Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Balzac and the Poetics of Ignorance: La Vieille Fille

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Balzac and the Poetics of Ignorance: La Vieille Fille

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This article argues that in La Vieille Fille (1836) Balzac is not content to produce a novel that reflects the non-novelistic nature of provincial life but allows his composition to be shaped by a constant recognition of the inherent limitations and emptiness of its subject matter. Instances of knowledge and ignorance are highlighted throughout in a self-reflexive text that focuses consistently on storytelling and the ways in which the various stories (including invented stories and non-stories) are received. Potential fictions are thwarted and undermined in a metaphorical representation of a political paralysis that Balzac identifies with the July Monarchy.

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   'Mais quelle realite vous faut-il donc?' s'ecria
   Suzanne.

   Ce gros mensonge avait une telle couleur de
   verite, que le chevalier y fut pris.

   (Balzac, La Vieille Fille)

This essay has its starting-point in a view of the Balzac novel that identifies the latter's originality with its representation of the external world as the location of a surplus of meaning generated by the presence of multiple networks of signs that invite interpretation at a host of different levels. The Balzacian world thereby offers a constant challenge to the interpretative activity of both narrator and reader. It yields to our desire to find meanings but resists our attempts to accommodate it fully within any single interpretative vision. This ultimate threat to readability may be held, paradoxically, not only to explain the fascination of the Balzacian text, which stems precisely from the way it highlights the process of reading and interpretation, but also to hold the key to Balzac's dynamic representation of society, which is found constantly to break free of the analytical categories adduced.

It is not, however, to the Scenes de la vie de province that one would most naturally turn in illustration of such a view of the Balzacian text but to the openings of, say, Le Pere Goriot, Ferragus, or La Fille aux yeux d'or to confine oneself to texts from the same period as La Vieille Fille. The provincial world, as is made clear in La Vieille Fille, is the antithesis of Paris. As such, it does not offer the Balzacian narrator, or the reader, the same scope to engage with a problematic and plural real. (2) Alencon, at least on the surface, presents an image of rigid, traditional societal structures. Like the eponymous old maid, the town does not instigate change but experiences the effect of change brought to bear from without. History is located without. It was in Paris that du Bousquier created the foundations of his career in response to historical change, just as it is to Paris that Suzanne, who hangs on nostalgically to her origins through her nom de guerre, Suzanne du Val-Noble (the rue du Val Noble being the principal street in Alencon), must go to ensure success, though, significantly, her success stops short of realizing the scenario she imagines for herself and the provincial Athanase Granson. (3) It is figures who come from outside, du Bousquier himself and the marquis de Troisville, who present a challenge to that society, which otherwise would continue unchanged in its essence, though even Troisville has come to Alencon to retire. The party political affiliations in Alencon may be foregrounded in the closing episodes, but they are essentially a foreign import that reinforces, or provides the labels for, social groupings that go back centuries. As the chevalier de Valois puts it in a remark that closes the tenth of the twelve episodes, 'Les Cormon finissent comme ils ont commence: d'intendant a fournisseur, il n'y a que la main!' (CH, IV, 910). The narrator refers legitimately to 'l'inalterable province' (CH, IV, 850) and incorporates, in examples of an ironic hyperbole that would not be out of place in the Scenes de la vie parisienne, references to Peking and Calcutta as well as to the French capital. …

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