The Golden Scapegoat: Portrait of the Jew in the Novels of Balzac

The Golden Scapegoat: Portrait of the Jew in the Novels of Balzac

The Golden Scapegoat: Portrait of the Jew in the Novels of Balzac

The Golden Scapegoat: Portrait of the Jew in the Novels of Balzac

Excerpt

Unlike other novelists of the early nineteenth century, Honoré de Balzac created important literary characters who were Jewish. Although his Jews display the common stereotypic traits of evil and avarice, Balzac was not a facile anti-Semite. Because of his own eccentric endowments, both as a man and as an artist, he saw more in the Jew than did most of his literary and social contemporaries. The Jews he portrayed were not the unidimensional minor characters commonly found in earlier literature. Rather, they were complex men and women who played major roles in his novels.

Jews had a special relationship to the French society that Balzac chronicled. Since the thirteenth century, they had been subjected to anti-Semitism that varied from intense to mild, depending on historic circumstance. But despite the overwhelming odds against them, Jews continued to struggle for success; their achievements won a grudging respect. Not merely a scapegoat, the Jew was a golden scapegoat -- a figure whose despised greed and cunning resulted in admired wealth and power.

Balzac's early writings do not explore this ambivilance; they reflect the more superficial clichés typical of early nineteenth century French literary portrayals of Jews. But as he continued to write and to observe the French community, he began to question the demonic archetype that was commonly accepted as synonymous for the Jew. The Jewish characters of Balzac's mature work had stereotypic flaws; but he also gave them the special strengths of outcasts, and challenged them to triumph over the society that had rejected them.

Unfortunately, few Balzacian scholars have examined the significance of Jewish characters in Balzac's novels, or his evolving attitude towards them. Most major critical works dismiss his Jewish characters as either inconsequential or stereotyped. Yet, as this book's closer examination will show, they can tell us much about Balzac -- both the man and the artist. In probing the motivation of his Jewish characters, Balzac came to realize his . . .

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