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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Comédie Humaine

By George Frederic Parsons (1840–1893)

[Born in Brighton, England, 1840. Died in New York, N. Y., 1893. Honoré de Balzac.—The Atlantic Monthly. 1886.]

THE PLAN of the Comédie Humaine came to Balzac after he had established his reputation. He was a long time in discovering his vocation, but he had been educating himself for the great work of his life during his dreary apprenticeship. He would become the analyst of society. He would do for the human family what Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire had done for the brute creation. The Comédie Humaine was to be a philosophical dissection of society, a description of contemporary life and manners from top to bottom, and embracing all ranks, classes, and occupations. The conception was gigantic, and, when all the defects of the work are allowed for, it will have to be admitted that the execution is marvellous. Nor could it have been even partially accomplished save by the method Balzac adopted. A series of separate and unconnected stories would not have admitted of the subtle working out of complicated and far-reaching sequences of events such as real life presents. In the ordinary novel it is necessary either to represent a section of life cut off abruptly, without beginning or end, or fidelity to truth must be sacrificed to the exigencies of the plot. Balzac, by carrying his characters through a whole series of stories, was enabled to present them in many different aspects, and at the same time to work out those side-plots and ramifications of human relationship with which real existence abounds. His method enlarged his canvas enormously, and also gave an entirely new interest and emphasis to his situations. But only a master could have accomplished so great an undertaking with the measure of success he has achieved, or could have avoided the difficulties inherent in the scheme. In considering the qualifications demanded for the work, some of the faults charged upon Balzac are at least explained. To do what he attempted—that is, to paint human nature as it existed in his time and country—a mind as many-sided as nature is needed. But to paint human nature as manifested in the social organization, a catholicity of view is required which excludes optimism. It is one thing to describe the world as it ought to be, or as one would have it, but quite another to describe it as it is. In most novels we find bad men repenting and becoming good, virtuous men rewarded by material prosperity, the villains punished and the heroes triumphing. But how far is this from what actually happens! As John Stuart Mill observes, “The general tendency of evil is towards further evil. Bodily illness renders the body more susceptible of disease; it produces incapacity of exertion, sometimes debility of mind, and often the loss of means of subsistence. Poverty is the parent of a thousand mental and moral evils. What is still worse, to be injured or oppressed, when habitual, lowers the whole tone of the character. One bad action leads to others, in the agent himself, in the bystanders, and in the sufferers. All bad qualities are strengthened by habit, and all vices and follies tend to spread. Intellectual defects generate moral, and moral intellectual; and every intellectual or moral defect generates others, and so on without end.” This, of course, is but one side of the case, but it is precisely the side which fiction usually ignores, to the detriment alike of art and verisimilitude. But Balzac did not ignore it, and his recognition and full representation of it constitute one of his strongest claims upon posterity. In him, indeed, we see a resemblance to Nature, who distributes good and evil impartially, indifferently; elaborating the hideous and venomous tarantula as carefully as the gentle dove or the fragrant rose, and not seldom seeming, as in the tiger, to lavish her most splendid ornamentation upon incarnations of ferocity and savage power. Balzac took society as he found it. He did not attempt to improve it, unless showing it its own image might have an elevating tendency. He regarded his mission as that of a scientific social historian. And he undertook not only to describe society in its external aspects, but to analyze the springs of its various activities, to explain and characterize the motives that inspired it, and to dissect away the conventional tissues which concealed its true desires and intents.

In applying his analytical methods he was deterred by no sentimental restraints. He looked everywhere, and set down what he saw—vice or virtue, honor or infamy, as the case might be. That he should have been a cause of offence to many was inevitable, and equally so that the frank intrepidity of his analysis should be denounced as insufferable coarseness. He is coarse. There is no need to deny it, and his coarseness is often an injury to his work. But the question is whether, with a more delicate temperament, he could have done the work before him; and if the answer to this question is in the negative, as I think it must be, it will perhaps be considered well that he did it, even with the drawbacks attached to it. For so powerful a work has never been accomplished by another, nor is likely to be. And even in his most audacious moods, when, as his critics have said, he seems to take special delight in the analysis of some monstrous vice, some hideously deformed character, the marvellous insight which exhibits the inmost workings of a depraved human soul, the equally marvellous truth of touch which shows the gradual obscuration and extinction of the good principles and tendencies, assuredly produce upon the reader no seductive or demoralizing effect, but rather the emotion caused by the spectacle of an implacable destiny urging the lost creature to its doom.