The Quest of the Absolute by Honoré de Balzac

La recherche de l’Absolu
The Quest of the Absolute
Also translated as The Alkahest


The story is set in Douai, a town in northern France with an an ancient heritage. The Flemish residents are patient and practical but with a love of art and beauty.

Maison Claes, in the Rue de Paris, has been in the Claes family for over two centuries, since the wealthy weaver Van Claes of Ghent, involved in a rebellion there, wisely sent his wife, children and property to France. Van Claes was hanged along with other burghers. Later the wealthy Van Claes allied themselves with the noble family of Molina.

The current owner of Maison Claes is Monsieur Balthazar Claes-Molina, Comte de Nourho, but he prefers to be known simply as Balthazar Claes, descended from the Ghent martyr. His income is fifteen thousand a year from landed property and the household furnishings are worth a small fortune. The family is held in very high esteem.

The portion of the house which fronts on the street is the public area and on the other side of the courtyard is another building, an exact replica, in which the family lives.


End of August, 1812

Josephine Claes is now about forty and in deep anguish. She is of Spanish descent, elegant and noble, even though deformed in body. Upon hearing her husband’s footsteps from the gallery, she conceals her distress.

Balthazar Claes, stooped, fifty but appearing sixty, is so preoccupied he would not have noticed his wife’s distress. This once handsome man is haggard and slovenly. His eyes are described: “The cavernous eyes seemed to have sunk in their orbits through midnight vigils and the terrible reaction of hopes destroyed, yet ceaselessly reborn.” When Balthazar awakens to the mundane world he says, “Why should they not combine within a given time?” causing Josephine to wonder if he is going mad.

Balzac now goes back to 1783 and as time moves forward, we are given a wonderful description of their meeting and courtship.


Josephine and Balthazar were married in 1795 and for fifteen years, living in the mansion in Douai, Josephine was as happy as any woman could be. Balthazar delighted in pleasing Josephine, even running a great risk by having a Catholic Priest in his home during the Revolution. Josephine learned and kept the household traditions.

The Claes had four children, two girls and two boys. The oldest, Marguerite, was born in 1796 and the youngest, Jean-Balthazar, around 1809. Josephine’s maternal love was strong, almost as strong as her love for her husband and part of her current misery is the thought that she has sacrificed her children for the benefit of her husband.

Josephine had given her inheritance to her brother and upon his death in 1805, although the ducal lands had to go to a male heir, it was discovered that her brother had left her a fortune equal to Balthazar’s. It is invested for the benefit of the children, as is the excess of Balthazar’s income above their modest living expenses.

Josephine rarely leaves the mansion, but is at home on Wednesdays and gives three fancy dinners a month. Society, realizing she is more comfortable in her own home, allows her this privilege.

Suddenly, at the end of 1809, Balthazar’s mood changes, and he gives only scant attention to Josephine and the children. When his aberrations are talked about in the town, Josephine says that he his very occupied on a great work which when completed will bring honor to the family, the town and the country. In fact, there has been construction going on in the garret of the front house where he works. But it was from outsiders that Josephine learned of the huge sums of money Balthazar had spent in quest of the Philosopher’s Stone.


Balthazar no longer goes into society but spends all day and sometimes the nights in his laboratory. The family only see him at dinner. He goes on long walks, losing track of time and not always returning before the town gates are closed.

Josephine no longer entertains and even her few friends have drifted away. Over the fifteen years of marriage, Josephine has never been jealous–but now she is! She has a rival and it is Science. She decides that she should at least have the privilege of being in the laboratory with Balthazar; his valet is accorded that right. But when she enters, Balthazar is so startled that he drops a glass container and in anger shoves Josephine out the door and she narrowly misses falling down the stairs. Balthazar is horrified at his actions and thankful Josephine did not come to harm. He says he would forgive no one except her for the intrusion, adding that in another moment “I should perhaps have decomposed nitrogen!” Then he goes back inside his laboratory and closes the door.

Back in her own chamber, Josephine remembers the phrase and cries. In anguish at not understanding science, Josephine secretly begins to study chemistry.

When Josephine hears that there is a three hundred thousand franc mortgage on the property, she consults their notary, Monsieur Pierquin, a man of twenty-six who has just taken over his father’s practice and considers himself a cousin of the Claes. Pierquin investigates the firm of Protez and Chiffreville which had given Balthazar unlimited credit for chemicals and other scientific needs and determines that they are honest; the debt is legitimate.

