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French Forum 26.3 (2001) 27-42
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The Allusive Complex of Balzac's Pierrette
Allan H. Pasco
Despite its popularity, if one can consider successive paperback editions an indication of popularity, Balzac's Pierrette (1840) has had remarkably little attention from critics and scholars, no more than passing references and a very small handful of introductions and studies. 1 These professional readers have frequently mentioned Balzac's early plans for the work, indicated in a letter to Mme Hanska on 4 June 1839: "la première œuvre un peu jeune fille que je ferai, je la dédierai à votre chère Anna ..." While everyone understands that the expectation for what Jean-Louis Tritter calls "une œuvrette plus ou moins à l'eau de rose" was set aside, this comment promising a nice little story does not give much hope for a powerful masterpiece, and it remains to consider the mechanisms through which Balzac turned that same story into "une des scènes les plus désespérées de La Comédie humaine" (4 June). 2 Tritter's excellent edition makes it clear that the work's creation was not easy, involving as it did many false starts (Tritter counts sixteen) and numerous corrections. Balzac's promised dedication to Anna de Hanska and the text itself leave no doubt that the work became anything but "jeune fille." Balzac apologizes for its bleakness and explains that he had no choice: "Il est si difficile, Anna, de vous trouver, dans l'histoire de nos mœurs, une aventure digne de passer sous vos yeux, que l'auteur n'avait pas à choisir" (4.29). Conditions in France, particularly for young people, had grown so bad that edulcoration was impossible.
Works like La Vieille Fille (1837), "Z. Marcas" (1840), and Sur Catherine de Médicis (1830-42) show conclusively that by 1839, when Balzac wrote Pierrette, his opposition to the July monarchy was firmly established, and he had moved far to the political right. He was convinced that the avariciousness of the middle-class gerontocracy, [End Page 27] controlling society for the sake of its members' own self-centered desires, was destroying the country's youth and, thus, nullifying any hope of a better future. As the matter was explained in "Ferragus" of 1833, "Cette jeunesse incertaine en tout, aveugle et clairvoyante, ne fut comptée pour rien par des vieillards jaloux de garder les rênes de l'Etat dans leurs mains débiles, tandis que la monarchie pouvait être sauvée par leur retraite, et par l'accès de cette jeune France de laquelle aujourd'hui les vieux doctrinaires, ces émigrés de la Restauration, se moquent encore" (5.801). Although the author is referring to the aristocracy in this passage, elsewhere he leaves no doubt that similar forces are crushing the brilliant young people of the middle and working classes as well. Pierrette is but one more example of the poor and the innocent being ground to dust in the maw of middle-class ambitions. 3
While there remains little mystery in Balzac's politics, we continue to have difficulty elucidating the power of his work. If literature is viewed as prepackaged experience, why do readers continue to seek out and experience Balzac's creations? The story of an abused child, while touching, was a commonplace in the novels that since the late eighteenth century had detailed the pathetic plight of legions of orphans. Some of these waifs, like Ducray-Duminil's Dominique in Le Petit Carrillonneur of 1809, manage to rise to wondrous heights of joy and wealth, while others like the title character of Edouard Ourliac's Suzanne (1840) move from one disaster to another until they die a miserable death. Of course, Balzac frequently took the clichéd character types and tired stories of popular novels and recast them into works of astonishing power. Pierrette, a relatively short novel of 134 pages in the Pléiade edition, offers good ground to study some aspects of Balzac's aesthetic practice and gain some understanding of his appeal to sophisticated readers.