Source File: cat.cs008.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 8

Willa Cather's La comédie humaine

Willa Cather was a great admirer of France and French writers, declaring in 1895 that, with very few exceptions, “the greatest living novelists are Frenchmen” (Kingdom of Art 357). As Mildred Bennett reports, Cather was probably first introduced to French literature in her adolescence by her neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wiener, the latter of whom read French novels for Cather, translating as she read. To continue her reading independently, Cather took a French dictionary with her to the university, where her four semesters of French included works by Honoré de Balzac and other major French novelists (Bennett 119; Woodress 72). Indeed, she said in a 1929 letter that she had read all of Balzac more than once before she was twenty years old (Cather to Albert G. Feuillerat, 6 November). This essay will not only trace Cather’s changing attitudes toward Balzac—from her early enthusiasm to her open criticism in “The Novel Démeublé” and her tepid reconciliation with his work in “A Chance Meeting”—but will also show that his influence on her work continued much longer than critics have previously supposed. Indeed, Cather uses methods similar to those of Balzac to create an oeuvre that can be called her own La comédie humaine.


The young Cather was clearly enthusiastic about Balzac. On 23 September 1894, she wrote in the Nebraska State Journal: “If we cannot make great men and make them real men, as Thackeray and Balzac did, then it is better to make very common little men in sack coats as Howells does” (Kingdom of Art 407); on 21 July 1895, she declared it “laughable . . . that people should be ashamed to put Meredith and Balzac on their shelves” (Kingdom of Art 181); and on 22 January 1898, she placed Balzac in “the front rank of French novelists,” along with Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Flaubert (World and Parish 2: 574). Soon after moving to Pittsburgh in 1896, Cather began regular visits to the home of George and Helen Seibel, where the three translated and discussed several French romantic novelists, including Balzac (Woodress 119; Seibel 203). Moreover, when Cather went to France in the summer of 1902 she visited Balzac’s tomb, observing that although his “monument is conspicuously ugly and deserted,” Balzac himself “seems more a living fact than a dead man of letters. He lives in every street and quarter; one sees his people everywhere. The city of grey stone and stucco, interlaced by its clear green river and planted with sycamores and poplars, dominated by Nôtre Dame and the Invalides and the columns of victory, is no more real a thing than the great city of thought which Honoré de Balzac piled and heaped together and left, a ruin of chaotic magnificence, beside the Seine” (Willa Cather in Europe 113). To Cather, the figure “of that barbarian of letters looms larger and larger” in Parisian history and art, and the single name of Balzac on his tomb conjures up great visions for her.

Balzac’s influence on Cather at this time has been detected by Robert J. Nelson, who views the Count de Koch in Cather’s 1896 story “The Count of Crow’s Nest” as a Père Goriot in his miserly support of his daughter (55); by Joan Dargan, who argues persuasively that “Paul’s Case” is influenced by Balzac’s novels Louis Lambert and La peau de chagrin (308–13); and more recently by Stéphanie Durrans, who draws parallels between Les paysans and My Ántonia (112–13) as well as between La recherche du l’absolu and The Professor’s House (202–4). Cather may also have drawn on Balzac’s “A Passion in the Desert” for structure, character, and imagery in her early story “‘A Death in the Desert.’” Told in flashback, both stories are narrated by aging men recalling early infatuations. Balzac’s old soldier, who escapes from Arabian captors only to become marooned in the desert, develops a strange passion for the female panther who is his sole companion. Mignonne—as he names her—is strangely personified as a white or blond beauty whose “secrets” are revealed to him during their solitary confinement (465). In Cather’s story, Everett Hilgarde has been in love with Katherine Gaylord since his childhood, but—just as Balzac’s old soldier suspects that his desert oasis has been inhabited before—Katherine has long been in love with Everett’s brother Adriance. When Everett’s train coincidentally stops in the Wyoming desert town where the white-robed Katherine has returned to die, he is held captive by his love for her and stays with her until her death. Symbolically, then, through his uncanny physical resemblance to his brother, Everett becomes both the platonic lover and the murderer of Katherine; similarly, the old soldier comes to love his Mignonne at the same time that, in his fear of her, he ultimately kills her. In both cases, only the death of the beloved female releases the male from his intense passion. Indeed, Cather could have titled her own story “A Passion in the Desert.”