Josephine feels very guilty that her love for Balthazar has possibly been at the expense of her children. When he did not give her any household money for the last six months, she had sold the diamonds received on her wedding day from her brother. She dismissed the governess and nursemaid and discontinued the carriage expenses. She still desires to make a good marriage for Marguerite who is almost sixteen. The money from the diamonds has been spent. Pierquin warns her that the rents from the estates is no longer sufficient to pay the interest on the mortgages and that Balthazar has mentioned mortgaging the house itself. Not caring for riches herself, Josephine realizes she must confront her husband for the sake of her children.

The past history is finished and we now arrive at the opening scene when Balthazar enters the room in abstraction and makes the scientific remark. Hearing this callous remark uttered while her heart is breaking gives Josephine the courage she needs to confront her husband. When his continued inattention causes Josephine to cry out “This is killing me,” Balthazar suddenly realizes what might be the cause of her upset. He takes her in his arms and rushes with her to her bedroom where she tells him they are ruined. But Balthazar believes that his discovery will surely come in the next few days and they will have inexhaustible wealth. She tells him she has been studying chemistry in order to understand and they agree to talk that evening.

Marguerite arrives to say that Pierquin is downstairs and staying for dinner. Josephine asks Balthazar to dress for dinner and join them. Balthazar tells Marguerite how charming she looks and kisses her forehead. Marguerite is thrilled with the change in her father and tells her mother that even the servants have been been sad at seeing him so gloomy.

The two middle children, Gabriel and Felicie are playing in the garden.


Pierquin tells Josephine he has come about the thirty thousand francs owing to Balthazar’s suppliers. Josephine tells him not to mention it tonight. When Pierquin mentions that he’s never seen Mlle Marguerite looking prettier, Josephine pretends indifference. When Balthazar comes down he is clean and dressed nicely. After he plays with Jean and talks to Gabriel about his lessons, he invites Pierquin to come into the garden with him to see his tulips. Just then Lemulquinier announces dinner. Josephine quickly takes Balthazar’s arm before Pierquin can offer his as she never likes to take the arm of anyone but her husband.

Balthazar mentions that in two months he will give a magnificent fete in honor of his wedding anniversary. This thrills Josephine as he forgot it the last two years.

Even Lemulquinier seems lively and younger tonight. His family name came from one of his ancestors who was a dealer in thread/linen who were called mulquiniers in Flanders. As Balthazar’s assistant, he inspires a bit of awe and mystery as he goes about in Douai. Unlike most Flemish servants, he is not attached to the entire family, only Balthazar, and he uses his position to rule the other servants.

After dinner Josephine suggest they take coffee in the garden near the prize tulip, “tulipa Claesiana.” Pierquin mentions that there are thirty or forty thousand francs worth of tulips. Balthazar makes a scientific remark and falls into meditation. After Pierquin leaves, Balthazar remarks that he knew how to get rid of him. The family then goes into the parlor. After the children retire, the couple go upstairs to Josephine’s room which is furnished in exquisite taste.


In her room, Josephine reminds Balthazar that he promised her he would tell her the secret of his research, reminding him that she has been studying chemistry even though it is condemned by the Church.

Balthazar reminds Josephine of a Polish officer named Adam de Wierzchownia who visited them in 1809. Josephine remembers the gentleman and wasn’t at all impressed with him. She goes so far later in the conversation as to call him a devil.

Balthazar relates how they spoke of chemistry until Josephine says, “Enough, Balthazar!” The officer said that his master and he had been seeking the Absolute. De Wierzchownia had no money and considered Balthazar lucky to be independent and have time to experiment. He told him that if he discovered a line of inquiry worth pursuing and died as a soldier, he would bequeath his idea to Balthazar.

Josephine is distraught at the thought of that man who was in their home for only one night and yet managed deprive them of Balthazar’s love. Balthazar doesn’t like that comment and says he shouldn’t be blamed for rising above the level of other men to bring glory to his family and adds that he has made great advances in three years.

