Z. Marcas by Honoré de Balzac

Z. Marcas


According to this anecdotal tale by Balzac, there was little possibility for a young student, however brilliant, to break into government or the professions–these being occupied under the July monarchy of Louis Philippe by middle-aged and elderly no-talents. Two students, one in medicine and one in law, named Charles and Juste respectively, are rooming in grim sixth floor lodgings and discover a leonine young man named Z. (for Zephirin) Marcas, who is living under more straitened conditions than they are. They befriend him and listen to his complaints about the sad state of the French ministries.

Twice, Marcas had worked for a politician, and twice been betrayed by his envy. When the politician comes begging to Marcas’ apartment to give him a third opportunity, he turns him down. Charles and Juste, having overheard the conversation, barge in and ask why he didn’t accept. When Marcas admits he has no appropriate clothing, the two friends put themselves deep into hock to help him out.

What finally happens disgusts Juste and Charles: Marcas essentially works himself to death, and the ministry for which he worked is gutted when the government changes hands. Charles and Juste leave France–one bound for Asia and the other for the Americas–ultimately agreeing with their friend’s original assessment of the grim employment situation.


Read it here

Summary by Jim, February 2011


2 comments on “Z. Marcas by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I agree: Balzac is making the larger point that the young were being denied opportunity in this period, and that even for educated young lawyers and doctors often there was no alternative but to go overseas to make their way, but the story is a bit sour and mercifully short IMO.


  2. scamperpb says:

    It is suspected that Balzac identified strongly with Z. Marcas, especially in the fact that a hard working man of talent – shall we say genius ? – can not get ahead in the professions or government in French society. All the positions are taken up by the old and incompetent with connections. I thought the portrait of Marcas quite good, and that of his friends also. As Saintsbury mentions, it was a bit of a puzzlement to me when Marcas with his various skills could not find his way without relying on his political boss. Saintsbury suggest he more or less got stuck on a single idea of success – “of the man with one idea, who is incapable not only of making a dishonorable surrender of that idea, but of entering into even the most honorable armistice in his fight for it.”


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