When Cather wrote The Song of the Lark, she was clearly still under the influence of Balzac. The “long row of thirty or forty volumes” (3) that graces Dr. Howard Archie’s office in the opening scene is later identified as a complete edition of Balzac’s La comédie humaine through Cather’s specific reference to “A Distinguished Provincial in Paris” (40). Although Thea Kronborg is essentially very different from the morally decadent poet and journalist Lucien de Rubempré, the protagonist of A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, her naïveté in her relationship with Fred Ottenburg as well as her small-town dress and manners in Chicago and what she calls her “Moonstone” morals (359) mark her as a “provincial.” Thea is self-centered in refusing to come home when her mother is dying, but her selfishness is always in the service of true art, whereas Lucien prostitutes his talent and eventually his body. Ultimately, Thea’s Moonstone morals and work ethic combine with her raw talent to make her a successful artist very different from the shallow and egotistical Lucien. Also relevant to The Song of the Lark is Balzac’s The Country Doctor, a novel that Cather may have had in mind in beginning her own novel with a description of the office of Moonstone’s Dr. Archie, her own country doctor. Like Balzac’s Monsieur Benassis, who has tried to compensate for youthful mistakes of judgment that have brought him great sorrow and loss, Dr. Archie finds solace for his unhappy marriage in his work and in his fatherly affection for the young Thea. Although Benassis is most revered for reviving and supporting the village where he lives, he is particularly devoted to young people, giving the innocent but foolish young girl La Fosseuse a place to live and restoring the health of Genestas’s adopted son. Similarly, Dr. Archie focuses his beneficence on Thea, guiding her growth as a child, arranging for her to study music in Chicago as a young woman, and ultimately providing her with the money to escape a compromising situation and fulfill her dream of studying in Germany with the great opera teacher Lilli Lehmann.

Cather’s style in The Song of the Lark is also Balzacian. Still praising Balzac in 1915 for getting (as a friend had once told her) “thousands and thousands more of distinct impressions and mental pictures in every single day of life than the average man got in all his life” (qtd. in Bohlke 14–15), Cather put as many details and impressions as she could into her novel. Thus, we hear about the contemporary but irrelevant theory of aurae (372), Dr. Archie’s reaction to an invitation to Colorado Springs (394), Colorado’s Interstate Commerce Bill (399), Oliver Landry’s “pot-bellied silver cream pitcher of an Early Georgian pattern” (446), and a stage property spear that Fred Ottenburg keeps at his St. Louis home (465)—all of which Cather omitted in the 1937 revised edition.[1] Like Balzac, she had been a reporter before becoming a novelist and had to, as she stated in 1920, “get over . . . the dazzling journalistic successes of twenty years ago, stories that surprised and delighted by their sharp photographic detail and that were really nothing more than lively pieces of reporting. . . . They gave us,” she said, “altogether, poor standards—taught us to multiply our ideas instead of to condense them” (Willa Cather on Writing 101–2). Cather’s accomplishment in The Song of the Lark is comparable to what in “The Novel Démeublé” she criticizes Balzac for having achieved— reproducing “on paper the actual city of Paris; the houses, the upholstery, the food, the wines, the game of pleasure, the game of business, the game of finance: a stupendous ambition—but, after all, unworthy of an artist. In exactly so far as he succeeded in pouring out on his pages that mass of brick and mortar and furniture and proceedings in bankruptcy, in exactly so far he defeated his end” (Willa Cather on Writing 38). As readers of The Song of the Lark know, Cather reproduces not only Red Cloud, Nebraska, but also much of Chicago, Walnut Canyon, and New York. She describes the carpet-lounge and the “flowers on the Brussels carpet” in Thea’s home (8–9), mentions Andor Harsanyi’s red Hungarian wine (182), and details Dr. Archie’s Tourainian hare entrée at Martin’s right down to its price of “seven twenty-five” (434). Finally, she provides details of Colorado politics comparable to Balzac’s analysis of bankruptcy in The Rise and Fall of César Birotteau.

Based on Cather’s statements in her 1922 credo “The Novel Démeublé” and her rejection of the “full-blooded” method of “too much detail” in her 1931 essay “My First Novels [There Were Two]” (Willa Cather on Writing 96–97), most critics have assumed that Cather’s later novels are free of Balzac’s influence. But nothing could be further from the truth. Remarkable similarities exist between Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Country Doctor, which begins as follows: On a lovely spring morning in the year 1829, a man of fifty or thereabout was wending his way on horseback along the mountain road that leads to a large village near the Grande Chartreuse. . . . All the scenery of the country that lies between the chain of the two Mauriennes is very much alike; yet here in the district through which the stranger was traveling there are soft undulations of the land, and varying effects of light which might be sought for elsewhere in vain.[2] Sometimes the valley, suddenly widening, spreads out a soft irregularlyshaped carpet of grass before the eyes; a meadow constantly watered by the mountain streams that keep it fresh and green at all seasons of the year. (367) In spite of the sharp difference between the meadow in Balzac’s novel and the New Mexican desert in Cather’s, one cannot help but be reminded of the well-known opening paragraph of book 1 of Death Comes for the Archbishop: One afternoon in the autumn of 1851 a solitary horseman, followed by a pack-mule, was pushing through an arid stretch of country somewhere in central New Mexico. He had lost his way, and was trying to get back to the trail, with only his compass and his sense of direction for guides. The difficulty was that the country in which he found himself was so featureless—or rather, that it was crowded with features, all exactly alike. As far as he could see, on every side, the landscape was heaped up into monotonous red sand-hills, not much larger than haycocks, and very much the shape of haycocks. . . . He must have traveled thirty miles of these conical red hills, winding his way in the narrow cracks between . . . (16–17)