Josephine begs Balthazar to stop his studies so that they may economize and save money. If he can’t give up his studies altogether, he could recommence when their finances become stable. Balthazar finally realizes the grief he has caused and agrees to abandon his quest for the time being. Josephine also requests that the laboratory be destroyed to which Balthazar replies, “So be it–let Chemistry go to the devil!”


Balthazar keeps his word to Josephine and stays away from his laboratory. The family go to the country for two months and when they return to Douai begin preparing for the grand anniversary fete. This ball usually opens the winter social season and Balthazar wants to make this one even more luxurious to dispel rumours of financial difficulties.

The very day of the ball, news arrives in Douai of the disaster at Beresina. This places a damper on the entire town and the guests decline to dance out of patriotism.

Balthazar receives another letter–one from Monsieur de Wierzchownia who is in Dresden, dying from wounds received in battle. He informs Balthazar of the ideas he conceived about the Absolute since their meeting three years ago.

Marguerite, now sixteen and making her first appearance in society, reigns over the evening. Although there is no dancing, the supper is magnificent. After the fete, back in their own rooms, Balthazar gives Josephine the letter to read and she “foresaw the coming doom.”

For several months it seems Balthazar can barely make it through the day. Unable any longer to see Balthazar without the fire in his eyes, Josephine finally says to him, “I release you from your promise.” She tells him that she will sell the rest of her jewels which she had been saving for their daughters in order that he may continue his research.

August, 1813. Balthazar has actually made some valuable discoveries, but doesn’t care about them as they were not his goal. His current program is completed–it failed. He is in despair over the vast sum of money he spent in vain. The money from Josephine’s jewels is gone but if the pictures in their gallery are sold they will have enough to pay the mortgages, the suppliers and enough left for Balthazar to continue his experiments.

As soon as Balthazar hears he can continue his experiments, he tells Josephine that he was a hair’s breadth from his discovery. Josphine is crushed. He doesn’t even thank her for looking into the matter for him, much less for sacrificing yet again so he can continue his Quest. She rushes down to the parlor and collapses in a chair saying to Marguerite and Felicie, “My poor children, I am dying; I feel it.”

Frightened, the girls call for Josephine’s old duenna, Martha, who is horrified when she see’s Josephine’s state. Josephine orders them not to tell Balthazar, not to alarm him. She then asks Martha to send Lemulquinier for Abbe de Solis. In the kitchen Josette and Martha lament how the master is killing the mistress. Lemulquinier says that if she would give him more money instead of thwarting him, they would soon all be rolling in gold, as he is that close to success.

Martha mentions Lemulquinier’s savings of twenty thousand francs and suggests that if he is that sure of the master, he should give them to him. She then tells him to go and fetch the Abbe and he tells her to go herself.

Just then Marguerite comes into the kitchen and tells Lemulquinier to stop at the doctor’s after he goes for the Abbe. Lemulquinier replies that the master told him to put the laboratory in order. Just then Balthazar is coming downstairs and Marguerite asks him if he can spare Lemulquinier for an errand. When Balthazar agrees, Martha cries, “Now you’re forced to go, you old barbarian!” Lemulquinier’s devotion only to Balthazar instead of to the entire family is the source of a quarrel between him and the two women, Martha and Josette.


Marguerite is now old enough to notice and judge her parents’ behaviour. She slowly unravels the household secret of the past few years.

Abbe de Solis and his nephew, Monsieur Emmanuel, arrive. The Abbe, now in his eighties, could have risen high in the Church but was so distraught over the death of the young Duke, Josephine’s brother, that he retired from active life, later moved to Douai to be near Josephine and was devoting himself to the education of his nephew who had been orphaned at an early age.

Emmanuel has been rigidly and carefully reared by his uncle. He is delicate and sensitive. He and Marguerite first saw each other when the youth accompanied his uncle to inspect the pictures in the gallery. Both were very pleased with what they saw.

In order to speak privately with the Abbe, Josephine requests that the children go into the garden and suggests to Marguerite that she show Emmanuel the tulips. As Jean and Felicie go to the other side of the garden, Marguerite and Emmanuel are left alone for their first tete-a-tete. Emmanuel tells Marguerite that his uncle wished him to join the priesthood, but, feeling no vocation, he resisted and plans to be a teacher, hoping one day to be able to support a wife.

Josephine had consulted the Abbe because she wanted to secretly keep a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the pictures in reserve for her children should total poverty overtake the family. He concurred and the next day sent Emmanuel to Amsterdam where he arranged the sale and the separate payments as requested.

