Review: The Black Sheep by Honoré de Balzac

The Black Sheep BalzacThe Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse) [1842/1970] – ★★★★★

The Black Sheep is an outstanding novel by Balzac (Lost Illusions [1837]) that tells of a remarkable battle for inheritance. At the centre of this story are two brothers, Joseph and Philippe, who could not be more different from each other, the modest and studious Joseph is the complete opposite of the bold and physically-imposing Philippe. They become the protagonists in the fight against their uncle’s supposed will to leave his fortune to mere strangers that coveted his attention for years. As in other novels, Balzac masterfully concocts a tale that is based on contrasts – the provincial life in Issoudun vs. the town life in Paris, the consequences of immense wealth vs. the results of poverty, the life of the upper classes vs. the destitution of the working class, while his moral spins around the fleeting nature of success, the extent of the individual ruthlessness and cunningness, and the consequences of a mother’s blind love for her child. More than any other Balzac novel, The Black Sheep is all about appearances often deceiving us and the fact that “a leopard never changes its spots”. 

Similar to Lost Illusions, The Black Sheep is a tale of two regions – Parisian and the region of Issoudun, France. This is the time of the rule of the Committee of Public Safety (the tale begins at the time of its creation), and then the Napoleon and post-Napoleonic times (see a non-fiction book Twelve Who Ruled [1941]). At the centre of the tale are Dr Rouget and his wife Madame Descoings, who have two children – Agathe and Jean-Jacques Rouget. When Agathe is disowned by her father and marries Bridau in Paris, she then has two sons Joseph and Philippe Bridau, while her father Dr Rouget amasses grand fortune from the brother of his wife Mr Descoings (he later wills it to his son Jean-Jacques Rouget). When both Joseph and Philippe fall in a situation close to destitution, Agathe is forced to reconsider he previous familial ties and return to his native Issoudun to plead with her brother Jean-Jacques for a share of the inheritance. However, Jean-Jacques Rouget already sees as his heiress the beautiful coquette Flore Brazier. Thus, the battle of first wits and then swords begins between provincial Flore and her suitor Max Gilet on the one hand, and more worldly Agathe, Joseph and Philippe Bridau on the other. Balzac turns on its head the perception of evil, and there are no truly minor characters in his novel. In the household of Bridau, villains emerge unexpectedly, and in the households of old Rouget and Hochon (Agatha’s godmother), there are also antagonists hiding in plain sight. So, the whole novel can never be considered a clear-cut battle between the camps of goodness and evil as Balzac is cleverer than that, and his layered plotting makes sure that even such “minor” characters as Monsieur Hochon and Madame Descoings are memorable.

One of the prominent themes of the novel is the fact that appearances sometimes deceive us, and what we perceive and admire as the prestigious and the successful may be far from our moral principles. In fact, Balzac makes it implicitly clear that societal and financial success does not always equate goodness and kindness. In fact, having this success may signal the opposite, since one often needs to be cunning and very self-interested to climb the societal ladder and be perceived as a “success” in society. Thus, the transformation of Philippe Bridau is fascinating in the novel, and it is precisely because others are blinded by idolatry in relation to him that he is becoming so powerful. “In Philippe’s eyes, the whole universe began at his head and ended at his feet, and the sun shone only for him” and “words cost him nothing: he threw out as many of them as people were prepared to believe” [Balzac/Adamson, 1842/1970: 62, 63]. The success of ruthlessness and calculation in society seems undeniable in Balzac’s world, as one character notes of Philipp: “If he decides to apply his profoundly perverse intellect to making a fortune, he will certainly succeed, for he is capable of anything, and people like him make rapid progress” [1842/1970: 311].

Since it is Balzac, a lot of attention is paid in The Black Sheep to the plight of artists and intellectuals, whose work remains undervalued and who go through all sorts of hardships in their lives. Joseph Bridau is a good person, but he struggles to make his living by painting alone and does become disillusioned with his career progress (since he chose a career “that demands the greatest talent, hardest sacrifices and longest study before leading to any results” [Balzac/Adamson, 1842/1970: 221]). There are no strong female characters in the novel (females are presented as being either devoted fools (Agathe) or greedy and cunning “creatures” (Flore)). However, Balzac explores admirably the theme of a parent-child relationship (“people who haven’t got any children miss a lot of pleasures, but they also avoid a lot of suffering”), and paints a convincing picture of what people will do for the love of another or out of their self-interest to escape poverty, meaning that the whole spectrum of the human nature (from selfless devotion to complete disregard for the feelings of others) is on display.

Donald Adamson, translator of the novel from the French to the English, called The Black Sheep a historical novel, and this is for a reason. Balzac often tries to place his stories in a historical framework and a political situation at that time, giving it an additional compelling force. With his great attention to detail and immense insight into the human nature, the author tries to explore all the nuts and bolts of the financial misfortune befalling a once well-to-do family, and the actions it takes to better their circumstances. All the familial intrigues finally culminate in a dramatic showdown and an emotional ending.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Black Sheep by Honoré de Balzac

  1. I wondered what a Balzac “Black sheep” could be. Then I read “La rabouilleuse”. I had to look the verb up. Even I don’t know what a “rabouilleuse” is. 🙂 I never really liked Balzac much, I thought those ways were long gone. But they seem to be coming back strong. Greed most of all. Just brought back “Le médecin de campagne” from Paris. Let’s see if I read it this year. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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