Balzac’s reinterpretation of the Gothic topos of the debauched convent

  1. 1. Dominique Laporte

    University of Manitoba

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Studies of BalzacÂ’s La Comédie humaine have benefitted from electronic editions which, without replacing CastexÂ’s (1976-81) Pléiade Edition, change textual analyses of this author. The possibility of using the CD-ROM by Nicole Mozet and Isabelle Tournier “Balzac: explorer la Comédie humaine” or the electronic index by Kazou Kiriou “Le vocabulaire de Balzac” available at facilitate systematic study of keywords in a way that excludes manual reference to the twelve volumes of La Comédie humaine in the Pléiade Edition. This electronic access to the texts raises methodological questions. The pagination of an electronic edition is problematical if it does not correspond to standard reference texts, but this is a minor problem compared to others which go to the heart of electronic-based studies of Balzac, particularly those that place too much stress on keywords in a brief context. Such an approach deals too much with micro-texts abstracted from the complete context of the text which gives them their full meaning. This problem can be resolved by a consultation of the full texts carried out as an integral part of the analysis process.

A more serious methodological problem, which Balzac studies are beginning to identify (Bordas, 1997; Herschberg-Pierrot, 1998), is that whether it be computer-based or artisanal a study that does not go beyond La Comédie humaine is necessarily cut off from the intertextual dimension of the text. The text is certainly rich enough to give rise to literary studies of a structuralist or even post-structuralist or deconstructionist nature. But any type of study which limits itself to the repetition of keywords in La Comédie humaine risks passing over the essential in Balzac, as with any other author, that is to say the originality of the writing or the style which was defined by Buffon as a reflection of the personality of the writer. The risk is to replace style by less significant aspects like stereotypes, clichés, and topoï, which the authorÂ’s use in his novels of the 1840s of techniques drawn from melodramatic and popular texts (Duchet & Tournier, 1993) makes particularly problematical. From this perspective, the use of databases like those available from the ARTFL Project or Gallica (Bibliothèque Nationale de France), in which La Comédie humaine does not appear in isolation but in company with other texts, goes beyond a tight focus on the individual texts to place the writing in the context of the body of literature which provides the cultural environment in which it can be fully understood.

The comparative method fostered by such resources puts the stress on the general in contradistinction to what is uniquely BalzacÂ’s (Genette, 1982, p. 85). Electronic comparison of La Comédie humaine with other texts shows, in BalzacÂ’s writings, a rich intertextual dimension to the extent that La Comédie humaine consists of implicit repetitions or indirect quotations of other writings with a dialogic (Bordas, 1997), parodic or ironic (Bordas, 2003) effect. Contemporary criticism is moving away from the concept of a unique Balzac whose texts have a single level of meaning: the “readable” Balzac of Barthes (1970). It is, therefore, appropriate to analyse electronically identified passages from Balzac not only in relation to other writings by this author but in its full context which includes the writings of other authors.

These methodological principles justify close examination of an example of intertextuality which has given rise to literary influence studies in the literary history tradition, without rigorous stylistic or lexicographical dimensions, that is to say the relation of La Comédie humaine to French translations of British Gothic (18th century) novels. This examination deals not just with the modification undergone by topoï common to La Comédie humaine and to other texts. It also reveals the transformations to which Balzac subjected them, in contrast to their relatively unchanged use in French gothic novels and melodramas of the same period (see Bernard-Griffiths & Sgard, 2000). Until the present, Balzac critics have looked at this topic mainly in the authorÂ’s early novels (1822-25), which are either pastiches of the gothic novel or parodies of its conventions. This question is being examined by means of comparisons of topoï characteristic of the gothic novel found in BalzacÂ’s later novels. The transformations undergone by these topoï, as discussed above, provide the clearest material for understanding the functioning of this aspect of La Comédie humaine.

The availability of existing computer databases facilitates a systematic evaluation of the synchronic relationships between La Comédie humaine and contemporary texts, as well as a diachronic approach to the evolution of these topoi withing La Comédie humaine. This will be illustrated in the communication with particular reference to the topos of the convent as a prison and site of debauchery, which, in spite of being widespread in the gothic novel (cf. La Religieuse, Justine ou les malheurs de la vertu, Le Moine, LÂ’Italien ou le confessional des pénitents noirs) and in the melodrama has not, or not yet, given rise to detailed study in the context of Balzac.

1. Barthes, Roland. 1970. S/Z. Paris: Seuil.
2. Bernard-Griffiths, Simone & Jean Sgard. 2000. Mélodrames et romans noirs: 1750-1890. Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail.
3. Bordas, Éric. 1997. Balzac, discours et détours: Pour une stylistique de lÂ’énonciation balzacienne. Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail.
4. Bordas, Éric. 2003. Ironies balzaciennes. Saint-Cyr-sur-Loise: Christian Pirot.
5. Duchet, Claude & Isabelle Tournier. 1993. Balzac: Oeuvres complètes: le “Moment” de la Comédie Humaine. Saint-Denis: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes.
6. Genette, Gérard. 1982. Palimpsestes: La littérature au second degré. Paris: Seuil.
7. Herschberg-Pierrot, Anne. 1998. Balzac et le style. Paris: SEDES.

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Conference Info



Hosted at Göteborg University (Gothenburg)

Gothenborg, Sweden

June 11, 2004 - June 16, 2004

105 works by 152 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (24), ALLC/EADH (31), ACH/ALLC (16)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None