The Physiology of Marriage by Honoré de Balzac

Physiologie du Mariage
The Physiology of Marriage

This is an odd work. George Saintsbury comments that “The Physiology of Marriage” and its companion piece “Petty Troubles of Married Life” “belong quite apart from the action of the “Comedie Humaine”, and can only be included therein by virtue of a special dispensation on the part of their author.” Saintsbury goes on to call them “grim, almost sardonic essays”. He also comments that “At times he [Balzac] seems honestly to be trying to analyze a particular phase of his subject; at other times he appears to be ridiculing the whole institution of marriage. “ This is ironic since Balzac was not married when writing the work, though Saintsburgy gives him credit for an occasional flash of keen penetration. This summary will try to provide a flavor of the work as might be appropriate in discussing a work of essay, but it will not be comprehensive because of the nature of the work.

Balzac begins by stating that marriage is not an institution of nature and observing that marriage operates differently in different societies. These comments were made by someone in the presence of Napoleon, and Bazac says they made a ‘profound impression upon the author of this book.” Balzac seems centered on the issues of ADULTERY, which I capitalize as he does in his text. He claims that marriage is “generally modified by adultery” and that the number of unhappy homes is greater than the happy homes. To be honest, this premise as a hint as to what is to come in this work does not much make me want to read it. He talks of perhaps writing a satire upon marriage wherein a husband and wife find themselves in love with each other for the first time after 27 years of marriage. I can only wish he’ll include this satire in this work, but in browsing through it the pages look dismally absent of anything other than Balzac’s cynical and often poorly formed opinions of women and marriage.

I should note in fairness that after reading almost the entire “Comedie Humaine” I am not a fan of Balzac’s treatment of women and find his assumptions that he is an expert on women entirely without basis. While there are many aspects of Balzac’s works I admire, in my opinion this is his biggest failing: his flashes of insight are overwhelmed with his ignorance.

Balzac devotes a number of pages in the opening of “The Physiology of Marriage” to his vision in writing the book. He relates an anecdote about a dying Countess who becomes fixed on a spot on the floor where a log had rolled out of the fireplace. She springs up out of bed to put the log back into its place, and her eyes remain fixed on the spot on the floor until she dies. When her heirs dig up the plank, they find the remains of her husband, for whom she had been allegedly grieving the past 10 years. To further support his case against marriage, Balzac then tells about being privy to the conversation of two refined ladies who observe that women almost always take lovers and that their lovers are below their own intellect and selected mainly for their looks. Balzac states he is setting out to “arrange matters which represent what everybody thinks but no one dares to say [about marriage]”. He presents his case of marriage in essay form and supports it with the use of anecdotes. Scattered throughout are what he calls aphorisms, his own principles of truth about marriage.

MEDITATION I “The Subject”

The object of his work is to prove that “Marriage unites for life two beings who do not know each other…that life consists in passion, and that no passion survives marriage.” He goes on to say that marriage as an institution is necessary for the preservation of society and its property but is contrary to nature. He asks himself for whom is he writing this work. After all there are exhaustive numbers of writings on marriage. He declares he writes for the “Disciples of Panurge”. Panurge is a character from Rabelais’ “Pantagruel”. He’s a libertine and Wikipedia says

“In French, reference to Panurge occurs in the phrase mouton de Panurge, which describes an individual that will blindly follow others regardless of the consequences. This, after a story in which Panurge buys a sheep from the merchant Dindenault and then, as a revenge for being overcharged, throws the sheep into the sea. The rest of the sheep in the herd follow the first over the side of the boat, in spite of the best efforts of the shepherd.”

Balzac wants to classify the secret motives of women so that married men can “put their finger on each movement of their wives’ heart, as a table of logarithms tells them the product of a given multiplication.”

MEDITATION II “Marriage Statistics”

Balzac wants to provide a survey on the number of married women eligible for romantic entanglements in France. He calculates 30 million inhabitants of France, approximately 15 million females. He subtracts from this figure 9 million women to reduce the total to 6 million by claiming these 9 million women are disparaged as common, women without money, fineness of skin, and cleanliness. Women who do less than lounge around and think about how best to present themselves in society do not count in his figures. This is the side of Balzac that I personally cannot find pleasing. “But the man of sentiment, the philosopher of the boudoir, while he eats his fine bread, made of corn, sown and harvested by these creatures, will reject them [the common woman] and relegate them, as we do, to a place outside the genus Woman.”

