The Country Doctor by Honoré de Balzac

Le Médecin de Campagne
The Country Doctor

We begin with a French military officer riding through the scenery of Savoy near the Grande Chartreuse monastery. There are several pages of description which establish that our officer, Commandant Genestas, is an imposing figure who knows his way about the world. (That he received a medal for bravery at Borodino, Napoleon’s last Pyrrhic victory in Russia before the retreat, in which 70,000 of the 250,000 invading French lost their lives, says something about his aura of distinction.)

Genestas arrives at a small hamlet in which he finds an impoverished old woman taking care of four children of roughly the same age. It turns out that she is a caregiver. She gets a mere three francs a month and a pound of soap for each of them; but the money suffices for her needs and those of the children. She mentions a doctor named Benassis who is a boon to all the poor of the valley, because he takes care of their health free of charge.

Genestas asks whether Benassis is a “clever doctor,” and receives the answer that everyone prays for him. When he asks the way to his house, the old lady says it is only a league distant. He continues on his way and finds the house of the doctor. His horse is stabled, but the servant directs Genestas to a house nearby where the doctor is caring for a sick patient near a flour mill.

By a series of ruined cottages, he finds the doctor taking care of an very sick man who appears to be a cretin, who is being cared for by a poor old woman. Doctor Benassis does not take notice of his visitor, as his patient has reached a crisis and is close to death. In fact, he expires directly. Then there is an odd scene where a large funeral procession quite suddenly materializes without any message having been sent to tell anyone of the cretin’s death.

Now that his work is over, Benassis turns to Genestas and quite casually begins telling his life story. Apparently, the valley had once been full of cretins – a condition that was caused largely by the unhealthy conditions prevailing there. Benassis described how he single-handedly resettled most of the residents in a healthier locale and helped raise the money to build them new houses. He built a road that made it easy for manufactures from the valley to reach Grenoble and other larger cities. Then he started up several local industries, including basket-making. Initially meeting up with resistance, Benassis has caused a local renaissance in good health and an improving economy.

It turns out that Genestas had intended to see Benassis all along. He is ill and wants to see whether the good doctor could cure him. Although Benassis is willing to cure him for nothing, Genestas offers ten francs a day and asks if he could bunk at the doctor’s house. We see the spotless house of the doctor and meet a rather phenomenal white tornado of a housekeeper named Jacquotte. Benassis and Genestas take a spin in the doctor’s garden. Benassis contrasts the relative influence in our society of the Destroyer and the Builder, with the Destroyer getting all the rewards.

We learn that Commander Genestas is going under an assumed nom de guerre. His real name is Pierre Bluteau. But Balzac says he’ll keep calling him Genestas.

Benassis takes Genestas to a large funeral. There he makes the interesting observation that perhaps the greatest use of the Catholic Church is by solemnizing the important events in a man’s life.

Then Genestas is taken to meet an old veteran of Napoleon’s wars, one Gondrin. Although he made a heroic contribution at the crossing of the Berezina during the retreat from Moscow, he has not received his military pension. Genestas feels deeply for his plight and promises to help him.

Dr Benassis and Commander Genestas continue their progress through a Savoyard utopia. The visits are continued to various of the good doctor’s patients, the most interesting of which is La Fosseuse, a delicate young maiden in her early twenties who seems to be both feckless and painfully shy. The doctor seems to like her as much as he could feel that way about any woman; but La Fosseuse seems to take a shine to the soldier. When they leave her cottage, she stands on a rock so that she could see them as they go on their way.

There is also a young man with tuberculosis. When the two travelers hear beautiful unearthly singing, Benassis knows exactly who it is. They ride up and Benassis strongly admonishes him not to sing. Added to that, he is covered in sweat. The doctor puts him to bed and warns the mother, when she shows up, to adhere to a very strict dietary regimen.

