Honoré de Balzac Biography


Born in Tours, France, a small provincial town on the Loire River, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) will have a chance during his youth to observe the mores of provincial life, the topic of several of his novels, among which Eugénie Grandet is probably the best known.

Fortunately for us, though, Balzac's father will leave for Paris, then the capital of European intellectual and artistic life. The city is a fascinating place filled with charm, elegance, and riches — bustling with luxurious parties, elegant carriages, and beautiful women. But it is also a mud-pit of dilapidated homes and people with petty desires and hidden passions, a jungle where the cruel struggle for survival eliminates the weak and corrupts the pure. These two aspects of the French capital will serve as a background of Le Père Goriot.

In this milieu, Balzac, after completing his studies in law and the humanities, will soon feel the urge to become a writer. With hardly an income after the bankruptcy of his small printing business, he will have to publish to survive. Hardly twenty years of age, he works twelve to fourteen hours a day, fighting sleep and fatigue with innumerable cups of coffee, writing about 2,000 pages a year. This explains the many faults we find in his early works published serially in newspapers. They were mostly Romanesque, Gothic romances and adventure type novels, influenced by Ann Radcliffe, Shelley (Frankenstein), the Swedish writer and philosopher Swedenborg, and James Fenimore Cooper. Conspicuous above all is the influence of Sir Walter Scott, which is clearly seen in Les Chouans, published in 1829, Balzac's first step toward fame.

But one has to wait until 1834, when, with Le Père Goriot, Balzac reveals his genius to the world. Le Père Goriot is the cornerstone of his huge undertaking: the epic saga of modern society. The Human Comedy, composed of 93 novels and short stories, filled with some 2,000 living characters, and intended to cover every possible facet of society, was divided by Balzac under two headings: Social Studies and Philosophical Studies, the former being subdivided into six parts:

Scenes of Private Life

Scenes of Provincial Life

Scenes of Parisian Life

Scenes of Political Life

Scenes of Military Life

Scenes of Country Life

This immense undertaking, wider in scope than the works of a Walter Scott or a Dickens, made Taine, a contemporary French critic, say, "Together with Shakespeare and Saint Simon, Balzac is the greatest source of information we have ever had on human nature."