Now Balzac subtracts another 2 million women from his calculation as being too old (over 40). We are down to 4 million women. Another two million is subtracted because the females are too young for romance: that makes the total now 2 million. And then he discusses that 100,000 as too ugly or sickly for consideration, another 100,000 are in the church, and an undetermined number aren’t quite the right age for serious romance There are also a half million prostitutes and women of the trades, actresses, chambermaids, etc. I’m not sure about Balzac’s math or process of elimination, but no matter. Balzac finally resolves that there are about one million married, refined women in the right age range in his world of society. He subtracts another 200,000 to account for the newly married, the ill, the pregnant, etc.

Balzac’s final total is 800,000 women who are likely to violate married faith, but in subsequent meditations he bounces back to the bottom line of one million women and then finally to 400,00 women. He proclaims that the following meditations will determine how many of the one million women are honest women, and how many are virtuous women.

MEDITATION III “Of the Honest Woman”

Balzac’s definition of an honest woman is not what one might expect. Rather it is a rather flippant description of characteristics of an acceptable lover for a young blade of Paris: she’s married, she’s under 40, she’s not paid for sex, she has a private carriage, she’s not her own cook, she’s married to someone with money, she’s well-spoken, etc. The bottom line is she has at least 6,000 francs a year if she lives in the country, 20,000 in Paris, in order to afford the list of characteristics of an honest woman. Somehow Balzac has trouble with his math again, for he reduces this population to about 400,000 of his one million women on account of lack of the proper funds. But it seems that he already reduced the women of France much earlier excluding those without money. Balzac never was very good with figures!

MEDITATION IV “Of the Virtuous Woman”

Balzac notes that women marry around the age of 20 and drop out of the romance market about 40, while men are romantic from about 17 to 52 or more. Without going through Balzac’s questionable numbers game, it is sufficient to note that there are about three million men available to “pay homage to honest women.” He reduces this by non-philandering husbands, unappealing, clergy, etc. to about one million. These men probably have at least a total of three million “adventures” – and there are only about 400,000 “honest” women.

Balzac upon revealing these numbers says that manners are the hypocrisy of nations. “If the God of goodness and indulgence who hovers over the worlds does not make a second washing of the human race, it is doubtless because so little success attended to first.” He declares physical love is a craving like hunger except more violent and less frequent. Balzac claims there are a few virtuous women – those who die young in their first child-birth, those who are exceptionally ugly, the religious, etc. Balzac seems to disparage these virtuous women as having something wrong with them.

Since men marry 10 years later than women, and there are more of them in the proper category, it is inevitable that they seek the passions of married women – their other choice being those common women who are beneath them. They could marry younger, but likely would make unwise choices in their youth. They could remain celibate, but that seems unlikely and wouldn’t be respected. So, married men, accept the knowledge that your wife will indeed have lovers in her prime.

MEDITATION V “Of the Predestined”

Certain characteristics incline a wife to entertain lovers. The man of business who is predictably gone at certain times leaves the door open, as does the preoccupied husband – a husband who is so involved in his business or science that he does not pay due attention to his wife. Beware also the old man who marries a young girl and also the tyrant.

Balzac tells an amusing story of a pet ape who picks up a violin and examines it, puzzled as to how it makes music. He turns it over and over, then tries to place it under his chin and play it. But he draws forth only discordant sounds. After a few more attempts “he takes the bow with both hands and snaps it into two pieces across the innocent instrument, source of harmony and delight…the monkey sat down upon the fragments of it and amused himself with stupid joy in mixing up the yellow strings of the broken bow.” And Balzac makes the comparison of the majority of the predestined husbands with “this orang-outang trying to play the violin.” Woman is a delightful instrument of pleasure, but “it is necessary to know its trembling strings, to study the position of them, the timid keyboard, the fingering so changeful and capricious which befits it.”

“Harlequin, when he tried to find out whether his horse could be accustomed to go without food, was not more ridiculous than the men who wish to find happiness in their home and yet refuse to cultivate it with all the pains which it demands. The errors of women are so many indictments of egotism, neglect and worthlessness in husbands.” Balzac goes on to say that men marry for property and/or children – but property and children do not make a man happy. Love is what makes happiness, and it is possible to always desire one’s wife – just as a famous musician does not need more than one violin to execute a piece of music. In short, Balzac provides a catechism of marriage which says for the man not to force himself on the woman, to feel passion for her, to allow her the free will to love him, to appreciate the uniqueness of each pleasure. These comments to be the first of only a few positive comments about women and romance in the entire work.

