent n'existent: une femme est tout promesse.
    • At fifteen, beauty and talent do not exist; there can only be promise of the coming woman.
      • Ch. 5: Florine
  • D'ailleurs, le suicide régnait alors à Paris; ne doit-il pas être le dernier mot des sociétés incrédules?
    • Suicide, moreover, was at that time in vogue in Paris: what more suitable key to the mystery of life for a skeptical society?
      • Ch. 7: Suicide
  • Il y a une manière de dire ce mot rien entre amants, qui signifie tout le contraire.
    • Lovers have a way of using this word "nothing" which implies exactly the opposite.
      • Ch. 7: Suicide
  • Nous [les hommes] valons moins que vous [les femmes].
    • A man is a poor creature compared to a woman.
      • Ch. 9: A Husband's Triumph

Pierrette (1840)

Trans. Katharine Prescott Wormeley. French text here. English text here.

  • Aucun homme ne s'arrache aux douceurs du sommeil matinal pour écouter un troubadour en veste, une fille seule se réveille à un chant d'amour.
    • No man would have torn himself from the comfort of a morning nap to listen to a minstrel in a jacket; none but a maid awakes to songs of love.
      • Ch. I: The Lorrains
  • Comme beaucoup de veuves, elle eut l'idée malsaine de se remarier.
    • Like many widows, she came to the unwise decision of remarrying.
      • Ch. I: The Lorrains
  • La province est la province: elle est ridicule quand elle veut singer Paris.
    • The provinces are provinces; they are only ridiculous when they mimic Paris.
      • Ch III: Pathology of Retired Mercers
  • Les villes se relèvent aussi difficilement que les maisons de commerce de leur ruine.
    • It is as difficult for towns and cities as it is for commercial houses to recover from ruin.
      • Ch. III: Pathology of Retired Mercers
  • Les petits esprits ont besoin de despotisme pour le jeu de leurs nerfs, comme les grandes âmes ont soif d'égalité pour l'action du cœur. Or les êtres étroits s'étendent aussi bien par la persécution que par la bienfaisance; ils peuvent s'attester leur puissance par un empire ou cruel ou charitable sur autrui, mais ils vont du côté où les pousse leur tempérament. Ajoutez le véhicule de l'intérêt, et vous aurez l'énigme de la plupart des choses sociales.
    • Little minds need to practise despotism to relieve their nerves, just as great souls thirst for equality in friendship to exercise their hearts. Narrow natures expand by persecuting as much as others through beneficence; they prove their power over their fellows by cruel tyranny as others do by loving kindness; they simply go the way their temperaments drive them. Add to this the propulsion of self-interest and you may read the enigma of most social matters.
      • Ch. IV: Pierrette
  • Les souffrances disposent à la dévotion, et presque toutes les jeunes filles, poussées par une tendresse instinctive, inclinent au mysticisme, le côté profond de la religion.
    • Sufferings predispose the mind to devotion, and nearly all young girls, impelled by instinctive tenderness, are inclined to mysticism, the deepest aspect of religion.
      • Ch. V: History of Poor Cousins in the Home of Rich Ones
  • Pierrette fit comme les gens qui souffrent au delà de leurs forces, elle garda le silence. Ce silence est, pour tous les êtres attaqués, le seul moyen de triompher: il lasse les charges cosaques des envieux, les sauvages escarmouches des ennemis; il donne une victoire écrasante et complète. Quoi de plus complet que le silence? Il est absolu, n'est-ce pas une des manières d'être de l'infini?
    • Pierrette, like all those who suffer more than they have strength to bear, kept silence. Silence is the only weapon by which such victims can conquer; it baffles the Cossack charges of envy, the savage skirmishings of suspicion; it does at times give victory, crushing and complete, — for what is more complete than silence? it is absolute; it is one of the attributes of infinity.
      • Ch. VI: An Old Maid's Jealousy

Letters of Two Brides (1841-1842)

Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées. Trans. R. S. Scott. French text here. English text here.

