At the Sign of the Cat and Racket

THE HUMAN COMEDY – Honoré de Balzac First volume of works of Honoré de Balzac edited by widow André Houssiaux, publisher, Hebert and Co, successors, 7 rue Perronet – Paris (1877)

Scenes from private life BalzacLaMaisonDuChat


Analysis of the work La Maison du chat-qui-pelote is part of La Comédie humaine’s Scènes de la vie privée. Originally entitled Gloire et malheur (Glory and Misfortune), this short novel, written in 1829, was published in 1830 by Mame Delaunay, and went through four further editions and as many reworkings until the novel was published by Furne in 1842, itself corrected and published under the title La Maison du chat-qui-pelote (The House of the Pussycat). Opening the Etudes de moeurs series of La Comédie humaine, this text has an inaugural function in that it heralds all of Balzac’s major themes. “At the same time, it is a theoretical challenge, superb in its description, (…) to the generic constraints of the short story and the novel. For this novella is also a novel, with its duration, its depth, its horizon of secondary characters and its ascending-descending rhythm that will be that of great ensembles like César Birotteau , for example.”

The Paris archaeologist Balzac presents with scrupulous precision a district of Paris he knew well, having lived there during the period of his youthful works, and the lives of its inhabitants, mostly shopkeepers. Rue du Petit Lion and the Rue Saint-Denis neighborhood are the center of the drapery and passementerie trades, which was the business of the writer’s maternal grandparents: the Sallambiers. In addition to a meticulous description of the street, he also describes a half-timbered house whose windows have an archaeological character, and whose “(…) crudely worked wood (…) of the humble third-floor crosspieces would have deserved to be placed in the Conservatoire des arts et métiers”. Balzac tells us the meaning of the title: La Maison du chat-qui-pelote. It’s a sign of dubious taste featuring a cat pelotant, or, as it was defined at the time, pelting a ball with a racket. The practices used by shopkeepers to attract customers are examined by tracing the history of Parisian commerce: “(…) it should be pointed out here that these signs, whose etymology seems bizarre to more than one Parisian shopkeeper, are the dead tableaux of living tableaux by means of which our mischievous ancestors succeeded in bringing shoppers into their homes. Thus the Sow-who-crows, the Green Monkey, etc. were caged animals whose skill amazed passers-by, and whose education proved the patience of the fifteenth-century industrialist.” As part of the crusade waged by 19th-century artists against the vandalism of Paris, Balzac took a highly original approach to safeguarding the humblest of archaeological testimonies, which, from his point of view, were just as important as the great monuments: narrow houses, little streets, modest signs – in other words, the popular arts and traditions that are largely on display at the Carnavalet museum.

Balzac, sociologist and moralist If there’s a moral in this fable (to be compared with Bal de Sceaux), it’s perhaps that there are circles that don’t marry, literally or figuratively. The upbringing of Augustine, daughter of the cloth merchant Guillaume, no matter how beautiful and lovable, could not match the habits of the artist-aristocrat Théodore de Sommervieux. It’s less a question of differences in birth (like that between the daughters of Père Goriot and the Faubourg Saint-Germain) or wealth (like that between Lucien de Rubempré and Clotilde de Grandlieu) than of a way of being, a culture, an understanding of life. The beautiful Augustine, totally blind, totally lost in a world not her own, yet full of good will, will never understand that there’s more to a woman than beauty, goodness and wisdom. She doesn’t even understand the course she’s come to ask the cruel Duchess of Carigliano. But she’s neither stupid nor insensitive. She was simply out of this world of artists, whom her father judged severely: “They’re too wasteful not to always be bad subjects. I supplied the late Mr. Joseph Vernet, the late Mr. Lekain, and Mr. Noverre (…) Ah! If you only knew how many tricks they played on poor Mr. Chevrel! They’re a strange bunch (…).” These irreconcilable worlds, which the author of La Comédie humaine was to explore tirelessly, were thus placed in parallel. La Maison is an “excellent introduction to the world of La Comédie humaine (…) its choice in the classroom as a text for further reading is an excellent way of helping students discover and love Balzac.”

Foreword La maison du chat-qui-pelote is the story of a bad marriage between a young girl from the bourgeoisie and a talented artist with an aristocratic name. The husband finds his wife foolish, cheats on her with a scheming duchess and she dies of grief. If these two tales (La Maison du chat qui pelote and Le bal de Sceaux) were only two apologues, they could be considered secondary: even if in the La Maison du chat qui pelote Balzac had recalled with some emotion the fate of his younger sister Laurence, whose parents had urged her to marry a nobleman, M. de Montzaigle, who abandoned her, a grief from which she died at the age of twenty-three. It’s because of something else that these stories still have the power to interest us. First and foremost, it was because they brought something new to the table. It was the discovery of “private life”, indeed, a subject rarely dealt with at the time, but above all the discovery of the individuality of all “private life”. For Balzac, a family environment is a social microclimate with its own atmosphere, local customs, mentality and folklore. The house, the furniture, the clothes, the tone, the whole thing we call “manners” bears the same mark. And this warping of the being imposed by the family is both that of a certain social milieu and that of a family milieu. Every animal has its burrow, and every family has its own atmosphere. The trader is thus a certain social animal, classifiable in social zoology, and, at the same time, in this class a particular animal that is well placed to see this. The Sallambiers, her maternal family, had spread throughout the Marais, and all looked alike, a perfect illustration of her thesis and easy models to paint. For Balzac, this “zoological” presentation is not a pleasant way of depicting. It’s an essential part of his description of society. Balzac had been deeply impressed by the great naturalist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s theory on the origin of animals. This theory asserted that the various animal species all originated from a single original prototype, from which they had differentiated through a slow, gradual adaptation of the living being to the environment in which it was to live. Balzac then came up with the idea of transposing this theory, as it seemed to him to explain the differences we noticed among men. Social life, he thought, had created as manyspecies of human beings as there arespecies of animals. A soldier, a lawyer, a worker, a shopkeeper, a woman of the world or a housewife, are all different beings made by society, living in their own environment, with their own coat, gait and interior. These different varieties of human beings stem from the specialization to which they have been condemned by social life, which shapes human types as the environment shapes animal forms. Describing the mores of a society and the human types it produces is therefore a “natural history of society”. This was one of the principles of his social nomenclature, of which La Maison du chat qui pelote is a typical application.