MEDITATION VI “Of Boarding Schools”

Women educated in boarding schools discuss love and sex and thus are not chaste even if still technically virgins. They develop intimate confidences which go with them into life, and then instead of just a wife to deal with one has several women watching you along with those women’s families and lovers. And what about the mothers of women sent to boarding schools – are they not devious in ridding their house of the wiles of a young girl? Better to marry a young girl cultivated at home.

Balzac also notes that most men marry with about as much concern as buying a stock on the market. He recommends (curiously I thought) “a young lady whose temperament resembles that of the women of Louisiana or the Carolinas.” Also it is better to choose someone not plain but not quite pretty.

Balzac wonders why we lock women up before marriage but allow them to have lovers afterwards – would not the system work far better reversed? She would make a wiser choice of husband if she weren’t driven to take the love of the first comer. We are cautious with young women to fear their submitting to a man who does not love her – but isn’t that often the result of the marriage of an inexperienced young woman? The French method of locking up the young girls and giving the most complete liberty to wives seems to indicate that the French are more solicitous about a woman’s past than her future.

He wonders “whether a wife is forced into infidelity by the impossibility of obtaining any change, or by the liberty which is allowed her in this connection.” I suppose what he means by impossibility of change is change in their husbands.

MEDITATION VII “Of the Honeymoon”

Balzac cautions against the new husband taking his pleasure in his wife physically with violence. She’ll submit in her innocence, but if she sees that there is to never be pleasure in the act she will eventually rebel. “She will no longer be silent when once she has learned the uselessness of her sacrifices”. Once she has determined this, it is impossible to repair the damage. Later on he notes that if a man – or we presume a woman – once feels aversion, he – she – never returns to love. This is the transition of the honeymoon to the “Red-moon”.

Suddenly Balzac leaps to another of his beliefs about love. The duration of passion is in proportion to how long it took to obtain the woman. If it was no trouble to get the woman, the passion disappears instantly .

Another principle is, “we receive only in proportion to what we give.” Do not give more or less than you receive. “Durable love is that which always keeps the forces of two human beings in equilibrium.”

Balzac cautions against the practice of slowly beginning to neglect one’s appearance, the details of marriage, etc. Indifference kills love. The wife may long for the passion not quite ever fulfilled by the careless husband.

MEDIATION VIII “Of the First Symptoms”

Balzac tells the story of the Minotaur where the half-man, half-bull became – or was all the time without realizing it – whole man and no bull. He now calls this the minotaurization of a husband, which I presume is when a wife starts taking lovers.

All the ‘hungry celibates’, that is the single men aiming to be lovers of married women, are in a conspiracy to work together to dup the husbands. They leave the newly married alone, letting the woman gain experience and then disillusionment with her husband. When the couple reemerges in society for society’s sake, it is time to strike because the wife with an unsatisfied heart has come in search of distraction. The husband is now in danger of being minotaurized and the wife is likely to become ‘inconsistent’. That is, she is now in a consistent plan to appear to fulfill all her wifely duties while taking a lover.

She dresses with more care than ever, but at home she can be gloomy and thoughtful, then laughing and gay. She’ll say she loves you as a sister, and she will be indifferent in lovemaking. Sometimes she’s exceptionally tender, at others sullen. She may take up long-abandoned religious practices. She’ll start asserting herself, no longer delighting in doing your bidding. She’ll start referring to the home as hers – my chamber, my bed, etc. She’ll tell you to butt out of the business of the home. All this will be done under the name of the dignity of women.

And perhaps worst of all she will engage in “rattle-power”. She’ll repeat the same idea over and over the same way on the theory that eventually you will admit them – such as that you have an excellent wife, women often see clearer than men, etc. The shrewd, intelligent, and sarcastic wife has the leisure to meditate a strategy which can turn her husband into ridicule. Once she’s laughed at him, his power has expired and it is the end. A woman lies on emotion, and when the first passion leaves marriage she seeks new passion to feel alive.