By the end of September, the debts are paid and Balthazar is again engrossed in his research. He was so sure of success that he reserved the right of redemption when the pictures were sold. Josephine doesn’t regret the sale; she feels her husband’s happiness is worth it. Balthazar has two hundred thousand francs left for his research and one hundred and sixty-five thousand francs are in the keeping of the Abbe and Emmanuel, buried in their cellar.

Nothing disturbs Balthazar’s research, not his family nor the many political events concerning Napoleon and the Bourbons. Josephine’s health is failing and at the end of 1814 she is unable to leave her bed which is now in the parlor. All her love is centered on her children.


Between Josephine’s illness and the political situation, the townspeople of Douai are not surprised that the Claes no longer entertain. Only the Abbe, Emmanuel and the Pierquins visit. As Marguerite and Emmanuel sit near Josephine, their tenderness to each other remind her of her earlier life with Balthazar.

In late February, 1816, Pierquin tells Josephine that Balthazar has told him to borrow three hundred thousand francs on the property and that she must guard her children’s future and stop him.

“His words were the stab that killed her.” Josephine knows that she can no longer put off confiding all to Marguerite. She writes her last wishes in a letter. It is sealed and addressed to Marguerite. Josephine then tells Marguerite they will talk after she has rested.

When Josephine wakes, all four of her children, the boys having been brought from school by Emmanuel who now teaches there, are praying at her bedside. Marguerite tells Emmanuel to go tell Balthazar that Josephine is worse. At the laboratory, Claes answers, “I will come.”

When Emmanuel returns to Josephine, she tells him to take the boys away and bring his uncle, Abbe de Solis, to administer the last sacraments to her. She signals Marguerite to send Felicie away.

Alone with her mother, Marguerite, not believing in the gravity of Josephine’s condition, says that she has had no household money for ten days and owes the servants six months’ wages. The remaining pictures have been sold and also the wine in the cellar without Josephine’s knowledge.

Josephine then gives Marguerite the sealed letter and tells her she must not read it until a day comes when they have no means of living. She instructs her to love her father but to take care of her brothers and sister. She tells Marguerite that if she wishes to soften the anguish of her death, she must promise to stand beside Balthazar and never to reproach or condemn him. Josephine also requests that Marguerite not marry until Gabriel is old enough to take over the management of the property and household. Marguerite promises.

Abbe de Solis has arrived and all the children are once more present. As the Abbe is about to begin, Josephine inquires for her husband. Martha rushes to the laboratory and screams that Madame is dying. Again Balthazar says he is coming. Lemulquinier arrives shortly and says his master is following him.

Josephine keeps her eyes on the parlour door, but Balthazar does not arrive until the ceremony is over. She asks him if he was on the point of decomposing nitrogen. Balthazar says he has done it! and begins an explanation. It is only the murmur of horror from the others that brings him to himself. Indignant, Abbe de Solis tells him that his wife is dying and that is was he that killed her.

Everyone leaves but Balthazar and Josephine tells him she does not blame him. She tells him she is dying and his fortune lost, adding that on her death her property goes to her children and what will then become of him.

Two millions and six years of toil you have cast into the gulf,–and what have you found?

As Josephine begs Balthazar to spare the children, he calls Lemulquinier and tells him to destroy the equipment, the laboratory, everything. Josephine says it is too late and calls for Marguerite. Her last word is “Marguerite.”

After Josephine was buried, all the family felt that the soul of the house had departed. The parlour was closed; no one wanted to enter it.


Life in Douai outside the Claes household goes on normally after the death of Josephine. They speculate on the size of the fortune left to her children and who Marguerite will marry. None of them mention Pierquin as a possible suitor, but he feels that his case is helped by Josephine’s death because of her pride in their nobility.

Pierquin decides to advance his suit by taking several thousand francs to Balthazar “to relieve him of pecuniary annoyance in the midst of his grief.” He thinks Balthazar and Marguerite will praise his goodness but instead they think it merely a natural act.

Balthazar’s despair over Josephine’s death is so profound that his earlier conduct is forgiven. Marguerite is nineteen now. Her grief is also very deep, but she hides it as she struggles with family cares.