  • Le monde offre énormément d’énigmes dont le mot paraît difficile à trouver. Il y a des intrigues multipliées.
    • Society bristles with enigmas which look hard to solve. It is a perfect maze of intrigue.
      • Part I, ch. IV
  • Qui parle trop veut tromper.
    • A flow of words is a sure sign of duplicity.
      • Part I, ch. VI
  • L’homme qui nous parle est l’amant, l’homme qui ne nous parle plus est le mari.
    • The man as he converses is the lover; silent, he is the husband.
      • Part I, ch. VII
  • La politesse cache très-imparfaitement l’égoïsme général.
    • Courtesy is only a thin veneer on the general selfishness.
      • Part I, ch. VII
  • Un pays est fort quand il se compose de familles riches, dont tous les membres sont intéressés à la défense du trésor commun: trésor d’argent, de gloire, de priviléges, de jouissances; il est faible quand il se compose d’individus non solidaires, auxquels il importe peu d’obéir à sept hommes ou à un seul, à un Russe ou à un Corse, pourvu que chaque individu garde son champ; et ce malheureux égoïste ne voit pas qu’un jour on le lui ôtera.
    • A country is strong which consists of wealthy families, every member of whom is interested in defending a common treasure; it is weak when composed of scattered individuals, to whom it matters little whether they obey seven or one, a Russian or a Corsican, so long as each keeps his own plot of land, blind in their wretched egotism, to the fact that the day is coming when this too will be torn from them.
      • Part I, ch. XII
  • L’homme subjugué par sa femme est justement couvert de ridicule. L’influence d’une femme doit être entièrement secrète.
    • A husband who submits to his wife’s yoke is justly held an object of ridicule. A woman’s influence ought to be entirely concealed.
      • Part I, ch. XIII
  • Le propre d’un grand homme est de dérouter les calculs ordinaires. Il est sublime et attendrissant, naïf et gigantesque.
    • It is the mark of a great man that he puts to flight all ordinary calculations. He is at once sublime and touching, childlike and of the race of giants.
      • Part I, ch. XV
  • Oh! voilà l’amour vrai, sans chicanes: il est ou n’est pas; mais quand il est, il doit se produire dans son immensité.
    • Love may be or it may not, but where it is, it ought to reveal itself in its immensity.
      • Part I, ch. XV
  • La vertu, mignonne, est un principe dont les manifestations diffèrent selon les milieux: la vertu de Provence, celle de Constantinople, celle de Londres et celle de Paris ont des effets parfaitement dissemblables sans cesser d’être la vertu.
    • Virtue, my pet, is an abstract idea, varying in its manifestations with the surroundings. Virtue in Provence, in Constantinople, in London, and in Paris bears very different fruit, but is none the less virtue.
      • Part I, ch. XVIII
  • Il y a deux amours: celui qui commande et celui qui obéit; ils sont distincts et donnent naissance à deux passions, et l’une n’est pas l’autre.
    • The fact is that love is of two kinds — one which commands, and one which obeys. The two are quite distinct, and the passion to which the one gives rise is not the passion of the other.
      • Part I, ch. XXI
  • L’amour est le plus joli larcin que la Société ait su faire à la Nature; mais la maternité, n’est-ce pas la Nature dans sa joie? Un sourire a séché mes larmes.
    • Love may be the fairest gem which Society has filched from Nature; but what is motherhood save Nature in her most gladsome mood? A smile has dried my tears.
      • Part I, ch. XXVIII
  • Le hasard, ma chère, est le dieu de la maternité.
    • Chance, my dear, is the sovereign deity in child-bearing.
      • Part I, ch. XXVIII
  • Les mondes doivent se rattacher à Dieu comme un enfant se rattache à toutes les fibres de sa mère: Dieu, c’est un grand cœur de mère. Il n’y a rien de visible, ni de perceptible dans la conception, ni même dans la grossesse; mais être nourrice,... c’est un bonheur de tous les moments.
    • A child is tied to our heart-strings, as the spheres are linked to their creator; we cannot think of God except as a mother's heart writ large. It is only in the act of nursing that a woman realizes her motherhood in visible and tangible fashion; it is a joy of every moment.
      • Part I, ch. XXXI
  • La joie d’une mère est une lumière qui jaillit jusque sur l’avenir et le lui éclaire, mais qui se reflète sur le passé pour lui donner le charme des souvenirs.
    • A mother’s happiness is like a beacon, lighting up the future but reflected also on the past in the guise of fond memories.
      • Part I, ch. XXXI
  • Ah! combien de choses un enfant apprend à sa mère. Il y a tant de promesses faites entre nous et la vertu dans cette protection incessante due à un être faible, que la femme n’est dans sa véritable sphère que quand elle est mère; elle déploie alors seulement ses forces, elle pratique les devoirs de sa vie, elle en a tous les bonheurs et tous les plaisirs.
    • Ah! how much a mother learns from her child! The constant protection of a helpless being forces us to so strict an alliance with virtue, that a woman never shows to full advantage except as a mother. Then alone can her character expand in the fulfillment of all life’s duties and the enjoyment of all its pleasures.
      • Part I, ch. XXXI
  • Un an de lait suffit. Les enfants qui tettent trop deviennent des sots. Je suis pour les dictons populaires.
    • A year at the breast is quite enough; children who are suckled longer are said to grow stupid, and I am all for popular sayings.
      • Part I, ch. XXXVIII
  • La maternité comporte une suite de poésies douces ou terribles. Pas une heure qui n’ait ses joies et ses craintes.
    • A mother’s life, you see, is one long succession of dramas, now soft and tender, now terrible. Not an hour but has its joys and fears.
      • Part I, ch. XLV
  • Une vraie mère n’est pas libre.
    • A mother, who is really a mother, is never free.
      • Part I, ch. XLV
  • La science de la mère comporte des mérites silencieux, ignorés de tous, sans parade, une vertu en détail, un dévouement de toutes les heures.
    • The art of motherhood involves much silent, unobtrusive self-denial, an hourly devotion which finds no detail too minute.
      • Part I, ch. XLV
  • On porte encore moins facilement la joie excessive que la peine la plus lourde.
    • Excess of joy is harder to bear than any amount of sorrow.
      • Part II, ch. L
  • L’amour est profondément égoïste, tandis que la maternité tend à multiplier nos sentiments.
    • The passion of love is essentially selfish, while motherhood widens the circle of our feelings.
      • Part II, ch. LII
  • Il n’y a que des enfants aimants et aimés qui puissent consoler une femme de la perte de sa beauté.
    • Children, dear and loving children, can alone console a woman for the loss of her beauty.
      • Part II, ch. LII
  • La mort rapproche autant qu’elle sépare, elle fait taire les passions mesquines.
    • Death unites as well as separates; it silences all paltry feeling.
      • Part II, ch. LVII