As the doctor tells his friend, “Sufferings and death everywhere, but also resignation. All these peasant folk take death philosophically; they fall ill, say nothing about it, and take to their beds like dumb animals.” That seems to be diametrically opposite to the peasants in Balzac’s Les Paysans, who manage to live forever by fomenting plots against their fellow man. Perhaps the good doctor has a lesson to learn from that book!

Finally, the peace of the valley is interrupted by a gunshot. It is one Butifer, who is poaching chamois on the local count’s land. Genestas notes that he would make a fine soldier, and Benassis agrees.

Earlier on, the doctor asks Genestas for an anecdote of his battles under  Napoleon. It is curious that the story Genestas tells is somewhat lame, about protecting the men at Studzianka (during the retreat from Moscow) by shooting a German who is trying to sabotage the roof beam of the structure in which officers and men are sleeping.

Benassis and Genestas are back at the former’s house after their tour of inspection through the district. There is a lengthy discussion between Dr Benassis, Genestas, the curate, and the other “gentlemen” followed by a scene where Genestas and Benassis go to a little hidey hole in the barn where they can here the common people speaking. This is apparently something that the good doctor does frequently to monitor how things are going among his charges.

Benassis propounds his position that it requires something of a Napoleon to govern at all. Also, “the privilege of election ought only to be exercised by men who possess wealth, power, or intelligence, and you will likewise see that the action of the deputies they may choose to represent should be considerably restricted.”

Dr B goes on to say that having electors who are not capable has left France to have 40,000 new laws over a 40-year period. And: “A people with forty thousand laws might as well have none at all.”

The party breaks up and we are with G and B as they overhear the common people, beginning with the lovely La Fosseuse, who tells a folk ghost story.

She is followed by one Goguelat, a veteran of Napoleon’s wars. He summarizes all the Napoleonic campaigns within a few pages in what is the funniest scene in all of Balzac. He starts out by protesting that he couldn’t do it justice in such a short time, but he goes ahead and does it anyhow. Goguelat implies that Napoleon is immortal because of all his officers who have been shot while following him on the battlefield:

“He had thought of killing himself, so that no one should behold Napoleon after his defeat [in Russia]; like Jesus Christ before the Crucifixion, he thought himself foresaken by God and by his talisman, and so he took enough poison to kill a regiment, but it had no effect whatever on him.”

Benassis was born in a small town in Languedoc (in Southwestern France) of a well-to-do family, who sends him to Paris to attend medical school. As we have discovered in numerous other Balzac works, Paris exercises a corrupting influence on Provincials, and Benassis is no exception. In his own words: “For a long while I went every evening to some theater, and little by little I fell into idle ways. I grew more and more slack over my work; even my most pressing tasks were apt to be put off until the morrow, and before long there was an end of my search after knowledge for its own sake: I did nothing more than the work that was absolutely required to enable me to get through the examinations that must be passed before I could become a doctor…. I had already broken my idols — I became a Parisian.”

He takes up with a poor girl, Agatha, who is willing to accept that Benassis is not an officer in Napoleon’s army and who is touchingly devoted to him. But we all know what happens next, don’t we?

The doctor’s father dies and his son heads to Languedoc to wind up his affairs. Benassis had to remain there for several months, during which Agatha languishes alone in a Paris garret. “At last I had regained my freedom,” he tells Genestas. He receives letters from her but, of course, does not answer with any degree of regularity, if at all.

He returns to Paris without telling Agatha and takes up residence elsewhere. After a few days, he goes back to pay a visit to her, who tearfully realizes what has happened. He does not, however, continue to live with her. In the meantime, Benassis fritters away his fortune. One day, he receives a letter saying that Agatha was at death’s door. We learn, too, that she has had a child by him, and asks her faithless lover to care for him.

Benassis shows he has some sand in him when he takes upon himself the responsibility for his faithlessness. The doctor devotes his life to bringing him up right.

In Paris, Benassis makes the acquaintance of a family with strong Jansenist leanings. He assiduously courts the daughter of the family, named Evelina – without telling her or her parents of his own faithlessness with Agatha.