MEDITATION IX “Epilogue”

Balzac says the mixture of Roman, Gaul, and Frank heritage has produced an odd assortment of traditions in France in the treatment of women. Greece of the hot climate secluded their women, leaving courtesans connected with art and religion to satisfy the first passions of the few young men who weren’t preoccupied with military training. Rome enhanced this seclusion, stressing modesty as a moral obligation. The Gauls integrated respect for women and recognized them as oracles of God. The Francs brought a system of gallantry from the colder climates where the mingling of the sexes was permitted.

“To the East, then, belong the passion and the delirium of passion, the long brown hair, the harem, the amorous divinities, the splendor, the poetry of love and the monuments of love. – To the West, the liberty of wives, the sovereignty of their blond locks, gallantry, the fairy life of love, the sorcery of passion, the profound ecstasy of the soul, the sweet feelings of melancholy and the constancy of love.” These systems are in collision, and the addition of Christianity provided still more divisions in the two principles of servitude and the sovereignty of women.

So French women are still married against their taste and find themselves tempting to take the only reprisals within their power. Balzac again reiterates that young women should have more liberty. “Let us give back to youth the indulgence of those passions, those coquetries, love and its terrors, love and its delights…” Out of this will come experience, confidence, and love in marriage which will have the privilege of comparison. This will eliminate the plague of prostitution and provide through availability the experience of real love affairs. Balzac would support disinheritance so that men would “choose only those who promised happiness by their virtues, their character or their talents.” Women would create happiness in the household and the penalty for infidelity should be severe, that of extreme disgrace.

MEDIATION X “A Treatise on Marital Policy”

This is the beginning of the second part of “The Physiology of Marriage”, this part and the third part proclaiming to tell men how to counteract the subversive behavior of women in marriage.

First off, never believe what a woman says. Second, look for the spirit rather than the letter of her actions. Third, never forget that a woman “is never so garrulous as when she holds her tongue, and is never working with more energy than when she keeps quiet.” Once your suspicions are aroused, be like a man on a tricky horse – always watching the ears of the beast.

If you want to persuade a woman of anything, never try to directly convince her but rather allow her to convince you. Balzac gives as an example a wife who demands expensive jewelry which her husband directly denies due to budgetary concerns. Another wife asks for jewelry, the husband immediately provides her the money graciously, but he lets her overhear his budgetary problems when he asks the author for a loan. In the end, the first wife gets her jewelry and the second wife decided to forego hers – it was enough that her husband is willing to go broke providing her what she wants.

MEDIATION XI “Instruction in the Home”

In short, Balzac advises unless in the rare circumstance where you have married a woman who has been educated like a man, keep your wife away from books. They give her romantic and unrealistic ideas.

MEDITATION XII “The Hygiene of Marriage”

Balzac advises semi-starving the wife (no meat, no wine, etc.) and finding her something physical (perhaps dance) to keep her worn out. Thus she will have no energy for “celibates”. If you, her husband, do not break under the scourge of your will this weak and charming reed, there will be a celibate, capricious and despotic, ready to bring her under a yoke more cruel still; Under all considerations, therefore, humanity demands that you should follow the system of our hygiene.”

MEDITATION XIII “Of Personal Measures”

Insist before marriage that a wife nurse her own children – less time for affairs. Keep her pregnant – less time for exposure to the world.

When danger does arise, divert her intensions with a firestorm, which Balzac calls a blister. One example is a man who proclaims his fortune lost and thus the necessity of repairing to the country, where he diverts his wife with rebuilding the estate and giving her much attention. Similar diversions might be sudden physical complaints, journeys to the continent, etc. It is important to keep such a blister in the back pocket, and to vary them and to understand the necessity of graduating doses.

Subtly belittle the potential lover. Lead the lover to do silly things that will annoy your wife, for example. Tell the lover she likes insolence when she doesn’t, and the lover no doubt will exhibit boorish behavior that makes him intolerable to her. If one has friends in high places, arrange the transfer of the potential lover to another area.

“Study the happy art of being near her and yet not being near her; of seizing the opportunity which will yield you pre-eminence in her mind without ever crushing her with a sense of your superiority, or even of her own happiness. If the ignorance in which you have kept her does not altogether destroy her intellect, you must remain in such relations with her that each of you will still desire the company of the other.”

