- Balzac, peintre de corps: La Comédie humaine ou le sens du détail
In her study, Régine Borderie explores the innovative role that physical depictions of characters play in Balzac's novels. She demonstrates how the writer, dissatisfied with descriptions that seem merely to confirm stereotypes, uses corporeal details in order to inform readers about the health, passions, and morality of fictional figures in the Comédie humaine; these portraits also serve to situate the origins, trace the pasts, and even anticipate the futures of these personnages. Moreover, this inventive approach enables Balzac to tell stories about diverse individuals from a number of narrative perspectives, and in the process, to lend more precision to "l'art de connaître des hommes" (14) in early to mid-nineteenth-century France.
In the first section of her book, Borderie presents a thorough overview of the history of la physiognomonie, a discipline that claims to predict character based on physical traits, and one that strongly influences Balzac's keen attention to details. In his work, the novelist assumes a direct rapport between appearances and interior qualities, but he widens the range of items worthy of interpretation to include such elements as colors, language, voice, place of residence, clothing, and gait. In this "univers humain saturé de sens" (53), Balzac underscores the paradoxes that arise when internal and external traits seem mismatched, inspiring the creation of a gamut of complex and intriguing figures.
Borderie then examines the ways in which Balzac's approach to description reflects socio-economic changes in post-revolutionary France. As classes intermingle, char-acteristics previously associated with various social and economic ranks are blurred, [End Page 409] and past conventions no longer hold true. To compensate, the novelist develops a kind of "physiognomonie sociale" (58) that relies on "les signes de la profession" (69) appearing on the body, in manners, and on clothing to illustrate physical and moral traits. Balzac also introduces new types of personnages that frequently embody opposing qualities, such as the young genius of humble origins or the convict who displays "la grandeur" of evil (82), figures who could not have existed under the political, social, and esthetic constraints of the ancien régime. In these textual portraits, Borderie recognizes a certain notion "du moderne, et de sa fragilité" (74), which she compares to that of Baudelaire.
The third section of Borderie's book focuses on the role of beauty and ugliness in Balzac's descriptions. Rather than evoke beauty in idealized form, as one finds for example in La Princesse de Clèves, he depicts its many forms and degrees, frequently highlighting instances when physical perfection fails to correspond to high morals. Balzac's taste for blending what he sees as opposing traits may explain in part his interest in androgynous characters as well as his creation of a new convenance, where an ugly trait serves to highlight a figure's attractiveness, as though "les lois internes l'emportent sur les lois externes" (117). As with beauty, this novelist often disas-sociates ugliness from morality, creating esthetic mismatches that mirror the social mésalliances in La Comédie humaine.
Borderie next explores Balzac's use of description to suggest, if not recount, a character's past experiences and to anticipate events to come. At the center of her analysis lies the notion of the unreliable narrator who, in keeping with Balzac's fondness for variation, guides the reader using several techniques: he may present false details to color the reader's view, he may give misleading details, or he may blend truth and falsehood. The role of the fictional observer and his place in the creation of the narrative also come under Borderie's scrutiny. She underscores the subjectivity of the observer and therefore his ability to destabilize the reader's understanding of characters by introducing ambiguity and incertitude.
In the final section, Borderie addresses the notions of individualism and determinism in La Comédie humaine. Given that Balzac uses physical...