Not realizing that Marguerite cares for another, Pierquin begins his campaign to win her by telling her she must marry in order to secure the inheritance of the Claes children. He explains that the entire property will have to be liquidated in order to give Marguerite her share when she marries and that this will also safeguard the other children’s shares as they can be placed in trust so that Balthazar cannot use them to finance his experiments.

Marguerite cries and says that her father would not rob his children. She then tells Pierquin: “the true interests of my family require me not to marry. My mother thought so.”

Pierquin then declares he has loved Marguerite since the ball three years ago. When she asks him whom she should marry, she sees that the money interests him more than she does. As Pierquin leaves Marguerite watches him and compares him to Emmanuel.

A lovely passage follows about the secret love of Marguerite and Emmanuel who comes each morning to inquire how the family is doing, but never enters the dining-room except to bring a letter or if Balthazar invites him.

Emmanuel tells Marguerite that something needs to be decided about Gabriel’s education and recommends that Gabriel prepare for entrance into the Ecole Polytechnique, offering to be his tutor. Emmanuel says the next day is a holiday and he will bring both boys for a visit.

After dinner the same day Pierquin arrives to discuss the need for an inventory of the property and a family regarding a guardian as the children are all minors. Balthazar tells him to do all that is necessary to protect the interest of the children but to spare him the distress of selling anything of Josephine’s. Balthazar then mentions that in the marriage contract he released Josephine from the necessity of an inventory and thinks that she probably did the same for him. Marguerite is thrilled; she then asks Pierquin if he knew of this but he avoids answering.

As Pierquin leaves he curses Balthazar’s “wandering memory” which reminded him of that just in the nick of time. He realizes he might also lose ground in his suit of Marguerite when she sees how interested he is in saving the family’s fortune and her father tells him that all notaries are lawyers first and friends and relatives after.

No inventory was needed; nothing was done to settle the property.


Balthazar manages the business affairs and raises money on his property to pay the debts. Around the middle of 1817, his grief gradually becoming less intense, Balthazar begins to be bored and to dwell on Science. He remembers that Josephine had refused to accept his oath never to return to his experiments. The now peaceful political scene is allowing scientists of various countries to communicate and share for the first time in almost twenty years. Balthzar’s great fear is that some other scientist will discover what he sought and feels he almost had in his grasp.

Marguerite has been watching Balthazar and tries to distract him with society. Meanwhile Balthazar has secretly begun work again. When Marguerite finds out through Martha, she is still a few months away from coming of age (21) and institutes even more stringent household economy.

Emmanuel de Solis has done well and is now principal of the college at Douai. He comes to visit each evening and the visits are delightful to all. One evening in early November he rushes in saying that he wanted Marguerite to hear the bad news from him and not Pierquin. Balthazar has sold the timber. At this point Pierquin arrives and informs Marguerite that the family is ruined and that he warned her but she would not listen.

Emmanuel reports the good news that Gabriel has been accepted to the Ecole polytechnique. Pierquin says that is good since Gabriel now has to make his own way in the world. He asks Marguerite if she will listen to him now in order to save the family honor and she replies not if it involves marriage. Marguerite will be of age in a few days but that will not be soon enough.

Emmanuel has been studying the Code and has a plan to go to Amsterdam the next day. Marguerite says he may speak in front of Felicie as she should be aware of how courageous they must be. Gabriel is now eighteen and Emmanuel says he and Marguerite should assert their rights and have the balance of the timber proceeds paid to them. Gabriel’s will be placed in trust until he is of age and the interest will cover his schooling expenses.

Marguerite is concerned about her money though as she is sure Balthazar will ask her for it and she will not refuse it. Emmanuel says it could be invested in Gabriel’s name and no one could touch it for three years by which time Balthazar should have succeeded, or more probably, given up his quest.

A month later Emmanuel’s plan is in place. Balthazar was very contrite and ashamed of selling the timber and glad to have the matter resolved so easily. He lives so entirely in the world of Science that he doesn’t see the future and realize that he will no longer be able to raise anything for his experiments.

The year of 1818 passes quietly, Marguerite and Felicie manage the household with their interest which Gabriel sends them quarterly. Sadly Abbe de Solis dies in December.