It is around this time that another fateful event has reached Benassis: his tutor tells him his son’s life is in danger. A common friend tells Evelina’s family about the doctor’s past life, and he is forever after shunned as a social leper. The son dies, and Benassis is cast into a deep, suicidal depression. Thoughts of religion prevent him from taking his own life, and he becomes the leader and living saint of his little Savoyard valley.

Genestas is strangely affected by Benassis’ story. To Benassis, he calls himself a scoundrel, saying there is no such person as Captain Bluteau. Then, oddly, he calls himself Commander Pierre Joseph Genestas, upon which Dr B grabs his hand: “Are you Commandant Genestas? … I have been very anxious to make your acquaintance, for I have often heard M. Gravier speak of you.” [I believe that Benassis already knew his name to be Genestas at this point.]

Commandant G informs Dr B that he has sought him out on account of a child’s life that is in danger. The story goes back to Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Genestas and his men were stationed in Poland, waiting for the Emperor’s return. G had a friend that was the unit’s quartermaster, by the name of Renard. The unit is billeted with a Jewish family whose daughter is strikingly beautiful.(“She looked like a new gold piece among a lot of copper coins.”) The commandant wanted to put the moves on beautiful young Judith, but Renard beat him to it.

In short, Renard and Judith are married – after a fashion that was not  apparently recognized in France. But Renard never makes it back to France: He is killed at the Battle of Lutzen, but makes Genestas promise to take care of Judith and her son, who is born during the battle of Hanan. G marries Judith so that her son Adrien would not be considered a bastard, and she rapidly dies.

Adrien is a delicate child, and Paris is probably not the best place for a delicate child. Dr B expresses interest in the boy and asks G to bring him to the valley. Genestas exclaims: “Tonnerre de Dieu! … I cannot let you go without without telling you that you are the third among christened men to make me understand that there is Something up there” [pointing heavenward]. [Who were the other two?]

Commandant G returns with Adrien, and Benassis takes charge of him. He resolves to make the boy live an outdoor life with the help of hunter/poacher Butifer. La Fosseuse meets the boy, and Dr B urges her to tell her own story, which is a bit inconsequential, involving her love for a puppy and her encounter with a rich young man and his sister. She begs G to tell her some anecdotes about Napoleon, which he does.

Genestas leaves Adrien with Dr B and La Fosseuse, who is appointed to be a lieutenant-colonel of a regiment stationed at Poitiers. In the meantime, Adrien thrives in the open air.

Then, one day, he receives an urgent summons. Dr Benassis is dead. He returns to the valley and visits the tomb of the good doctor, whose epitaph proclaims him to be “The Good Monsieur Benassis/The Father of Us All.” Genestas resolves to return and end his days there when he has retired.

This is a curiously muted ending to a muted story — one that is very unusual for Balzac. And yet, I liked it. It is almost as if the author was under the influence of Rousseau (who is very much associated with that part of the country). I wonder if Balzac wanted to show his entourage of women that he was capable of something different and more fashionable. Even more curiously, he does a pretty good job of it

Read it here
Summarized by Jim,  December 2009 – January 2010


3 comments on “The Country Doctor by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    This is one of the first Balzac short stories that I read, and it remains a favourite.


  2. scamperpb says:

    This book is somehow more soothing that your typical Balzac. It is a novel of redemption, of making your life productive and useful even though you have grievously committed cruelties or other sins for which you cannot forgive yourself. Dr. Bernassis through a benevolent dictatorship has restored an entire countryside from poverty and illness. His sin and the sin of his visor Genestas is abandoning a woman and/or child. Saintsbury says that “the sin and the punishment of the Doctor, the thoroughly human figures of Genestas and the rest, save the situation from” sentimentality and orthodoxy of similar works from that time period. The blending of the political and social story with the rural countryside and people was very well done.


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