About Catherine de' Medici (1842)

Sur Catherine de Médicis. Trans. Katharine Prescott Wormeley. French text here. English text here.


  • En France, et dans la partie la plus grave de l'histoire moderne, aucune femme, si ce n'est Brunehault ou Frédégonde, n'a plus souffert des erreurs populaires que Catherine de Médicis; tandis que Marie de Médicis, dont toutes les actions on été préjudiciables à la France, échappe à la honte qui devrait couvrir son nom... Catherine de Médicis, au contraire, a sauvé la couronne de France; elle a maintenu l'authorité royale dans des des circonstances au milieur desquelles plus d'un grand prince aurait succombé. Ayant en tête des factieux et des ambitions comme celles des Guise et de la maison de Bourbon, des hommes commes les deux cardinaux de Lorraine et comme les deux Balafrés, les deux princes de Condé, la reine Jeanne d'Albret, Henri IV, le connétable de Montmorency, Calvin, les Coligny, Théodore de Bèze, il lui a fallu déployer les plus rares qualités, les plus précieux dons de l'homme d'État, sous le feu des railleries de la presse calviniste.
    • In France, and that, too, during the most serious epoch of modern history, no woman, unless it be Brunehaut or Fredegonde, has suffered from popular error so much as Catherine de' Medici; whereas Marie de' Medici, all of whose actions were prejudicial to France, has escaped the shame which ought to cover her name... Catherine de' Medici, on the contrary, saved the crown of France; she maintained the royal authority in the midst of circumstances under which more than one great prince would have succumbed. Having to make head against factions and ambitions like those of the Guises and the house of Bourbon, against men such as the two Cardinals of Lorraine, the two Balafrés, and the two Condés, against the queen Jeanne d'Albret, Henri IV., the Connetable de Montmorency, Calvin, the three Colignys, Theodore de Beze, she needed to possess and to display the rare qualities and precious gifts of a statesman under the mocking fire of the Calvinist press.
  • Le pouvoir est une action, et le principe électif est la discussion. Il n'y a pas de politique possible avec la discussion en permanence.
    • Power is action, and the elective principle is discussion. There is no policy, no statesmanship possible where discussion is permanent.

