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Descriptive Narration in Balzac’s “Gobseck”

ISSUE:  Winter 1980

Christian Metz’s Le Significant imaginaire, which appeared in 1977, provides an admirable synthesis of much current theory emanating from France and la nouvelle critique. He insists on the importance of such binary systems as paradigm and syntagma, metaphor and metonymy, selection and combination, concentration and displacement, and so on. Readers of Saussure, Jakobson, Lacan, Hjelmselv, Genette, etc. are well acquainted with the terminology. The implication is that of all the distinctions available to a human mind while looking at speech, thought, or works of art, the most useful form contrastive pairs. Consideration of the specific paired oppositions current in critical writing today suggests that they can be included under the contrasting concepts of choice and contiguity. “Choice” implies exclusiveness—this rather than that, here rather than there, now rather than then—while “contiguity” is inclusive—this and neighboring that—or progressive—from this to that.

The usefulness of these binary images and the systems flowing from them cannot be denied. I want to go back somewhat farther in critical thought, however, and pick up another dual schema: narration and description. I do not propose this pair as an opposition to the others, for it is, I believe, isomorphic with those just listed. Because narration communicates a sense of movement, change, development for the better or the worse, most critics would agree with the following definition: narration constitutes the representation of an event or series of events comprised of both actions and agents. Northrop Frye has properly objected to limiting narration to the “sequential representation of events in an outside “life.”” One would better see it as what Frye calls the work’s “linear movement.” And, as J. Dudley Andrew, among others, has recognized, narration is governed by rules of causality, chronology, and spatialization.

Description, on the other hand, seems quite different. It causes Frederic Thomas Blanchard to wax almost poetic and, in the process, to make several points that represent the traditional position on this mode of writing. “Though queen of lyric poetry,” he says, “description has often been the Cinderella of prose fiction, the unconsidered servant who, except for infrequent but exquisite triumphs in portraiture or landscape painting, has merely kept the narrative house in order.” Description, the attempt to reproduce or, at least, to convey a character, an object, or a state, is a second-class citizen in prose fiction, though it has more importance to poetry. Description might be said to be free of time. If it has not attained the eternal, it certainly suggests stasis or rest. Thus critics since Lessing’s Laokoön (I think most notably of Apollinaire) have used time to distinguish between poetry and prose. Poetry, it is frequently argued, is atemporal, for it describes, while narrative prose is condemned to the domination of time or chronology. Thus description and narration are considered opposites.

I confess that I am not so certain. Rather like Jakobson’s paradigm falling onto the syntagma, it seems to me that description often slides over into narration (consider, for example, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”). Similarly, narration can become description. Robbe-Grillet’s lovely Snapshot, “ The Beach,” where three children walk along a beach, comes to mind. In the latter case, there is no question that the children move, and that the eye of the narrator follows them. Nonetheless, the piece remains a description. If anything, the children’s progression reinforces the quality of timelessness and stasis. It seems that the determining factor is the presence or absence of time and change. Though the children move, and though the beach changes momentarily to reflect their passage, the impression grows that neither time nor change affects anything at all; the events are ephemeral.

The descriptive quality of Balzac’s narration has not excited any thoroughgoing attention. Practitioners of la nouvelle critique have, however, mentioned Balzac’s description in passing. Gérard Genette says that, though description was “a major element in the exposition” of works in the Balzacian tradition, narration nevertheless “constantly plays the most important role” in all traditions. “Description is quite naturally an ancilla narrationis, a slave which, while always necessary, is always submissive, never emancipated.” Jean Ricardou dons a judge’s robes: “In reducing description to an ornament of no use to the understanding of the text, Balzac reinforced the wretched prejudice assuring that all descriptive pages are to be skipped in a novel.” Roland Barthes, in a discussion which shows his belief in the primary importance of plot, equates description with “useless details.” Barthes’s (and, I suspect, the others’) prejudice in favor of plot and against description grows from two fundamental positions: first, the description which indicates character or atmosphere indirectly will, through repetition, become a part of the structure (what Barthes calls “the main articulations of the narrative”) and is thus redundant, and, second, description does not motivate action, or, as Barthes puts it, “It is justified by no finality of action or communication.” In fact, as Mieke Bal has shown in reference to Madame Bovary, description can motivate action. I want to suggest that the action of “Gobseck” becomes description, in much the same way as in Robbe-Grillet’s “The Beach.” If I am correct, it is the narration which fades into an overriding descriptive structure. In that case, the description motivates the action of “Gobseck.”


