The Human Comedy is a 16-volume, 90 novel long work that chronicles the lives of Frenchmen in Paris and abroad during the 19th century. Published between 1842 and 1848 but in total a two-decade project, Honore de Balzac himself has often compared his masterwork to Dante’s Inferno and even Arabian Nights. Just like Dickens, his works were meant to be examinations of contemporary, mostly urban life from the perspective of both the rich and the poor as well as the unemployed and the belaboured. Balzac’s Human Comedy was so influential that this work has today become synonymous with his name, and has influenced Karl Marx, Henry James, and even TV shows like the Wire, who seek to study the effects of urban life on people and their communities..
In 1832, Balzac first released Pere Goriot, what would officially become the opening work of the Human Comedy. It is a novel of education about Rastignac, a law student’s who rises in prominence in the impoverished quarters of Paris, just as an old merchant, Goriot, gradually declines in stature. Similar to a bildungsroman, that is, a novel of youthful formation, Rastignac’s ascent chronicles youthful improvement at the cost of a corrupt society.
Such is the nature of Balzac’s works. They are primarily focused on making those connections between two seemingly disparate elements. With The Human Comedy, we get an entire web of relationships. We get stories that focus on individuals but include characters from other works, such as The Search for the Absolute, a story about a man looking for a theory of everything, and The Unknown Masterpiece, about an artist’s search for the perfect painting.
But these relationships are not only between people and people, as he gets all the way down to the material objects that unify them. The impoverished eat similar foods and the rich take pride in similar adornments, and Balzac uses these as symbols not just to connote status, but to make light of man’s obsession with material goods. People are obsessed with the most banal things, and as finances become a more salient tension in the works, people will reveal their uglier side.
But we have to understand the context that Balzac is writing within. Paris in the 19th century has survived Napoleon and a revolution, yet it is still a burgeoning collective of both the rich and poor. The industrial revolution has not quite hit Paris yet, but the rural population is beginning to move to larger city centres, and with his we get major competition amongst both the old and the young.
Balzac may not have understood the most intricate nuances of modern society, but he knew how it moves. He likened it to an amorphous creature that is motivated solely by money and pleasure alone. however, he also paid respect to the noble causes, to those who either loved too much or those who lived by a code of honour they couldn’t sustain. The Country Doctor, for example, examines the possibilities of social reform, while Lost Illusions is primarily about genuine friendship. Still, behind all these cerebral ideals hides the eager presence of money.
The Human Comedy is unofficially the great pioneering work of Realism, and it employs several different styles of writing, including the epistolary form (as in letter writing),the prolonged dialogue, prosaic description, stories within stories, and even fragmented vignettes, a method he used to write Madame Firmiani in 1832.
Most objections about Balzac’s work come from the broad, imprecise execution of his characters, whom critics believe lack the complexity of Henry James’ or Gustave Flaubert’s. His characters are not necessarily supposed to be full beings, but rather take upon a type that fellow urbanites may identify with. His work has been eclipsed by later realists and even some modernists, but his encyclopedic account of Paris and its surroundings was virtually unprecedented and has been seldom matched. I think it’s important to read Balzac because it shows step by step how everyone, no matter how unimportant, is a cog in a much larger machine.