The human comedy

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The human comedy (French La Comédie humaine ) is the title Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) - alluding to Dante's Divine Comedy - gave his novel in 1842. The subject of this novel is French society during the conservative-monarchist restoration.

Human comedy includes essays as well as realistic novels, short stories, narratives, 25 unfinished works but also 8 early works written between 1822 and 1825. By his death, Balzac had completed 91 of his 137 novels and short stories.

Balzac combines the individual novels into a complex system in which the characters appear again and again from novel to novel. With this literary innovation, Balzac wants to create a comprehensive (moral) picture of French society in the first half of the 19th century: “The immensity of a plan, which at the same time encompasses the history and criticism of society, the analysis of its evils and the discussion of its principles includes, entitles me, it seems to me, to give my work the title under which it appears today: The Human Comedy . "

Conceptual bases

Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire

In the preface to the human comedy , Balzac sets out his poetological program. He starts from the theory of the French zoologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire on the origin of the various species in the animal kingdom, which was much discussed during the Paris academy dispute in 1830. Balzac sums up Saint-Hilaire's assumption of “unity in plurality” as follows: “There is only one animal. The Creator used only one single pattern for all organic beings. The animal is a fundamental being that assumes its external form, or, more precisely, the differences in its form in the environments in which it is called to evolve. The zoological species result from these differences. "

Balzac's social theory

Starting from Saint-Hilaire's theory that the phenotypes of animals are shaped by their environment, Balzac outlines his view of human society in the preface to the human comedy by comparing it with the animal kingdom:

“Since I was penetrated by this system, [...] I realized that society was like nature in this respect. Doesn't society also make people, depending on the surroundings in which their actions unfold, as many different people as there are variations in zoology? The differences between a soldier, a worker, an administrator, a lawyer, an idler, a scholar, a statesman, a merchant, a seaman, a poet, a beggar, and a priest are, if more difficult to define, no less considerable than those who distinguish the wolf, the lion, the donkey, the crow, the shark, the sea cow, the sheep, and others. So there have been and will be social species forever, just as there are zoological species. "

However, Balzac also sees a fundamental difference between zoological and social species. The social “genres” or strata are permeable upwards and downwards, “the social position is subject to coincidences such as nature does not allow itself” (from the preface), which makes human society an exciting and dynamic system.

The idea for "human comedy"

The "gap in the market" in historiography

Although Balzac is convinced that the social positions of people and the habits of society themselves are subject to change, in contrast to the supposedly great historical events, there is no form of documentation and analysis in this area of ​​human life. In this context, Balzac criticizes the dry style and the one-sided selection of objects in the history books and decides that he attaches equal importance to "constant, daily, secret or open facts, the actions of individual life, their causes and principles which historians have hitherto set aside the events of the public life of the nations ”(ibid.).

Balzac recognizes that people's private life and, in particular, the underlying law of nature interest many readers. In order to be able to present this study of the morals of French society, Balzac has to invent a fictional society with several thousand characters who have “listened to the innermost essence of their century” (ibid.).

Inspiration from Walter Scott

However, Balzac does not know how to combine this number of necessary characters in his literary work into an interesting drama with which he can achieve his goals, the representation of contemporary French society in its entirety and the philosophical penetration of these social processes. Only the encounter with Walter Scott's work should Balzac open his eyes. Scott “introduced the spirit of the old days; in it he united drama, dialogue, portrait, landscape and description; he gave his place to the wonderful and the true, those elements of the epic, and with him poetry touched the familiarity of the lowest language. But since he had not devised a system, but rather found his manner in the fire of work or through the logic of work, it had never occurred to him to link his poems with one another so that a complete story emerged through the juxtaposition of theirs every chapter was a novel and every novel a contemporary story . When I recognized this lack of binding, which incidentally does not reduce the size of the bulkhead, I saw at the same time the system that was favorable to the execution of my work and the possibility of carrying it out. ”(Ibid.)