In January, 1819, Marguerite discovers that her father has sold his tulips, the furniture of the front house and the silver. Marguerite and Felicie have been making lace dresses as a way of earning money. She finally confronts her father and asks him to give up his research. As usual Balthazar says it will be just a few weeks and then they will have millions. When Marguerite tells him to give them bread to eat in the meantime, the financially inept and befuddled Balthazar asks what has become of all the property. Upon being pressed by his daughter, Balthazar embarrassedly admits to having debts again.

One month later a bank messenger arrives with a bill of exchange for 10,000 francs. Marguerite is told that Balthazar’s suppliers hold nine others which will fall due in consecutive months. One hundred thousand francs! Marguerite sends for her father.

When Balthazar does not come, Marguerite goes to the laboratory. She sees him standing in a patch of sunlight with his sleeves rolled up like a workman. The description of Balthazar in his laboratory makes it seem very glorious. But alas, Balthazar has yet another circumstance to lament as delaying his discovery, this time the lack of sunshine. In this intense scene, there was a bit of humor as Mulquinier called it the fault of the “rascally sun” and calls it a “lazy beggar.”

Marguerite tells Balthazar he must leave his laboratory, that he is risking prison and family honor with his madness. Her father shouts that Josephine would never have said that word to him. He harangues Marguerite so vehemently that she turns and runs out, remembering her mother’s words to love her father and not cross him.


Lemulquinier is just as bad as Balthazar in thinking only a little more time is needed to find the Absolute. In the kitchen he laments to Martha that Marguerite has stopped their experiment when all that was lacking was a little sunlight. Upon his complaining that there is no butter for his bread, Martha tells him to buy his own butter and that they would be better trying to make butter instead of gold.

In her room, Marguerite reads the letter that her mother left for her with instructions to only read it when she is in the final extremity of need. It discloses the secret of the gold left with the Abbe de Solis and Emmanuel. She goes on to say how she was bound to Balthazar as her husband, but Marguerite should be firm and save the family even if she has to deceive her father and to deny him gently, remaining respectful and kind.

Marguerite immediately sends for Emmanuel who is a bit worried because he kept the secret but she assures him he was right to do so. Emmanuel says he will pay Balthazar’s debts at once to save the interest and secretly bring the rest to her in gold. Marguerite says the gold must be hidden from her father and cries because it is so sad that she must distrust him.

Emmanuel says she must be pitiless. That she can give her father all of her fortune if she desires, but must guard that of her brothers and sister. Marguerite looks adoringly at Emmanuel and tells him that Pierquin told lies to make her keep her money.

Balthazar comes down to dinner and is very contrite, asking Marguerite to forgive him and moaning that he has ruined the family. Marguerite shows him the paid bills. Instead of being grateful, Balthazar demands that she give him the rest of the money saying he has thought of a final experiment. He treats Marguerite with every courtesy and is once again a witty, fascinating father.

Later when Marguerite and Emmanuel are alone he gives her the gold coins. They are in the process of hiding them when Marguerite sees her father and drops the coins she is carrying. Thinking quickly she tells her father that they are a loan from Emmanuel. Balthazar thinks to obtain them by writing a receipt for Emmanuel who, hoping to salvage something from the accidental discovery, says he lent them to Marguerite with her share of some land as security because Balthazar has no credit. Balthazar rudely dismisses Emmanuel.

Balthazar tells Marguerite he must have the money. When she tells him that if he takes it, it will be theft, he asks if she means to kill him. Balthazar tries everything to persuade Marguerite: flattery, begging, threats and recriminations. When all fails, he curses her as he leaves the room.

Marguerite listens to her father’s footsteps on the staircase. Suddenly she has a presentiment and rushes to find him holding a pistol to his head. She tells him to take all the money and collapses into a chair. Happy now, Balthazar calls her a good daughter and tells her to sleep in peace. Marguerite can only foresee ruin.


Only Balthazar and Lemulquinier believe in the Quest and Balthazar is looking gloomy as he sits in the garden in early July. He confesses to Marguerite that he has failed. The next day Monsieur Conyncks arrives to take Marguerite to Paris.

During the past two years the separation between the nobility and the bourgeoisie became greater and Pierquin, not being of noble birth is excluded from the aristocratic circles. Pierquin now feels that marrying into the Claes family would assist him in the social sphere and therefore be worthwhile even though their fortune is gone. He now spends much time with Felicie and Balthazar and discovers what a rival he has in Emmanuel. Felicie however enjoys Pierquin’s attentions; they are the first she’s ever had.

