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Oscar Wilde said, “The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac’s”. From 1822 until his death in 1850, Honoré de Balzac produced a vast body of work, including numerous short stories, essays, journalistic pieces, and several plays. His most famous work, La Comédie Humaine, was a collection of 91-out of a 137-planned linked novels and novellas reflecting the French society of the time. Balzac established himself as one of the most influential figures in French literary history and made a name for himself as the pioneer of realism, portraying in detail more than two thousand characters from every class and profession in his tremendous output (Stephen 2). Balzac was renowned not only for populating his stories with people from all walks of life-which was not typically done- but for providing descriptive stories with historical accuracy and paving the way for authors to use realism in literature as a means of understanding life. As part of La Comédie Humaine, The Red Inn was published in 1831, and reflected the cultural shift towards realism as a means of understanding the French climate of the time. As a story within a story, The Red Inn is typical of Balzac’s work for his descriptive storytelling, and effectively understanding his use of literature as a means of social commentary on materialism and its importance in the cash nexus.
The Red Inn begins through the narrative of a young man at a dinner party where the guest of honour entertains his fellow guests with a story from his past. His tale begins with two French medical students- Prosper Magnan and Frederic Taillefer- who travel through Germany and decide to stay the night at a red inn before meeting with their regiment. They invite a merchant marine to dine with them, and later to share the room. Feeling comfortable, the merchant confides in the soldiers telling them of the “hundred thousand francs in gold and diamonds in [his] valise”. Throughout the night, Magnan cannot sleep; thinking of the money laying beneath the merchant’s pillow, “he intoxicate[s] himself morally by murderous arguments” and begins to put into action his plan of killing the merchant with surgical instruments but halts as he thinks someone sees him. Ashamed, he goes walking to restore his sanity. Magnan awakens the next morning surrounded by the blood of the merchant, who is found murdered by surgical instruments. He does not defend himself well in trial and is sentenced to death.
One guest grows ghastly as the story progresses, thus the young narrator becomes curious by his mannerisms and his increasing suspicious behaviour and suspects him to be the murderer. After a series of questions, the guest realizes he is exposed and grows especially worse- to the point of having an attack. At this moment, a lady whom the narrator loves enters the party, only for him to find out she is Frederic Taillefer’s daughter. Frederic eventually dies; however, Balzac’s work ends with the narrator’s internal conflict on the matter of his love for Mademoiselle Taillefer, as his “honor and decency [forbids him] to marry the daughter of a murderer”. If he goes forward with the relationship, he ponders what to do with her grand inheritance, a fortune which does not belong to her family, but was stolen from the merchant.
Though published in 1831, The Red Inn was set in October of 1799 – a month before Napoleon staged a coup d’état. The French population was confused by the changes in government, policies and bloodshed as a result of many revolutionary wars. Because their environment did not make sense, the French were far more interested in understanding their immediate environment, rather than some ideological world. This is apparent in the works from this period as romanticism, and the emergence of realism, played a significant role in this cultural shift towards stories as a means of understanding the immediate. As a romantic work, The Red Inn displays how little society is concerned with the individual, showing the marginalized Magnan as being wrongly treated by society through his wrongful imprisonment. Supporting Rousseau’s idea, Balzac showed society’s vulgarity due to materialism. This theme of money being the reason from the movement away from a caring and just society, to one that prizes wealth over human life is present throughout The Red Inn. Balzac shows this contrast, as the soldiers were caring and hospitable towards their fellow man; sharing dinner, accommodations, and kind words with the merchant, however, when money was mentioned, both soldiers’ thoughts were violently consumed by the thought of wealth.
Not only was this theme continued through the fact that both the soldiers were willing to kill a man to gain money, but in the murder of the innocent man weighing down on Taillefer’s conscience for years, subjecting him to physically and mentally debilitating episodes, during which Taillefer’s “every nerve [quivered] with horrible shooting pains, and he [writhed] in torture” (Balzac 92) around the anniversary of the merchant’s murder. As per romantic belief, Balzac shows that money is the source of greed, and due to his work being set in 1799, he presents a sense of impending doom, and its inevitability as the wave of mass commercialization and materialism neared. Balzac portrays the end of what he nostalgically saw as an ordered, organic society; instead replaced with an era of what he saw to be convulsive egotism, hypocrisy, and petty bourgeoisie. Though The Red Inn portrays largely romantic elements, aspects of Balzac’s realist writing are used to enhance the theme of the dangers of greed, and through photo-realistic descriptions of the environment, to understand the nature of the relationships within the setting. This can be seen in the description of the “marvellous country, covered with forests, where the picturesque charm of the Middle Ages abounds” to support the idea that men were happier and more fulfilled when surrounded by nature, like the early man.