After encountering a juniper tree in the shape of a crucifix and making impromptu devotions, Cather’s horseman, Father Jean Marie Latour, eventually winds between two hills to discover a hidden oasis, a “green thread of verdure and a running stream” indicating a Mexican village (24), just as Balzac’s traveler Pierre Joseph Genestas, after having been “misled as to the distance” for “league after league” (374), encounters a “cluster of cottages” on the edge of Benassis’s village.

Although Latour is fifteen years younger than Genestas, close parallels exist between them. Cather characterizes Latour as a “young . . . priest in a thousand” whose bowed head “was not that of an ordinary man—it was built for the seat of a fine intelligence”—and who exhibits an “open, generous, reflective” brow and “a singular elegance” (18); similarly, Balzac describes Commandant Genestas as a tall, well-dressed soldier who has lived a “blameless life” and shows an “indisputable superiority” (369–70). Latour is met by a young Mexican girl who runs to inform his family of their visitor; Genestas is greeted by a young peasant girl who points the way to Monsieur Benassis’s house. Partaking of refreshment in the simple cottages to which they are invited, each traveler finds a figure of the Virgin Mary on the mantle shelf.

Similarities are also present in the physical appearances and generous natures of Monsieur Benassis and Father Joseph Vaillant. When he meets the doctor he has traveled so far to find, Genestas sees a face . . . not unlike that of a satyr; there was the same slightly protruding forehead, full, in this case, of prominences, all more or less denoting character; the same turned-up nose, with a sprightly cleavage at the tip; the same high cheekbones. The lines of the mouth were crooked; the lips, thick and red. The chin turned sharply upward. There was an alert, animated look in the brown eyes, to which their pearly whites gave great brightness, and which expressed passions now subdued. His iron-gray hair, the deep wrinkles in his face, the bushy eyebrows that had grown white already, the veins on his protuberant nose, the tanned face covered with red blotches, everything about him, in short, indicated a man of fifty and the hard work of his profession. (386–87) As a lonely young medical student in Paris, Benassis had succumbed to temptation with a young girl and then, upon receiving an unexpected inheritance from his father, had deserted the girl without realizing she had borne him a son. Reunited with her just before her death, he devotes himself to his child and later falls deeply in love with Evelina, a devout young Catholic, only to be rejected by her family when they learn about his natural son. After his son dies, Benassis contemplates suicide but rejects it as cowardly, ultimately taking residence in the country village, where he not only doctors the physical ailments of the peasants who live there but also reforms their economy and politics. Thus he subdues his previous passions by literally renouncing his own life and wearing his health out in the service of others, believing that God has given him the idea of developing “all the resources of this country, just as a tutor develops the capacities of a child” (404).

Benassis’s personal immolation resembles that of Latour and his friend and fellow priest Father Vaillant, both of whom have renounced their personal lives to serve God and to convert and teach his children in the New Mexican wilderness. Whereas Benassis’s personal bearing and leadership recall Latour, his rough physical appearance resembles Vaillant’s: [A] stranger decided upon meeting Father Joseph . . . that the Lord had made few uglier men. He was short, skinny, bow-legged from a life on horseback, and his countenance had little to recommend it but kindliness and vivacity. He looked old, though he was then about forty. His skin was hardened and seamed by exposure to weather in a bitter climate, his neck scrawny and wrinkled like an old man’s. A bold, blunt-tipped nose, positive chin, a very large mouth,— the lips thick and succulent but never loose, never relaxed, always stiffened by effort or working with excitement. His hair, sunburned to the shade of dry hay, had originally been tow-coloured; “Blanchet” (“Whitey”) he was always called at the Seminary. (39–40) Benassis’s subdued passions are more like Vaillant’s than those of the more cerebral Latour. Although Vaillant’s outward appearance does not “suggest the fierceness and fortitude and fire of the man,” his parishioners recognize these qualities, and Cather declares that he has “the driving power of a dozen men in his poorly built body” (40). Benassis had considered a cloistered life, and Vaillant desires monastic devotion to the Virgin Mary, but both ultimately live lives of service to humanity. Benassis “binds the [physical] wounds of all the suffering poor in a countryside” (599), coming to “recognize the value of the rites of religion and of religious observances in the family” (442), and Vaillant treats the spiritual wounds not only of the people in New Mexico but also of the rough miners in Colorado—his ultimate missionary field.