The story itself seems to pose few difficulties. Derville tells us how he met the mysterious and powerful usurer. Before settling in Paris, Gobseck had traveled across the world. His wide experience had convinced him that only one value could consistently bring gratification. “If you had lived as much as I have, you would know that there is only one sole material thing whose value is sufficiently certain for a man to bother with it. This thing. . .is GOLD. Gold represents all human forces. . . . Gold contains the germ of everything, and, in reality, it gives everything.” He rises to lyrical heights as he explains the motivation of his life.

Gobseck has enormous power which he may use to help or destroy. He befriends Derville. Though at onerous interest, he lent Balzac’s attorney the money to buy his practice. He also was responsible for introducing Derville to his beloved wife, Fanny. Because Camille de Grandlieu seems attracted to Ernest de Restaud, Derville takes it upon himself to explain why the young man constitutes an acceptable match. Derville knows the story, for Gobseck facilitated and thus profited from Mme de Restaud’s illicit obsession with the wastrel, Maxime de Trailles. At one point, Ernest’s mother had pledged the Restaud diamonds in order to pay Maxime’s gambling debts. It appeared inevitable that she would ruin the whole family. Then, M. de Restaud concocted a plan. While pretending to imitate his extravagantly frivolous wife, he secretly transferred the family fortune to Gobseck for safekeeping. At that point, he took sick and died. All would have been well if Derville could have reached him, but Anastasie’s keen sensitivity where money was concerned made her realize that the count had discovered a way to cheat her of what she thought her due. Consequently, the countess established an impenetrable barrier around her dying husband. At M. de Restaud’s death, she instituted a thorough search for the legal documents which she thought deprived her of a fortune, making a shambles of the room, dumping her husband’s body into the space between the bed and wall, and, on locating the papers, she threw them in the fire as Derville entered the room. This rash and selfish act received poetic justice. All proof of the real owner had been turned to ashes. Before the law, Gobseck was master. He began his reign by throwing Mme de Restaud and her children into the street. Fortunately for Ernest de Restaud, however, Gobseck has just died, and, because Derville serves as executor, all will be righted. The boy will receive his fortune, and Camille will be able to marry as her heart desires.

Gobseck’s mad passion is highlighted by the brilliant conclusion Balzac added in 1835. There, the miser has surrounded himself with gold, bank notes, diamonds, and merchandise of all kinds. His obsession has grown to such proportions that he cannot bear to separate himself from any negotiable item, even food. So he dies in the midst of putrefaction. Moments before his death, he had dragged himself out of bed onto the floor, where Derville found him. The miser explained: “I thought I saw my room full of living gold, and I got up to get some.” Even at his death, he had not learned that gold does not “live.” He had spent his life in a love affair with cold, inhuman things. His friend, Derville, wants to warm him with a fire. “No fire! No fire!” he demurs. Later, Derville finds a heap of gold hidden in the fireplace ashes. Who knows what a fire would have destroyed?

That Gobseck’s adoration is in fact a kind of worship is emphasized when we learn he lives in a former convent, on reading the two passages which refer to him as a Dominican inquisitor, and through his insistence that “gold is the spiritualism of your present-day societies.” Readers quickly understand that Gobseck stands as a priest in the new religion. Indeed, the usurer almost seems a god, given the repeated allusions I have studied elsewhere which link him to Themis, the Greek goddess of justice, and to the Furies, who punish especially those who have committed crimes against the family—a crime of which Anastasie de Restaud is doubly guilty, given what she did to her father before betraying her husband.

