La Comedie Humaine
La Comédie humaine is the title of Honoré de Balzac's (1799–1850) multi-volume collection of interlinked novels and stories depicting French society in the period of the Restoration and the July Monarchy (1815–1848).
The Comédie humaine consists of 91 finished works (stories, novels or analytical essays) and 46 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.
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; "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 "Scènes de la vie..."
Etudes analytiques - including the "Physiologie 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.
Balzac's works were slow to be translated into English because they were perceived as unsuitable for female readers. Individual works appeared, but not until the 1890s did "complete" versions appear, from Ellen Marriage in London (1895-8, forty volumes edited by George Saintsbury, five omitted as too shocking) and from G. B. Ives and others in Philadelphia (1895-1900).