The Magic Skin by Honoré de Balzac

La Peau de Chagrin
The Magic Skin
Also translated as The Wild Ass’s Skin
Also translated as The Skin of the Ass

Part 1 – The Talisman

Picture to yourself a young man who is intent on committing suicide by hurling himself into the Seine. He goes into a vividly drawn gambling casino and loses his last gold piece on the Red. He hangs around the riverbank but notices a hut for resuscitating attempted drowning victims, so resolves to kill some time.

He walks into a multi-story curio shop that contains everything from paintings by the Old Masters to ancient and medieval weaponry to Egyptian mummies. On the fourth story, he encounters an old centenarian who shows him a portrait of Christ by Raphael. He starts conversing with the old man, who decides to show him a magical object and, in the process, tell him the secret of life.

But our would-be suicide is not interested in wisdom at this juncture. The wild ass’s skin is a magical talisman that will grant all his wishes. But after every wish, the skin shrinks. The old man wants to warn him that, by wishing upon it, he is only postponing his suicide.

Nonetheless, our hero makes a wish for a sumptuous three day feast with brilliant men and beautiful women: “Yes, my need is to enfold all the pleasures of heaven and earth in one last embrace and to die of it.”

Raphael de Valentin (for such is our hero’s name) takes the skin, folds it into his pocket, and runs down the stairs and out the front door where he bumps into three men.

It seems that the young men have been looking for Raphael to take him to a party hosted by a wealthy individual who has undertaken to begin a new opposition newspaper to the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe in 1830.

The second half of Part 1 consists of a single party which looks as if it had catered by Mephistopheles (and perhaps it was). The feast itself is a Lucullan orgy where food and fine wines are plentiful, and the whole party toss witticisms into the void. There is an unreal quality to the feast, the elegance, everything. “His wish had come completely true.” But not quite …

Coffee is served and now the women are brought out. Among all the incredible beauties, two stand out: Aquilina and Euphrasie. Both tell of past sorrows. Although both are somewhat soulless, Euphrasie is also deeply cynical.

Around this time, Raphael drops the news that, earlier this evening, he had contemplated hurling himself into the Seine. Emile is sardonic in his response to his friend; and I feel as if Raphael were perhaps getting ready to impart his tale of the wild ass’s skin.

Part 2 – The Woman Without a Heart

The first part of La Peau de chagrin is set in the present. With the start of Part 2, The Woman Without a Heart, we get Raphael de Valentin’s back story–how he evolved into the desperado whom we first encountered trying to hurl himself into the Seine.

We begin with a long monologue in which Raphael attempts to explain to a somewhat bored Emile about his strict upbringing. Valentin’s father raises Raphael in the law and keeps him on a tight leash. He attempts to avoid encouraging his son to become a wastrel and a spendthrift. Finally, after a lucky one-time attempt at gambling with the purse his father put in his safekeeping, Raphael manages to win at the casino and replace his betting money. He never tells his father what he did, but his father now feels he could place complete confidence in his son. He puts him on a generous monthly allowance and pays him the first quarter in advance.

But tragedy strikes: The Comte de Villele, prime minister, dug up an imperial decree that led to the forfeiture of his father’s wealth. His father then dies. At the age of 22, Raphael is left with 1,112 francs which he resolves to live on for the next three years.

He finds a lodging house and takes up residence there. The daughter of the owner, Pauline, catches his eye; but he hesitates to fall in love with her inasmuch as he has nothing but poverty to offer her.

Near the end of the three years, Raphael makes the acquaintance of Eugene de Rastignac (of Old Goriot fame), who tells him he is going about this all wrong: “Rastignac told me my fate was to die in an almshouse, unappreciated like a half-wit….” Instead, the young Gascon urges Raphael to overspend and make useful contacts who could keep him from foundering.

To that end, Eugene introduces him to the most desirable rich young woman in Paris, the Half-Russian, Half-French Countess Foedora. Naturally, Raphael falls for her hook, line, and sinker. He is very careful at first, but finds himself in a most uncomfortable situation when he invites her to the theater, but she begs off. When he goes by himself, he is stunned to find the Countess there. Seeing there is no one else in her box, he sits down beside her; and the Countess is visibly annoyed at his presence.

Raphael escorts her home, but they have words in the carriage. Raphael steps out of the carriage in the middle of a snowstorm and ruins his carefully tended clothes making his way on foot back to his lodgings, where Pauline meets him and commiserates with him.

Raphael de Valentin continues his back story, filling in more details about his pursuit of the Countess Foedora. He has a conversation with our old friend Eugene de Rastignac, who is perhaps not the best counselor for a passionate, impecunious young man: “If I had been ready to listen to Rastignac, I could have had riches galore by adopting the ‘English system.’ He pressed me to let him open accounts for me, so that I could run up debts on the pretext that borrowing is the best way of sustaining credit. In his view, future expectations constituted the most secure and solid capital of all.”

He arranges with a friend to get Raphael several hundred francs to write a memoir of his late aunt, the Marquise de Montbauron.