Balthazar’s sad depression makes it difficult to get through the evenings and he never speaks of Marguerite. Finally after two months she and her uncle return. Pierquin and Emmanuel are invited to the family celebration. Marguerite didn’t do much in Paris aside from working toward a way to recoup the family fortune and is glad to be home in Douai.

After dinner Marguerite and Balthazar have a private interview. With her uncle’s help, including bribes, Balthazar has a position in the receiver’s office in Bretagne making eighteen or twenty thousand francs a year. Balthazar is bitter and refuses to be “turned out” of his own house as he calls it. Marguerite tells him that if he doesn’t accept the position and go to Bretagne then she and the others will leave him. Balthazar says the money is to be made in his laboratory. Marguerite tells him he must choose and leaves the room.

The next morning Marguerite is upset to find her father has gone out. She fears a repeat of his suicide attempt. When he returns, he kisses her and says he has been to get his passport. Monsieur Conyncks is going to accompany him on the journey.

As he is leaving Balthazar hugs Marguerite and tells her she is a good daughter and he bears her no ill-will. Marguerite goes inside to the spot where her mother died and prays for strength. The others join her after watching the carriage until it is out of sight.


Indoors after Balthazar’s departure, Pierquin asks Marguerite what she intends to do and she answers simply, “Save the family.” She details her plans to clear the Waignies land, construct houses and outbuildings and turn it into three rental farms. Pierquin notes that she will need two hundred thousand francs and offers to lend it at only five percent interest.

As Marguerite and Emmanuel consult each other with a glance, Pierquin realizes the situation between them. Felicie’s gratification at Pierquin’s generosity enables Marguerite to deduce how much her sister cares for him.

Marguerite declines the offer saying that paying interest will delay clearing the debts too long and plans to sell the Funds as soon as Gabriel is of age. Later Pierquin realizes his error, but decides that anyway he would never be able to rule over Marguerite and Felicie would suit him much better.

Alone, Emmanuel offers Marguerite the three hundred thousand francs he inherited from his uncle Abbe de Solis. These she accepts as she takes a ring from her finger and offers it to him. He in turn gives her his mother’s wedding ring.

Felicie is nervous when Marguerite lets her know that she is aware of the girl’s devotion to Pierquin, but Marguerite does not diapprove if it makes her happy. The next day Pierquin comes to Marguerite, declares his love for Felicie and requests Marguerite to treat him as a brother and accept the loan of his money without interest. Felicie and Pierquin do marry and Pierquin adds their name to his calling himself Pierquin-Claes de Molina-Nourho, becomes mayor of Douai and is given the rank of Chevalier.

Marguerite does not accept the money, but does accept his services and leaves the next day for Waignies where Pierquin almost performs miracles in regard to finding tenants who are sons of rich farmers and will undertake to clear the land themselves in return for paying no rent for three years and reduced rent for the next two years.

In 1824 all debts were paid and Pierquin and Emmanuel officially applied to Balthazar for his daughters’ hands in marriage. Gabriel is working as engineer on an important canal project and is engaged to Mademoiselle Conyncks. Balthazar is resigning in order to return home to Douai. Pierquin, Emmanuel and even uncle Conyncks have plotted behind Marguerite’s back to obtain paintings for the gallery so it will not be empty on Balthazar’s return.

It is now January, 1825, and Marguerite and Conyncks have gone to bring Balthazar home. Balthazar is only sixty-five, but looks eighty. Lemulquinier, who accompanied him, is also old and wasted looking.


It’s a very happy reunion for Marguerite and Balthazar. Marguerite really surpasses goodness when she not only pays her father’s debts once again but lets him take credit for her struggle to pay off all the old ones.

As they near Douai the rest of the family and a few close friends ride out to meet them. Arrived at Maison de Claes they have a family breakfast and go to the parlour where Pierquin reads the guardianship account. Balthazar is completely cleared.

Family and friends now arrive for the signing of the marriage contracts–three of them! Marguerite and Emmanuel, Gabriel and Mademoiselle Conyncks, and Felicie and Pierquin. Everyone has tried to outdo everyone else in presenting the happy couples with lavish gifts.

