Honoré de Balzac wrote Lost Illusions (Les illusions perdues) between 1837 and 1843. The novel is divided into three parts; in the first one, entitled “The Two Poets”, the main character – young Lucien – is introduced in his milieu, a dreary provincial town. In Angoulême, Lucien and his friend David inspire each other to pursue their dreams; David feels more engaged with science, while Lucien decides to become a writer. The society into which he is introduced is led by Madame de Bargeton, a lady who encourages him to pursue a literary career.
Although the hero boasts of his noble origins (changing his name to Rubempré), he represents an impoverished class; Lucien is anxious to recover lost ground by bringing his artistic talent to bear. The will to succeed as a writer in Paris will lead him to go beyond moral bounds to improve his social status. Furthermore, his family is ready to sacrifice everything for Lucien, in whom they have blind faith. Eve and David – his sister and brother-in-law – are very much guided by Lucien’s fantasies, as they want to see him succeed in the task he has taken on.
In Part II (“Un Grand Homme de Province à Paris”), these hopes fade away as Lucien has a first taste of parisian life. His musings about his needs and problems touch on topic of falsehood in human relations: it is a hard lesson for Lucien. Despite all of this, he continues his efforts. He sinks deeper, as he frequents bad company. In a contrast very close to melodrama, actress Coralie represents the fallen woman, while Eve is depicted as an angel.
Journalism, and especially, Parisian Bohemianism are well depicted in the novel; among the intellectuals, D’Arthez is not a fame seeker, but he strives to produce quality work. As for journalism, it is addressed in a very critical way. Intellectuals and writers gather at an unforgettable local tavern, and the depictions of customs of librarians and printers at that time are also very interesting as well. Furthermore, David runs a print shop at Angoulême, so it provides greater details. The last part of the book, entitled “The Travails of an Inventor”, focuses on David’s problems to make his business thrive.
Despite all hope, wasted effort increases Lucien’s moral decay. Sand castle crumbles before his eyes and Lucien plunges into despair. The lives and doings of Balzac’s characters continue in other books: the outcome of the story can be found in The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans (Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes), written between 1838 and 1846.
Recently I have read Dead Souls (Мёртвые души), a novel by Nikolai Gógol. It was published in 1842, in the years before the Emancipation of the Russian serfs. As the main themes are greed and corruption, it is a highly relevant story for our times. The author approaches to perfection with the portrayal of some characters, as well as in satirical focus and funny dialogues.
The main character is a common man, eager to gain a higher social status; the story begins at an inn, where he stops to get his strength back. After some lively descriptions of places and characters, we discover that the goal of the hero’s journey is not at all an idealistic one, and readers will be amazed as Chichikov proposes an unusual transaction.
The reactions of landlords are really mixed and they influence the structure of the book. The madcap pursuit of money is symbolized troughout the book by the carriage roaming the roads of troubled Russia.
The main plot thread consists of Chichikov’s visits to some small villages; he also displays his ability to gain influence in the cities he passes by. He speculates with the census, the collection of taxes and the mortgages; he looks at himself in the mirror, but lets wishful thinking cloud his judgment. At the midpoint of the story, Chichikov gets tangled up in his own plot and embarrassing situations will arise in the hilarious ball scene.
Gogol’s novel reflects a world in crisis; nevertheless, the autor does not draw a cruel satire, nor a bitter one; on the contrary, the psychology of characters leads to a self-analysis. The omnipresence of everyday life contributes to bring the novel up to date; in this sense, the narrator’s cheerful loquacity often appears in the story, moving the reader towards compassion for some characters and looking indulgently on them.
The autor points out the possibility of redemption: hardworking together in communion with Nature, the characters will achieve happiness and virtue. The final speech uttered by the Prince summarizes the moral of the story: altruistic cooperation as a solution for generalized corruption.