The Physiology of Marriage by Balzac

“A man ought not to marry without having studied anatomy, and dissected at least one woman.”

Although I’m a Balzac fan, I’m going to admit that I didn’t find The Physiology of Marriage an easy read, but that said, it’s an important and interesting book. It shows a young Balzac in embryo–still in the process of becoming the great writer who created Cousin Bette and The Black Sheep. The book also shows Balzac’s fascination with human behaviour–particularly the behaviour of women–even as he plays with and organises some of his major themes and ideas.

The Physiology of Marriage, published in 1829, is not a novel. Instead it’s a hodge podge of lectures, aphorisms, stories and observations on the institution and power dynamics of marriage. The basic theme is that marriage is not “an institution of Nature” but is an arrangement fraught with difficulties. There were times when Balzac seemed to lurch into Masters and Johnson territory–especially when he started working the numbers and calculating just how many French wives commit adultery. At the end of the book, a Duchess rather appropriately calls Balzac a “doctor of conjugal arts and sciences.” If he earns this title, it should certainly accompany the disclaimer that Balzac’s science is the science  of observation.

Balzac seems to explore every possible category under the heading of marriage. Here’s Balzac on women and headaches:

Now headache is an affection which affords infinite resources to a woman. This malady, which is the easiest of all to feign, for it is destitute of any apparent symptom, merely obliges her to say: “I have a headache.” A woman trifles with you and there is no one in the world who can contradict her skull, whose impenetrable bones defy touch or ocular test. Moreover, the headache is, in our opinion, the queen of maladies, the pleasantest and the most terrible weapon employed by wives against husbands. There are some coarse and violent men who have been taught the tricks of women by their mistresses, in the happy hours of their celibacy, and so flatter themselves that they are never to be caught by this vulgar trap. But all their efforts, all their arguments end by being vanquished before the magic of these words: “I have a headache.” If a husband complains , or ventures on a reproach, if he tries to resist the power of this Il buondo cani of marriage, he is lost.

And there’s more. Balzac paints a scenario of a young  woman “lying voluptuously on a divan” while her husband paces around the room. Although the word ‘sex’ does not appear, Balzac’s inclusion of the word “voluptuously” sneaks in the idea that sex (a lack thereof and the subsequent frustrations felt by the husband) is at the root of the headache problem. What’s more, Balzac accuses the medical profession of being in cahoots with the headache sufferers. Freud would call this hysterical illness no doubt. The passages on the problems of headaches within marriage reminded me of a professor who peppered his lectures on Victorian literature with salacious slices of information about his married life. He too held forth on the subject of headaches. The professor advised all men to keep a bottle of aspirin on hand, and then, when a wife complained of a headache at bedtime, the husband could toss her the bottle and tell her to swallow a couple before proceeding on with the business at hand.

Ah, the delicacy of marital politics….

Balzac arrives at the somewhat obvious conclusion (obvious these days, that is) that most marriages are unhappy, and that adultery is the natural result. Here he is discussing what percentage of the married female population commit adultery:

Adultery does not establish itself in the heart of a married woman with the promptness of a pistol-shot. Even when sympathy with another rouses feelings on first sight, a struggle always takes place, whose duration discounts the total sum of conjugal infidelities. It would be an insult to French modesty not to admit the duration of this struggle in a country so naturally combative, without referring to at least a twentieth in the total of married women: but then we will suppose that there are certain sickly women who preserve their lovers while they are using soothing draughts, and that there are certain wives whose confinement makes sarcastic celibates smile. In this way we shall vindicate the modesty of those who enter upon the struggle from motives of virtue. For the same reason we should not venture to believe that a woman forsaken by her lover will find a new one on the spot; but this discount being much more uncertain than the preceding one, we will estimate it at one-fortieth.

Balzac is saying that women don’t intend to commit adultery, but that it happens after a period of inner struggle and with cause (spousal mistreatment which is also discussed). After crunching the numbers, he lands on the figure that approx. 800,000 French women commit adultery. Dostoevsky would not agree with Balzac’s idea that women don’t have serial lovers. In The Eternal Husband, Natalya Vasilyevna cuckolds both a husband and a lover when a new man arrives on the scene. Natalya has to get rid of her old, boring lover, Velchaninov, in order to conduct an affair with a newcomer.