Fabric and characters

Balzac has no difficulty in finding material for his novels in which he wants to derive social rules from the behavior of his contemporaries and philosophically penetrate the way society works:

“Chance is the greatest novelist in the world: to become fertile you only have to study. French society was supposed to be the historian, I just its secretary. If I took inventory of vices and virtues, if I gathered the chief data of passions, if I portrayed characters, if I selected the most important events in social life, if I created types by uniting the traits of many similar characters, so could I may succeed in writing the history overlooked by so many historians: that of morals ”(ibid.)

So Balzac created a chronicle of French society that - apart from the necessary prehistory to explain a person's biography or the plot of a novel - ranges from 1830 (the year the novel Séraphîta takes place ) to 1846 ( Les Comédiens sans le savoir ).

In order to represent the customs of an entire society, Balzac describes a good 2000 distinctive characters of his time, with whom he tries to fill the entire spectrum of a society. More than 50 of these characters have a detailed biography, which is examined from different angles in the various novels in which they appear.

The central figures of the Comédie Humaine include:

  • Horace Bianchon (appears in 24 novels / short stories): Doctor
  • Jean-Jacques Bixiou (appears in 19 novels / short stories): civil servant, artist
  • Joseph Bridau (appears in 13 novels / stories): painter
  • Count Henri de Marsay (appears in 28 novels / short stories): Dandy, politician
  • Diane de Maufrigneuse (appears in 21 novels / short stories): Nobles
  • Raoul Nathan (appears in 19 novels / short stories): writer, politician
  • Baron Frédéric de Nucingen (appears in 38 novels / short stories): greedy financier
  • Eugène-Louis de Rastignac (appears in 28 novels / short stories): Dandy, politician
  • Marquis de Ronquerolles (appears in 20 novels / short stories): impertinent contemporary
  • Comtesse Hugret de Sérisy (appears in 20 novels / short stories): Nobles
  • Maxime de Trailles (appears in 19 novels / short stories): Dandy, criminal
  • Jacques Collin, alias Vautrin , alias Abbé Carlos Herrera, alias Trompe-la-Mort, alias M. de Saint-Estève (appears in 6 novels / short stories): criminal, later policeman

Each of these people is also representative of their social class or the professional group to which they belong.

Outline of the work

Balzac divides his entire work into three main parts: moral studies, philosophical studies, analytical studies. The last part of the systematically planned work in particular remains unfinished, although Balzac has been working on it night after night for over 20 years. He seldom makes careless mistakes in the biographies of his characters.

Moral Studies (Études de mœurs)

Scenes from private life (Scènes de la vie privée)

  • The house "Zum Ballspielenden Kater" ( La Maison du chat-qui-pelote , 1830)
  • The Ball at Sceaux ( Le Bal de Sceaux , 1830)
  • Memoirs of two newlyweds ( Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées , 1841/42)
  • The stock exchange ( La Bourse , 1832)
  • Modeste Mignon and the three lovers ( Modeste Mignon ou les trois Amoureux , 1844)
  • A beginning of life ( Un dèbut dans la vie , 1842)
  • Albert Savarus (1842)
  • La Vendetta ( La Vendetta , 1830) (German also Corsican blood feud or blood feud )
  • A double famille ( Une double famille , 1830)
  • Marriage Peace ( La Paix de ménage , 1830)
  • Madame Firmiani ( Madame Firmiani , 1830)
  • A study of women ( Étude de femme , 1832)
  • The false lover ( La fausse Maîtresse , 1841)
  • An Eve's Daughter ( Une Fille d'Eve , 1830–39)
  • The Message ( Le Message , 1832)
  • The Grenadière ( La Grenadière , 1832)
  • The abandoned woman ( La Femme abandonnée , 1832)
  • Honorine (1843)
  • Béatrix (1839)
  • Gobseck (1830)
  • The woman of thirty ( La Femme de trente ans , 1831-44)
  • Father Goriot ( Le Père Goriot , 1834/35)
  • Colonel Chabert ( Le Colonel Chabert , 1832)
  • The Mass of the Denial of God ( La Messe de l'Athée , 1836)
  • The incapacitation ( L'Interdiction , 1836)
  • The marriage contract ( Le Contrat de Mariage , 1835)
  • Second study of women ( Autre Étude de Femme , 1842)