Part I: The Calvinist Martyr

  • Qui dit examen, dit révolte. Toute révolte est, ou le manteau sous lequel se cache un prince, ou les langes d'une domination nouvelle.
    • Whoso says "Investigate" says "Revolt." All revolt is either the cloak that hides a prince, or the swaddling-clothes of a new mastery.
      • Ch. I: A House Which No Longer Exists at the Corner of a Street Which No Longer Exists in a Paris Which No Longer Exists
  • Pierre l'Ermite, Calvin et Robespierre, chacun à trois cents ans de distance, ces trois Picards ont été, politiquement parlant, des leviers d'Archimède. C'était à chaque époque une pensée qui recontrait un point d'appel dans les intérêts et chez les hommes.
    • Peter the Hermit, Calvin, and Robespierre, each at an interval of three hundred years and all three from the same region, were, politically speaking, the Archimedean screws of their age, — at each epoch a Thought which found its fulcrum in the self-interest of mankind.
      • Ch. XIII: Calvin

Part II: The Ruggieri's Secret

  • Il est certain que pendant le seizième siècle, dans les années qui le précédèrent et le suivirent, l'empoisonnement était arrivé à une perfection inconnue à la chimie moderne et que l'histoire a constatée. L'Italie, berceau des sciences modernes, fut, à cette époque, inventrice et maîtresse de ces secrets dont plusieurs se perdirent.
    • It is certain that during the sixteenth century, and the years that preceded and followed it, poisoning was brought to a perfection unknown to modern chemistry, as history itself will prove. Italy, the cradle of modern science, was, at this period, the inventor and mistress of these secrets, many of which are now lost.
      • Ch. II: Schemes Against Schemes
  • A ceux qui ont épuisé la politique, il ne reste plus que la pensée pure.
    • To those who have exhausted statecraft, nothing remains but the realm of pure thought.
      • Ch. V: The Alchemists
  • Quand la religion et la royauté seront abattues, le peuple en viendra aux grands, après les grands il s'en prendra aux riches.
    • When religion and royalty are destroyed the people will attack the nobles; after the nobles, the rich.
      • Ch. V: The Alchemists
  • Les idées dévorent les siècles comme les hommes sont dévorés par leurs passions. Quand l'homme sera guéri, l'humanité se guérira peut-être.
    • Ideas consume the ages as passions consume men. When man is cured, humanity may possibly cure itself.
      • Ch. V: The Alchemists
  • Nos plus cruels ennemis sont nos proches... Les rois n'ont ni frères, ni fils, ni mère.
    • Our most cruel enemies are our nearest in blood!... Kings have neither brothers, nor sons, nor mothers.
      • Ch. V: The Alchemists

Part III: The Two Dreams

  • La liberté politique, la tranquillité d'une nation, la science même, sont des présents pour lesquels le destin prélève des impôts de sang!
    • Political liberty, the tranquility of a nation, nay, knowledge itself, are gifts on which destiny has laid a tax of blood!

A Bachelor's Establishment (1842)

Un ménage de garçon, also known as La Rabouilleuse. Trans. Katharine Prescott Wormeley. French text here. English text here.

