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Le colonel chabert


Le Colonel Chabert exhibits the relationship between strong and weak

characters. The degree of strength within a character reflects how well

the character survives in society. In society, weak characters often have

no identity, profession or rank. Stronger characters have power to succeed

from inner confidence, motivation and ambition. Any drastic changes

brought to the body or soul by the environment corrupts that person's

strength thereby affecting their ability to function properly in society.

This comparison of characters gives an understanding of Balzac's

pessimistic view of nineteenth century society.

A character's strength and energy in the novel determines their

survival in society. Colonel Chabert has been known to be a courageous

hero in the past, "... je commandais un rÇgiment de cavalerie Ö Eylau.

J'ai ÇtÇ beaucoup dans le succäes de la cÇläbre charge..." Once he returns

to Paris after his injury, he loses his identity and becomes the " weak

character " of society. This is a rapid decline down the "ladder of

success" and Chabert tries desperately to climb back up to the top, where

he had been before. At the beginning of the novel, there is a vision of a

slow non-energetic man walking progressively up the stairs to lawyer

Derville's study which contrasts the boisterous energy of the clerks.

Chabert reaches Derville's study and is determined to find the lawyer to

help him find justice for his infortunes, "... me suis-je dÇterminÇ Ö

venir vous trouver. Je vous parlerai de mes malhers plus tard." Chabert

demonstrates some energy left in him by his will to retrieve everything

that he lost. This energy to gain back his power changes to furious and

revengeful energy upon learning what his wife had done, "Les yeux de

l'homme Çnergique brillaient rallumÇs aux feux du dÇsir et de la

vengeance." After a period of time, Chabert loses hope and bids farewell

forever. He gives up his identity to become an unknown person as he

realizes that his strength of character is not enough to keep him alive in

this society. He sees himself weakening when seeing his wife and her

children as he does not have the heart to break up her family. He tells

his wife, "Je ne rÇclamerai jamais le nom que j'ai peut-àtre illustrÇ. Je

ne suis plus qu'un pauvre diable nommÇ Hyancinthe..." Hence, Chabert

becomes a numbered person in an institution, "Je ne suis pas un homme, je

suis le numÇro 164,..." Also, he becomes the weakest among everyone in the

institution, " En ce moment, le colonel Chabert s'assit au milieu de ses

hommes Ö faces Çnergiques,... " In contrast, Madame Ferraud represents a

woman who has strong innovative traits, starts at the bottom but gradually

rises to the top after Chabert had gone. She becomes driven by her passion

to enter the upper class and become "Une femme comme il faut". She uses

her persuasive and aggressive qualities to satisfy her ambitions. Once at

the top, she has the power to survive better than Chabert. At one point,

Madame Ferraud is weakened when Derville confronts her for lying about the

letter from Chabert. This shows that the characters do not remain in a

consistent position and this determines whether or not a character is

capable of surviving well or not. The personality and appearance of

characters become transformed as a result of changes in the environment.

For instance, Chabert appreciates the help he is receiving from Derville.

He acknowledges Derville's kind words by saying humbly, "... VoilÖ le

premier mot de politesse que j'entends depuis..." Chabert is surprised that

the treatment from Derville surpasses the ten years of rejection by his

wife, justice and society. His sufferings have caused him be more kind

hearted and more considerate to others. He is willing to live without

pleasure, to remain poor and mediocre. This is a startling contrast to his

past where he had been an ambitious man. Chabert's strength is decreasing

as "Ses souffrances physiques et morales lui avaient dÇjÖ viciÇ le corps

dans quelques-uns des organes les plus importantes." On the other hand,

Madame Ferraud's rise to power results in a more persuasive, independent

and high spirited woman. This is shown by,

"Encore jeune et belle, Madame Ferraud joua le rìle d'une femme Ö la

mode, et vÇcut dans l'atmosphäre de la cour. Riche par elle- màme,

riche par son mari,... elle en partageait la splendeur."

In addition, Madame Ferraud "Çtait enevelopÇe dans un ÇlÇgant peignoir,

les boucles de ses cheveaux... Elle Çtait fraåche et rieuse." Her gracious

actions and her manner of speech is characteristic of her new personality.

This is to her advantage as she uses these characteristics to calm Chabert

and convince him to stay at her home. She has a superficiel layer covering

her body to hide the false image in order to accomplish what she wants,

"...elle monta chez elle, s'assit Ö son secrÇtaire, dÇposa le masque

de tranquillitÇ qu'elle conservait devant le comte Chabert, comme une

actrice qui, rentrant fatiguÇe dans sa loge apräs un cinquiäme acte

pÇnible, tombe demi-morte et laisse dans la salle une image

d'elle-màme Ö laquelle elle ne ressemble plus."

Therefore, Madame Ferraud does not concern herself with people beneath

her but rather, her quest to remain on top. There is a marked difference

between characters in terms of the inner self and heartfelt sentiments.

Chabert is a man filled with sorrow and despair after his return to Paris.