It is Latour, however, who resembles Benassis in respecting the value of both property and nature. Benassis makes numerous trips to the authorities in Grenoble to gain titles for nearby mountainside property for his village, in which he promotes the building of healthier cottages, improved farming methods, and small industries such as basket weaving. Benassis credits the “grandeur of the scenery” and an “unknown Power” (597) near the Grande Chartreuse Monastery for his commitment to a life of service and then teaches Genestas “to see beauty in a landscape” (484). But when Latour finds the golden rock for his cathedral, Vaillant fails to share his enthusiasm (254). Although his living quarters are as plain as those of Benassis, Latour is an artist, capable of admiring both the physical structure and the natural surroundings of the accomplished cathedral as it “start[s] directly out of those rose-coloured hills” (283). And, finally, Latour’s death parallels that of Benassis. In The Country Doctor, Benassis’s death is brought about from some stressful and unexpected news—probably that of Evelina’s death— but not before he has brought Genestas’s adopted son back to health. At the end of Cather’s novel death does indeed come for the archbishop, but not before he has overseen the building of the great cathedral.

These similarities between The Song of the Lark and A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, as well as those between Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Country Doctor, are not the only connections between Cather and Balzac. Although John J. Murphy has identified prototypes for the obsessive glutton Friar Baltazar Montoya in the various southwestern writings that Cather used (Explanatory Notes 434), the reader of Balzac cannot help but be struck by her use of the name “Baltazar,” which recalls that of Baltazar Claes in The Quest of the Absolute, who is as obsessive as Cather’s glutton. There may also be similarities between The Wild Ass’s Skin and My Mortal Enemy, both of which focus on exorbitant desire. The complex relationship between the works of these two novelists is certainly deserving of further exploration.


Of equal or greater significance than these parallels between individual novels, however, are more holistic similarities in style, subject, and ultimate accomplishment. Stylistic similarities include the narrative gaps and repeated images that both writers employ. In his excellent book Balzacian Montage: Configuring “La comédie humaine,”Allan H. Pasco asserts that “transitions between the narrative blocks of La comédie humaine are often either absent or so cursory that some skepticism is justified when one is confronted by Balzac’s repeated claims of having created a [coherent] ‘edifice’” (46).[3] Cather readers will immediately be reminded of The Professor’s House, with its identifiable “gap” of “Tom Outland’s Story” inserted between the opening and closing sections of the Professor’s, but we should not forget that Cather also leaves many other spatial and chronological gaps, skipping long periods of time between main sections of most of her novels, including O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, My Ántonia, My Mortal Enemy, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Shadows on the Rock, and Lucy Gayheart.

Pasco also believes that in Balzac “everything is subordinated to the central image or the idea,” to what Balzac calls the idée mère, or the “generative idea” (10)—“an idea in an image or an image in an idea” (qtd. in Pasco 25). Pasco identifies in La comédie humaine several repeated images—including masks, monsters, and gold—but the unifying image that stands out most clearly is that of paintings. The central image in “Sarrasine” is Sarrasine’s portrait of the aging castrato Zambinella as an Adonis on a lion’s skin (Pasco 103); that in The Wild Ass’s Skin is the portrait of Christ that Raphaël rejects in favor of the skin that can grant his desires; and the images in The Unknown Masterpiece are Nicolas Poussin’s portrait of his lover Gillette as St. Mary the Egyptian and Frenhofer’s painting of Catherine Lescault (114–17). However, Balzac’s widest symbolic use of paintings and their frames occurs in The Quest of the Absolute, in which the Flemish guildsman and amateur chemist Balthazar Claes’s obsessive quest for the Philosopher’s Stone not only tempts him to sell the family heirlooms—sixty great carved panels and fifty framed masterpieces—but also greatly hardens him against his family and ultimately forces him to lose all contact with reality.