Suddenly Lemulquinier appears at the door screaming for Balthazar. When Balthazar asks what it is, Lemulquinier says, “A diamond!” One of their experiments which had been percolating all the time Balthazar was away had produced a diamond. Balthazar pulls himself together and continues with the ceremony of the signing of the marriage contracts. Afterwards some of the guests question Balthazar while others whisper that it is a family diamond that had been misplaced.

As Marguerite takes Balthazar through the gallery to the front part of the house for the grand fete, he sees more restoration of the family treasures.

Much festivities take place over the next period of time and the children are married. Gabriel goes to live near his uncle so Conyncks won’t be parted from his daughter. Pierquin has built a fine mansion for Felicie. Jean returns to Paris to complete his education. This leaves Marguerite and Emmanuel in the Maison de Claes to care for Balthazar. They keep the rear house and Balthazar installs himself on the second floor of the front house.


Emmanuel has given up his position at the University and Marguerite has restored the social functions of the House of Claes. Balthazar attends but is often absent-minded.

Three years after the joyous restoration of Balthazar to his family and the marriages of three of his children, Emmanuel inherits a title and estates in Spain. Marguerite accompanies him to settle the affairs and to see the birthplace of her mother. While in Spain they have a son. Eighteen months pass before they are on their way home to Douai. At Cadiz a letter from Felicie informs them that Balthazar has again ruined himself financially, Martha and Josette are dead and the other servants dismissed except for Lemulquinier. The children are denied entry to the house.

It is September, 1831, when Marguerite and Emmanuel arrive to find the house locked and Balthazar and Lemulquinier out on a walk. A locksmith is summoned and once inside, they find all the furnishings again sold. Even the panels and the portrait of the Claes ancestor are gone. Marguerite is moved to find that her apartment has been respected and is intact.

Balthazar has become a joke in the town, so much so that derisive remarks are thrown at him and only the fact that he has become deaf saves him from the torment and shame of hearing them. Lemulquinier suffers each time he tries to buy provisions but carefully tells Balthazar that the remarks are homage. Pierquin has several of his servants follow the two whenever they leave the house to watch over them, but they slipped away early this morning unattended.

As Balthazar and Lemulquinier sit on a bench in the sun, some boys come and begin to call them sorcerers. Lemulquinier jumps up and waves his cane at the boys to chase them away. A nearby workman sees this and, thinking Lemulquinier was beating the boys, joins the cry with “Down with the sorcerers!” Encouraged by the support the boys fling mud and stones at the two old men.

Balthazar suddenly realizes what is going on and how he is thought of in the town and falls, struck down with paralysis. Emmanuel and Pierquin’s servants arrive and carry the old man home.

Balthazar is an invalid and unable to speak. Marguerite pays his debts once again and refurnishes the house. A few months pass during which Balthazar’s children are always present. Emmanuel reads to him from the newspaper as he seems interested in political events. Near the end of 1832, a crisis seems near and Dr. Pierquin is summoned and remains overnight.

In the morning Balthazar tries desperately to communicate. The doctor signals Emmanuel to read to him, hoping to calm him. When Emmanuel opens the paper the headline reads “Discovery of the Absolute” and in a low voice he reads to Marguerite about the Polish mathematician who discovered the secret. But not low enough. Although nearly deaf, Balthazar heard it.

Making a final struggle, Balthazar cries out “Eureka!” and collapses with an awful moan.

. . . He could not leave to Science the solution of the Great Enigma revealed to him too late, as the veil was torn asunder by the fleshless fingers of Death.


Read it here

Summary by Dagny, May-June 2007


4 comments on “The Quest of the Absolute by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Poor Marguerite, she may have been canny with money but she wasn’t shrewd enough to know that her father was incorrigible to the last!


  2. Did you enjoy this one? I did and it is one of those which I liked even more on the second reading.


  3. Lisa Hill says:

    Yes, I did, it was something quite different to the other ones that I’d read:)


  4. scamperpb says:

    I thought this story was well done but a little long. The characters are well-drawn, especially Claes and his wife and daughter. The story reminds me of Balzac’s life as he was always involved in some sort of get rich scheme which invariably failed. Saintsbury loved this piece as he felt it showed “the fiery heat and glow of the author’s imagination.” Still, I prefer some of Balzac’s more sparce novels like “Pere Goriot” and “Eugenie Grandet”.


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