- The Misfit of the Family: Balzac and the Social Forms of Sexuality
Michael Lucey's The Misfit of the Family is one of those wonderful books to come along now and then that give us a fresh new perspective on texts long known and deeply studied. The subject itself is not really new – family, sexuality, money, class in Balzac – however the perspective taken on these issues provides rich and enlightening readings that rejuvenate our understanding of Balzac's textual practices and social representations. Informed by the sociological analysis of Bourdieu, Lucey studies the strategies used by Balzac's characters as they make their way through the fluid social forms of family and sexuality. In particular, Lucey studies characters who occupy non-normative positions in the family and/or in their sexuality, liminal figures "out on a limb," "misfits" in relation to certain accepted practices, or practices in the process of becoming "accepted." He asks such questions as: who has a vested interest in these characters and why, what are the strategies for success developed by these characters in their social situation, why do they succeed or fail? This book shows how Balzac is able to "encapsulate a knowledge of social practice" (xxvii) in his characters and to make us reflect upon the relation between sexuality, family, and inheritance.
For Lucey, the definition of family in Balzac is that of a space for which various social forces compete, a space under construction with no fixed form, although there are "clear ambitions to assert or establish the hegemony of this or that form" (4). Balzac puts into play the various interests that aim to define the family, particularly in relation to inheritance: the ever more powerful bourgeois definition of the family, proponents of pre-Revolutionary family values, adoptive families struggling to negotiate inheritance, and what we would call today the financial concerns of domestic partnerships. The narrator's voice will often espouse a particular discourse in this competitive field, thus acting to naturalize certain sexual and family structures, but by representing other types of families and sexualities, the text denaturalizes both sexuality and family.
In this struggle for the legitimate definition of the family, the interests of the state frequently come up against the actual everyday realities of families and their practices, specifically in regards to the attempts to transmit money from one "family" member to another. The state, in the Civil Code, aims to define family in order to regulate inheritance and impose order, and here the historical information provided by Lucey on adoption and inheritance is fascinating, as he shows just why the state might be interested in deciding if adopted children can inherit or not. In Balzac's Ursule Mirouët, Lucey explores the strategies taken by Minoret to leave his property to Ursule, a relative not connected to him by blood and who is, according to the Code, not a legitimate heir, but who in everyday life is family in practice and affection. In counterpoint to this representation of affection and companionship that form the basis of an "illegitimate" family, Balzac also shows that blood relations can be very sketchily related to the foundations of families. Finally, Lucey shows that, in Balzac's [End Page 415] texts, affections themselves are not represented as being "natural," but can sometimes be created by financial interests.
"Pinned" to family and inheritance, sexuality becomes the focus of the second part of the book. This pinning becomes evident in the maneuverings of various interests that compete for the bachelor Pons's inheritance as he tries to bequeath his art collection to his male friend who is not a blood relative. Lucey also investigates the ways in which Balzac represents same-sex relationships, or one might say, the way he does not name these relationships but rather shows them in the context of these competing social forces. Interesting alliances are revealed here between, for example, artists/bohemians and aristocrats who take similar stances regarding same-sex relations.
Along with excellent textual analyses of such important...