The Conscript

THE HUMAN COMEDY – Honoré de Balzac XVth volume of works of Honoré de Balzac edited by widow André Houssiaux, publisher, Hebert and Co, successors, 7 rue Perronet – Paris (1874)

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Work dedicated by Honoré de Balzac TO MY DEAR ONE ALBERT MARCHAND DE LA RIBELLERIE “Sometimes they saw him, by a phenomenon of vision or locomotion, abolish space in its two modes of Time and Distance, one of which is intellectual and the other physical.” Louis Lambert.

Le Réquisitionnaire is a short story by Honoré de Balzac that appeared in the Revue de Paris in 1831. Published the same year in volume by Gosselin, then in 1832 in Contes philosophiques by the same publisher. Reissued by Werdet in 1835 in the Etudes philosophiques series, then in the Furne edition of the Comédie Humaine in 1846, it appeared again in the Constitutionnel in 1847.

Analysis and history The same elements, maternal love and premonitions, have given rise to one of Balzac’s most perfect tales, Le Réquisitionnaire, in an entirely different setting. Mme de Dey, widow and mother of an only son, moved to Carentan, a small town in the Cotentin region, in 1793, to avoid the confiscation and sale of her son’s inheritance. The son is twenty, has emigrated and is serving in the Princes’ army. She behaved cautiously, won everyone’s sympathy and entertained the town’s notables every evening, even those whom the Convention had put in charge of repression. One day, a message informs him that his son was part of the Granville landing, a few leagues from Carentan, that he is a prisoner, that he expects to be shot, and that he has been given three nights in which to go to Carentan to hide, if he manages to escape. In this situation, she has to pay attention to everything. She calls in sick, we talk about it. Little things, unusual cares, attract attention: the maid buys a hare, one wonders why. Her friends warned her: on the third evening, she seemed to be better and was entertaining. We begin this third night in the midst of this suspense, maintained by the hour, shrouded in silence. It’s December and night is falling fast. At eight o’clock in the evening, a requisitioner, as the young mobilized men joining their corps were called, came to the town hall to be housed. The mayor thinks he understands everything, and gives him a ticket to Madame de Dey’s house. The requisitioner arrives, no one says a word. Mme de Dey doesn’t see him, and is given the room prepared for the son. The guests are slow to leave, she trembles and thinks she’s lost. Then she realizes that her Jacobin friends won’t say anything until morning. When everyone’s gone, she goes up to the room she’s had reserved, happy and saved: she finds a young stranger. She said nothing, struck as if by lightning. The next morning, she was found dead in her house. That same night, his son had just been shot. It’s admirable, gripping: anguish created by nothing, tragedy suddenly revealed by an unfamiliar face. It’s a document, says Balzac, on “sympathies that ignore the laws of space”, an example of premonition, in short. This meaning links this tale to the investigations that form the subject matter of the Romans et contes philosophiques. It’s also an example of the “lightning strike” caused by a sudden revelation, by the sudden collapse of hope, by the miracle that doesn’t happen: another central thesis of Philosophical Studies. Short story written by the author in Paris, February 1831

Family characters: Countess de Dey; widow, refugee in Carantan – born in 1755, died in 1793. Has a son, Auguste, who emigrated and was shot in 1793.  

1) Additional notes: Universal encyclopedia Wikipedia.

2) Source analysis/history: Preface from the 24th volume of La Comédie Humaine published by France Loisirs in 1987, based on the full text published under the auspices of the Société des Amis d’Honoré de Balzac, 45, rue de l’Abbé-Grégoire – 75006 Paris.

3) Character genealogy source: Félicien Marceau “Balzac et son monde – Gallimard”.

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