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French Forum 26.1 (2001) 39-51
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Madness and Military History in Balzac’s "Adieu"
The distinctiveness of Honoré de Balzac’s Comédie humaine has often been linked to its representation of contemporary society. For both Erich Auerbach and Georg Lukács, for instance, Balzac inaugurates a new style of realism by portraying the present. Auerbach maintains that Balzac is one of the founders of "modern realism" for having "seized upon the representation of contemporary life as his own particular task" (468). And Lukács writes that Balzac transcends the historical novel of Walter Scott by passing "from the portrayal of past history to the portrayal of the present as history" (83). While Balzac does abandon the overtly historical mode of his romans de jeunesse in La Comédie humaine, certain works, such as the 1830 short story "Adieu," continue to grapple with the past. Through its use of historical reference, "Adieu" problematizes the representation of history and the integration of the past into the present. Balzac reworks historiography in the nouvelle, and transforms it, with an eye, perhaps, to competing in La Comédie humaine with the rival genre of history.
In "Adieu" this preoccupation with history, specifically figured as an episode from Napoleonic Empire, belies the idea that Balzac has moved beyond the past and that its representation is no longer of compelling interest to him. On the most basic level, Balzac uses historical material to construct the plot. But the historical events go beyond mere backdrop or catalyst for the story since Balzac raises issues that the historians of the period themselves are confronting: what kind of relation does the Restoration have to the past, and how can the past be represented, with all the attendant horrors of the Revolutionary and Imperial period?
"Adieu" presents the story of a veteran of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, Philippe de Sucy, who happens upon his beloved Stéphanie [End Page 39] de Vandières after having given her up for dead at the crossing of the Berezina years before. She has gone mad, is incapable of recognizing her lover, and unable to utter anything other than a blank and meaningless "adieu." The text describes Philippe de Sucy’s attempt to get her to recognize him and the ambiguity of his eventual success. In telling this story, Balzac presents a historical narrative, "Le Passage de la Bérésina," as the traumatic scene at the source of the plot. The account of the crossing of the Berezina River by the remnants of the Grande Armée in 1812 comprises 25 pages of this 65-page text, set off as a separate chapter.
This section is striking for the way in which Balzac molds it into a historical set-piece. Balzac’s narrative technique recalls historiographical accounts of the event, suggesting that "Adieu" is explicitly commenting on the genre of history. For example, Balzac oddly shifts the tale into the third person. The story of Philippe’s attempt to cross the river with Stéphanie is told by Stéphanie’s uncle and doctor who has heard the tale from someone else. This third-person perspective seems out of place since Philippe is in fact in the best position to tell the tale. It is also curious that the tale is told by Stéphanie’s uncle as her story, while the narrative is focalized through the character of Philippe. The personal character of the tale becomes further reduced by the Balzacian narrator’s elimination of dialogue and digression in the presentation of the narrative:
[L’oncle de Stéphanie] raconta longuement au magistrat l’aventure suivante, dont le récit a été coordonné et dégagé des nombreuses digressions que firent le narrateur et le conseiller [d’Albon]. (162)
Here, the Balzacian narrator highlights the fact that the situating marks of the discourse have been excised and the narrative has been taken out of the realm of casual storytelling. The opening of the aventure emphasizes as well a wide-angle, distanced view of the episode by describing the movements of...