The Human Comedy
Finally, one month from now, we will publish my work, under the title of The Human Comedy, in serial, and I will have to correct at least 3 times 500 compact printed pages. Passy, 1st of June 1841
THE HUMAN COMEDY IN SIX QUESTIONS
What is The Human Comedy?
It is the title given in 1841 by Balzac to the grouping of works signed with his name. The Human Comedy includes his novels already written by this date - around seventy since 1839 - and about twenty others realized outside of this frame.
What Balzac works do not belong to The Human Comedy?
The Human Comedy includes neither the so-called “childrens” novels and all those published before 1829 under pseudonyms; nor the Droll Stories; nor articles written for newspapers; nor poetic, philosophical, or dramatic essays.
What is it about?
For Balzac, the system of Society is comparable to the system of Nature and can be analyzed just as well. This is the objective of The Human Comedy, which Balzac hopes to attain thanks to a three-part construction:
- The Studies of Manners (Etudes de moeurs) is the most important. They are divided into six groups of novels, called “scenes”; scenes from private life, scenes from provincial life, scenes of Parisian life, scenes from political life, scenes from military life and scenes from country life.
- The Philosophical Studies seek to identify the causes of the hazards of social life, notably the universal energy that expresses itself in humans through their thought: “Society should carry with it the logic of its movement.” According to Balzac, the exercise of thought exhausts the vital reserves of each man, and living out one’s passions leads inevitably to death: this is the destiny of Raphael in The Wild Ass’s Skin, that of the father Grandet, a model of provincial avarice, like that of Frenhofer, the painter of The Unknown Masterpiece; because Balzac studies all the applications of this system, from the lowest to the highest.
- The Analytical Studies develop the principal theoretical themes that direct social life.
How does The Human Comedy correspond to Balzac’s overall project?
This construction was left unachieved, and a catalogue established by Balzac allows us to measure the size of its lacunae. The Analytical Studies only include The Physiology of Marriage and The Small Miseries of Married Life; the Scenes from Military Life include only two stories where Balzac envisioned twenty-five! We can see, moreover, that rural life is hardly sketched out in The Peasants, while the peasantry makes up the majority of the French population in the nineteenth century.
In what order should Balzac’s novels be read?
It is hazardous to follow the order proposed by Balzac, which evolved broadly. The Lily of the Valley oscillates between scenes from provincial life and scenes from country life. César Birotteau was at first supposed to be a philosophical scene, but in the Furne edition became a scene from Parisian life. A chronological reading order cannot be trusted either, since Balzac reworked his novels with each new printing, and sometimes very markedly, changing character names, modifying notable character traits, etc. You could choose to move through Balzac’s oeuvre freely before restarting all over, as its pleasure often lies in rereading. Isn’t that what defines the greatest writers, after all?