Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Hated Son by Honoré de Balzac

Evil dad persecutes preemie
The Hated Son, a novel by Honoré de Balzac, was originally published in 1831 under the French title of L’Enfant maudit. It is one of the “philosophical studies” in Balzac’s mammoth series of works known as the Comédie Humaine. The story is set in Normandy in the late 16th century. The Comte d’Herouville, a hateful and cruel man, has recently married a beautiful young heiress of delicate and saintly demeanor, Jeanne de Saint-Savin. The marriage was arranged for political and financial reasons, and Jeanne rightfully fears her brutish husband. Seven months after the wedding, a pregnant Jeanne goes into labor. The scene of the birth is a frightening ordeal in which d’Herouville treats the expectant mother with all the sensitivity and comfort of a medieval jailer for his prisoner. Given the short term of the pregnancy, d’Herouville suspects the baby is the son of Jeanne’s former lover and threatens to kill the child. In fact, the son, Etienne, is a preemie who is born tiny and frail. The Comte stops short of killing the boy because he needs a male heir to ensure custody of his wife’s estate, yet he openly despises Etienne, and banishes him from the castle, confining him to a seaside cottage where the boy grows up in solitude and isolation.

He can’t stay isolated forever, of course, or there wouldn’t be much of a story. Eventually Etienne grows up into a sensitive, artistic young man with the naive innocence of a veritable babe in the woods. I enjoyed the dark tone of the book’s gothic opening; Balzac is at his best when he’s being bad. Etienne’s idyllic existence, however, is dull and cloying by comparison. It is hard to identify or sympathize with a character who is so unrealistically wholesome and pure. If anything, the one character you end up rooting for is Beauvouloir, the “bonesetter” who delivers the baby and ends up having a prominent role in Etienne’s upbringing. The Hated Son has a few enjoyable moments, but overall it suffers from unnecessary protraction. Unlike Balzac works with large ensemble casts and convoluted story lines, this is a relatively simple tale revolving around five characters. There’s only enough material here for a short story, yet Balzac drags it out into a novel by adding lengthy descriptive passages that only belabor the degree of Etienne’s naivete or his uncommonly intense adoration for his mother.

Although this novel takes place centuries before the bulk of the Comédie Humaine, it nevertheless has ramifications for other works in the series. Later generations of the d’Herouville family would go on to figure prominently in the novel Modeste Mignon and receive mention in other Balzac works. There’s also a reference here to the family of prostitutes known as Les Marana, from the novel of the same name. Despite such connections, I wouldn’t consider The Hated Son to be an essential read for any but the most fervent fans of the Comédie Humaine. It’s perfectly fine writing when compared to other fare of the period, but in a ranking of Balzac’s works this one would likely fall somewhere in the bottom half.
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