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Balzac, James, and the Realistic Novel

Balzac, James, and the Realistic Novel

by William W. Stowe

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This book has a double purpose: to compare the literary projects, theories, and careers of Balzac and Henry James, and to develop a theory of realism that can account for their unabashed mimetic intentions and for their novels' sophisticated textuality.

Originally published in 1983.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand


This book has a double purpose: to compare the literary projects, theories, and careers of Balzac and Henry James, and to develop a theory of realism that can account for their unabashed mimetic intentions and for their novels' sophisticated textuality.

Originally published in 1983.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Balzac, James, and the Realistic Novel

By William W. Stowe


Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06567-0


Systematic Realism

One clue to the similarity between Balzac's project for the realistic novel and James's can be found in their common understanding of the place of subject matter in the novel-writing process. Both writers seem to have believed they had found the appropriate subject matter ready to hand in the world. In fact, they created the "reality" they claimed to have discovered.

In the preface to Une Fille d'Eve Balzac explains his choice of subject matter this way:

The author does not yet know of any observer who has noticed how much French manners excel those of other countries, literarily speaking, for variety of types, for drama, for wit, for movement; in France everything can be said, everything can be thought, everything can be done. The author here does not judge, he does not reveal the secret of his political thought, entirely opposed to that of most people in France, but which we will perhaps reach before long. The time is not far off when the costly trickery of the constitutional government will be recognized. He is an historian; that is all. He congratulates himself on the grandeur, the variety, the beauty, and the fruitfulness of his subject, however deplorable it is made, socially speaking, by the confusion of the most opposing facts, the abundance of materials, the impetuosity of movements. This disorder is a source of beauties. Therefore, it is not out of national vainglory or patriotism that he has chosen the manners of his own country, but because that country offered, more than any other, social man in more numerous aspects than anywhere else. (II, 264)

Two things strike us in this passage: Balzac's insistence on "disorder" as a "source of beauties," and his apparently gratuitous interpolation of his political opinions in the midst of a literary discussion. He clearly values the great variety he perceives in French society: he is interested in the sparkling surface, in wit, as he says, in animation, and in spontaneity, all of which, together with a certain freedom of thought, of expression, and of action, he finds in the Paris of his day. More important for his literary project, however, is his perception of this society as formless. "Formerly," he writes,

everything was simplified by monarchical institutions: social types were clearly defined: a bourgeois was a merchant or an artisan, a nobleman was entirely free, a peasant was a slave. That's European society as it used to be. It didn't provide much material for novels. (II, 263)

Nowadays, however,

Equality is producing infinite nuances in France. At one time caste gave everyone a set of features (une physionomie) which took precedence over individual characteristics. Nowadays, the individual creates his own features (physionomie) on his own authority. (II, 263)

The implication is that if there is to be any order in Balzac's portrayal of a society that seems to be a large and various group of self-defining individuals, he must provide it himself.

This notion will come as no surprise to the reader of the "Avant-Propos" to the Comédie humaine, in which Balzac insists as much on the active, interpretive role of the writer as on the faithful representation of experience. Here he claims first that the task of the would-be historian of manners is syncretic rather than simply mimetic. Balzac wants to be the "secretary of French society," it is true, but the kind of secretary he has in mind would spend more time organizing and interpreting data, and putting them in shape for publication, than he would spend taking minutes:

French Society was going to be the historian, I only had to be the secretary. By drawing up the inventory of vices and virtues, assembling the principal facts of the passions, painting the characters, choosing the principal events of Society, composing types by putting together the traits of several homogeneous personalities, I could perhaps succeed in writing the history forgotten by so many historians, the history of manners. (I, 11)

Moreover, if the relatively disorganized social scene of post-revolutionary France provided a suitable body of material for this kind of secretarial activity, it was also especially liable to the kind of political and moral interpretation which Balzac thought the novelist obliged to undertake. "A writer must have steadfast opinions in morals and in politics,'" he quotes the conservative politician Bonald as saying, and then declares that he himself writes "in the light of two eternal Verities: Religion and Monarchy, two necessities that contemporary events proclaim and toward which all right-thinking writers should try to steer our country" (I, 12, 13). If Balzac intended simply to observe preexisting "facts" in order to draw deductive conclusions from them, he should ideally have been without prejudicial "steadfast opinions." If, on the other hand, he intended to write polemics in favor of the King and the Catholics, he had no business claiming to be the secretary of a formless society. If, however, his literary project required a society apparently formless, but whose hidden form he thought he had discovered, he could have it both ways, masquerading as Society's scribe, while revealing at the same time the pattern of historical development, that "political thought, entirely opposed to that of most people in France," whose secret he claimed not to intend to reveal. In the passages from the preface to Une Fille d'Eve, Balzac is simultaneously creating and observing such a society, projecting his desire for a suitable subject on the world around him, and claiming to have found that subject in that world.