Scenes from provincial life (Scènes de la vie de province)

  • Ursula Mirouet (1841)
  • Eugénie Grandet (1833)
  • Lost Illusions ( Les Illusions perdues , 1837–43)
    • The two poets ( Les deux Poètes )
    • A great man from the provinces in Paris ( Un grand Homme de Province à Paris )
    • The inventor's sufferings ( Les Souffrances de l'Inventeur )
The celibate (Les Célibataires)
  • Pierrette (1840)
  • The parish priest of Tours ( Le Curé de Tours , 1832)
  • The "Fisherwoman in Trouble" ( Un Ménage de Garcon en Province (la Rabouilleuse) , 1842)
The Parisians in the Province (Les Parisiens en Province)
  • The famous Gaudissart ( L'illustre Gaudissart , 1833)
  • The Muse des Département ( La Muse du Département , 1843)
The rivals (Les Rivalités)
  • The old maid ( La Vieille Fille , 1836/37)
  • The cabinet of antiques ( Le Cabinet des Antiques , 1836–39)

Scenes from Parisian Life (Scènes de la vie parisienne)

  • César Birotteau (1837)
  • The Nucingen banking house ( La Maison Nucingen , 1838)
  • The splendor and misery of the courtesans ( Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes, (1839–47))
    • How easy girls love ( Comme aiment les Filles )
    • What old men let love taste ( A combien l'amour revient aux vieillards )
    • Where bad roads lead ( Où mènent les mauvais chemins )
    • Vautrin's last figure ( La dernière Incarnation de Vautrin )
  • The Secrets of the Princess of Cadignan ( Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan , 1839)
  • Facino Cane (1836)
  • Sarrasine (1831)
  • Pierre Grassou (1840)
  • A businessman ( Un Homme d'Affaires , 1845)
  • A Prince of Bohemia ( Un Prince de Bohème , 1840)
  • Officials ( Les Employés , 1838)
  • Gaudissart II (1844)
  • The comedians against their knowledge ( Les Comédiens sans le savoir , 1846)
  • The petty bourgeoisie ( Les Petits Bourgeois , 1854)
  • The other side of contemporary history ( L'Envers de l'Histoire contemporaine , 1842–46)
    • Madame de la Chanterie ( Madame de la Chanterie )
    • The recorded one ( L'Initié )
History of the Thirteen ( Histoire des Treize )
  • Ferragus (1834)
  • The Duchess of Langeais ( La Duchesse de Langeais , 1834)
  • The girl with the golden eyes ( La Fille aux yeux d'or , 1835)
The impoverished relatives ( Les parents pauvres )
  • Aunt Bette ( La Cousine Bette , 1846)
  • Cousin Pons ( Le Cousin Pons , 1847)

Scenes from political life ( Scènes de la vie politique )

  • An episode from the Reign of Terror ( Un Épisode sous la Terreur , 1830)
  • A dark story ( Une ténébreuse Affaire , 1841)
  • The deputy from Arcis ( Le Député d'Arcis , 1847)
  • Z. Marcas (1840)

Scenes from the life of a soldier ( Scènes de la vie militaire )

  • The royalists ( Les Chouans , 1829)
  • A Passion in the Desert ( Une Passion dans le Désert , 1830)

Scenes from rural life ( Scènes de la Vie de Campagne )

  • The Peasants ( Les Paysans , 1844)
  • The Country Doctor ( Le Médecin de Campagne , 1833)
  • The village priest ( Le Curé de Village , 1838/39)
  • The lily in the valley ( Le Lys dans la Vallée , 1836)