At this point, one might say that “Gobseck” is a better than average story. The characters seem well delineated, and we know that Gobseck has risen above the ordinary to enter that rarified realm of beings who live beyond the pages where they were created. I think, for example, of Molière’s Alcest, Proust’s Charlus, or Huysmans’ Des Esseintes. It is, however, in response to the application of such aesthetic criteria as economy and coherence that readers may perceive a deeper and more interesting interpretation. Do all the elements of “Gobseek” cohere? Is every part essential to the story? At first glance, the answer in both cases is no. The fact that the Grandlieu salon serves as a frame finds little internal justification, for example. Mme de Grandlieu herself suggests as much when she interjects: “But I see nothing in this to concern us.” “Sardanapalus!” Derville says impatiently. “I will wake Miss Camille up when I tell her that her happiness once depended on Papa Gobseck.”

On realizing that Derville here emphasizes the extent of Gobseck’s power, we not only understand that the frame both coheres and is essential to the story, but we are led into what seems to me its essence. It is well known that Balzac considered such families as the Grandlieus essential to the preservation of civilization. His monarchism can to some degree be explained by his belief that the old artistocratic families joined the institutions of church and state to maintain the traditions and the structures which resist anarchy and chaos. If Gobseck can reach into the hearth of a Grandlieu, if Gobseck can decide whether a Grandlieu can marry Ernest de Restaud, conditions are in dire need of correction. That, of course, is the case. Had Gobseck not died, the young count Ernest would probably not have received his rightful fortune in time to marry Camille. From all indications, the obsessed Gobseck is unwilling to give up anything at all, and Derville shows himself helpless to affect the miser’s decisions. Further consideration of the Grandlieus discloses that had Gobseck not staked Derville to his practice, the latter could not have aided the Grandlieus to regain their fortune, and the Grandlieus might well have been condemned to more or less discreet poverty.

Other characters reveal that Gobseck’s power is not limited to the Grandlieus. The Restauds, despite the tragic mismatch which introduced Anastasie Goriot to their midst, remain a fine old family. The coat of arms, of course, proves the family’s distinction in Balzac’s curious world. Fanny Derville, nee Malvaut, represents virtuous poverty, and Derville stands in for the world of the hard-working, honest, and successful bourgeoisie. In truth, Gobseck’s sway extends over the whole of Paris. The usurer is not referring to isolated societal groups when he lists the favorite Parisian activities: gambling, gossip, adultery, politics, ostentatious display. “Isn’t that Parisian life summed up in a few phrases?” he asks rhetorically. Because most of these vain dissipations require gold and, thus Gobseek, Gobseck rules supreme. “Without dissipators, what would become of you?” M. de Trailles wonders idly. “The two of us are like body and soul.” Gobseck agrees. Then comes the moment when the usurer begins to itemize the responsibilities of his equally powerful friends—”One oversees the judicial world, one the financial, another the administrative, still another the commercial world. I keep an eye on the sons of wealthy families, artists, society people, and gamblers.” He is clearly not exaggerating when he states calmly that his mind contains “a scale with which the inheritances and concerns of the whole of Paris are weighed.” Derville, I suspect, is not alone when he comments that Gobseck “had changed before my eyes into a fantastic image personifying the power of gold.” He even represents the French government to those poor people who fled Haiti, for he is the one who decides who will be indemnified and how much each will receive. Gobseck rules over Paris.


By this time, there should be little if any disagreement when I say that the various plots of the novella have no real importance in and for themselves. Rather they all serve to show the power of Gobseck. This heartless “banknote man who had turned himself into gold” has been created by the vices of a society which now serves him.