As a part of La Comedie Humaine, Balzac received critical acclaim and was renowned as the pioneer of realism. However, his short works, including The Red Inn, were criticized as suffering from a weak ending; feeling truncated and often incomplete. This criticism could be reinforced as throughout The Red Inn, a substantial importance is placed on the story of the murder, however, the scene where Taillefer is found to be the killer, and his subsequent death and the narrator’s internal struggle is rushed. Balzac does not delve into detail in these scenes to paint a photo-realistic setting as he does for the story of the merchant’s murder. However, Balzac’s originality, imagination and great powers of observation were showcased, giving him great recognition. Though Balzac’s prose style was found to at times have lacked elegance, his vision of human nature was portrayed in a manner which depicted human life and its struggles as it was, and thus, did not follow the limiting pre-determined literary structures. Balzac’s importance, both as an observer and as an imaginative visionary, outweighed a degree of unpolished execution- rightfully gaining him his status in realism. The Red Inn offers original and vivid descriptions of nineteenth-century French life renowned for its historical accuracy as well as its social and philosophical commentary, such as Balzac’s criticism on the cash nexus and materialistic society.
It can be argued that the meaning and the novelty of Balzac’s work outweighed the flaws in his writing. Romantics talk about the marginalized, and Balzac does so by highlighting the vulnerability of Magnan- especially in his relationship and devotion to his mother- and invokes pity in the reader, for he was wrongly cast away from society. He depicts virtuous beings, as isolated, misunderstood, and unhappy. Though Magnan was tempted with horrific things, Balzac portrays how he could only be level-headed surrounded by nature by taking a walk that fateful night to clear his head; this is indicative of the Romantic thought that nature was a means to the sublime. While those aspects are very much romantic, Balzac’s incorporation of realism in his story is undeniable.
The description of the setting of the inn as well as the room in which the guests were dining to describe the people who lived in the environment was indicative of realism. Specifically, the inn painted red foreshadows the blood that was to fill the room that night. Balzac populates this story with “normal” characters; those previously not considered worthy of having such complicated, dark thoughts. The Red Inn featured surgeons and sailors instead of war generals, or kings – and portrayed the dark side of the human psyche, and the horrors that can occur when greed takes over. During a period where people were questioning their surroundings, Balzac showcased the hypocrisy and perverted the idea of trust. This is apparent in the surgeon having killed a man with his surgical tool. A surgeon is highly regarded and entrusted with one’s life, and a surgical tool is a means of saving life. In this instance, the surgical tool was a means of purposefully killing the merchant to fulfill a greedy agenda that values money over human life. Balzac portrays that money “replaces, in men, the law of the jungle in animals” (Darcos 302).
Just like the surgeon violated morality and trust, the revelation of the fellow dinner guest being the killer also violates all notions of truthfulness. The horror of dining with a murderer not only is something that is taboo, but the idea of questioning what is real in one’s surrounding ties in with the collective questioning of society in this confusing time. The internal struggle facing the narrator; of whether to marry the daughter of a murderer, forces the reader to question the value of morality and creates an internal struggle. Though his writing did not follow the pre-determined rules of what art and written works should look like – which was possibly due to his output being so large – Balzac’s work was the beginning of realism, and as such, the movement away from following pre-determined rules and restrictions to one that is more “closely aligned” with daily life.
The Red Inn is an example of realist writing; through both the use of photorealistic, real-world setting to document the real world and show the world as it is in addition to revolutionarily addressing the dark side of the human psyche. Balzac’s use of vivid descriptions not only helped establish realism as a literary movement, but also paved the way for successors like the Goncourts and the Huysmans, who would fill their own novels with description of material culture and allow it to virtually take over the novel (Watson 148). Due to its heavy use of description of settings as an exteriorization of the human being, one can see the cultural mindset following political turmoil, and the fears of the era. Balzac’s writing is like a photograph without tricks, therefore it remains relevant in learning about early nineteenth century society, and applying the knowledge gained to the present-as society is constantly faced with global chaos brought about by greed. As seen through The Red Inn, Balzac disregarded the formal limitations of the novel by producing novels within novels. His approach in explaining the world without restrictions was a breakthrough which would then inspire the following artistic period of modernism- taking Balzac’s unrestricted approach even further. In addition to his being an exemplar for Marxism, Balzac influenced later generations of novelists, including Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, and Emile Zola. Balzac’s status as the father of modern realism in literature, his acute powers of observation, and his imagination have rightfully gained him the title of one of the most prestigious writers in French literary history.
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