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The Misfit of the Family: Balzac and the Social Forms of Sexuality

The Misfit of the Family: Balzac and the Social Forms of Sexuality

by Michael Lucey, Michèle Aina Barale, Jonathan Goldberg, Michael Moon, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

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In more than ninety novels and novellas, Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) created a universe teeming with over two thousand characters. The Misfit of the Family reveals how Balzac, in imagining the dense, vividly rendered social world of his novels, used his writing as a powerful means to understand and analyze—as well as represent—a range


In more than ninety novels and novellas, Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) created a universe teeming with over two thousand characters. The Misfit of the Family reveals how Balzac, in imagining the dense, vividly rendered social world of his novels, used his writing as a powerful means to understand and analyze—as well as represent—a range of forms of sexuality. Moving away from the many psychoanalytic approaches to the novelist's work, Michael Lucey contends that in order to grasp the full complexity with which sexuality was understood by Balzac, it is necessary to appreciate how he conceived of its relation to family, history, economics, law, and all the many structures within which sexualities take form.

The Misfit of the Family is a compelling argument that Balzac must be taken seriously as a major inventor and purveyor of new tools for analyzing connections between the sexual and the social. Lucey’s account of the novelist’s deployment of "sexual misfits" to impel a wide range of his most canonical works—Cousin Pons, Cousin Bette, Eugenie Grandet, Lost Illusions, The Girl with the Golden Eyes—demonstrates how even the flexible umbrella term "queer" barely covers the enormous diversity of erotic and social behaviors of his characters. Lucey draws on the thinking of Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu and engages the work of critics of nineteenth-century French fiction, including Naomi Schor, D. A. Miller, Franco Moretti, and others. His reflections on Proust as Balzac’s most cannily attentive reader suggest how the lines of social and erotic force he locates in Balzac’s work continued to manifest themselves in twentieth-century writing and society.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Michael Lucey’s Balzac is not the Balzac they taught you in college, or even in graduate school. His resourceful readings introduce us to a social universe to which oddballs and misfits are entirely germane because queerness is its norm. Now I understand why Proust so loved Balzac and what Baudelaire learned from him: that the bizarreness of beauty offers a clue to the form of heroism that is truly characteristic of the modern age.”—Ross Chambers, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan

"Michael Lucey's fine literary analysis, rigorous theorization of sexualities, attention to culture as a contested field, and nuanced historiographical reconstructions show how Balzac’s Comédie humaine, long viewed as the domain of social climbers thrusting aside residual forms of sociabilities, in fact offers a panorama of ‘misfits’ negotiating the instabilities and faultlines of the family as it is being reinvented in post-Revolutionary France. Lucey's compelling reflection on how literature is emmeshed with the historical construction of private life reveals queer paradigms as central to a genealogy of French modernity."—Margaret Cohen, New York University

“The Misfit of the Family is an impressive fruition of theory precisely mobilized to decipher as never before the remarkable flowering of queer sexualities in Balzac’s epochal œuvre. We come to see why sexuality is so often liminal, marking as it does those crucial points where one form of capital wants conversion into another. Readers of this remarkable book will not be able to ignore the astonishing machinery of queer sexuality in the formative decades of our modernity.”—James Creech, Miami University

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The misfit of the family

Balzac and the social forms of sexuality
By Michael Lucey

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3193-4

Chapter One

Legal Melancholy: Balzac's Eugenie Grandet and the Napoleonic Code

The individual himself regards sexuality as one of his own ends; while from another point of view he is only an appendage to his germ-plasm, to which he lends his energies, taking in return his toll of pleasure-the mortal vehicle of a (possibly) immortal substance-like the inheritor of an entailed property who is only the temporary holder of an estate which survives him.-Sigmund Freud, "On Narcissism"

"A quoi servent donc les enfants!" [What, then, is the use of children?]-Monsieur Grandet, in Eugenie Grandet


