The Conscript by Honoré de Balzac

Le Réquisitionnaire
The Conscript
Also translated as The Recruit

This tale takes place in November 1793 and aristocrats such as Madame de Dey are always on the edge of danger simply because of who they are. There are no surviving members of her late husband’s family and Madame de Dey is the last of her side of the family. Her one son is her only love and her greatest hope.

Already widowed at the time of the Terror, she retired from Court and settled in Carentan where she is apparently the light of the town. Her daily “evenings” seem to be the only available entertainment aside from gossiping. She works very hard in the provincial town to keep herself above suspicion and preserve the family property for her son. The boy was sickly as a child but survived under her care to be “a most elegant cavalier at Versailles” who followed the Princes into exile.

Gossip overruns the town when Madame de Dey skips her evenings twice in a row. It is decided that she is probably not ill, but giving refuge to someone she should not. Her friends believe she should open her house again as usual.

An old merchant visits and she confides in him that she has received a letter from her son. He was captured but an escape is planned. He hopes to be with her in three days. If not, he is probably dead. It is now the third day.

The old man then visits various people about the town trying to smooth things over by saying she will hold her salon that evening, even though she has been ill and is not yet fully recovered. Everyone arrives, most with the idea of trying to discover her secret, for they do not believe the story of illness.

Her salon is described. She has not improved the room, not wanting to appear to be above her guests, and she practices little privations as if money could be a problem. But she makes sure to provide a luxurious dinner for the guests as they will not hold that against her.

When she has most of her guests settled at various games, she makes the excuse of finding the Lotto box in order to go upstairs and check to make sure her son’s room is ready. She tells her servant that she can’t breathe for excitement and worry. Brigitte assures her that the young man is fine because she has had a sign.

The scene shifts to a weary young man trudging along the high road and finally arriving at the Mayor’s house where he asks for his billet. The mayor asks his name which is given as Julien Jussieu. The mayor is sure that this is Madame de Dey’s son and billets him at her house, thinking that it is a very good thing that he was the one to examine the youth’s papers.

Meanwhile, the party is breaking up at 9:30 p.m. –  quite early had this been in Paris, but normal for provincial towns. The Prosecutor stays behind and tells Madame de Dey that he is there to enforce the laws of the Republic. She says she has nothing to reveal and he tells her he knows that she is expecting her son and that he must be gone no later than 7:00 a.m. the next morning as he will be there at 8:00 with a “denunciation.” However, he goes on to reassure her saying that nothing will be found and he will so write up the report that she will never again fall under suspicion.

Brigette rushes in thinking her mistress is alone and says, “Madame, he has come.” When the Prosecutor asks who, Brigette recovers well and says, “A recruit, whom the mayor has sent to lodge here.”

The Prosecutor leaves and Madame de Dey rushes upstairs and embraces her son. An unknown man turns around. It is not her son! Brigette remarks on the likeness. Madame de Dey almost swoons and has to lean on the arm of Brigette’s husband. She apologizes to the young man and is helped to her room.

Brigette is horrified that the stranger will be in the son’s room and partaking of the meal she has prepared. Madame de Dey cannot stay in her room because she can hear him from there. She goes to the greenhouse to learn what is happening outside and hears the various soldiers going to their assigned billets.

Eventually Madame de Dey returns to her own room and is found dead the next morning. Brigette, who has some very good lines, remarks that having to listen to the soldier singing the Marseillaise as if he were in a stable was enough to kill her.

At the exact time Madame de Dey died, her son was shot in another department.


Read it:
Katharine Prescott Wormeley translation
George Burnham Ives translation

Summary by Dagny, November 2006


3 comments on “The Conscript by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    This is a brilliant story, capturing the human cost of revolution in a way that must have seemed confronting when it was first written.


  2. scamperpb says:

    Saintsbury commented that “The Conscript” should be called an anecdote rather than a story. Golda comments that in this story Balzac develops the idea of the transmission of thoughts.

    Balzac paints a vivid portrait of aristocrat Madame de Dey living in a provincial society – precariously stepping her way as a prominent person in this new revolutionist world. She hopes for a reunion with her only son, a Royalist currently imprisoned. He is to escape and come to her on this very day. When a young recruit resembling her son is brought to her house under the mistaken impression that it is her son, Madame de Dey is profoundly shocked to discover that the recruit is not her son. She dies shortly afterwards – at about the same time that her son is shot and killed far away.

    “The Conscript” seems to me to be not much of a story – perhaps an anecdote as Sainstbury claims. It begins with a detailed setting of life in the province, has no middle story, and comes to an abrupt ending which I suppose is meant to display remarkable telepathy.


  3. Rohan says:

    Yes I thought the son’s death could have been further developed into some kind of poignant ironic tragedy. As it stands, Balzac tries to describe a feeling of telepathy that may have been popular in the 19th century but today has little impact.


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