Having now finished Colonel Chabert, it seems fitting that it is part of a story cycle entitled The Human Comedy, for Honore de Balzac’s goal of social commentary was definitely fulfilled. For sure. 100%.
What is readily apparent from the first time that we meet Chabert is that he cannot catch a break. Let’s begin with the fact that his head was basically sliced open on the battlefield—ouch—and he then lived to wake up in a pit of naked, dead bodies which he had to claw himself out of—gross. Just this one occurrence would leave any normal person seriously scarred for life (literally and figuratively). But, Chabert then learns that his beloved wife has up and married someone else. The score now stands Karma 2, Chabert 0. Great. The story goes on to detail Chabert’s life in poverty while his wife lives in luxury with his money, his attempt to reclaim his wealth and status only to be tricked by his wife, and his final fate of life as a vagabond and half-insane mad man. As far as luck goes, Colonel Chabert seems to have none of it. (It’s at this point when Odysseus must be thanking his lucky stars that Athena was on his side in his return to Ithaca, or else his story could have ended up much like Chabert’s.)
The worst part is Chabert is not a bad guy. He is simply a good guy in a bad society. The honor that was so revered in The Odyssey is gone, replaced by humanity’s greed for money and rank. The cruelty of the Countess Ferraud shows greed’s victory over honor and morality, a battle that de Balzac uses as commentary for the French society as a whole.
In setting up her trap for Chabert, the Countess showcases the idea that money is more important than truth. Although she knows that Chabert is in fact her husband—and that tricking him will punish him to a life of poverty and ruin—she prioritizes her own rank, comfort and wealth above her capacity to be a good, moral person. Admittedly, this morality ship had probably already sailed when she disregarded Chabert’s letters and knowingly remarried Count Ferraud. Still, her actions speak for a society that de Balzac wishes to characterize as immoral and corrupt.
Chabert, for his part, epitomizes the goodness of humanity until the very end. Even in jail, he asserts that “it is better to be rich in feeling than in dress,” thereby bucking the social norms that had caused him to be “suddenly sickened with disgust for humanity” (95). This disgust for humanity stems from the greed, competition and immorality that de Balzac portrays running rampant in France.
What other parts of the novella reveal this same social commentary that de Balzac emphasizes? The Law office? His description of Vergniaud’s humble cottage versus Count Ferraud’s grand estate? Can this social commentary be broadened to apply to today’s society? How successful or accurate did you perceive de Balzac in his commentary? Do you think Derville succumbs to this same disgust for humanity by the end of the novella?