James proceeds similarly in the preface to The Awkward Age. In France, he writes, the social complications which provide such a fertile field for his imagination could never arise, because the awkward situations which produce them have been eliminated by a strict code of social behavior. "On the other hand," he goes on,

nothing comes home more ... to the observer of English manners than the very moderate degree in which wise arrangement, in the French sense of a scientific economy, has ever been invoked; a fact indeed largely explaining the great interest of their incoherence, their heterogeneity, their wild abundance. The French, all analytically, have conceived of fifty different proprieties, meeting fifty different cases, whereas the English mind, less intensely at work, has never conceived of but one — the grand propriety, for every case, it should in fairness be said, of just being English, (x–xi)

English manners, it seems, with "their incoherence, their heterogeneity, their wild abundance," offered James just the kinds of socially awkward situations he found artistically stimulating. The "fifty different proprieties" of the French might be a great many, but the mind that was trained to distinguish among them was likely to be satisfied that those fifty had exhausted the moral possibilities, and to devote its energies to classification and description rather than to fresh and sensitive perception. In a society which lacks such an array of ready-made categories and proprieties, one is forced to deal with each situation as if it were totally new. One must resort to a kind of moral bricolage, using whatever methods, tactics, and notions are at hand, compromising a principle here, manipulating a person there, overlooking this and emphasizing that in an attempt to bring the facts of the specific situation into some acceptable relation with the general standard of propriety.

"The consequent muddle," James tells us, though "a great inconvenience for life," offered "an immense promise ... for the painted picture of life" (xii), and we have abundant evidence in the Notebooks and the prefaces of his own enthusiastic encounters with the muddle and his exploitation of the promise. Time and again James describes a situation susceptible not to organization "in the light of two eternal Verities," but to development into a complex moral and aesthetic text. In the preface to The Princess Casamassima, for example, James says this about the experience of walking the London streets:

One walked of course with one's eyes greatly open, and I hasten to declare that such a practice, carried on for a long time and over a considerable space, positively provokes, all round, a mystic solicitation, the urgent appeal, on the part of everything, to be interpreted and, so far as may be, reproduced. "Subjects" and situations, character and history, the tragedy and comedy of life, are things of which the common air, in such conditions, seems pungently to taste; and to a mind curious, before the human scene, of meanings and revelations the great grey Babylon easily becomes, on its face, a garden bristling with an immense illustrative flora. Possible stories, presentable figures, rise from the thick jungle as the observer moves, fluttering up like startled game, and before he knows it indeed he has fairly to guard himself against the brush of importunate wings. (I, v)

And in the preface to The Spoils of Poynton he explains at some length the relationship between the "germ" of his novels and stories and their necessarily untrammeled development in his imagination. Even more important, perhaps, we have the record of James's characters' encounters with the muddle, and of its more or less successful interpretation by the likes of Christopher Newman, Isabel Archer, Maisie Farange, Lambert Strether, and Maggie Verver.

Like Balzac, James knew precisely what kind of society his novelistic art required, and like Balzac he simultaneously projected it on the world around him and claimed to find it in that world. Balzac saw himself cataloguing and interpreting a post-revolutionary society, giving form and meaning to a formless and as yet incomprehensible welter of cases and distinctions. James saw himself following the development of the individual consciousness faced with a rich complexity of social, emotional, and, above all, moral conditions. Both writers stress the apparent priority of the phenomenal world, and the novelist's responsibility to represent it faithfully, yet neither abdicates for a moment his own privileged position as a mediator between the world and the reader. Both are conscious, deliberate "realists," who are at the same time conscious, deliberate artists and interpreters of experience. They use common concepts of reality to produce literary texts that will call the validity of these concepts into question. To do this, they choose subjects which might well be extensions of the world readers ordinarily perceive, and, without destroying the metonymic vraisemblance of the subjects, the sense that they are slices of life, transform them into metaphorical analogues for the readers' experience, related not by contiguity but by resemblance.

The combination of these two tropes suggest a threefold definition of what might be called "systematic realism." James and Balzac both work methodically (systematically) to present a convincing picture of life in the world. Their realistic intentions naturally lead them to describe and analyze systems of behavior, communication, exploitation, and so on, that structure the world, and to rely, consciously and unconsciously, upon these systems to help structure their texts and to provide them with figurative language. Finally, their desire to create literary analogues for life in the world leads them to elaborate textual systems of great complexity, of purposeful particularity, and of ample power both to reproduce something like the density and the texture of experience and to involve the reader in an active process of reading and interpretation.