The Countess calls on Raphael to ask him a favor: She wishes to ask his cousin, the Duc de Navarreins, to intervene on her behalf with the Russian government. Raphael makes the introduction. At the time, the Duc is visibly afraid that Raphael is going to hit him up for money; but dealing with the lovely young countess is a different matter altogether.

During this time, Foedora remains distant from her lover, who notes that she “concealed a heart of bronze beneath her frail and graceful envelope” and that “deep down in her there dwelt the soul of a cat.”

To take the Countess to a play at the downmarket Funambules theater, Raphael pawns the gold frame surrounding his dead mother’s portrait. His housekeeper’s daughter, Pauline, recognizes Raphael’s fixation and helps him out by giving him small amounts of money from time to time, which are furtively accepted. It is quite evident that Pauline loves Raphael, and Raphael has the beginnings of some feelings for Pauline. But …

Raphael decides to secretly spend a night hidden in the Countess’s bedroom so that he can indulge his morose delectations. He actually carries it off, but ruins the effect by blabbing it to, of all persons, Foedora, who is less than amused by the stunt.

Another scene with Rastignac, who says of Foedora, “she’s like all the women we can’t have.”

Raphael visits Rastignac and waits for him in his quarters. He is shocked that his friend is using pages from an edition of Byron’s poems as kindling. When Rastignac returns, it is with with money won at the gaming table. Raphael decides to move to more posh quarters. (And what of Pauline?)

But of course we know–this being the back story–that Raphael lost it all, that the ugly little men who do these things showed up with papers attesting to his debts. And we are suddenly back to the beginning of the story.

But we flash forward to the end of the orgy when all the participants shake off their torpor, looking the worse for wear. The description of the post-orgy atmosphere is one of Balzac’s very best.

But, to move the story forward, the wild ass’s skin is still doing its work. One of the participants at the affair was the Notary Cardot, who casually asks Raphael if his mother’s maiden name was O’Flaherty. It turns out that he is the sole heir of the late Major O’Flaherty, a Calcutta nabob, who died in 1828 leaving an incalculable fortune.

In a dreamlike moment, Raphael takes out the piece of magic skin, measures it, and finds it has shrunk. Suddenly, there erupts in his mind the vision of an alternative universe: “He was vaguely thinking of the routine, apathetic life of a Breton peasant, overburdened with children, ploughing his field, living on buckwheat bread, drinking his cider straight from the jug, believing in the Blssed Virgin and His Majesty the King, making his Easter communion, dancing on Sundays on the village green, and listening to the priest’s sermon without understanding a word of it.”

The orgy host, Taillefer, proclaims: “There are no scaffolds or hangmen for millionaires.”

“No,” replied Raphael, “they are their own executioners.”

This is a powerful chapter that demonstrates what Balzac is capable of when he takes the time to go back over his work and keep redacting it until it glitters like a diamond.

Part 3 – The Death Agony

As we start Part 3, titled The Death-Agony, we are surprised to find that Raphael is no longer using the power of his magical talisman to satisfy all his wishes. Quite the contrary.

We begin with an elderly man making his way to the sumptuous quarters of the Marquis Raphael de Valentin and having some trouble getting to see him. He is well protected by faithful servants who regulate his life in such a way that he does not have to express any wishes. Because every time he expresses a wish, the wild ass’s skin shrinks a bit, and he is closer to his end. The same end, I might add, he so fervently sought when he contemplated committing suicide in Part 1 by hurling himself into the Seine.

The old man is M. Porriquet, Raphael’s old teacher. The head servant, Jonathas, gets Raphael’s permission to show the old teacher in, and he enters.

Through Porriquet’s eyes, we see a very different Raphael:

The extreme melancholy to which he appeared a prey was evident in the unhealthy posture of his slumped body, it was painted on his brow and on his face which was as pallid as a withered flower. There was about him that kind of effeminate grace which distinguishes wealthy invalids….

The import of Porriquet’s visit is to ask the Marquis to assist him, as he is the victim of some “persecutions” brought about in the wake of the Revolution of July [1830] that brought Louis-Philippe into power. Raphael is sympathetic with his old teacher, but makes an error in how he expresses himself: “I can do nothing, nothing at all. But I most heartily wish that you may succeed.” He realizes his mistake at once and leaps up to look at his skin, which is mounted on the wall in such a way that he can measure its shrinkage. As a result of his misstatement, the skin has shrunk slightly, but visibly.

Raphael has Porriquet shown out and upbraids Jonathas for exposing him to such danger: “All the pleasures of life disport themselves around my deathbed like so many alluring ballet-dancers: if I beckon to them, I die. Death dogs me always! You must be a wall between the world and me!”

A bitterly ironical paragraph:

Do you see that magnificent carriage? From outside it looks like a simple brown brougham, but its panels are resplendent with the coat of arms of an ancient and noble family. As it sweeps along, the shop-girls stare in admiration and with longing at the yellow satin, the Savonnerie carpet, the braid trimmings which are as fresh as rice-straw, the downy cushions and the sound-proof plate-glass. Two footmen in livery ride behind this aristocratic coach; but inside, the silk upholstery supports a fevered head with dark rings around the eyes, the head of Raphael, sad and pensive. The fatal image of wealth!