MEDITIAITON XIV “Of Apartments”

Balzac suggests that bringing home a wife is like bringing home a parrot and putting it in a cage, and he warns that the apartments must be refurbished frequently to keep happiness in the home. “The least accessory of her apartment ought, therefore, to breathe elegance and taste.”

He advises the husband to take extreme precautions in the way his home is designed so that there is no private access to his wife’s apartments, no place for a lover to hide, no servants not loyal to the master, no maze of bed curtains, etc. His admonitions in this regard are astonishing and extreme – he even bans sofas and ottomans! He suggests the servants keep a double-entry record of all visitors, and that the husband frequently examine his wife’s rooms for contraband – a gift, a note, anything out of place. All this is to be done from the first day of marriage and in a subtle enough manner that the wife assumes this is merely the habits of her husband.

MEDITATION XV “Of the Custom House”

“A husband is, like a spider, set at the centre of an invisible net, and receives a shock from the least fool of a fly who touches it, and from a distance, hears, judges and sees what is either his prey or his enemy.” Watch the celibate when he enters – does he adjust his hair, hum a French or Italian air, adjust his necktie? When inside, does he put on a mask of social convention which hides his relationship with your wife? Does he avoid your eye? Does he exit seemingly moved, perhaps casting a glance backwards? Watch all his movements carefully and you will know your danger.

Similarly watch the wife. Does her expression change suddenly upon noticing you? How does she appear when returning home – is her hair a bit amiss, is she too gay, does her complexion glow? Observation is key to success.

MEDITATION XVI “The Charter of Marriage”

Balzac tells us he has modeled his advice thus far on the behavior of a modern-day Othello, a Council of State, who has a “profound genius which so cleverly disguised the precautions of almost oriental jealousy under the elegance of furniture, beauty of carpets and brightness of painted decorations.”

But what happens when eventually even in this gilded cage the wife asks the right of coming and going at her will and of writing and receiving letters without censure? The Council of State tells him he solves this problem like the government does: he agrees to everything requested but does not provide the means for the execution of the requests. If Madame wants to go out, then she is by her status accompanied by servants. If she wants exercise, her husband always accompanies her, etc. But at the end of the story, it seems that the Council of State detects an intruder by finding a black hair, a color of hair not known in the household. A few days later the Council of State tells Balzac of the innocence of his wife. It seems the black hair is that of the general next door, who was seen this morning climbing over the wall between the two houses.

MEDITATION XVIII “The Theory of the Bed”

It is not natural for a husband and wife to occupy twin beds for sleeping as a man is almost always ridiculous when he is asleep. The twin bed “robs our love of all its illusions, strips it are of the majestic company of its delights and gives it in their stead nothing but what is ugliest and most odious.” If one is preoccupied and the other in the mood for love, there might be disastrous consequences communicated from the different beds. And what if the wife learns her husband is a very heavy sleeper? However, Balzac makes an exception for those older couples – twin beds particularly are convenient for those married 20 years or so – the better to treat illnesses, etc.

Balzac rather likes instead the idea of separate rooms, though he admits this is an uncommon practice. “The married couple who dwell in separate apartments have become either divorced, or have attained to the discovery of happiness. They either abominate or adore each other.” Balzac dismisses this idea as not practical – presumably for the opportunities it might provide for infidelity.

So we are left with the idea of one bed for both. Balzac notes that in England the nuptial chamber is a sacred place with the married couple alone having the privilege of entering it. The sense of touch, the closeness with your wife outweighs the inconveniences of a single bed. “In the single couch we have a faithful interpreter to translate with profound truthfulness the sentiments of a woman, to render her a spy over herself, to keep her at the height of her amorous temperature, never to leave her, to have the power of hearing her breathe in slumber, and thus to avoid all the nonsense which is the ruin of so many marriages.” Surely for all of these benefits a man can learn how to sleep gracefully and see that his slumber is light.

MEDITATION XVIII “Of Marital Revolutions”

At some point your wife will recognize the deceits you have played upon her – those activities which have tracked her movements . There is time before this happens to build a defensive operation. It is time to bring your operation in the open once the Civil War with your wife begins. To justify the secret tyranny of the initial policy and the now overt changes, claim jealousy. Balzac assures that the husband can successfully pose this, for “a man of the world must be an actual fool, if he fails in making a woman believe that which flatters her.” The delight of this strategy is the wife will think since you are jealous she can control you but instead you can bind her absolutely. “O comedy that has no audience, which yet is played by one heart before another heart and where both of you applaud because both of you think that you have obtained success!”

