The Hated Son by Honoré de Balzac

L’Enfant Maudit
The Hated Son

Summary of Part 1: “How the Mother Lived”

It is 1591. The Religious Wars about which we read in Catherine de’ Medici are still being waged. Henry IV had just recently (in 1589) ascended the throne of France. Real power is split between the ultra-Catholic Holy League, which largely controlled the North of France; the King, from a Huguenot family who has cast his lot with the Catholics; and the Huguenots, concentrated mostly in the South.

The tale begins during a thunderstorm in the Norman seaside castle of the Comte d’Herouville. His wife, Jeanne, is about to deliver herself of a child, a mere seven months into her marriage with the fierce Count, a fervent Royalist. At a gathering around the time of his marriage, he had told the assembled guests that if his wife delivered herself of a child in under the usual nine months, he would have no compunction about killing mother and infant.

As the Countess feels herself about to give birth, the Count wakes from his sleep and goes out to fetch help. First, he tells Jeanne to wear a mask so that no man could say that he had seen her. Jeanne is confused that it is a man, not a midwife, who is being sent for. The Count returns with a “bonesetter,” a local man of arcane and occult knowledge who reassures Jeanne and helps deliver her of a puny little son. The bonesetter’s name is Beauvouloir. He is kind to the Countess and, aware of the growing rage of the Count, quietly advises her to watch closely over her little son, who has been given the name of Etienne.

Although he knows full well that the child is not his, d’Herouville does not deliver on his threat. Jeanne decides to have Etienne study to be a priest. The Count tells him he may live, but only in an outlying building outside the castle adjoining the shore. He is not to enter the castle.

Etienne is schooled by Beauvouloir, the Abbé de Sebonde, and the old retainer Bertrand who helped the Count fetch Beauvouloir.

Time passes. The Count is advanced by Henry IV to a dukedom; and Jeanne is delivered of a second son, Maximilien, who is very much his father’s son. Just as Etienne is being trained in the ways of knowledge, Maximilien, called the Marquis de Saint-Sever, is trained to become a warrior without any of the graces. Neither child knows of the other’s existence. All the retainers of the d’Herouvilles are dedicated to keeping them apart.

One day, during another thunderstorm, Etienne is sneaked past his father into the castle to witness his mother’s death of consumption. Etienne is traumatized by the loss of the one person who most loved him. He becomes a wild child clinging to the rocks of his small beach domain.

Summary of Part 2: “How the Son Died”

The second part opens with the Duc d’Herouville at the apogee of his power and happiness. His son Maximilien is now the Duc de Nivron and under the special protection of the Maréchal d’Ancre and the Queen Mother, Marie de Medici. Suddenly, a courier from the king arrives. The Maréchal d’Ancre has been killed by order of the king (the young Louis XIII, of Three Musketeers fame), and the Duc de Nivron has shared his fate.

The Duc is seized with a panic: His house is extinct. He has forgotten entirely about wild child Etienne. At his now advanced age (he must be in his seventies), he thinks of marrying and having another male heir. His old retainer Bertrand reminds him that he has another son.

“My son!” cried the old man; “have I a son? –a son to bear my name and to perpetuate it!”

The duke and Bertrand go out the next morning looking for Etienne, who hides from his hated father. Finally, he is lured out; and the old duke lifts him in his arms and carries him into the castle.

The first order of business is to marry Etienne off to some high-born wench who can present him with male children. The old bonesetter, Beauvouloir, whom we saw in the previous part, knows a thing or two about Etienne, however. He urges the Duke to allow the boy to choose his own bride. The danger is that he will reject anyone not to his liking:

“His life on the seashore has been so chaste [speaks Beauvouloir] and so pure that nature is sounder in him than it would have been had he lived in your world. But so delicate a body is the very humble servant of the soul. Monseigneur Etienne must himself choose his wife; all things in him must be the work of nature and not of your will. He will love artlessly, and will accomplish by his heart’s desire that which you wish him to do for the sake of your name. But if you give your son a proud, ungainly woman of the world, a great lady, he will flee to his rocks. More than that; though sudden terror would surely kill him, I believe that any sudden emotion would be equally fatal. My advice therefore is to leave Etienne to choose for himself, at his own pleasure, the path of love. Listen to me, monseigneur; you are a great and powerful prince, but you understand nothing of such matters. Give me your entire confidence, your unlimited confidence, and you shall have a grandson.”

The Duc d’Herouville leaves the castle, and Beauvouloir attempts to arrange a meeting between Etienne and his own child of nature, his daughter Gabrielle. The two fall in love with each other.

Until, until, the Duc returns with a haughty young noblewoman for Etienne. What choice do the two lovers have, but to expire spontaneously in each other’s arms? Sigh!


Read it here

Summary by Jim, April 2008


2 comments on “The Hated Son by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This seemingly Gothic tale starts on a dark and stormy night with the birth of a seven-month baby in a castle. Baby is assumed by evil Count husband to be illegitimate, baby is banished, a second son is born who is accepted. But second son is killed in battle, Count is old and wants heir, and so he brings first son out of banishment and orders him to marry the woman of the Count’s choice to have grandsons. Mother dies in all of this. Son refuses, he’s in love with someone else, and Son and his lover die of fright of the Count. Saintsbury thought this tale not worthy of Balzac’s maturity. I thought it started well but seemed to end too abruptly. Sometimes I think Balzac just gets tired of writing and ends a story, or perhaps he just wasn’t always a good closer.


  2. Gill Price says:

    Balzac does not tend to do Gothic stories very well, and The Hated Son is no exception. There is just too great a contrast between the fierce, brutal count and the sickly, gentle mother and son. It would have been much more interesting if the differences in the characters had been more subtle.

    Liked by 1 person

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