The Elixir of Life by Honoré de Balzac

L’Élixir de longue Vie
The Elixir of Life

This is one of Balzac’s strange little stories dated Paris, October, 1830. In ‘To the Reader’ he tells us he heard the subject of the story, or the Study as he calls it, from a friend, and later thinks the story was from a collection of Hoffmann (E. T. A. Hoffman, a famous musician, dramatist and horror story writer of Balzac’s time). Balzac urges us to believe he did not deliberately plagiarize the story. He also discourses on the natural human trait of waiting to profit by someone’s death and perhaps hurrying that process along. He dedicates this story to Diis ignotis, which I presume means to Unknown gods.

Grand Duke Bartolommeo Belvidero is ninty years old and living in the princely palace at Ferrara, Italy, with the young and handsome Don Juan Belvidero, the son of his old age. Don Juan occupies the lively rooms of the palace and fills it with lovely women resplendent in gems and luxurious fabrics, fine foods, and wines. Bartolommeo has lived quietly and spartanly for many years while indulging Don Juan, and now it is only for Bartolommeo to die so Don Juan will have his fortune. Suddenly Don Juan is called to Bartolommeo’s bedside for indeed he is dying. But . . . it was not ordinary spirit that wrestled there with Death. The eyes glared with strange fixity of gaze . . . it seemed as if Bartolommeo sought to kill some enemy sitting at the foot of his bed by the intent gaze of his dying eyes. Don Juan says without really meaning it, “Oh, if it were only possible to keep you here by giving up a part of my own life!” Bartolommeo exclaims that indeed Don Juan can just so keep him alive and it won’t cost him any of his life. All he has to do is sprinkle a little liquid phial of rock crystal over his body after he dies, and he will come back to life. Don Juan clearly thinks his father is out of his mind. But he walks over and retrieves the phial. Bartolommeo’s poodle dog looks from his master to the phial as if he is in on the secret. Bartolommeo dies.

Don Juan wrestles with himself, and that night he returns to the quarters of his father, locks the door, removes the phial, and sprinkles a bit of the liquid on one of his father’s eyes. He is trembling, he is curious. The eye opens!! . . . the eye was full of life. It was a young child’s eye set in a death’s head; the light quivered into the depths of its youthful liquid brightness . . . the eye seemed as if it would fain dart fire at Don Juan; he saw it thinking, upbraiding, condemning, uttering accusations, threatening doom; it cried aloud, and gnashed upon him. All anguish that shakes human souls was gathered there; supplications the most tender, the wrath of kinds, the love in a girl’s heart pleading with the headsman; then, and after all these, the deeply searching glance a man turns on his fellows as he mounts the last step of the scaffold. Don Juan can’t look at the eye, he thinks that his father might have lived another hundred years, what should he do, kill it? Would that be parricide? “Yes”, the eye seems to quiver. He walks over to crush the eye and a tear trickles down the cheek. Finally he smothers the eye with a linen cloth. The poodle dies with the eye.

So life goes on. Bartolommeo is buried with honors and Don Juan secretes the phial. He lives like the proverbial Don Juan. He lives cynically and respects no man. He is not religious, he evades social laws, all things are a jest. He even assures Pope Julius II that he has another life in reserve in which to repent of the sins of his previous existence. At age sixty he moves to Spain and marries a devout young woman, Dona Elvira, with whom he has a son Felipe. He has discussions of heaven and hell with the local Abbot of Lucar. He leads Dona Eliva and Felipe to believe that his fortune is tied up only in a living annuity and thus he believes they will have a vested interest in keeping him alive, even though he has left most of his fortune buried back in Italy in his residence there. Eventually Don Juan grows old and is dying. He tells his son Felipe that his sins will be washed away if Felipe will bathe his body after death with the liquid phial of rock crystal. Felipe, a religious and properly brought up son who loves his father, promises to perform this duty.

After Don Juan dies, Felipe bathes Don Juan’s face, then the right arm. Suddenly there is a shriek, the sound of glass breaking, and Felipe faints! The right arm has grabbed Felipe’s throat, and Felipe dropped the phial when he fainted. Everyone comes running in. Don Juan’s face is that of a young man, as is that of his right arm. But his body is old and dead. All proclaim this a miracle, and Dona Elvira, too pious to attribute this to magic, sends for the Abbot of San-Lucar, who declares this a miracle (and a revenue event). He appoints a day for canonization of Don Juan. The convent will be called the convent of San Juan of Lucar. At these words a sufficiently facetious grimace passed over the features of the late Duke.

There was a great celebration, people came from near and far, Don Juan’s body was decorated with gems and flowers and candles. Don Juan’s head laughs demonically but is, no doubt, not heard over the thousand voices of celebration. The right arm struggles out of the reliquary and brandishes over the assembly in mockery and despair. “The saint is blessing us,” they all cry. And note how often we are deceived in the homage we pay; the great man scoffs at those who praise him, and pays compliments now and again to those whom he laughs at in the depths of his heart.

There’s a loud curse: “O Coglione!”

“The saint is playing the devil,” replied the Abbot.

Then the living head tore itself away from the lifeless body and set its teeth in the Abbot’s head crying “Remember Dona Elvira!”. The Abbot cried out and his ecclesiastics crowded around. The voice cried out, “Idiot, tell us now if there is a God!” The Abbot had been bitten through to the brain and drew his last breath.


Read it here

Summary by Pamela, October 2007


2 comments on “The Elixir of Life by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This is definitely a story most appropriate for Halloween, too creepy for every day, LOL. Saintsbuy is bizarrely ambivalent about it: “[it] would have been done much better by Merimee or Gautier than by Blazac. But it is done well…we find something that is not quite perfect, that wants another hand. Even as it is, we would not change for anything else, but we have the sense that the same thing by another person might have been better.” I sort of feel the same way and especially, like Lisa, don’t quite get the ending.


  2. That ending was a real shocker! Scary.


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