Balzac’s Pessimistic View of Nineteenth Century Society Le Colonel Chabert exhibits the relationship between strong and weak characters. The degree of strength within a character reflects how well the character survives in society. In society, weak characters often have no identity, profession or rank. Stronger characters have power to succeed from inner confidence, motivation and ambition. Any drastic changes brought to the body or soul by the environment corrupts that person’s strength thereby affecting their ability to function properly in society. This comparison of characters gives an understanding of Balzac’s pessimistic view of nineteenth century society.
A character’s strength and energy in the novel determines their survival in society. Colonel Chabert has been known to be a courageous hero in the past, “.. je commandais un rgiment de cavalerie Eylau. J’ai t beaucoup dans le succes de la clbre charge..” Once he returns to Paris after his injury, he loses his identity and becomes the ” weak character ” of society. This is a rapid decline down the “ladder of success” and Chabert tries desperately to climb back up to the top, where he had been before.
At the beginning of the novel, there is a vision of a slow non-energetic man walking progressively up the stairs to lawyer Derville’s study which contrasts the boisterous energy of the clerks. Chabert reaches Derville’s study and is determined to find the lawyer to help him find justice for his infortunes, “.. me suis-je dtermin venir vous trouver. Je vous parlerai de mes malhers plus tard.” Chabert demonstrates some energy left in him by his will to retrieve everything that he lost. This energy to gain back his power changes to furious and revengeful energy upon learning what his wife had done, “Les yeux de l’homme nergique brillaient rallums aux feux du dsir et de la vengeance.” After a period of time, Chabert loses hope and bids farewell forever.
He gives up his identity to become an unknown person as he realizes that his strength of character is not enough to keep him alive in this society. He sees himself weakening when seeing his wife and her children as he does not have the heart to break up her family. He tells his wife, “Je ne rclamerai jamais le nom que j’ai peut-tre illustr. Je ne suis plus qu’un pauvre diable nomm Hyancinthe..” Hence, Chabert becomes a numbered person in an institution, “Je ne suis pas un homme, je suis le numro 164,..” Also, he becomes the weakest among everyone in the institution, ” En ce moment, le colonel Chabert s’assit au milieu de ses hommes faces nergiques,.. ” In contrast, Madame Ferraud represents a woman who has strong innovative traits, starts at the bottom but gradually rises to the top after Chabert had gone.
She becomes driven by her passion to enter the upper class and become “Une femme comme il faut”. She uses her persuasive and aggressive qualities to satisfy her ambitions. Once at the top, she has the power to survive better than Chabert. At one point, Madame Ferraud is weakened when Derville confronts her for lying about the letter from Chabert. This shows that the characters do not remain in a consistent position and this determines whether or not a character is capable of surviving well or not.
The personality and appearance of characters become transformed as a result of changes in the environment. For instance, Chabert appreciates the help he is receiving from Derville. He acknowledges Derville’s kind words by saying humbly, “.. Voil le premier mot de politesse que j’entends depuis..” Chabert is surprised that the treatment from Derville surpasses the ten years of rejection by his wife, justice and society. His sufferings have caused him be more kind hearted and more considerate to others.
He is willing to live without pleasure, to remain poor and mediocre. This is a startling contrast to his past where he had been an ambitious man. Chabert’s strength is decreasing as “Ses souffrances physiques et morales lui avaient dj vici le corps dans quelques-uns des organes les plus importantes.” On the other hand, Madame Ferraud’s rise to power results in a more persuasive, independent and high spirited woman. This is shown by, “Encore jeune et belle, Madame Ferraud joua le rle d’une femme la mode, et vcut dans l’atmosphre de la cour. Riche par elle- mme, riche par son mari,..
elle en partageait la splendeur.” In addition, Madame Ferraud “tait enevelope dans un lgant peignoir, les boucles de ses cheveaux.. Elle tait frache et rieuse.” Her gracious actions and her manner of speech is characteristic of her new personality. This is to her advantage as she uses these characteristics to calm Chabert and convince him to stay at her home. She has a superficiel layer covering her body to hide the false image in order to accomplish what she wants, “..elle monta chez elle, s’assit son secrtaire, dposa le masque de tranquillit qu’elle conservait devant le comte Chabert, comme une actrice qui, rentrant fatigue dans sa loge aprs un cinquime acte pnible, tombe demi-morte et laisse dans la salle une image d’elle-mme laquelle elle ne ressemble plus.” Therefore, Madame Ferraud does not concern herself with people beneath her but rather, her quest to remain on top. There is a marked difference between characters in terms of the inner self and heartfelt sentiments. Chabert is a man filled with sorrow and despair after his return to Paris.
