Many of Balzac's novellas deal with the Bourbon restoration (1814-1830) and the predicament of the heroes of the Grande Armée on their return to France or (if they do not return) on their families. In La Bourse (1832). for example, the widow of a Napoleonic naval officer and her beautiful daughter live in poverty, denied the father's pension. In La Vendetta (1830),the young hero (a captain from the disbanded army), dies from starvation, along with his wife and child, for lack of a pension and the difficulty of obtaining a position. Others such as the hero of the La Duchessse de Langeais (1834) manage to resuscitate a military career after the Bourbon's come onto power.
In Le Colonel Chabert, the hero goes even further – he is a ghost come from the grave. After leading the charge that won the battle of Eylau (1807), Chabert is buried alive on the battlefield and counted among the dead heroes. After emerging and being nursed by German peasants, he combines years of illness and amnesia. By the time he walks back to France, Napoleon has been exiled, and his young, beautiful, and now rich widow has married into the newly emergent Bourbon aristocracy.
His wife, one of a battalion of ultra-wily social-climbing seductresses in Balzac , does not want this haggard specter to ruin her life. By dint of charm and wiles, she almost gets Chabert to sign away his rights, until he overhears her treachery. His reaction, instead of making trouble, id to renounce her and run off. He ends up in a home for indigent old soldiers, while his wife continues her social career.
1. This story is a kind of Martin Guerre-like narrative, with the reservation that Chabert, whatever the initial impression, is no impostor, Curiously, the French film Le Colonel Chabert (1994) stars the inevitable Gérard Depardieu, who also played Martin Guerre in a movie. I haven't seen the movie, but plan to.
2. Derville is Balzac's honest lawyer of the Comédie humaine (he has a major role in Gobseck (1830) and witnesses the treatment of Goriot). He is the stand-in for the novelist, the raisonneur, as he observes the ugly realities of family life in Paris.
The Comédie humane is summed up – that annals of unpunished domestic crimes – in what Derville says to a young colleague, before retiring permanently from Paris:
Combien de choses n’ai-je pas apprises en exerçant ma charge ! J’ai vu mourir un père dans un grenier, sans sou ni maille, abandonné par deux filles auxquelles il avait donné quarante mille livres de rente ! J’ai vu brûler des testaments ; j’ai vu des mères dépouillant leurs enfants, des maris volant leurs femmes, des femmes tuant leurs maris en se servant de l’amour qu’elles leur inspiraient pour les rendre fous ou imbéciles, afin de vivre en paix avec un amant. J’ai vu des femmes donnant à l’enfant d’un premier lit des goûts qui devaient amener sa mort, afin d’enrichir l’enfant de l’amour. Je ne puis vous dire tout ce que j’ai vu, car j’ai vu des crimes contre lesquels la justice est impuissante. Enfin, toutes les horreurs que les romanciers croient inventer sont toujours au-dessous de la vérité.
How many things have I learned while carrying out my trade! I've seen a father die in an attic, without a penny, abandoned bytwo daughters that he had given forty thousand livres of revenue to! I've seen wills burned; I've seen mothers stripping bare their children, husbands stealing firm their wives, women killing their husbands, using the love that they inspired to make them fools or imbeciles, in order to live undisturbed with their lovers. I've seem women giving their eldest child tastes that would lead to his death, in order to enrich their love child. I can't tell you all that I have seen, for I've seen crimes against which justice is powerless. In summary, all the horrors that the novelists believe they are making up fall short of the reality.