It is not likely to be controversial as a statement of superficial fact that both James and Balzac did intend to produce texts which created the illusion of an extension of the phenomenal world. Similarly, it seems clear from their descriptions of the societies they portrayed that James and Balzac chose their material with an eye to the social structures and systems of behavior that material contained or exemplified. These two metonymic features of their novels require and will receive some exemplary illustration, but no lengthy theoretical explanations. This is not the case with the peculiar metaphoric nature of the novels, which needs further elaboration.

One very helpful way of approaching this notion of the text as metaphor is to imagine the author creating a model of the world in his writing. "The vast majority of works of art," writes Claude Lévi-Strauss, "are modèles réduits," versions of actual phenomena which do not reduce their subjects' essential complexity, but eliminate inessential and, for the moment at least, irrelevant complications. Every art sacrifices some aspect of its subject in order to concentrate on others: painting gives up volume to concentrate on line and color; both painting and sculpture give up the temporal dimension to concentrate on spatial relations. For Lévi-Strauss, the virtue of this reduction is twofold. First, it makes its subject less formidable than it would be in the phenomenal world, and guarantees its intelligibility. At the same time, it insists upon its own artificiality, its status as the product of an artist's choices and of his craft.

Furthermore, as Lévi-Strauss elsewhere argues, the transformation from the sensible to the intelligible entails a transformation of the phenomenal into the systematic. The scientist, for example, in order to understand the phenomenal world as it presents itself to his senses, must first simplify his impressions by eliminating their extraneous aspects, and then relate the results of this simplification to each other, to the corpus of already existing data, and to his theoretical hypothesis. He must, in other words, systematize his simplified sense impressions. The result of his work need by no means be "simple" in the sense that it is easy for the layman to understand, but it should be intellectually more manageable than the welter of sense perceptions which the phenomenal world presents. It is in effect a metaphor for these perceptions and for that world, a declaration of similarity between them and a set of intellectual constructs which science has already created or is in the process of creating.

The artist, like the scientist, does not imitate life in the sense that he creates a substitute for life or a faithful reproduction of life. He rather presents one of many possible complex metaphors for life, homologous to human experience without being identical with any given human experience. These metaphors are "modèles réduits" of life in that they eliminate certain aspects of life which the artist considers extraneous to his purposes; they are systems in the sense that they organize the hurly-burly of phenomena into a coherent set of lines, of shapes, and of colors, or, in the case of the fictional text, into plots, into sets of images and themes, and into coherent verbal patterns. "Miniaturization" of experience leads to enrichment of understanding by transforming the nonhuman complexity of phenomena into a man-made complexity. It represents preexisting phenomena, it organizes them by means of independently existing structures, and in so doing it creates a new phenomenon and a new structure. The purpose of the work of art is therefore to render its subject more richly intelligible than it would be as a phenomenon in nature or in society, and at the same time to be richly intelligible itself.

It is this notion of intelligibility that distinguishes Lévi-Strauss's definition of the work of art as a model from similar definitions. Martin Price, for example, outlines the advantages of seeing the literary work as a model of the world in much the same way as Lévi-Strauss. The model, he writes, "encloses a section or isolates a dimension of reality upon which we wish to concentrate our attention, and it frees it of distracting irrelevance." Whereas in scientific practice, furthermore, the model "exists for the sake of studying what it represents," the literary model demands to be enjoyed for its own sake and therefore, like a ship in a bottle, a toothpick cathedral or, to be fair, a painting or a sculpture, produces what Max Black calls a "harmless fetishism" in its admirers.

Where Lévi-Strauss moves beyond Price is in his examination of what makes the model especially susceptible to study and even to fetishistic admiration. "The intrinsic value of the reduced model," he writes, "is that it makes up for the loss of sensual dimensions by the addition of intelligible dimensions." Furthermore, when Lévi-Strauss calls a model intelligible, he does not mean to suggest that it can be understood once and for all, but rather that it invites a process of understanding, an active engagement of intellect. His "intellectual artifact" is not a product ready for consumption, but rather the trace of a process which the perceiver of a work of art is invited to retrace and in effect to relive. The modèle réduit is not only an object to be contemplated, but a machine for thinking.


Excerpted from Balzac, James, and the Realistic Novel by William W. Stowe. Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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