  • L’épicier est entraîné vers son commerce par une force attractive égale à la force de répulsion qui en éloigne les artistes. On n’a pas assez étudié les forces sociales qui constituent les diverses vocations. Il serait curieux de savoir ce qui détermine un homme à se faire papetier plutôt que boulanger, du moment où les fils ne succèdent pas forcément au métier de leur père comme chez les Egyptiens.
    • A grocer is drawn to his business by an attracting force quite equal to the repelling force which drives artists away from it. We do not sufficiently study the social potentialities which make up the various vocations of life. It would be interesting to know what determines one man to be a stationer rather than a baker; since, in our day, sons are not compelled to follow the calling of their fathers, as they were among the Egyptians.
      • Ch. I
  • Une veuve a deux tâches dont les obligations se contredisent: elle est mère et doit exercer la puissance paternelle.
    • A widow has two tasks before her, whose duties clash: she is a mother, and yet she must exercise parental authority.
      • Ch. I
  • La lucidité, de même que les rayons du soleil, n’a d’effet que par la fixité de la ligne droite, elle ne devine qu’à la condition de ne pas rompre son regard; elle se trouble dans les sautillements de la chance.
    • Lucidity of mind, like the rays of the sun, can have no effect except by the continuity of a direct line; it can divine only on condition of not breaking that line; the curvettings of chance bemuddle it.
      • Ch. IV
  • Il y a deux timidités: la timidité d’esprit, la timidité de nerfs ; une timidité physique et une timidité morale. L’une est indépendante de l’autre. Le corps peut avoir peur et trembler pendant que l’esprit reste calme et courageux, et vice versa. Ceci donne la clef de bien des bizarreries morales. Quand les deux timidités se réunissent chez un homme, il sera nul pendant toute sa vie.
    • There are two species of timidity, — the timidity of the mind, and the timidity of the nerves; a physical timidity, and a moral timidity. The one is independent of the other. The body may fear and tremble, while the mind is calm and courageous, or vice versa. This is the key to many moral eccentricities. When the two are united in one man, that man will be a cipher all his life.
      • Ch. IX
  • La passion qui, remarquez-le, porte son esprit avec elle, peut donner aux niais, aux sots, aux imbéciles une sorte d’intelligence, surtout pendant la jeunesse.
    • The passion, observe, which is able to reflect, gives even to ninnies, fools, and imbeciles a species of intelligence, especially in youth.
      • Ch. IX

A Woman of Thirty (1842)

La Femme de trente ans. Trans. Ellen Marriage. French text here. English text here.

  • Les jeunes filles se créent souvent de nobles, de ravissantes images, des figures tout idéales, et se forgent des idées chimériques sur les hommes, sur les sentiments, sur le monde; puis elles attribuent innocemment à un caractère les perfections qu'elles ont rêvées, et s'y confient.
    • Girls are apt to imagine noble and enchanting and totally imaginary figures in their own minds; they have fanciful extravagant ideas about men, and sentiment, and life; and then they innocently endow somebody or other with all the perfections for their daydreams, and put their trust in him.
      • Ch. I: Early Mistakes
  • Il y a beaucoup d'hommes dont le cœur est puissamment ému par la seule apparence de la souffrance chez une femme: pour eux la douleur semble être une promesse de constance ou d'amour.
    • Many men are deeply moved by the mere semblance of suffering in a woman; they take the look of pain for a sign of constancy or of love.
      • Ch. I: Early Mistakes
  • Un enfant, monsieur, n'est-il pas l'image de deux êtres, le fruit de deux sentiments librement confondus?
    • What is a child, monsieur, but the image of two beings, the fruit of two sentiments spontaneously blended?
      • Ch. II: A Hidden Grief
  • La jeune fille n'a qu'une coquetterie, et croit avoir tout dit quand elle a quitté son vêtement; mais la femme en a d'innombrables et se cache sous mille voiles; enfin elle caresse toutes les vanités, et la novice n'en flatte qu'une. Il s'émeut d'ailleurs des indécisions, des terreurs, des craintes, des troubles et des orages chez la femme de trente ans, qui ne se rencontrent jamais dans l'amour d'une jeune fille. Arrivée à cet âge, la femme demande à un jeune homme de lui restituer l'estime qu'elle lui a sacrifiée; elle ne vit que pour lui, s'occupe de son avenir, lui veut une belle vie, la lui ordonne glorieuse; elle obéit, elle prie et commande, s'abaisse et s'élève, et sait consoler en mille occasions, où la jeune fille ne sait que gémir.
    • A girl's coquetry is of the simplest, she thinks that all is said when the veil is laid aside; a woman's coquetry is endless, she shrouds herself in veil after veil, she satisfies every demand of man's vanity, the novice responds but to one.

