La Comédie humaine  

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"En dressant l'inventaire des vices et vertus, en rassemblant les principaux faits des passions, en peignant les caractères , [...] peut-être pouvais-je arriver à écrire l'histoire oubliée par tant d'historiens, celle des mœurs."--preface to La Comédie humaine

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La Comédie humaine is the title of Honoré de Balzac's (17991850) multi-volume collection of interlinked novels and stories naturalistically depicting French society.



The Comédie humaine consists of 95 finished works (stories, novels or analytical essays) and 48 unfinished works (some of which exist only as titles). It does not include Balzac's 5 theatrical plays or his collection of humorous tales, the "Contes drolatiques" (1832-37). The title of the series is usually considered an allusion to Dante's Divine Comedy; while Ferdinand Brunetière, the famous French literary critic, suggests that it may stem from poems by Alfred de Musset or Alfred de Vigny. While Balzac sought the comprehensive scope of Dante, his title indicates the worldly, human concerns of a realist novelist. The stories are placed in a variety of settings, with characters reappearing in multiple stories.

Evolution of the project

The Comédie humaine was the result of a slow evolution. The first works of Balzac were written without any global plan ("Les Chouans" is a historical novel; "La physiologie du mariage" is an analytical study of marriage), but by 1830 Balzac began to group his first novels ("Sarrasine", "Gobseck") into a series entitled "Scènes de la vie privée" ("Scenes from Private Life").

In 1833, with the publication of "Eugénie Grandet", Balzac envisioned a second series entitled "Scènes de la vie de province" (Scenes from Provincial Life). Most likely in this same year Balzac came upon the idea of having characters reappear from novel to novel, and the first novel to use this technique was "le Père Goriot" (1834-5).

In a letter written to Madame Hanska in 1834, Balzac decided to reorganize his works into three larger groups, allowing him (1) to integrate his "La physiologie du mariage" into the ensemble and (2) to separate his most fantastic or metaphysical stories — like "La Peau de chagrin" (1831) and "Louis Lambert" (1832) — into their own "philosophical" section. The three sections were:

  • Etudes de Moeurs au XIXe siècle (Studies of Manners in the 19th Century) - including the various "Scène de la vie..."
  • Etudes philosophiques
  • Etudes analytiques - including the "Physiology du mariage"

In this letter, Balzac went on to say that the "Etudes de Moeurs" would study the effects of society and touch on all genders, social classes, ages and professions of people. Meanwhile, the "Etudes philosophiques" would study the causes of these effects. Finally, the third "analytical" section would study the principles behind these phenomena. Balzac also explained that while the characters in the first section would be "individualités typisées" ("individuals made into types"), the characters of the "Etudes philosophiques" would be "types individualisés" (types made into individuals").

By 1836, the "Etudes de Moeurs" was already divided into six parts:

  • "Scènes de la vie privée"
  • "Scènes de la vie de province"
  • "Scènes de la vie parisienne"
  • "Scènes de la vie politique
  • "Scènes de la vie militaire"
  • "Scènes de la vie de campagne"

In 1839, in a letter to his publisher, Balzac mentioned for the first time the expression Comédie humaine, and this title is in the contract he signed in 1841. The publication of the Comédie humaine in 1842 was preceded by an important preface or "avant-propos" describing his major principles and the work's overall structure (see below). For this edition, novels which had appeared in serial form were stricken of their chapter titles.

Balzac's intended collection was never finished. In 1845, Balzac wrote a complete catalogue of the ensemble which includes works he started or envisioned but never finished. In some cases, Balzac moved a work around between different sections as his overall plan developed; the catalogue given below represents that last version of that process.

The "Avant-propos"

Preface to The Human Comedy

In 1842, Balzac wrote a preface (an "Avant-propos") to the whole ensemble in which he explained his method and the collection's structure.

Motivated by the work of biologists Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Georges Cuvier and most importantly Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Balzac explains that he seeks to understand "social species" in the way a biologist would analyse "zoological species", and to accomplish this he intends to describe the interrelations of men, women and things. The importance of the woman is underlined by Balzac's contention that, while a biologist may gloss over the differences between a male and female lion, "in Society the woman is not simply the female of the man".