Balzac notes the similarity of this Civil War to a prince’s deception in going to war. “The highest degree of good play on the part of a prince lies in persuading his people that he goes to war for them, while all the time he is causing them to be killed for his throne.”

MEDITATION XIX “Of the Lover”

A lover offers an idealization of the wife, but a husband deals with the practicality of life. Balzac provides a series of aphorisms denoting this, such as “In a lover, the coarsest desire always shows itself as a burst of honest admiration.” Thus it is practically impossible for a husband to keep his wife without a lover after about the age of 30. Extreme measures are required.

MEDITATION XX “Essay on Police”

“The police of marriage consist of all those means which are given you by law, manners, force, and stratagem for preventing your wife in her attempt to accomplish those three acts which is some sort make up the life of love: writing, seeing and speaking.”

First one must set up some mousetraps to determine who is the lover. One technique which he calls “the irresistible” is to lead a dinner table discussion criticizing the profession of the suspected lover to see if the wife cannot resist coming to the defense of the disparaged profession. Another technique “the fallacious” is to catch the wife in faulty reasoning in regards to her movements – she may be careless of her reasoning when she wants to change her plans due to the availability of a lover. Or he might use a “touch and go” mousetrap in which he provides alarming and false information about the suspected lover to see if his wife reacts.

Next, one must examine the matter of correspondence. Balzac states that one cannot prevent correspondence, but that the fact there is correspondence can be used to determine the identity and confront the lover. He tells the tale of a husband feigning severe illness and requesting his wife to write about an urgent business matter. While writing, he detected her writing on the side a note to her lover. He managed to pilfer the letter and trick he lover into a meeting in which he persuades the young man to give up his quest.

The third policing matter is of spies. Servants aren’t good spies because one can’t be sure that the servants are more loyal to the husband than the wife. Children in their naivety however are excellent spies.

Another policing matter are the rules of the house, the most important seems to be is never let your wife go in the country or on the promenade alone. There are too many opportunities for intrigues that would exhaust a husband to track.

The final policing matter of importance is concerning the real amount of your income. Balzac advises that the husband secretly tuck away one-third of his income and give his wife the management of the rest. She will feel well treated and have a sense of responsibility to manage the money well, he won’t be burdened with constant requests and subterfuges for money, and if she does think of taking a lover her management of the money will provide valuable clues.

As a final note Balzac ends with a story that illustrates how such policing can go out of control. An old miser was such a policeman that he rakes at night and studies the footprints the next morning to make sure no stranger entered his domain. His wife falls in love with a man of town with no opportunity for fulfillment because of the husband’s diligence, and at last in desperation the lovers brought about the husband’s death by poison.

MEDITATION XXI “The Art of Returning Home”

If one is suspicious, one should enter home in an upbeat but controlling manner. Balzac gives an example where a nobleman spies his wife at a park with her lover on a fine horse. He throws the lover over the fence and says to his wife, “I blame you very much, my dear creature, for not having told me that I was to love you for two. Hereafter every other day I shall love you for the gentleman yonder, and all other days for myself.”

MEDITATION XXII “Of Catastrophes”

Balzac recommends creating a catastrophe when the stakes are high: “The conjugal catastrophe may be compared to one of those high fevers which either carry off a predisposed subject or completely restore his health. Thus , when the catastrophe succeeds, it keeps a woman for years in the prudent realms of virtue.” His examples seem a little vague, but the idea is to beforehand make sure the wife knows he might kill her or a lover, and when he detects treachery keep the upper hand in how he deals with it. He wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again but not go to such an extreme it will actually threaten the life of his wife.

MEDITATION XXIII “Of Manifestoes”

This is the beginning of Part III, which Balzac labels ‘Relating to Civil war”. Balzac lays out some basic principles by which women in love operate: anything may be expected, her actions are not dictated by reason, she advances erratically, etc.

Balzac declares that “the life of a woman is either of the head, of the heart, or of passion. When a woman reaches the age to form an estimate of life, her husband ought to find out whether the primary cause of her intended infidelity proceeds from vanity, from sentiment or from temperament. Temperament may be remedied like disease; sentiment is something in which the husband may find great opportunities of success; but vanity is incurable.”