My point of departure for this chapter is a moment toward the beginning of Balzac's novella, Le Contrat de mariage (The Marriage Contract). The twenty-something aristocrat Paul de Manerville is living in Bordeaux and has fallen in love with and decided to propose marriage to the nineteen-year-old Natalie Evangelista. Once Natalie and her mother have accepted unofficially, the time comes to negotiate the marriage contract. This is a moment Mme. Evangelista dreads, for it necessarily involves revealing her rather precarious, indeed irregular, financial situation. She is a widow. When her husband died, their daughter Natalie should have inherited one-third of his estate. Mme. Evangelistanever paid her daughter this money-her dowry, in point of fact. Indeed, the mother has been slowly consuming the estate of her late husband by continuing to lead, with her daughter, the rich life to which they are accustomed. Female observers throughout Bordeaux's high society have already imagined that Natalie will have difficulty finding a husband: "Whenever, upon Natalie's arrival at a ball, they would hear an eligible bachelor say with ecstatic admiration, 'What a beauty!', the mothers present would reply: 'But an expensive one'" (3:539).

Not only would Natalie be expensive to keep, she may well, by getting married, cost her mother everything she has. For to give her the fortune to which she is entitled from her father's estate would now cost Mme. Evangelista more than she possesses: "The widow owed her daughter a third of the fortune M. Evangelista had left, twelve hundred thousand francs. She found herself unable to pay the debt, even were she to sell everything she owned" (3:554). Also, if Paul, finding out the truth of Natalie's financial situation, withdraws from the marriage, the entire town will hear of it, and Natalie may well truly become unmarriageable. As Mme. Evangelista ruminates on the impending conversation about her daughter's marriage contract, on this turning point in her life after which she will no longer be able to say to herself that she has always acted honestly, the narrator describes what goes on in her mind, as follows:

There rose up in her soul, in regards to Paul, a slight movement that couldn't yet be called hatred or aversion, or even anything bad. Yet was he not her opponent in the trial she was secretly undergoing? Was he not unwittingly becoming an innocent enemy who must be vanquished? Who has ever been able to love the person they are required to deceive? Obliged by the circumstances to be cunning, the Spanish noblewoman resolved, as would any woman, to deploy all her superiority in this battle, whose shamefulness could only be obliterated by an absolute victory. (3:554)

One sees here a common characteristic of Balzac's novels: an acute perception and portrayal of the causes and conditions of women's economic disadvantage, and simultaneously a misogyny that expresses itself through a discourse on the nature of "all women." Yet what I would like to call particular attention to in this description is its interest in linking the birth of affect to a moment of economic crisis, where that crisis is intimately related to the legal structures that fix relations between men and women. That the affect could initially be unnamed, unfixed-a movement that has yet to take on an identity as hate or aversion, and yet seems about to do so-reveals the interest Balzac has in the productive relation between legal and financial orders and affective patterns. Affective patterns would seem to be constantly available for renewal and revision, and the outcomes of those renewals and revisions will necessarily be linked to economic, legal, and social forces and histories.

The very vocabulary of this passage suggests that the emotional relationships between men and women are heavily determined by their legal standings: Paul is the opposing party in some kind of legal ordeal. The reader has been prepared earlier in the novella for the understanding that law contributes to the shape of affect. Paul's close friend, Henri de Marsay, advises him against marriage, in the following terms:

So you want to be married and will soon do so. Have you ever pondered the Civil Code? Myself, I have never sullied myself in that overly loquacious slum known as a Law School, and certainly I've never opened the Code, but I have observed its application in the real world. I am a legal thinker the way a clinician is a doctor. Sicknesses are not found in books, but in sick people. The Code, my dear friend, made women into wards, it considered them as minors, as children. Now how are children best governed? By fear. Here, Paul, is where you find the beast's bridle. Take your own measure. Do you think that someone as gentle, as sweet, as friendly, as confiding as you are can carry off the role of a tyrant? (3:536)

Henri de Marsay proves clear-sighted here regarding Paul's fate; Paul, on the other hand, will never grasp this way of looking at things, and so he will suffer miserably at the hands of his wife and his mother-in-law. He gives voice to a different understanding of what marriage should be: "The life of the large group of people to which I belong in perfectly bourgeois fashion is made up of emotions for which I now feel a need.... I want to live in close enough intimacy with a dear creature so that our affection will not be dependent on minor things.... I feel that I am well suited to family joys, and want to place myself in the circumstances society requires in order to gain a wife and children" (3:534).

