Balzac, Financial Adviser: Society and the Birth of Modern Finance
Roney, Kristina M.
University of Kansas
French & Italian
Copyright held by the author.
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Honoré de Balzac, through his monumental cycle of novels and short stories that constitute La Comédie humaine, bears witness to early nineteenth-century, post-revolutionary, French society. This analysis will situate six of his key works within the more subtle yet equally powerful revolution also taking place, that of industrialization. His belief that things (les choses) represent the physical manifestation (la représentation matérielle) of thought required that he place a particular emphasis on society’s economic environment and each individual’s socio-economic status since the acquisition of such objects necessitates financial means (1, 9). “Gobseck” (1830), La Maison Nucingen (1838), Eugénie Grandet (1833), La Cousine Bette (1846), Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau (1837), and “L’Illustre Gaudissart” (1833) depict the transformation of the French economy from an agricultural base to one underpinned by industrial products. The diminished importance of agriculture, which prior to the nineteenth century constituted the primary store of financial value, gives birth to a new source of wealth found in modern financial instruments that remain the essential investment vehicle in today’s society. This study traces the establishment of the necessary institutional structures to support this burgeoning economy alongside the evolution of financial products from credit, to bonds, to commercial diversification, before reaching pure spéculation. It reveals a trend toward investments of increasing levels of intangibility that Balzac begins to ridicule in preference to a conservative investment strategy that favors bonds. Whereas Thomas Piketty in Le Capital au XXIe siècle (Seuil, 2013) supplements his economic study with literary depiction, the current project inverts that approach with literary analysis supported by economic evidence. It extends upon the critical work of Jean-Hervé Donnard’s Les Réalités économiques et sociales dans La Comédie humaine (Armand Colin, 1961), which asserts that the central purpose of Balzac’s work is to examine the message conveyed in the financial details Balzac deemed indispensable to his story of manners in nineteenth-century French society. Despite his well-known personal financial difficulties and an extensive bibliography of scholars approaching his work from a Marxist perspective, I present Balzac as an astute financial adviser and proponent of capitalist ideals.
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