The Dangerous Classes

Balzac

Threatening the Social Order

 "The thieves form a republic with its own law and its own manners and customs....they present in the social scene a reflection of those illustrious highwaymen whose courage, character, exploits and eminent qualities will always be admired. Thieves have a language, leaders, and a police of their own; and London, where their association is better organized, they have their own syndics, their own parliament and their own deputies. We have not reached this height of perfection in France. Nonetheless it is a patent fact that among us too robbery is a regular profession and honest folk must be constantly on their guard."

- Honore de Balzac, Code des gens honnêtes

 

this image is a painting of Balzac

 

  •  Singled out: Relations between the Laboring and Dangerous Classes
The relations between laboring and dangerous classes are evident in Hugo's Les Misérables and Sue's Les Mystères de Paris because their description is dramatic, however it is hard to distinguish the various categories of people, the honest workers from the rest, in the confused hordes that appear in both novels. In Balzac's novels, the criminal world was a closed world, and relationships between the dangerous classes and the upper classes are more sharply defined than contacts between the dangerous classes and the laboring classes. Masses of the dangerous classes are absent in Balzac's novels, which is why Balzac's way of describing the lower classes appears to have slightly less sociological impact than that of either Hugo or Sue. (Chevalier, 74) Instead, every detail about Balzac's villians is known; their origins, kinships, contacts, and shady practices.
 
 
  • Older Crime
Balzac's description of the dangerous classes kept to older themes and was full of characters who seemed to have been plucked directly out of the Ancien Régime. The dangerous classes were described as being groups apart, despite their extension underground into the laboring classes. By paying more attention to the older forms of crime in his writing, Balzac's description of crime was light-hearted in comparison with Hugo's and Sue's sinister shadow cast over the landscape of Restoration Paris. For example, robbery was described by resurrecting humerous literature of the 18th century which made this sort of crime an amusing tale. (Chevalier, 72)

 

  • Vautrin: a Sensationalized Reality
Balzac's fidelity to older themes is evident in that the world of evil was incarnate in a few figures larger than life. Vautrin, a character created to be a prodigeous criminal, is relevant only to a picturesque and adventurous crime, and not to the confused criminality that rises from the crowd and is engendered by destitution. Vautrin is the embodiment of the infamous bandit turned policeman Eugène Vidocq. Balzac met Vidocq at a dinner party and went away fascinated; soon thereafter, he introduced the character Vautrin, who reappeared in several Balzacian novels. Some descriptions of Vautrin express the taste for the superhuman and the fantastic which was characteristic of Balzac. This taste was a result of the social upheavals exemplified in the aftermath of Revolution and Empire by the sensational adventurees of ex-convicts raised to high public office such as the marquis de Chambreuil, Coignard, and Collet.

 

  • Comédie Humaine: Threatening the Social Order
In the Comédie humaine, the dangerous classes are still apart from the other classes, forming a separate people who were isolated by its customs, speech, history, mode of life and death, and the places where they lived out and ended their existence. Balzac's description of the dangerous classes lacks all romanticism present in Hugo's and Sue's writings. The ways in which the terms and the technique used to present the account confined the dangerous classes even more securely within the world of the criminal class. In the work as a whole, the social aspects of the problem of crime were stated, not so much by the description of the haunts of criminals as by the evocation of the potential criminality secreted by both the masses and by the lower class districts. In these ways, Balzac continually described the lower classes as threatening the social order.