, Volume 94, Issue 4, pp 585-594
Date: 13 Oct 2009

Bohemian Counter Culture in Balzac’s Comédie humaine

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Abstract

In an effort to better understand Balzac’s thinking about marginality, class, and social mobility, this paper analyzes Balzac’s representation of la vie de bohème in texts from La Comédie humaine containing the most references to bohemia: Un Prince de la bohème (1845), Béatrix (1839), Illusions perdues (1843), and La Muse du département (1843). Balzac’s representations of this counter-cultural figure share much in common with notions of the bohemian that were popular in the literature of the time, but he also emphasized qualities that were dear to his own preoccupations, particularly the allure of the bohemian’s amorous prowess and his financial ties to the upper classes. In showing the sources of revenue that help these young men to continue their lifestyle of minimizing productive work and spending any money they can get their hands on for pleasures like dinner parties and gambling, Balzac reveals a significant aspect of the social machinery that connects bohemia and bourgeois society. Rather than existing as a separate space, untouchable by official society, Balzac’s bohemia serves as a source of pleasure and sexual favors for bourgeois and aristocrats, as well as fellow bohemians. Balzac’s bohemians provide the novelist a means of diversifying and enriching his typology of characters by allowing him to examine the pitfalls of a life of self-indulgence, as a contrast to his social-climbing arriviste characters.