Colonel Chabert Can’t Catch A Break

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?

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5 Responses to Colonel Chabert Can’t Catch A Break

  1. Kevin says:

    I found it interesting to keep our initial impression of the law office in mind as we learned more about Derville throughout the story. I think we unanimously agreed that the law office was portrayed as a grimy, disgusting place ran by weasels trying to squeeze every penny out of their poor, naive, confused clients. In other words, de Balzac definitely cast a negative light on law offices through his description in the first chapter. Nevertheless, the head honcho in that office is Derville, and throughout the rest of the story, he doesn’t necessarily seem like a bad human being. He takes up Chabert’s cause despite the latter’s extremely unfortunate circumstances and questionable credibility. He is pretty fair to both of his clients, even though their interests are completely at odds. By the end, he definitely has a lot of pity for Chabert, who by this point, as Allie has pointed out, has not caught a single break. Therefore, I’m a little less sure about my initial impression that de Balzac was completely critical of the legal system of his day. His overall depiction of it seems to be pretty negative, with the outcome of the story and the sloppiness of the clerks, but Derville seems to give it a slightly better rep.

  2. Clare Welch says:

    I agree with Kevin in that Derville is not the as awful as his surroundings seem to suggest. I think that this lawyer, who, until he met with Chabert, easily navigated the social strata of nineteenth century Paris, was so shocked by the appalling nature of the law and the nature of humanity (which Balzac asserts is present in the law) that he lost his faith in humanity too. At the end of the novel, Derville and Godeschal reflect on Chabert’s degradation into a childlike being, and conclude that lawyers deal “the same ill feelings repeated again and again, never corrected” and are “mourning for virtue and hope” (Balzac 100). Chabert represented virtue and hope but was utterly destroyed by the rest of society. I think that maybe Balzac’s purpose in portraying the law office as such a disgusting place was to highlight the fact that the law deals with the ugly side of man. Maybe Balzac’s critique of the lawyers and their behaviors was actually a critique on human nature and the blackness of our own hearts.

  3. Ivana Surjancev says:

    Is Colonel Chabert really that great of a guy though? Sure, towards the end, we pity him and conclude he’s a good person since he says he’d rather be rich in feelings than in money. That wasn’t always the case. He tried to get his money from his wife, and even insisted upon an agreement in which she would return to him despite having two children with another man. That seems like a pretty low act to me. At that time, he didn’t seem to be considering what would be best for those children or his wife, but rather he was looking out for himself. He wanted to be rich and have a strong social standing initially, despite the costs of these desires to those around him. I do believe that at the end he genuinely changed once he realized that his wife, who was pulled by those same desires, became into the selfish, unethical person that tried to trick him. Rather than just criticizing the negative aspects of humanity and society, I think that de Balzac demonstrated that such a society sometimes forces people to look inside themselves and find what really matters. Like Colonel Chabert, those that literally can’t afford the lifestyle of selfishness and lack of morals see the flaws in society and the “wealthier” lifestyles. In writing this book, de Balzac may be trying to get his audience to see what they need to do to become better people, at the expense of a fictional character like Colonel Chabert rather than real impoverished people.

  4. Cristina says:

    When reading about when Colonel Chabert got in the carriage with his wife, I initially had hope that things would turn around for him. Upon further reading, that feeling slowly faded as I realized that his wife had been trying to set him up. I guess this should have been expected as she ignored his letters earlier but I was definitely hoping for a change of heart. I still can’t believe that his wife would be willing to do that to anybody, her husband nonetheless! I am shocked at what money and greed made his wife do.
    Also, despite what Ivana pointed out, I definitely believe that Colonel Chabert is a good person. How many people would suffer in jail and give up their riches in this situation? Although at points he didn’t seem to have the children’s best interest at heart, I think we should cut him some slack due to what he has been through.
    I think de Balzak succumbs to his disgust of humanity at the end of the novel. The ending shows the fundamental differences between people with morals and those that have been overtaken by greed and I agree that this concept can be broadened to describe today’s society.

  5. Caitlin says:

    To me it always seemed like Derville himself was confused as to whether or not he was going to follow his morals. On the one hand, he takes on Chabert’s case despite it not being very profitable or likely to win. He continues to take pity on Chabert in many other ways. That said, unless I’m completely interpreting this wrong, it seems like he double crosses Chabert. He sneaks around and meets up with Chabert’s ex-wife and tries to get what he can from her side by acting as her faithful lawyer. He never decisively chooses either client to dedicate his help to.

    In the end Chabert and Countess Ferraud’s resolution is almost entirely determined by the Countess, making Derville’s two-faced efforts arguably insignificant. At the very least, it does give us another insight into how Balzac may have viewed the legal system or lawyers.

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