Nonetheless, Gobseck himself fails to provide sufficient justification for the story’s success. He certainly sins against the canon of verisimilitude, for the more or less complete study of Gobseck and his personality as it exists and develops leaves the personage as an improbable neurotic. Moreover, for a supposedly central character, he remains strangely on the outskirts of the action. In no literal sense could one consider him the causa causans of the sequence of episodes concerning, for example, Camille and Ernest, Mme de Restaud and Maxime de Trailles, or M. and Mme de Restaud. Gobseck touches each of these plots, but only in passing, as they rise or fall. If Gobseck or his activity was intended to function as the novella’s nucleus, one must recognize that he does very little and that neither he himself nor what he does provides a sufficient foundation for the tale.

That said, most readers consider this a very successful work, and I agree. I can, however, only justify that decision by seeing Gobseck less as a character (what Ricardou has defined as an “everyday being of flesh and bone who could . . . serve as a referent”) than as a figure or image, that is, a complex of interrelated, interdependent, interacting elements elicited by a text. Gobseck is in reality the manifestation or projection of the society which has sold its soul for the sake of “vanity, . . .pleasure, the temptations of society.” In another story of the same period, “The Girl with Golden Eyes” (1835), Balzac summarizes the drama of Paris’s slavery: “What then rules in this country without morals, without beliefs, without any sentiment whatsoever; what is the beginning and end of [such] sentiments, beliefs, and morals [as they have]? Gold and pleasure. Take these two words as a light.”

The position I take here, then, is that the plots, characters, images, in short, all the elements of the story, “Gobseck,” serve to establish the central character as nothing other than the incarnation of his society. Narration has become not merely the handmaiden of description; it is, in fact, one of the constituent parts, one of the building blocks, a mere element in the picture Balzac paints. I do not argue that the shift in roles which description and narration have taken here render the classic distinction useless, though I would indeed maintain that it cannot function to distinguish prose from poetry. (In the hands of a great artist, all “prose” becomes a creation of completely different kind and quality.) I state simply that by attempting to discriminate between those narrational changes and those things which seem to incarnate a state, we come far closer to an understanding of Balzac. He was not basically a story-teller, though his talents as a raconteur stand up well against those of such masters as Maupassant. He was, in truth, exactly what he claimed: an historian, a “creative historian,” perhaps, but an historian nonetheless. Balzac’s goal was to provide the people of his day with an image which would make them more able to see and understand their world. No aesthete he. Huysmans’ “Literature has only one reason for being: to save the one who creates it from an aversion for living!” suggests a completely different creed. The thought of withdrawing from the world to such solitary pleasures never occurred to Balzac. Nor, at another extreme, does he become a Bouvard or Pecuchet avant l’heure, faithfully and happily taking dictation. The artist as “recording instrument,” praised by William S. Burroughs in Naked Lunch, could never satisfy the great 19th-century novelist. Balzac took great handfuls of life and transformed them into an image which was true to his vision.

Perhaps this explains Balzac’s sovereign disdain for plot. In a note appended to Scenes de la vie privée, he declares: “Amusing oneself with looking for new plots is putting more importance on the frame than on the picture.” It is true that he is responding to the accusation of plagiarism; still, the statement construes rather well with what we know of his work. I need not dwell on the long descriptions which introduce many of his novels. In recent years we have learned that they are not mere adjuncts; they are analogues, the place where those who savor Balzacian prose in depth find the story played out figuratively and in advance. It is for good reason that Balzac’s primary justification for La Comedie humaine, as seen in the “Foreword” of 1842, concerns a description of man in his society.

Balzac’s ability to deactivate action has considerable importance in evaluating his critical significance to the current scene. Martin Kanes has demonstrated in his Balzac’s Comedy of Words that, like the current nouveaux romanciers, Balzac was vitally concerned with the problems of language and that, in addition, language per se is an important theme of La Comedie humaine. I am suggesting here that Balzac may as well have reformulated the novel. It is for good reason that Michel Butor states, “Today, there is little reading material . . . which is more enriching for a novelist, which better introduces readers to the problems of the contemporary novel.” We all know the degree to which traditional definitions of the novel depend on action, plot, development, change. When Balzac refused narration the dominant role, he created a new novel.


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