Balzac then gives an extensive list of writers and works that influenced him, including Sir Walter Scott, François Rabelais and Miguel de Cervantes.

He then describes his writerly role as a "secretary" who is transcribing society's "history"; moreover, he posits that he is interested in something that no previous historian has attempted: a history of "moeurs" (customs, manners and morals). He also notes his desire to go behind the surface of events, to show the reasons and causes for social phenomena. Balzac then professes his belief in two profound truths — religion and monarchy — and his concern for understanding the individual in the context of his family.

In the last half of his preface, Balzac explains the Comédie humaine's different parts (which he compares to "frames" and "galeries"), and which are more or less the final form of the collection (see below).


  • Its relation to Sex and the City, recurring characters, moral lesson in each episode.

Structure of La Comédie humaine

Balzac's final plan (1845) of the Comédie Humaine is as follows (projected works are not included):

Studies of manners (Études de moeurs)

Scenes from private life (Scènes de la vie privée)

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

The Celibates (Les Célibataires)
Parisians in the Country (Les Parisiens en province)
  • The Illustrious Gaudissart (L'Illustre Gaudissart, 1834)
  • The Muse of the Department (La Muse du département, 1843)
The Jealousies of a Country Town (Les Rivalités)
  • The Old Maid (La Vieille Fille, 1837)
  • The Collection of Antiquities (Le Cabinet des Antiques, 1839)

Scenes from Parisian life (Scènes de la vie parisienne)

  • César Birotteau (Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau, 1837)
  • The Firm of Nucingen (La Maison Nucingen, 1838)
  • Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans (Splendeurs et Misères des courtisanes, 1847, aka A Harlot High and Low)
  • The Secrets of the Princess Cadignan (Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan, 1840)
  • Facino Cane (1836)
  • Sarrasine (1831)
  • Pierre Grassou (1839)
  • A Man of Business (Un homme d'affaires, 1846)
  • A Prince of Bohemia (Un prince de la Bohème, 1840)
  • Gaudissart II (1844)
  • The Government Clerks (Les Employés, 1838)
  • The Unwitting Comedians (Les Comédiens sans le savoir, 1848)
  • The Lesser Bourgeoisie (Les Petits Bourgeois, 1855)
  • The Wrong Side of Paris (L'envers de l'histoire contemporaine, 1848)
The Thirteen (Histoire des Treize)
Poor Relations (Les parents pauvres)

Scenes from political life (Scènes de la vie politique)

  • An Episode Under the Terror (Un épisode sous la Terreur, 1830)
  • Murky Business (Une ténébreuse affaire, 1841)
  • The Deputy for Arcis (Le député d'Arcis, 1847)
  • Z. Marcas (1841)

Scenes from military life (Scènes de la vie militaire)

Scenes from country life (Scènes de la vie de campagne)

  • The Peasants (Les Paysans, 1855)
  • The Country Doctor (Le Médecin de campagne, 1833)
  • The Village Rector (Le Curé de Village, 1841)
  • The Lily of the Valley (Le Lys dans la vallée, 1836)

Philosophical studies (Études philosophiques)

  • The Wild Ass's Skin (La Peau de chagrin, 1831)
  • Christ in Flanders (Jésus-Christ en Flandre, 1831)
  • Melmoth Reconciled (Melmoth réconcilié, 1835)
  • The Unknown Masterpiece (Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu, 1831)
  • Gambara (1837)
  • Massimilla Doni (1839)
  • The Quest of the Absolute (La Recherche de l'Absolu, 1834)
  • The Hated Son (L'Enfant maudit, 1831)
  • Farewell (Adieu, 1832)
  • The Maranas (Les Marana, 1834)
  • The Conscript (Le Réquisitionnaire, 1831)
  • El Verdugo (1831)
  • A Drama on the Seashore (Un drame au bord de la mer, 1834)
  • Maître Cornélius (1832)
  • The Red Inn (L'Auberge rouge, 1832)
  • About Catherine de' Medici (Sur Catherine de Médicis, 1842)
  • The Elixir of Life (L'Élixir de longue vie, 1831)
  • The Exiles (Les Proscrits, 1831)
  • Louis Lambert (1832)
  • Séraphîta (1835)

Analytical studies (Études analytiques)

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