Paul understands himself to belong to an affective universe that is different from the one in which Henri lives. Paul wishes to understand affection as independent of the social order. Granted, one has to fulfill certain social conditions in order to get married and have children, but, those conditions filled, the world of family intimacy is to be imagined as separate from the larger world of legal and economic forces. Paul would willingly label himself bourgeois for espousing this way of looking at the world. We know from elsewhere in Balzac (Ursule Mirouet, for instance) that not every member of the bourgeoisie is as dewy-eyed as Paul. Yet Le Contrat de mariage is clearly suggesting that Paul, in all his sentimentality, is as ideologically structured and as marked by class in his affective leanings as is anyone else. Indeed, he may well incarnate a perfect instance of bourgeois sentimentality. That same sentimentality might well mark him, in the eyes of both Henri and the narrator, as too feminine in his affective structure for his own personal interests-thus making him unsuitable for clearheaded negotiations of a marriage contract, and unlikely to be able to conduct himself appropriately in relation to the wife he has chosen. Still, the sentimentality he embodies-even if it brings him only disaster-may well represent a set of class interests that would function appropriately elsewhere. In a certain way, it is unfortunate for him that he never met Eugenie Grandet.


In his essay "On the Family as a Realized Category," Pierre Bourdieu observes: "The family is the product of a labour of institutionalization, both ritual and technical, aimed at durably instituting in each member of the instituted unit feelings that will tend to ensure the integration that is the condition of the existence and persistence of the unit." He goes on to speak of the "constant maintenance work on the feelings," of the "countless acts of reaffirmation and reinforcement that aim to produce, in a kind of continuous creation, the obliged affection and affective obligations of family feeling (conjugal love, paternal and maternal love, filial love, brotherly and sisterly love, etc.)." This "labour of institutionalization"-the social production of family affect and the material supports and instances of that affect-is a major preoccupation of Balzac's novels, novels that reflect in complicated ways on the historical and material contingencies that overdetermine family feeling, gender, and sexuality. In what follows, I investigate this preoccupation in the case of Eugenie Grandet (1833), pursuing in the case of this novel what it means to talk about the production-indeed, the materialization-of family feeling.

More than that, I am interested in the hints Balzac gives (for example in the discussion between Henri de Marsay and Paul de Manerville in Le Contrat de mariage) that one can almost become conscious of the social production of affect and thereby almost actively intervene in shaping one's own psyche. Any such intervention probably remains a bit of an "almost" in Eugenie Grandet, whose protagonist is nonetheless said by the end to be "gifted with the delicate intuition that a solitary person comes to possess through perpetual meditation and by way of the acute vision with which such a person perceives the things that come within his orbit" (3:1197, 191). Eugenie is also said to be "accustomed by sorrow and her recent education to figuring most things out" (3:1197, 191). In fact, there is, I will try to show, a reasonable amount of evidence that Eugenie has by the end of the novel critically understood-and attempted to intervene in-the socially and historically constructed nature of what Bourdieu would call her habitus and her bodily hexis.

I begin with an example from Eugenie Grandet of the famous socially conservative Balzacian narrative voice, preaching social stability to the post-Revolutionary, post-Empire, post-Restoration world of France's July Monarchy (which began in 1830), a world of intense social flux: "Misers do not believe in a life to come. The present is everything for them. This thought casts a terrible light on the present day, when, more than ever before, money dominates the law, politics, and social behaviour. Institutions, books, men, and doctrines, all conspire to undermine the belief in a future life, which has been the foundation of the social fabric of eighteen hundred years" (3:1101, 84). Ostensibly a plea for a return to religious values, the passage also has an analytic side, as part both of the extended Balzacian reflection on the institutional support necessary for the reproduction of any social order, and of the particularized effort to comprehend the effects of post-Revolutionary secularization on the patterns and possibilities of social reproduction.