Philosophical Studies ( Études philosophiques )

  • The shagreen leather ( La Peau de Chagrin , 1831)
  • Jesus-Christ in Flanders ( Jésus-Christ en Flandre , 1831)
  • Melmoth ( Melmoth réconcilié , 1835)
  • Massimilla Doni (1839)
  • The unknown masterpiece ( Le Chef-d'Oeuvre inconnu , 1831)
  • Gambara (1837)
  • The Philosopher's Stone ( La Recherche de l'Absolu , 1834)
  • The cast out child ( L'Enfant maudit , 1831–36)
  • Farewell ( Adieu , 1830)
  • The Maranas ( Les Marana , 1832)
  • The one called up ( Le Réquisitionnaire , 1831)
  • El Verdugo (1830)
  • A drama on the seashore ( Un Drame au bord de la mer , 1835)
  • Maître Cornélius (German also Master Cornélius , 1831)
  • The red hostel ( L'Auberge rouge , 1831)
  • Catherine de Medici ( Sur Catherine de Médicis , 1831–41)
  • The Elixir of Life ( L'Elixir de longue vie , 1830)
  • The Exiles ( Les Proscrits , 1831)
  • Louis Lambert (1832/33)
  • Seraphita ( Séraphîta , 1835)

Analytical studies ( Études analytiques )

  • Physiology of marriage ( La Physiologie du Mariage , 1826)
  • The Little Troubles of Married Life ( Petites Misères de la Vie conjugale , 1830–45)

Balzac's Explanatory Notes on Moral Studies (6 books)

“In these six books are distributed all the moral studies that make up the general history of society […]. Incidentally, these six books correspond to general ideas. Each has its meaning and its meaning, and it shapes an epoch of human life. […] The scenes from private life show childhood and youth with their missteps, just as the scenes from provincial life show the age of passions, calculations, interests and ambitions. The scenes from Parisian life finally show the picture of the inclinations, the vices and all the licentiousness as they develop the customs peculiar to the capitals, for there the peaks of good and the peaks of evil meet. After I had described social life in these three books, it only remained for me to show the exceptional existences, which summarize the interests of several or all, and which stand to a certain extent outside the general law: hence the scenes from the life of politics. And when this immense picture of society was completed and finished, didn't I have to show her in her most violent state, how she emerges from herself, be it to defend herself or to conquer? Hence the scenes from the life of a soldier, the least completed part of my work, but for which space has been left in this edition so that I can classify it when it is finished. After all, the scenes from rural life are, so to speak, the evening of this long day's work, if I may call the social drama that. ”(Ibid.)

Balzac's explanations of the philosophical studies

“In this book are the purest characters and the application of the great principles of order, politics and morality. This is the foundation full of characters, full of comedies and tragedies, on which the philosophical studies are built, the second part of the work, in which the social instrument of all effects is demonstrated, in which, feeling for feeling, the ravages of thought are described, and its first volume ›Das Chagrinleder‹, which in a way connects moral studies with philosophical studies, through the link of an almost oriental fantasy that shows life itself in a struggle with desire, a struggle that is the principle of every passion. " (ibid.)

German total editions (selection)

  • The Human Comedy , 16 volumes, Insel, Leipzig 1908–1911.
  • The Human Comedy , Ed. Fritz-Georg Voigt, thin print edition, 22 volumes, Aufbau-Verlag , Berlin and Weimar 1961–1988.
  • The Human Comedy , Ed. Ernst Sander , 12 volumes, Goldmann, Munich 1971–1972; again as a paperback: btb, Berlin 1998.

Web links

Wikisource: La Comédie humaine  - Sources and full texts (French)


  1. Honoré de Balzac : Balzac's preface to the human comedy in the Gutenberg-DE project
  2. z. B. Reclam's entertainment library No. 1895 / 1896a, undated [1918], transl. Hermann Dehnhardt