In Prometheus: The Life of Balzac, author Andre Maurois states that Balzac, a bachelor at the time the book was written, was privy to the confidences of many women, including the Duchesse d’Abrantès, Fortunée Hamelin, and Sophie Gay. Maurois argues that Balzac sees marriage as “a civil war requiring weapons and strategy in which victory (meaning personal liberty) goes to the better general,” and he further argues that Balzac is on the side of the wife. While I think Balzac was a remarkably enlightened man for his time, from a 21st century perspective, I don’t agree that The Physiology of Marriage places Balzac wholeheartedly on the side of the wife. The book was extremely popular with women at the time of its publication and no doubt it seemed revolutionary then. There are certainly many pro-wife statements but the book could well amount to a handbook of strategy for husbands. The Maurois bio, by the way, was written in 1965, and societal attitudes towards women have undergone a sizeable shift.

Given how the bikini-clad Helen Mirren has suddenly become a sex object at the age of 66, I’d say that this is no longer true:

The average age at which women are married is twenty years and at forty they cease to belong to the world of love.

But, according to Balzac, men enjoy a longer shelf life, and here’s a powerful observation:

On the other hand, a man at fifty-two is more formidable than at any other age. It is at this fair epoch of life that he enjoys an experience dearly bought, and probably all the fortune that he will ever acquire. The passions by which his course is directed being the last under whose scourge he will move, he is unpitying and determined, like the man carried away by the current who snatches at a green and pliant branch of willow, the young nursling of the year.

Can’t argue with that….

The Physiology of Marriage is available FREE for the Kindle, on the internet and at Project Gutenberg.



Filed under Balzac, Fiction

31 responses to “The Physiology of Marriage by Balzac

  1. Fascinating stuff, Guy … what do you think was the reason he wrote (put together) this book? How exactly is it structured?

  2. Gummie: Here’s the table of Contents

    Part 1. A General Consideration
    1. Meditation 1. The Subject
    2. Meditation 2. Marriage Statistics
    3. Meditation 3. Of The Honest Woman
    4. Meditation 4. Of The Virtuous Woman
    5. Meditation 5. Of The Predestined
    6. Meditation 6. Of Boarding Schools
    7. Meditation 7. Of The Honeymoon
    8. Meditation 8. Of The First Symptoms
    9. Meditation 9. Epilogue

    Part 2. Means Of Defence, Interior And Exterior
    1. Meditation 10. A Treatise On Marital Policy
    2. Meditation 11. Instruction In The Home
    3. Meditation 12. The Hygiene Of Marriage
    4. Meditation 13. Of Personal Measures
    5. Meditation 14. Of Apartments
    6. Meditation 15. Of The Custom House
    7. Meditation 16. The Charter Of Marriage
    8. Meditation 17. The Theory Of The Bed
    9. Meditation 18. Of Marital Revolutions
    10. Meditation 19. Of The Lover
    11. Meditation 20. Essay On Police
    12. Meditation 21. The Art Of Returning Home
    13. Meditation 22. Of Catastrophes

    Part 3. Relating To Civil War
    1. Meditation 23. Of Manifestos
    2. Meditation 24. Principles Of Strategy
    3. Meditation 25. Of Allies
    4. Meditation 26. Of Different Weapons
    5. Meditation 27. Of The Last Symptoms
    6. Meditation 28. Of Compensations
    7. Meditation 29. Of Conjugal Peace
    8. Meditation 30. Conclusion

  3. Apparently physiologies were popular in early 19th C France, and Balzac used this form to codify the institution of marriage. I’m no expert but I think Balzac was fascinated by what he observed and the book was the result. Of course, he enjoyed this sort of process-just look at La Comédie Humaine–a hugely ambitious project. Perhaps this was the very first rumblings of the project to come.

  4. Not sure I want to read this one but it may be useful to understand his other works.
    That passage about headaches!
    I think Maurois was a rather conservative man (and catholic too.)

  5. Balzac, and many of his time, didn’t draw a very clear line between science, the occult, and romantic vaporings. He thought of his entire oeuvre as a scientific-literary exercise, at least in part. It’s clear from many of his novels, that he sees the ‘scientist’ as another sort of poet – not a bad idea, all things considered. This sort of writing is easy to find in that period, and physiology was probably one of the more poorly understood scientific fields – consider the state of medicine! I applaud you for being able to read this stuff – I can’t usually take it.

    • Zola goes overboard with his scientific determinism too, and that weakened some of his books, I think, when he bludgeons us with his theories.

      • Sorry to pick, but Zola, as you say, was a scientific determinist. Very much influenced by Darwin and the ideas swirling around after him. Balzac is way before that, when scientists were still, almost 150 years after Newton, called the last Magus, regarded a little like magicians in the popular mind. Zola’s determinism would have been poison to Balzac, I think. He was too engrossed in his ideas of ‘organisms’ and ‘spirits’ etc.