      And there are terrors, fears, and hesitations — trouble and storm in the love of a woman of thirty years, never to be found in a young girl's love. At thirty years a woman asks her lover to give her back the esteem she has forfeited for his sake; she lives only for him, her thoughts are full of his future, he must have a great career, she bids him make it glorious; she can obey, entreat, command, humble herself, or rise in pride; times without number she brings comfort when a young girl can only make moan.

      • Ch. III: At Thirty Years
  • La sainteté des femmes est inconciliable avec les devoirs et les libertés du monde. Emanciper les femmes, c'est les corrompre.
    • The sanctity of womanhood is incompatible with social liberty and social claims; and for a woman emancipation means corruption.
      • Ch. III: At Thirty Years
  • Les femmes tiennent et doivent toutes tenir à être honorées, car sans l'estime elles n'existent plus. Aussi est-ce le premier sentiment qu'elles demandent à l'amour.
    • Women are tenacious, and all of them should be tenacious of respect; without esteem they cannot exist; esteem is the first demand that they make of love.
      • Ch. III: At Thirty Years
  • Mais la raison est toujours mesquine auprès du sentiment; l'une est naturellement bornée, comme tout ce qui est positif, et l'autre est infini.
    • But reason always cuts a poor figure beside sentiment; the one being essentially restricted, like everything that is positive, while the other is infinite.
      • Ch. III: At Thirty Years
  • L'amour a son instinct, il sait trouver le chemin du cœur comme le plus faible insecte marche à sa fleur avec une irrésistible volonté qui ne s'épouvante de rien.
    • Love has its own instinct, finding the way to the heart, as the feeblest insect finds the way to its flower, with a will which nothing can dismay nor turn aside.
      • Ch. III: At Thirty Years
  • Rien n'est-il si discret qu'un jeune visage, parce que rien n'est plus immobile. La figure d'une jeune femme a le calme, le poli, la fraîcheur de la surface d'un lac. La physionomie des femmes ne commence qu'à trente ans.
    • Nothing is so discreet as a young face, for nothing is less mobile; it has the serenity, the surface smoothness, and the freshness of a lake. There is no character in women’s faces before the age of thirty.
      • Ch. VI: The Old Age of a Guilty Mother


  • He has great tranquility of heart who cares neither for the praises nor the fault-finding of men.
    • Magnam habet cordis tranquillitatem, qui nec laudes curat, nec vituperia.Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ (ca. 1418), book II, ch. VI, paragraph 2
  • Man has sufficient cause for tears without adding to them by books.
    • Man has sufficient cause for tears without adding to the Ultramarine of Life by Bookes. — [Unnamed] editor's introduction, Love Ballads of the Sixteenth Century (Shop Roycroft, 1897; reprinted 2006), p. 7
  • Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell you that solitude is fine.
    • La solitude est certainement une belle chose, mais il y a plaisir d'avoir quelqu'un qui sache répondre, à qui on puisse dire de temps en temps, que c'est un belle chose. (Solitude is certainly a fine thing; but there is pleasure in having someone who can answer, from time to time, that it is a fine thing.) — Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, Dissertations chrétiennes et morales (1665), XVIII: "Les plaisirs de la vie retirée"

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Honoré de Balzac
Albert Keim and Louis Lumet, translated by Frederic Taber Cooper
Information about this edition
Translated 1914.
This translation is hosted with different licensing information than from the original text. The translation status applies to this edition.
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