La Rabouilleuse  

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"In Lolita there is a genuine enrichment of our common stock of temptations. It is as if Vladimir Nabokov had brought into our field of vision what lay at the far edge (in Balzac’s La Rabouilleuse, for instance) or what had been kept carefully implausible through disproportion (Alice in Wonderland)." --"Night Words: High Pornography and Human Privacy" (1965), George Steiner

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

La Rabouilleuse (The Black Sheep) is an 1842 novel by Honoré de Balzac as part of his series La Comédie humaine. The Black Sheep is the title of the English translation by Donald Adamson published by Penguin Classics. It tells the story of the Bridau family, trying to regain their lost inheritance after a series of mishaps.

Though for years an overlooked work in Balzac's canon, it has gained popularity and respect in recent years. The Guardian listed The Black Sheep 12 on its list of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time.

Plot summary

The action of the novel is divided between Paris and Issoudun. Agathe Rouget, who was born in Issoudun, is sent to be raised by her maternal relatives, the Descoings in Paris by her father Doctor Rouget. She suspects (wrongly) that he is not her true father. There she marries a man named Bridau, and they have two sons, Philippe, and Joseph. Monsieur Bridau dies relatively young, Philippe, who is the eldest and his mother's favourite, becomes a soldier in Napoleon's armies, and Joseph becomes an artist. Philippe, the elder son is shown to be a courageous soldier, but is also a heavy drinker and gambler. He resigns from the army after the Bourbon Restoration out of loyalty to Napoleon. Joseph is a dedicated artist, and the more loyal son, but his mother does not understand his artistic vocation.

After leaving the army Philippe took part in the failed Champ d'Asile settlement in Texas. On returning to France he is unemployed, and lives with his mother and Madame Descoings, and becomes a financial drain on them, especially due to his hard drinking and gambling lifestyle. Philippe becomes estranged from his mother and brother after stealing money from Madame Descoings. Philippe is soon afterwards arrested for his involvement in an anti-government conspiracy.

Meanwhile, in Issoudun, Agathe's elder brother Jean-Jacques takes in an ex-soldier named Max Gilet as a boarder. Max is suspected of being his illegitimate half brother. Max and Jean-Jacques' servant Flore Brazier work together to control Jean-Jacques. Max leads a group of young men who call themselves "The Knights of Idleness" who frequently play practical jokes around the town. Two of these are against a Spanish immigrant named Fario, destroying his cart and his grain, and therefore ruining his business.

It is now that Joseph and his mother travel to Issoudun to try to persuade Jean-Jacques to give Agathe money to help cover Philippe's legal costs. They stay with their friends the Hochons. Jean-Jacques and Max only give them some old paintings, but only Joseph recognises their value. Joseph tells of his luck to the Hochons, not realising that their grandsons are friends of Max. Afterwards when Max discovers the value of the paintings he coerces Joseph into returning them. Then one night whilst out walking Fario stabs Max. As Max is recovering he decides to blame Joseph for the stabbing. Joseph is arrested, but later cleared and released, and he and his mother return to Paris.

In the meantime, Philippe has been convicted for his plotting. However, he cooperates with authorities and gets a light sentence of five years Police supervision in Autun. Philippe gets his lawyer to change the location to Issoudun in order to claim his mother's inheritance for himself. He challenges Max to a duel with swords, and kills him in the duel. He then takes control of Jean-Jacques and his household, forcing Flore to become Jean-Jacques' wife.

Philippe marries Flore after the death of Jean-Jacques. Flore too soon dies. The book hints that both of these deaths are arranged by Philippe but is not explicit about the means. Through his connections, Philippe has now obtained the title Comte de Brambourg. Philippe later marries a rich man's daughter. An attempt by Joseph to reconcile Philippe and their mother before her death fails. Philippe's fortunes take a turn for the worse after some unsuccessful speculation, and he rejoins the army to take part in the war in Algeria where he is killed in action, so that in the end Joseph, now a successful artist, inherits the family fortune.

Explanation of title

'La Rabouilleuse' is the nickname of Flore Brazier used behind her back by the people of Issoudun. Max takes offence when some of his friends use it in conversation. Adamson translates the term as "the Fisherwoman". From the French Wiki of this page, it appears that it is a regional word for someone who stirs up the water in a river, more easily to catch fish such as crayfish. "(En français régional, une personne qui agite et trouble l’eau pour effrayer les écrevisses et les pêcher plus facilement)". The nickname is a reference to the job that she did as a young girl when helping her uncle to fish for crayfish, before becoming a servant to the Rouget household. The English title of the book therefore moves the focus from her to the two brothers.


In 1903, Emile Fabre adapted the story to a play with the same name, itself later adapted to two movies called Honor of the Family (in 1912 and 1931). The book was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 as its Classic Serial on Sunday 17 August and Sunday 24 August 2008, with actor Geoffrey Whitehead as the narrator.

The French film The Opportunists (1960) is also based on this novel.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "La Rabouilleuse" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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