The Exiles by Honoré de Balzac

Les Proscrits
The Exiles

The story starts on an evening in April 1308. The location is an island under Notre-Dame. The characters are not identified in some cases until the close of the story.

We are first introduced to Joseph Tirechair who is also known as Tear Flesh. We are told that he is a very stern Paris constable whose job it is to guard the common council. His wife, Dame Tirechair (Jacqueline), has the job of washing for the Cathedral. She has a woman, referred to as a “dainty journeywoman”, who helps her; however, we soon discover that this journeywoman, not looking physically like a worker, is leaving a piece of gold in their savings-box whenever she goes out. Jacqueline reveals this to Joseph and says that this woman has come to see the “well-favored young clerk,” one of their two lodgers.

Joseph Tirechair, in a high state of alarm, reminds his wife Jacqueline of the fire they watched when a Danish woman, a supposed witch, was burnt recently. With such suspicion, Joseph frightens his wife into believing these lodgers will bring them grave harm. As Jacqueline then watches, the older of the two lodgers, makes his way past her, followed by the younger lodger, now identified as Godefroid, “a poor orphan who had come from Flanders to study at the University of Paris”. She begins to see, in everything about these lodgers, an air of the Devil.

“The clock has struck, the boat is waiting; will you not come?”

This said by the elder of the two lodgers, brings Godefroid to his side and the two leave together. Intending to report these lodgers to the justices, Joseph Tirechair then prepares to leave. The visiting lady then identifies herself as the Comtesse de Mahaut, warning Joseph that he should not bring harm to these two lodgers and that he should, “above all”, respect the elder of the two. As for herself, she advises him to never acknowledge her presence in their home.

We next find the two lodgers entering a school called School des Quatre Nations. Here they are to listen to the words of Dr. Sigier who, we are told, is “the most noted Doctor of Mystical Theology of the University of Paris”.

It is interesting to note here that Dr. Sigier was a famous Sorbonne doctor, however he died approximately twenty-five years before this story’s action begins. In researching the story, I found that the speech Dr. Sigier gives in this story is Balzac’s written attempt to summarize the illuminist creed, which we now read across several paragraphs. Various hints are given towards this. We read that this is a mystic part of Theology, secretly kept. The name Illuminati is mentioned as one of those treasuring this science.

When Dr. Sigier’s address is over, he follows the two lodgers to their boat where they part company. On the return home, the elder lodger, speaking to Godefroid, says, “I weep for my native land. I am an exile!” He asks of Godefroid, “What can you have to weep for, at your age?”, to which Godefroid says, “I regret a land more beautiful than any land on earth–a land I never saw and yet remember.” The elder lodger understands that Godefroid believes himself to be an exiled angel.

The two lodgers part company when they return to the sergeant’s house, each going to their own rooms. It is then that the elder lodger hears something of a fall from Godefroid’s room. On entering Godefroid’s room, the elder lodger sees that Godefroid has attempted to hang himself and thereby reach God in the only way he knew.

This begins an interesting part of the story where we see some traces of a much earlier work, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. We are told that the two lodgers are poets. The elder lodger takes Godefroid with him on a journey much like the journey in The Divine Comedy. He tells Godefroid, “In order to return, you to your heavenly home, and I to my native land on earth, must we not obey the voice of God?” He goes on to say, “Arriving there without being bidden, and saying, ‘Here I am!’ before your time, would you not have been cast back into a world beneath that where your soul now hovers? Poor outcast cherub!” The journey then begins.

A story is told of Teresa Donati, who dies before her love, Honorino. Honorino then kills himself in an attempt to be with Teresa. He finds that he cannot be with her as he has killed himself. The guiding angel, traveling with them at this time, then assents to the question asked, ‘when this one shall desire Paradise for God’s sake alone, shall he not be delivered?’ The story has been told now and Godefroid hears the closing words, “It is one of the griefs of the angels of darkness that they can never see the light even when they are surrounded by it. He would not have understood us.”

The two lodgers, otherwise known as the two exiles or the two poets, come away from their experience as they hear the sounds of soldiers approaching them. In Italian, a soldier tells the elder lodger that they can return to Florence, that “The Bianchi are triumphant.” This elder lodger is Dante Alighieri and he has been in exile from Florence. Godefroid now wishes a time he will be out of exile by finding himself in Heaven. Dante encourages Godefroid to come to Florence where he will fancy himself in Paradise.

The Comtesse de Mahaut flies to Godefroid at this moment with the words, “Come, my child, my son! I may at last acknowledge you. Your birth is recognized, your rights are under the protection of the King of France, and you will find Paradise in your mother’s heart.” Godefroid knows then that he hears the voice of Heaven.

Our story ends as Dante, casting a parting look at mother and son, booms forth, “Death to the Guelphs!”


Read it here

Summary by Merrie, January 2007


2 comments on “The Exiles by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    “The Exiles” is a strange little story of an old man (who is revealed eventually to be Dante Alighieri) and a young man Godefroid living in lodgings in Paris. Dante (who was exiled from Flanders due to political changes) obviously grieves for his homeland. Godefroid, somewhat of a mystic, misses his homeland too but also longs to be with God. A servant woman who helps the couple who run the lodging seems to pay close attention especially to Goedfroid, and she strangely leaves money from time to time at the lodging. Godefroid tries to hang himself and is rescued by Dante. Then news arrives that the Whites (Dante’s political party) are in control. At the same time the servant woman is revealed to be a Comtesse Mehaut and the mother of illegitimate son Goedfroid. Dante can at last return home, and Goedfroid also will be recognized as the legitimate Comete de Gand (it’s not clear if somehow this family is also associated with the Whites).

    Balzac in his introduction to the book (according to the French Wikipedia) said “the warm and scholarly study of Les Proscirts contains two identical propositions – the suicide of a child disgusted with life who wants to reach for the sky, and the genius which becomes fatal to a great poet.” Perhaps that is the story Balzac meant to tell, it’s not clear to me that he actually told it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gill Price says:

    Like your summary Merrie. As one of Balzac’s mystical stories, it is by no means his best, but it shows Balzac at an interesting point in his development as a writer. It struck me that this story would have been a very good one if Balzac had left out the mysticism.

    Liked by 1 person

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