Lost Illusions The hero as noble and ignoble

One of Honoré de Balzac's most famous characters is Lucien Chardon, the protagonist in the novel Lost Illusions (Illusions perdues, 1837-1843). Lucien is born in a smaller village as the writer himself–Lucien in Angoulême and Balzac in Tarn. Lucien are leaving the village for the capital of Paris, which also Honoré had done, but not like Lucien by himself but with his family.

The life of Lucien is unsurprisingly much more romantic and adventurous. He leaves his home village with his lover in secret and with an undersized budget for himself. He must trust in the goodwill of his lover, belonging in a higher society. Lucien wants to climb in the society and to become one of the distinguished men that can live a privileged life in the marvelous capital of France.

But everything turns out in wrong direction in the beginning. His bellowed madame de Bargeton realize that the simple heritage of Lucien, son of a simple worker, would negatively affect her in the harsh and eyes of the people of the upper classes. As a typical Balzac character driven by egoistic calculations, she decides to abandon him.  
The dismayed Lucien sets his goal to take revenge on madame de Bargeton, her cousin madame d’Espard and the whole world. He realizes that money and skills are the only way to the top in the social ladder. He has no money, but he is sure of his intellectual skills, which will turn him into a great writer.

But, as is said in the book referring to Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon, “genius is patience”. Lucien has the ambition, but he lacks the discipline to invest hours after hours in a literary work. 

At his arrival to Paris, he had two written works with him. A collection of poems and a historical drama. He seeks a publisher, but the publisher let him know that there is no money in poems. Lucien are shocked to find out that an art such as literature could be treated as products, just as any other product to be sold in a market. This is an important detail in the part of the realism of the book: Balzac depicts poems and novels as being appreciate as their impact on the market.

After being deserted by madame de Bargeton, Lucien is at the bottom of the ladder. He lives in the in poor Quarter Latin and has very few of the 2.000 francs he borrowed from his sister, mother and friend David when leaving Angoulême.

His new intellectual friends urge him to write a novel as long he has any money left to pay the rent and get something to eat. Lucian, on the other hands, is impatience and tries to become a journalist. In the novel there are a clear contrast between a writer of novels and poems and a writer of things that are published in newspapers. The latter is the dissolute niche, in the domain of corruption. Lucien are introduced to this world by Lousteau. Lousteau are clearly disillusioned, but seems to accept the adjustment to a world in which money dictate.

By the help of Lousteau, Lucien becomes a journalist and his first attempt, a review of a theater piece, becomes a success. Suddenly, Lucien gets a reputation as owning pen loaded with skill and wit, or esprit as the French call it.

In the end, he will nevertheless fall from grace, after being too late to realize that a sudden success can be followed by a brisk downfall. And he had to return to this home village as a poor man with bad reputation.

Lost Illusions is a splendid novel. It incorporates a long list of characters that all seems real, even if they only are given a minor role. The novel also incorporates a wide array of themes. Lucien personalize one of the central ones: the hunt for a splendid success that only can be won in a flourishing big city. He wants to earn fame and his ambitions seems to be his ultimately escort in life.

His selfish ambitions are contrasted with his sister Eve’s and his friend David that lives in his home village and seems to put the effort in supporting Lucien.  

Balzac creates a real human being in Lucien. He is no heroic character, rather a complex one overflowing with good and bad features. His has noble though, but shows on the same time self-conceit and his main conquest seems often be the hunt for money. In his sketch of the main character, Balzac, let often some ironic amount of irony breath between the lines.

The author

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was a French writer and one of the names most connected with the movement of realism in literature. His novels were a step away from the romantic style, which could be seen in his interest of the society and in the complexity of the characters, who were depicted with contradictory features.

< 19th Century