He is extremely melancholy as his sufferings outweigh any happy experiences in his life, “Je compris que l o j’tais, l’air ne se renouvelait point, et que j’allais mourir. Cette pense m’ta le sentiment de la douleur inexprimable par laquelle j’avais t rveill ..Quoique la mmoire de ces moments soit bien tnbreuse,..les impressions de souffrances encore plus profondes que je devais prover..” Chabert feels desperate when he says, “J’ai t nterr sous des mort, mais maintenant je suis enterr sous de vivants,..” He is extremely injured to what he has experienced that “son extrme malheur avait sans doute dtruit ses croyances.” Sadness prevails in Chabert’s heart and there is a bleak outlook to his future, “Des grosses larmes tombrent des yeux fltris du pauvre soldat et roulrent sur ses joues rides. A l’aspect de ces difficults, il fut dcourag.” Chabert at “L’Hospice de la vieillesse” has lost any traces of raging energy left in him as “Le vieux soldat tait calme, immobile, presque distrait..Son regard avait une expression de stocisme..” Madame Ferraud is heartless and has no feelings towards anyone except for her desire for power. For example, the marriage to Count Ferraud, “.. elle conut d’attacher le comte elle par le plus fort des liens, par la chane d’or, et voulut tre si riche que sa fortune rendt son second mariage indissoluble, si par hasard le comte Chabert reparaissait encore.” Even though she is a cold, unfeeling woman, there is one sign of emotion left caused by a momentary vision of her past life, “Deux grosses larmes roulrent toutes chaudes sur les mains de sa femme..” The personal feelings of weak and strong characters brings a different perspective and thus distinguishes them from one another.
Balzac often uses visionary poetic images such as the infant, animal, light and dark, to illustrate the contrast between the characters. The infant image is a romantic element where the character refuses reality and remains a weak, nave child. For example, Chabert is a child; “O en tais-je? dit le colonel avec la navet d’un enfant d’un soldat, car il y a souvent de l’enfant dans le vrai soldat,..” In addition, Chabert loses his temper and Derville controls him by saying, “Laissez-moi rparer vos sottises, grand enfant!” Finally, Chabert refuses his identity and looks at Derville with “une anxit peureuse, avec une crainte de viellard et d’enfant.” Derville states Chabert’s destiny, “Sorti de l’hospice des Enfants trouvs, il revient mourir l’hospice de la Vieillessse,..” The animal image is used to show how animals are considered to be beneath the human race. Often, Chabert is treated as a dog, “Enfin, le jour mme o l’on me jeta sur le pav comme un chien,..” Chabert’s self pride becomes shattered as all of the clercs ignore him ; “Il se mit regarder modestement autour de lui, comme un chien qui, en se glissant dans une cuisine trangre,.. The change of light and darkness presents a contrast between happiness and sadness as well as the energy of each character. The sun is a form of bright light that does not shine whenever there is some dismal feeling and lack of energy in the atmosphere, “notre soleil s’est couch, nous avons tous froid maintenant.
” Balzac uses the sun to indicate the never ending darkness for Chabert as “Je ne suis plus q’un pauvre diable nomm Hyacinthe, qui ne demande que sa place au soleil. Adieu..” His facial expressions are marked with darkness, “Les bords du chapeau qui couvrait le front du viellard projetaient un sillon noir sur le haut de visage.” Balzac has a pessimistic view of society in Paris. Paris has become a large modernized society and its traditional charm has disappeared. Hence, the characters change according to the rise of this new society. For example, Chabert returns to a transformed place, “..amener pour la France une re de prosprit nouvelle, alors la socit parisienne changea de face.” In this society, he becomes non existant, ridiculed and weakened to the lowest denominator. He is shocked of what he sees, “Oh! monsieur, revoir Paris! C’tait un dlire que je..” The writer expresses his disgust of society through Derville’s condemnation of society, “Vous allez connatre ces jollies choses-l, vous; moi, je vais vivre la campagne avec ma femme, Paris me fait horreur.” Balzac uses the contrast between each characters’ strength to justify the degration of the weak characters. The society is corrupted with sin, injustice and disease.
There are always successses and failures in the society but the survival of certain individuals depends on the interaction between the relative strength of the character and society. Weak characters do not survive well from lack of fierce energy present in the strong characters. These deficiencies cause the powerful characters to dominate in society and the weak ones quickly forgotten, set apart from the rest of the world. Balzac does not approve of this inequality between individuals so he presents a pessimistic and satirical view of society and the individuals in it. Bibliograpy 1.
Balzac, Honor de. Le Colonel Chabert. France: ditions Gallimard, 1974, pp.21-121. 2. Dargan, John. Balzac and the Drama of Perspective.
New York: French Forum Publishers, 1985, p.45.