The task of the husband is to appear to believe in his wife’s fidelity and to preserve an air of patience, the better to fight the problem and maintain public avoidance of ridicule. She has as allies other women and their celibates, so it is better to remain calm to fight the war.

MEDITATION XXIV “Principles of Strategy”

A woman can create her own catastrophe. One diabolical ruse is to pretend love for someone to whom she is indifferent and dislike for someone she loves. Balzac illustrates the feminine artifice this with several tales, the most elaborate of which involves a countess taking a young man on a journey to meet her husband, with whom she has just agreed to reconcile. The husband thinks the young man is her lover, and before the night is over he is, at least for that night. But the next day another man comes, whom the husband welcomes and eagerly sends away the young man whom he thinks her lover. However, the new visitor is the Countess’ long-time lover, and now her husband welcomes him as a relief from her supposed (and actual for one night) lover. And of course the long-time lover doesn’t have a clue that the Countess made love with the young man the night before.

MEDITATION XXV “Of Allies”

Balzac discusses the allies a wife might have in the Civil War of marriage. Balzac first lists religion and confession, quoting La Bruyere in saying “Is it too much for a husband to have ranged against him both devotion and gallantry; a woman ought to choose but one of them for her ally.” Balzac appears to disagree but his response is a cryptic dance upon the typewriter keyboard resulting in nonsensical strings of letters and ending …”and in similar vein to the end of the paragraph.”

Next in potential allies is the mother-in-law, who is naturally allied to her daughter. Usually a woman over 40, she is formidable and cannot be checked with techniques useful on a woman under 40. Keeping the mother-in-law at a distance, perhaps in the country if you are in the city, is an excellent idea. Attempting to cause strive between the two is also effective but not for the faint of heart. He cautions the husband against using a policy of living officially on bad terms with the mother-in-law as it usually draws the daughter and mother closer. The resources of a mother in supporting the daughter are vast and varied, and Balzac recommends never allowing an unsupervised visit.

Another source of allies is the boarding school and other intimate friend. Balzac tells a startling tale of an elderly baron married to a young, seemingly devoted wife. Attracted by a society matron, she encourages his affections but then refuses him based on his devotion to his wife, who visits the matron professing her devotion while the baron is hidden in a closet. So the baron separates himself from his wife (which allowes her to have the long-sought company of a lover) in an attempt to win the matron. The matron suddenly takes a tour for her health, and the baron dies shortly afterwards. And the entire scenario had been plotted and executed by the two women, and never suspected by the baron.

Another weapon in the Civil War of marriage is the wife’s maid. Balzac shockingly explains that the wife may put the maid in the way of the husband in hopes that a sexual liaison may result, thus relieving the wife of unwanted sexual duties while at the same time putting her husband in the wrong. The wife will pay her maid extraordinarily well though probably never admitting her knowledge of the liaison. “What husband is stoical enough to resist such fires, such frosts? There, when you see a new harvest of pleasure, the young innocent sees an income, and your wife her liberty.”

A final powerful ally is the doctor, who always caters to his female patients because he knows they make the decisions on who is to be the household doctor. He can intimate ill health which requires a change of scenery (and to a location where a lover is present), or he can recommend extreme tranquility that banishes the husband from the marriage bed.

MEDITATION XXVI “Of Different Weapons”

Balzac’s cynicism is becoming quite oppressive. “Every one of the sentiments which nature has endowed our heart with, in their gentlest form, will become a dagger in the hand of your wife. You will be stabbed every moment, and you will necessarily succumb; for your love will flow like blood from every wound.”

The wife understands your generous sentiment which leads you to respect those who are in pain. She will thus upon demand “metamorphose herself into a pale and sickly woman.” A headache is the weapon of choice as it is easy to feign. “A headache seizes Madame when she chooses, where she chooses, and as much as she chooses.”

Nervous affections are also quite useful. We may call them “vapors”, a recent phenomenon in France. On the plea of her ill health the wife seeks out some distraction which is likely to result in expensive trips to the country, choice gifts, etc. There cannot be a husband so brutal to oppose such desires! And wives use sighs and weeping, or have nervous attacks.