Not only does Cather employ techniques of and allusions to art in her fiction, but she also repeats images—the land, the rock, houses, and cathedrals—that effectively tie her novels together into one consistent oeuvre. Cather’s use of the Nebraska prairie in her novels and stories has been a popular subject with critics for generations. The motifs of the rock in “The Enchanted Bluff,” The Professor’s House, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Shadows on the Rock; of houses—especially caves and attic structures—in My Ántonia, The Song of the Lark, A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop; and of cathedral structures in One of Ours, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Shadows on the Rock are too well known by Cather critics to need further discussion here. Less commonly evoked, however, are Cather’s representation of and apparent love for desert spaces, images that also have a direct connection to Balzac.[4] In a Lincoln Courier article on 20 July 1901, Cather quoted Balzac’s conclusion to “A Passion in the Desert,” that in “the desert, one has everything and nothing, God without mankind” (World and Parish 2: 839). When she was visiting her brother Douglass in Arizona and subconsciously collecting ideas for The Song of the Lark in 1912, she again quoted this important conclusion in a letter to Sergeant (14 August)—this time in French, adding that the sentence “really means a good deal.”[5] Through Bishop Latour, Cather indeed finds God in the desert in Death Comes for the Archbishop.

In a letter to Madame Evelina Hanska written before he had settled on his comprehensive title, Balzac wrote that his group of interrelated novels would “portray all aspects of society, so that not a single situation of life, not a face, not a character of any man or woman, not a way of life, not a profession, not a social group, will be missing. Not an aspect of childhood, maturity, old age, politics, justice, war, will be left out. On this foundation I shall examine every thread of the human heart, every social factor and it will be real” (qtd. in Pritchett 161). Clearly alluding to Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Balzac first used the title La comédie humaine in a January 1840 letter (Robb 330), further confirming and explaining the title in his 1842 preface.

Cather never made the wide-ranging claim for her own fiction that Balzac made for his, but when compared with most other novelists of her time, Cather’s subjects were indeed catholic. She wrote about youth and age, natives and immigrants, artists and businessmen, poverty and wealth, war and peace, slavery and freedom, desire and ennui, love and hate, the demonic and the divine. As D. H. Stewart and John J. Murphy have shown, Cather also drew on The Divine Comedy in her fiction. Stewart calls Death Comes for the Archbishop “a truncated Divine Comedy” (244), and Murphy reads Shadows on the Rock as a “New World Purgatorio” (32) and both Death Comes for the Archbishop and the second half of My Mortal Enemy as representing “the pilgrimage that Dante dramatizes through the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso” (23). Stewart and Murphy are correct in identifying Dante’s influence on Cather, and she certainly employs in these novels the “unlikely conversions, miraculous transformations, and providential assistance” that Northrop Frye claims are essential to comedy (170). But she also, like Balzac, guides some of her protagonists through the “incorporation . . . into . . . society” that Frye further connects with comedy (44). Ultimately, Cather, like Balzac, builds not individual stones but an entire edifice—a whole rather than individual parts. In her discussion of Cather’s comic vision, Susan J. Rosowski envisions this whole as “an everlasting stream [of life] embodied briefly in individual form” (118), and Pasco argues that in creating a montage of “wholes from other wholes,” Balzac presents a “tableau of man playing out his perhaps frightening drama in an industrial world where old values are dying and new ones have yet to be adopted—a human comedy” (124). This is indeed the kind of human comedy that Cather created. In “A Chance Meeting,” Cather asserts that young people who are initially enthusiastic about Balzac tire of his works for a while but eventually “recover” (24) their interest in him; perhaps on a subconscious level, Cather never really lost interest in this great French writer at all.


 1. See The Song of the Lark, rev. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937). (Go back.)
 2. Cather readers will particularly connect this phrase to the final one in the following description in book 3 of Death Comes for the Archbishop: “The desert, the mountains and mesas, were continually re-formed and re-coloured by the cloud shadows. The whole country seemed fluid to the eye under this constant change of accent, this ever-varying distribution of light” (101). (Go back.)
 3. Pasco’s reference is to Balzac’s La comédie humaine as a whole and to individual volumes containing several works rather than to specific single works. (Go back.)
 4. After I completed this essay, I had the opportunity to read the manuscript of Stéphanie Durrans’s book The Influence of French Culture on Willa Cather: Intertextual References and Resonances and discovered her excellent discussion of Cather’s use of the desert, which she relates not only to Balzac but also to several other French writers. See Durrans, esp. 15–49. (Go back.)
 5. During this formative period for The Song of the Lark, Cather was not only reading Balzac but also Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution (Cather to Sergeant, 12 September 1912), a fact that increases in significance if one agrees with Philippe Bertault that Balzac was more than “a hunter of documents” or “a tireless investigator” but “a diviner, a man of intuition, an instinctive perceiver—one who sees” (32). (Go back.)


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