Augustine in tears at her parents’ home

But at the same time, discovering this microclimate means making history. The patriarchal mores of the Guillaume family in La Maison du chat qui pelote are a piece of the past preserved intact in the present. It’s important to note them, just as it’s important to describe their typical store, their business habits, the lives of the apprentices entrusted to them: because all this will soon be gone. Balzac is an archaeologist of the near past. And Augustine Guillaume’s misfortune is that her parents were unable to hold on to this tutelary past. Despite their buckled shoes, they were modernists, they allowed a marriage that their traditions should have forbidden. They pay for this mistake against themselves. It’s the opposite in the Sceaux ball, but it’s basically the same inscription of history in private lives. A contemporary of Louis XVIII, the Comte de Fontaine understood his king’s politics. The “billion emigrants” was a mistake, and that’s no way to repair misfortunes and reward loyalty. But the king has a simpler and more effective way of making the fortunes of those he wants to protect: he can make them marry for money by putting favors and titles in the basket. This is what the Comte de Fontaine understood, and what his daughter did not. She plays the grande dame, scorns the business bourgeoisie who represent the future because they represent money, is mired in tradition like the old Guillaume and loses herself in the stubbornness that would have saved them. A private life is not just a microclimate, it’s also an island exposed to storms. You can’t pitch your tent against the wind of history. It’s not a heroic idea, but it’s unfortunately a fair one. La Maison du chat qui pelote was a work of observation, Le bal de Sceaux is an exercise in political analysis.

Sources: 1) Analysis compiled from the universal encyclopedia Wikipedia 

2) Preface compiled from the full text of the Comédie Humaine (Tome I) published by France Loisirs 1986 under the auspices of the Société des Amis d’Honoré de Balzac.

History Monsieur Guillaume, a drapery merchant in Paris and successor to Sieur Chevrel, whose daughter he married, conducts his business with scrupulous attention to economy. The business is run by a family consisting of Monsieur and Madame Guillaume, their two daughters Virginie and Augustine, and clerk Joseph Lebas. He is secretly in love with Augustine and proposes to her boss, more or less at the same time as Augustine meets the painter Théodore de Sommervieux, a handsome young aristocrat. An aesthete and a great lover of art, he assiduously frequented the artists’ circle, where he counted many friends and supporters. Théodore falls in love at first sight with young Augustine, His admiration for the young girl continued to grow. Dazzled by her beauty, he falls head over heels in love with her, and pursues an assiduous courtship of the young lady, whose heart is immediately set on fire by this handsome aristocrat. He marries her despite some objections from his family, who are concerned about this sudden marriage. Nevertheless, the Guillaume family’s reluctance was quickly overcome by the idea of a grand wedding for their daughter, which could only benefit them…and the business. Joseph Lebas resigned himself to marrying Virginie, Augustine’s older sister, and, like the Guillaume family, led the same little life of privation and thrift.


Augustine and the Countess of Carigliano

After the honeymoon and the passion, Theodore quickly tired of Augustine, whom he found clumsy, dull and witless. More and more often, he goes out to meet his friends. He took refuge in his painting and in the arms of the Duchess of Carigliano, an elegant, witty aristocrat who kept a salon. Augustine, forsaken and rejected, will go so far as to meet her rival to get her advice on how to win back her husband. All his efforts will be in vain. Mocked and scorned by a man who no longer loves her, who no longer even shows the slightest regard for her, Augustine sinks into a deep depression, grows weaker by the day, and dies of grief.    

Source story: According to a preface compiled from the complete works of the Comédie Humaine (Tome I) published by France Loisirs 1986 under the auspices of the Société des Amis d’Honoré de Balzac.

Genealogy of characters Guillaume: Cloth merchant. Married a Chevrel, hence : Virginie, born 1783. Married Joseph Lebas, merchant; Augustine, born in (1793-1820). Married Théodore de Sommervieux. Lebas: Joseph, clerk and successor to cloth merchant Guillaume. Married Virginie Guillaume (born 1783 or 84). Sommervieux (de) : Baron Théodore de Sommervieux, painter. Wife Augustine Guillaume, born in 1793, from whom : A son. Carigliano: Marshal, Duke of Carigliano. He is known only through his wife, née Malin de Gondreville, and circa 1778.

Source: Félicien Marceau “Balzac et son monde – Gallimard” (Balzac and his world – Gallimard)

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