Balzac’s Pessimistic View of Nineteenth Century SocietyLe 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 r?giment de cavalerie ? Eylau.
J’ai ?t? beaucoup dans le succ?es de la c?l?bre 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 d?termin? ?
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 rallum?s aux feux du d?sir 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 r?clamerai 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 num?ro 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 d?j? 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 r?le d’une femme ? la
mode, et v?cut dans l’atmosph?re de la cour. Riche par elle- m?me,
riche par son mari,… elle en partageait la splendeur.”
In addition, Madame Ferraud “?tait enevelop?e dans un ?l?gant peignoir,
les boucles de ses cheveaux… Elle ?tait fra?che 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 secr?taire, d?posa le masque
de tranquillit? qu’elle conservait devant le comte Chabert, comme une
actrice qui, rentrant fatigu?e dans sa loge apr?s un cinqui?me acte
p?nible, tombe demi-morte et laisse dans la salle une image
d’elle-m?me ? 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 pens?e m’?ta le sentiment de la douleur
inexprimable par laquelle j’avais ?t? r?veill? …Quoique la m?moire
de ces moments soit bien t?n?breuse,…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 extr?me malheur avait sans
doute d?truit ses croyances.” Sadness prevails in Chabert’s heart and
there is a bleak outlook to his future, “Des grosses larmes tomb?rent des
yeux fl?tris du pauvre soldat et roul?rent sur ses joues rid?es. A
l’aspect de ces difficult?s, il fut d?courag?.” 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 sto?cisme…” Madame Ferraud is heartless and has no
feelings towards anyone except for her desire for power. For example, the
marriage to Count Ferraud,
“… elle con?ut d’attacher le comte ? elle par le plus fort des
liens, par la cha?ne d’or, et voulut ?tre si riche que sa fortune
rend?t son second mariage indissoluble, si par hasard le comte Chabert
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 roul?rent 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, na?ve child. For example, Chabert is a child; “O? en
?tais-je? dit le colonel avec la na?vet? 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 r?parer vos
sottises, grand enfant!” Finally, Chabert refuses his identity and looks
at Derville with “une anxi?t? peureuse, avec une crainte de viellard et
d’enfant.” Derville states Chabert’s destiny, “Sorti de l’hospice des
Enfants trouv?s, 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 m?me 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 ?trang?re,… 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 prosp?rit? nouvelle, alors la soci?t?
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 d?lire que je…” The writer
expresses his disgust of society through Derville’s condemnation of
society, “Vous allez conna?tre 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.
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.