Balzac closes this section with a treatise on modesty. The meaning is not entirely clear, but the general idea is a wife should preserve her modesty in toilet to preserve her allure, and she is despicable if she deliberately exposes herself to immodest behavior to push him away. And yet he later says that lovers ignore modesty.

MEDITATION XXVII “Of the Last Symptoms”

There are two kinds of deception which result in a minotaurized husband: the unicorn Minotaur in which the lovers are platonic, and the bicorn in which the lovers consummate their love. Balzac lists the symptoms of the bicorn love. Symptoms include among others a willingness of the wife to suddenly send her child away to school, suddenly after a long time of aloofness making a marked overture to the husband, a change in energy level, a display of being nonjudgmental, and spending more money than her husband gives her without being in debt.

MEDITATION XXVIII “Of Compensations”

A husband when he has detected he is a bicorn Minotaur has only two recourses: resignation or vengeance. If he decides on vengeance, it should be complete.

However, resignation has its benefits, especially if delivered with a bit of gallantry. The husband might even get benefits of connection and purse from the lover. His wife from exposure to a new lover may even develop more social skills and wit. “Like cosmopolitan travelers she tells tales of all the countries which she has traversed.” She may even undertake to again seduce her own husband at some point in the future..

MEDITATION XXIX “Of Conjugal Peace”

Balzac looks with gloom upon his own description of marriage. He observes a couple, the wife in her fifties and the husband seventy – it is an old friend, a Marquis. The Marquis assures Balzac that in the winter of his life a man denies that love has any existence ever in life. He finds his wife useful to care for him in his old age, and to ensure that she does so he enriches her while he is alive but leaves her nothing after he is dead. He declares that love promises everything and fulfills nothing. He says, “If you could enjoy for two minutes the riches which God dispenses to the enlightened men who consider love as merely a passing need which it is sufficient to satisfy for six months in their twentieth year; to the men who, scorning the luxurious and surfeiting beefsteaks of Normandy, feed on the roots which God has given in abundance, and take their repose on a bed of withered leave, like the recluses of the Thebaid! – AH! You would not keep on three seconds the wool of fifteen merinos which covers you…”

Balzac suspects he is right but defiantly refuses to state this in his book. He’d rather attempt to “discover some social utility in their [the celibates and honest women] passions and follies.”

MEDITATION XXX “Conclusion”

And indeed Balzac decides the business of infidelity contributes greatly to the economy of France in gifts purchased, debts paid, theatre tickets bought, special foods purchased, etc. He declares his book is written “by advising husbands, to make women more self-restrained and consequently to impart more violence to passions, more money to the treasury, more life to commerce and agriculture.” He observes as a final comment Napoleon’s comment about marriage: “If man never grew old, I would never wish him to have a wife!”

Balzac includes with a postscript in which he tells one final story about a wife outwitting her husband. He assures the woman telling the story: “If I marry, I am bound to be unexpectedly outwitted by some infernal trick or other; but I shall in that case, you may be quite sure, furnish a model household for the admiration of my contemporaries.”

A final personal comment which I cannot resist: as a woman very happily married for over 40 years, I feel very, very sorry for Balzac and his society friends. To not know what love is, to never have the feeling of unconditional love, is to not know life.

Read it here

Summaried by Pamela, February 2012

4 comments on “The Physiology of Marriage by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    Thanks for your comments. This was not your typical Balzac, and I can’t say I loved it. Guy, your review was really good, thanks.

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  2. scamperpb says:

    I won the booby prize when I was elected to summarize this work. Not my cup of tea at all, and I have never liked Balzac’s take on women. But in reading over my notes, I am struck by the fact that ‘women’ to Balzac is a very specific type of women – of class, of youth, of money, of leisure, of beauty. These women probably never worked for anything in their lives, and they are by no means representative of women as a gender. Did he get the portrait of these women right? Perhaps, but I certainly didn’t see many insights to which I could relate. Too bad Balzac didn’t experience the love and support of a kinder, gentler class of women. He might have had a happier life! Love can be love and not a game, Mr. Balzac.

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  3. scamperpb says:

    Thanks to all for your kind comments. Our yahoo group read the entire Balzac canon over about six years. Each week we’d take turns summarizing the week’s reading (about 50 pages). Towards the end of our project we decided to build this blog with our work as there seems to be so little Balzac on the net. I’m glad it is useful – it was a lot of effort, and knowing others are finding it helpful makes it worth the effrot!

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