He is extremely melancholy as his sufferings outweigh any happy

experiences in his life,

"Je compris que lÖ oó j'Çtais, l'air ne se renouvelait point, et que

j'allais mourir. Cette pensÇe m'ìta le sentiment de la douleur

inexprimable par laquelle j'avais ÇtÇ rÇveillÇ ...Quoique la mÇmoire

de ces moments soit bien tÇnÇbreuse,...les impressions de souffrances

encore plus profondes que je devais Çprover..."

Chabert feels desperate when he says, "J'ai ÇtÇ ÇnterrÇ sous des mort,

mais maintenant je suis enterrÇ sous de vivants,..." He is extremely

injured to what he has experienced that "son extràme malheur avait sans

doute dÇtruit ses croyances." Sadness prevails in Chabert's heart and

there is a bleak outlook to his future, "Des grosses larmes tombärent des

yeux flÇtris du pauvre soldat et roulärent sur ses joues ridÇes. A

l'aspect de ces difficultÇs, il fut dÇcouragÇ." Chabert at "L'Hospice de la

vieillesse" has lost any traces of raging energy left in him as "Le vieux

soldat Çtait calme, immobile, presque distrait...Son regard avait une

expression de stoãcisme..." Madame Ferraud is heartless and has no

feelings towards anyone except for her desire for power. For example, the

marriage to Count Ferraud,

"... elle conáut d'attacher le comte Ö elle par le plus fort des

liens, par la chaåne d'or, et voulut àtre si riche que sa fortune

rendåt son second mariage indissoluble, si par hasard le comte Chabert

reparaissait encore."

Even though she is a cold, unfeeling woman, there is one sign of

emotion left caused by a momentary vision of her past life, "Deux grosses

larmes roulärent toutes chaudes sur les mains de sa femme..." The personal

feelings of weak and strong characters brings a different perspective and

thus distinguishes them from one another.

Balzac often uses visionary poetic images such as the infant, animal,

light and dark, to illustrate the contrast between the characters. The

infant image is a romantic element where the character refuses reality and

remains a weak, naãve child. For example, Chabert is a child; "Oó en

Çtais-je? dit le colonel avec la naãvetÇ d'un enfant d'un soldat, car il y

a souvent de l'enfant dans le vrai soldat,..." In addition, Chabert loses

his temper and Derville controls him by saying, "Laissez-moi rÇparer vos

sottises, grand enfant!" Finally, Chabert refuses his identity and looks

at Derville with "une anxiÇtÇ peureuse, avec une crainte de viellard et

d'enfant." Derville states Chabert's destiny, "Sorti de l'hospice des

Enfants trouvÇs, il revient mourir Ö l'hospice de la Vieillessse,..." The

animal image is used to show how animals are considered to be beneath the

human race. Often, Chabert is treated as a dog, "Enfin, le jour màme oó

l'on me jeta sur le pavÇ comme un chien,..." Chabert's self pride becomes

shattered as all of the clercs ignore him ; "Il se mit Ö regarder

modestement autour de lui, comme un chien qui, en se glissant dans une

cuisine Çtrangäre,... The change of light and darkness presents a

contrast between happiness and sadness as well as the energy of each

character. The sun is a form of bright light that does not shine whenever

there is some dismal feeling and lack of energy in the atmosphere, "notre

soleil s'est couchÇ, nous avons tous froid maintenant. " Balzac uses the

sun to indicate the never ending darkness for Chabert as "Je ne suis plus

q'un pauvre diable nommÇ Hyacinthe, qui ne demande que sa place au soleil.

Adieu..." His facial expressions are marked with darkness, "Les bords du

chapeau qui couvrait le front du viellard projetaient un sillon noir sur le

haut de visage." Balzac has a pessimistic view of society in Paris.

Paris has become a large modernized society and its traditional charm has

disappeared. Hence, the characters change according to the rise of this

new society. For example, Chabert returns to a transformed place,

"...amener pour la France une äre de prospÇritÇ nouvelle, alors la sociÇtÇ

parisienne changea de face." In this society, he becomes non existant,

ridiculed and weakened to the lowest denominator. He is shocked of what he

sees, "Oh! monsieur, revoir Paris! C'Çtait un dÇlire que je..." The writer

expresses his disgust of society through Derville's condemnation of

society, "Vous allez connaåtre ces jollies choses-lÖ, vous; moi, je vais

vivre Ö la campagne avec ma femme, Paris me fait horreur." Balzac uses the

contrast between each characters' strength to justify the degration of

the weak characters.

The society is corrupted with sin, injustice and disease. There are

always successses and failures in the society but the survival of certain

individuals depends on the interaction between the relative strength of the

character and society. Weak characters do not survive well from lack of

fierce energy present in the strong characters. These deficiencies cause

the powerful characters to dominate in society and the weak ones quickly

forgotten, set apart from the rest of the world. Balzac does not approve

of this inequality between individuals so he presents a pessimistic and

satirical view of society and the individuals in it.


1. Balzac, HonorÇ de. Le Colonel Chabert. France: êditions Gallimard, 1974, pp.21-121.

2. Dargan, John. Balzac and the Drama of Perspective. New York: French Forum Publishers, 1985, p.45.

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