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  • Speculation and Gender Exploitation in Balzac’s Scènes de la Vie de Province
  • Robert Decker

The political turmoil that reigned in France from the revolution of 1789 until the end of Balzac’s life played a central role in his œuvre. The era was so marked with rebellion and agitation that one can easily forget that another revolution figures into Balzac’s plotlines. The Industrial Revolution, and specifically the transfer of economic power from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, imposed a new set of economic imperatives that served to destabilize sentimental and family life. Balzac reinforces the connection between revolution and the dissolution of the family by adapting a particular character type that appears frequently in the provincial novels: a young girl exploited either by her family or by bourgeois society.1 By inserting this new character type into more traditional narratives of the provinces, he illustrates the human cost of the modernization and capitalism that had already begun to renew France. At the same time he demonstrates how these changes subordinate the family, and especially female children, to economic concerns.

An analysis of what the activity of speculation means in the work of Balzac will establish how and in what measure it pervades the plots of the novels in Scènes de la vie de Province. Although numerous critics have recently shown how the economic changes in France during the period play a pivotal role in the short story L’Illustre Gaudissart (1833), none have made the connection between Balzac’s depiction of capitalism and its indelible relationship to the exploitation of young women.2 These speculative processes inspire Balzac’s characters to forsake their family and sentimental life in order to advance materially. Among the many examples of the commodification of human life, those of Pierrette (1840), the titular hero of her novel, and Flore Brazier, whose pejorative nickname gives La Rabouilleuse (1841–3) its name, are particularly instructive. Balzac weaves the themes of love and money so tightly that at times his characters, especially those [End Page 65] with little economic autonomy such as women and children, become both objects of desire and commodities subject to the economic turbulence of the era.3 These same themes drive the plot of Ursule Mirouët (1841), a novel that refracts the image of the exploited girl and offers an alternate vision of the future of France: a future where the youth, protected by societal and affective bonds from the economic prerogatives that governed bourgeois society, can succeed and advance in the world.4 As André Wurmser points out, Balzac’s portrayal of marriage differs significantly from earlier writers, such as Molière, for whom a sensible marriage is based on love: in Balzac’s world, conjugal relations exist solely to develop, consolidate, and transmit wealth.5 This perspective will not only elucidate the dramatic construction of these individual works, but will also indicate a narratological procedure that pervades his œuvre.

Throughout the Scènes de la vie de Province, Balzac insists on the importance of speculation in post-revolutionary French society. Identified by Pierre Barbéris as that which marks the originality of modern capitalism, speculation becomes far more than a simple economic activity, and will affect every level of society in Balzac’s world.6 His novels abound with examples of speculation on traditional commodities and on land: characters such as du Bousquier (La Vieille Fille, 1836) Félix Grandet, and Descoings (La Rabouilleuse) amass wealth precisely by these means. In speaking of Felix Grandet, Maurice Bardèche explains—in terms that could apply to any of these characters—that one might take him “pour un paysan, pour un avare terrien, en réalité, il a le génie de la spéculation. Il a compris qu’en temps de révolution il faut acheter et il faut stocker.”7 Even in its infancy, speculation influenced new markets as well, particularly the products and transactions made possible by the progression of nascent capitalism. For example, at the end of La Rabouilleuse, Philippe Bridau loses the fortune he had just obtained from his uncle when he succumbs to the machinations of du Tillet and Nucingen. The two bankers...


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