Review of James Madden’s “Weaving Balzac’s Web”

Corry Cropper
Department of French and Italian, Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602

James C. Madden. Weaving Balzac’s Web: Spinning Tales and Creating the Whole of La Comédie humaine. Birmingham, AL: Summa, 2003. 269 pp.

While the project to analyze the various relationships between narrators and narratees, between frames and their framed narratives, between narrators and their hidden agendas may appear somewhat formalistic after the recent turn toward history, author James Madden succeeds in making his metadiegetic analysis of La Comédie humaine interesting and insightful. To be sure, narration in Balzac has been studied before (by Dallenbach, Pasco, Prince and others), but Madden’s perceptive and sometimes daring readings of individual stories make Weaving Balzac’s Web worth the read.

Readers who have not read and reread the entire Comédie humaine may find the breadth of the study daunting, as the author follows character-narrators and first person narrators from work to work and cites examples from every corner of Balzac’s world. But Madden’s prose is eminently readable and a well organized index will help those scholars researching just one character or one work (although doing this would subvert, on some level, the point Madden is trying to make: that to know Balzac’s tales is to know the narrators and narratees and their evolution from work to work—that is, how they fit into “the whole”).

In the first section of chapter one, Madden studies “character-narrators,” their interplay with listeners, their hidden agendas and their reliability. In several instances he argues that so-called errors in Balzac’s narration (incorrect dates and names) are actually calculated narrative strategies used by the character-narrators to deceive, impress or manipulate their interlocutors. For example, De Marsay’s assertion that he was 17 just after Waterloo in Autre étude de femme apparently contradicts what we learn about him in La Fille aux yeux d’or where he is 22 or 23 during the Hundred Days. Madden explains: “By shaving six years off his own age, de Marsay paints himself as a prodigy in social gamesmanship . . . . What might seem to be a charming naïveté in a seventeen-year-old boy would seem a bit ridiculous in the twenty-three-year-old de Marsay actually was” (46). Madden concludes: “This discrepancy in age might seem a minor point, especially considering how common this particular sort of mistake is in La Comédie humaine, but we should never be too quick to dismiss such inconsistencies as mistakes that Balzac has made. These faults can often serve as openings, creating that distance between the narrator(s) and the reader, those blank spaces that we can exploit to interpret the text, to analyze other discrepancies more closely” (47).

In the second section of chapter one, Madden tackles the anonymous (or quasi-anonymous—when only a first name is given) first person narrators, even, occasionally, offering theories of who they are. One example is the narrator of Un Drame au bord de la mer (Louis Lambert, Madden argues). The narrator of the drame writes: “Je vous ai donc écrit cette aventure, mon cher oncle; mais elle m’a déjà fait perdre le calme que je devais à mes bains et à notre séjour ici” (56). Madden concludes that “the act of storytelling can have lethal consequences in La Comédie humaine” (57). On the other hand, if narrating doesn’t lead to the demise of the narrator, it may lead him to something more pleasurable. Madden argues that Une Passion dans le désert, Sarrasine and other stories are narrated in exchange for certain “promesses,” or, as Madden puts it, “sex for a story” (75). Of course, the notion of narration as a form of exchange corresponds to Balzac’s own life (exchanging stories for money) and to the very society Balzac is depicting where money/exchange has replaced nobility, honor and honesty.

In chapter two, “Actively Listening: The Narratees,” the author examines Balzac’s construction of a narratee and points out that, while in many instances the “vous”-narratee is an ideal reader, quite frequently this narratee is, on the contrary, a construct with whom Balzac does not want his real life readers to identify with. The obvious example of this is in Père Goriot where Balzac writes that once you, the reader, have read the book, “vous dînerez avec appétit en mettant votre insensibilité sur le compte de l’auteur, en le taxant d’exagération, en l’accusant de poésie.” Madden writes, “This indifference is almost certainly the exact opposite of the effect Balzac . . . hoped to inspire on the part of his readers—implied, real, and ideal” (80). From there, Madden discusses specific narratives and how Balzac changed them to make each connected to the whole Comédie humaine. When Balzac changed names of storytellers and listeners in order to connect one narrative to the others of his Comédie, he opened up broader avenues for interpretation and provided “a richer experience of reading” (80). The motives for narration change when we understand (thanks to another tale in the Comédie humaine) the history, secrets and ambitions of those who are listening and of those who narrate. The addition, in 1843, of a frame to Honorine is one example of this, as the characters in the frame and their stories cast the central narrative in a different, more tragic light.

In chapter three, “Sharing Tasks and Blurring lines,” Madden examines cases where Balzac departs from the classic structure of framed narratives, where the same narrator or character operates on different levels of narration, for example, and where the task of narrating is shared by many characters. He examines in detail La Maison Nucingen, Autre étude de femme, and Un Prince de la bohème.

In the final chapter, “Stories within Stories: The Embedded Narratives,” the author analyzes narratives in which “the act of narration—the fact that the material was exchanged, and the circumstances under which it was exchanged—is at least as important to the larger text and the advancement of the plot as the material [the ‘object story’] itself” (184). In this chapter Madden provides detailed readings of segments from La Muse du département, Le Médecin de campagne, and L’Ambitieux par Amour.

Finally, in his conclusion, Madden looks at the issue of narratorial reliability and proposes that one can arrive at new readings by assuming that frame narrators are blatant liars. Ultimately, Madden concludes that determining the level of honesty of a narrator is a rather subjective proposition, and this “illustrates how important that subjective Balzacian baggage is to the act of reading La Comédie humaine, how important the reader is as a producer rather than a mere consumer of text” (251). While few, if any, would disagree with this conclusion, it is the path taken to arrive at it that makes Madden’s text a valuable resource for Balzacians and scholars of nineteenth-century literature.

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