“Balzac created life. He did not copy it.” [Oscar Wilde, `The Decay of Lying’].
Do you agree?
I partially agree with Wilde’s statement, however I believe that the first part of the statement is essentially complimentary and serves only to qualify the second. I don’t believe that Wilde thought that Balzac actually created life in the literal sense of the term. I believe that it was said in order to emphasize the fact that Balzac didn’t copy life. To what extent Balzac imitated real life is debatable. In the preface to the Comedie Humaine Balzac writes:
“Chance is the greatest novelist in the world: one has only to study it in order to be fertile. French society was to be the historian, I had only to be the secretary… A writer could, if he adopted this method of rigorously, literal reproduction, become a more or less, faithful, happy, patient, or courageous painter of human types … but if I was to deserve the praises which any artist must aspire to, I must need study the causes or central cause of these social facts, and discover the meaning hidden in that immense assembly of faces, passions and events” (Preface to La Comedie Humaine, 1842).
This opening statement from Balzac depicts him as a social and natural historian, however Balzac’s emphasis seems to be on studying life rather than copying it. According to Martin Kanes, Balzac may have copied more than Wilde thinks, stating, “We know that behind the novel was a supposed real-life incident now lost to us … but Balzac’s remark thoroughly confuses the real and the fictional. Is this fiction? Is this history?” (Kanes p.53). Pere Goriot is historically accurate insofar as it mentions historical figures such as Napoleon or Genghis K…
…ends of the moral spectrum. Now Eugene’s melodramatic consciousness is fully functional he sees Paris as more like Vautrin’s “mudhole” than the Duchess de Langeais’ “heights”.
In the preface to Pere Goriot, Balzac stated that “All is true”, maybe this is not a claim to social realism but an introduction to the melodrama that is to follow. Brooks takes this to be “an active solicitation of the reader to enter into the highly drama played out behind the banalities of quotidian existence” (Brooks p.152). So to conclude, I agree that Balzac created life only insofar as he did not directly copy it. The sheer scale of the melodrama inherent in the novel makes whatever Balzac did copy (in the case of the alleged real-life incident) obscure and the historical and geographical accuracy, inconsequential.
Word Count – 2135