We follow Raphael on the way to the theater. In the foyer, he encounters the old curio dealer from whom he obtained the wild ass’s skin. The aged beau is there with none other than Euphrasie, whom we had met at the Taillefer orgy. You may recall that, when he ran out of the curio shop with his talisman, Raphael cried, “I wish, as repayment for so fatal a service, that you may fall in love with a ballet-dancer!” And, of course, the wish came true.

At the theater, Raphael espies Foedora, but he no longer desires her. But then the eyes of the theatergoers are drawn to another figure who sits in the box immediately adjacent to Raphael’s. Eventually, he glances in her direction and finds it is none other than Pauline, looking as beautiful and fresh as ever–but now also wealthy.

While Raphael was occupied with Foedora, he had no eyes for Pauline; but things have changed. Her father had returned and died rich, leaving his widow a baroness and his daughter a wealthy heiress.

Despite all the risk involved, Raphael is immediately drawn to Pauline; and Pauline, who has always loved him, returns his regard with interest. Raphael consults his talismanic oracle and estimates that he has only two months left. In a fit of rage, he rips the skin off the wall and hurls it into a well. He is resolved to enjoy what remains of his life with Pauline.

Unfortunately, the accursed thing is back: Raphael’s gardener finds it in a bucket of water he has drawn from the well and dutifully hands it back to him.

At this point, the skin is a mere six inches square; so Raphael does what any red-blooded 19th century intellectual would do. He brings in the forces of science.

First: Biology – the naturalist Monsieur Lavrille finds that the skin comes from “an extremely rare donkey, the onager of antiquity.” When Raphael mentions that the skin has shrunk, Lavrille says it is a natural process. When asked if the skin could be stretched, Lavrille refers Raphael and Pauline to …

Second: Mechanics – professor of mechanics Monsieur Planchette, whom Raphael wishes to have stretch the skin. He describes a machine “under which God himself would be squashed like a fly….” He knows of just such a machine, owned by …

Third: Engineering – Herr Spieghalter takes the skin from Raphael, inserts it into his diabolical machine, and … nothing happens. Planchette and Spieghalter are utterly stunned. Perhaps it’s a problem for …

Fourth: Chemistry – Baron Japhet gets the skin from Raphael and the scientists and tries to shave off a piece. IT BREAKS THE RAZOR. He tries several different tools and comes up with a blank.

Valentin returned home in a cold rage.

La Peau de chagrin is a fairy tale. As such, it is either faithful to the story, or it is reduced to being an ironic commentary on the story. Balzac chooses the first alternative.

We have seen modern science fail Raphael in prolonging his life by manipulating the onager’s skin. He wonders now whether the recent shrinkage in the size of the skin has left a mark on his general health. So he calls in a team of doctors to examine him, including our old friend Horace Bianchon. Naturally, all the physicians disagree among themselves.

The doctors compromise and Bianchon, as their spokesman, suggests a holiday to take the waters in Savoy. To minimize his wishes and further shrinkage of the talisman, Raphael leaves without Pauline. Once at the spa, he looks so ill that the other spa visitors attempt to do everything in their power to get him away. Ultimately, one of the young spa visitors challenges Raphael to a duel. Cynically, Raphael accepts.

I say cynically because Raphael has merely to wish to win and he will. The young man takes the first shot, which goes wide. Almost without looking, Raphael drills him through the heart and then jumps into a carriage to escape the law of Savoy, which was then independent.

Next, he settles with a rural family in the Auvergne. Although he seems to enjoy himself, he notices the family giving daily reports to Jonathas, his servant. Ultimately, the peasants give him a poor bill of health.

Raphael now returns to Paris and Pauline. Pauline reproves him for not communicating his attempt at a cure with her. Alas! Being with Pauline means there are more wishes. And then–and then–the inevitable happens. Raphael virtually attacks the half undressed Pauline and dies in her arms as his skin shrinks into nothingness, along with his life.

Raphael de Valentin has finally succeeded in his wish to commit suicide. Only, he took a long detour on the way.

 

Read it here

Summary by Jim, May-June 2010

5 comments on “The Magic Skin by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    A great summary, Jim, and I enjoyed your droll asides:)

    Like

  2. scamperpb says:

    This is one of my favorite Balzac stories, carefully crafted and elegant. Bazac doesn’t get distracted by side shows like he does in some stories. I was surprised to learn “The Magic Skin” is one of his earlier stories. In fact, this story made his career. He’d published just a few stories in his own name when this one came out. It sold out immediately and Balzac was an accepted artist invited into the best society. The message of course is power without wisdom, or, on a social level the corruption of the French society. How much better off Raphael would have been if he had pursued love and learning instead of dissipation!

    Like

  3. Sigmund Freud read this book right before his doctor helped him overdose on Morphine, the story is interesting, i can see why he would pick this book; thank you for the summary.

    Like

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