Institutionalized religion, as it is understood in novels such as Eugenie Grandet, exercises its socially reproductive force partly through its role in the production of affective systems that discourage change. Consider, for instance, the first few sentences of the opening paragraph of Eugenie Grandet:

In certain provincial towns there are houses whose appearance arouses a melancholy as great as that of the gloomiest cloisters, the most desolate moorland, or the saddest ruins. There is perhaps, in these houses, a combination of the silence of the cloister, the desolation of moorlands and the sepulchral gloom of ruins. In them life is so still and uneventful that a stranger would think them uninhabited, if his eye did not suddenly meet the pale, cold look of a motionless figure whose almost monk-like face appears above the window-ledge at the sound of an unknown step. These melancholy characteristics are to be found in the appearance of a house in Saumur, at the end of the steep street which leads to the chateau through the upper part of town. (3:102, 3)

Among the many things to notice in this bravura opening is the ambivalence in the rendering of the social status or function of melancholy. I'd like to avoid specifying too quickly how precisely one might understand the concept of melancholy in Balzac until I've discussed how the word is used and what work it does. Melancholy might seem, first of all, profoundly antinovelistic. It thrives in a somber and religious silence that would seem to eschew storytelling; it evinces a passivity and a slowness so exaggerated one might think that life itself would be inhibited.

To the extent that the novel's opening passage also foreshadows the novel that is about to unfold-the figure at the window being an avatar of Eugenie and the unknown footstep in the street that of her Parisian cousin Charles, whose arrival startles her into some (novelistic) movement-we might also understand melancholy, as well as being ill-suited to an eventful story, as an antimodern or anachronistic affect. As the narrator states a few pages later: "The melancholy dwelling where the events of this story took place was, in fact, one of those houses. They are the venerable remnants of a century when men and things had that quality of simplicity which the French way of life is losing daily" (3:1030, 6). If the house is melancholic, it is apparently so because it comes from another time when time itself was experienced differently. It is melancholic for being forced to remain standing and inhabited in a time where life moves at a pace no longer conducive to the stillness of "the silence of the cloister, the desolation of moorlands and the sepulchral gloom of ruins."

If Eugenie, one of the house's key inhabitants, is the melancholic face at the window of the melancholic house, perhaps it is because she-like her habitation-is emotionally structured in such a way as not to be able to cope with the novelties likely to be walking down her street. This novel of melancholy could then be a novel about the ways institutional structures and institutionalized structures of affect lag behind in times of rapid change. And the novel should be understood to structure itself in both an allegorical and an ironic relation to the form of melancholy it adduces. Allegorically, it mimes (especially in certain ideological exhortations of its narrator) the point of view of the sad buildings forced to contain social relations that seem inappropriate to the structure of feeling implied in the buildings' construction. Ironically, it refuses to sustain a full allegiance to that melancholy, whose stillness and claim to ahistoricity would contradict the novel's own analytic position-that affect is an effect.

Alas, melancholy is not used consistently enough in Balzac always to give it the same specific diagnostic force. Alongside what we might call the "architectural melancholy" described in the opening paragraphs of Eugenie Grandet, for instance, there is also a peculiar variety we might call the melancholy of unmarried young women. Balzac lays out this syndrome clearly toward the beginning of Cesar Birotteau, in his description of the young Cesarine: "If her happiness deprived her figure of that certain poetry painters insist on supplying their compositions by rendering them a little too pensive, nonetheless that vague physical melancholy that afflicts young girls who have always been under their mother's wing imprinted her features with something ideal" (6:103, 79). Eugenie shares Cesarine's "physical" predisposition:

In the innocent, monotonous life of a young girl there comes a day of delight when the sun's rays flood into her heart, when a flower seems to express her thoughts, and when her heartbeats convey their fertile warmth to her brain, so that all her ideas dissolve into a vague longing; it is a day of innocent melancholy and tranquil happiness. When babies begin to see, they smile; when a girl first becomes aware of the feelings of nature, she smiles as she smiled when a baby.... The moment of seeing the things of this world clearly had arrived for Eugenie. (3:1073, 54)


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Meet the Author

Michael Lucey is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Gide’s Bent: Sexuality, Politics, Writing.

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