        It’s all connected with the history of scientific theory and methodology, rather technical and dull perhaps, I know.

        • Not picking. I think we’re on the same page.
          My point is that both authors included their ideas (science or unreliable ‘science’) into fiction. I think it weakens Therese Raquin.

          Zola was influenced by Balzac’s CH and his Rougon-Macquart cycle was his version (along with his theories and scientific beliefs).

    • Apparently the ‘physiology’ was just one expressed form of panoramic literature, and clearly Balzac was just getting his feet wet with this book.

  6. That’s such a cliché, the headache thing, I mean. Nowadays you would just say “No” and that’s that. Thank God no more aspirin for the unwilling…
    The headache excuse is actually quite tragic, it means that just saying “I’m not in the mood” would mean you are not willing to perform your marital duties. They were probably not even married to the men they loved. It does infuriate me a bit (to think what some women had to endure).
    It’s interesting as a document of the society but it’s not exactly the next book by Balzac I will start.

    • Now I’m free to move on to the next one.

    • It does infuriate me a bit (to think what some women had to endure).
      Whoa! If that infuriates you, I hope you survive reading Eugenie Grandet, to name only one brutally suppressed woman in Balzac!

      • I did survive reading it. And I added “a bit” to underline that there is worse than that yet still if we are not capable to be infuriated by the smaller injustices and only react to the bigger ones… Whoa to that as well!

        • Caroline: I just finished reading a short story and a novella by the Marquis de Sade. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was championing the rights of women as both female protagonists are used and abused by their male relatives (not for sex). De Sade paints a sorry picture of what it was like to be female gentry in late 18th C France.

        • BTW, I forgot to mention La Religieuse by Diderot. (The Nun is how it’s translated, I think.) That’s a great story of oppression of women in the 18th century. Marry and get a dowry, or off to a life in a convent – what else are girls good for? Rivette’s film version is very powerful.

          • Haven’t read it. Will see if I can find the film. I rather like Rivette. Thanks for the tip.

            • La Religieuse is excellent. I second the recommendation.

              When I read René, there’s a passage where René’s sister becomes a nun. In the footnotes, the scholar specialised in Chateaubriand (don’t remember his name) wrote that it’s been a recurrent theme and scene in French literature since Lettres d’une religieuse portugaise (I reviewed it)

              Plus, as I’ve mentioned before, it was common in France for girls to be raised by nuns and in convents. Many literary heroins were raised that way (Emma Bovary, Jeanne (Une Vie), Mme de Rênal,…) I wonder if it dates back to Louis XIV and the school created by Mme de Maintenon in Saint-Cyr.

  7. …there is worse than that yet still if we are not capable to be infuriated by the smaller injustices…

    Okay to that!

    …[reading] Marquis de Sade. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was championing the rights of women…

    Sade did advocate for women’s rights, in a way, and for all individual rights. He argued for the most extreme form of individualism, perhaps a radical libertarianism (or should I say, libertine-ism?) He was one of those who felt, to use a contemporary cliche, that ‘we all use one another,’ though his interest was decidedly with the male half of the equation. Men and women have equal rights to pursue any pleasure, although it’s never very clear with him just how much coercion is acceptable in his view: he slides from the rational argument to the literary polemic so easily. His most coherent account of his philosophy is in a brief piece called “Philosophy in the Bedroom,” what else?

    What did you think of Sade’s writing? Personally, I think he’s awful, except when he advances polemics. Repetitive, sick, emotionally flat, mechanical – the sickest distilled essence of porn. I am embarrassed that the surrealists, whom I like, revered him. To quote the great Mario Praz:

    Let us give Sade his due, as having been the first to expose, in all its crudity, the mechanism of homo sensualis, let us even assign him a place of honour as a psychopathologist and admit his influence on a whole century of literature; but courage (to give a nobler name to what most people would call shamelessness) does not suffice to give originality to a thought, nor does the hurried jotting down of all the cruel fantasies which obsess the mind suffice to give a work mastery of style…The most elementary qualities of a writer – let us not say, of a writer of genius – are lacking in Sade.

    • I get the equal rights to pleasure and both stories reek of that element. Both stories revolve around female characters who are not allowed to pursue the relationships they want (hence the idea of championing the rights of women if you take the stories in isolation from the deeds of the author). A very liberated man for then and even now, but when I think of some of the coercion (you mention), the sneaky things he did to women, no, he was no friend, no champion of the sex.

      As for the writing….the shorter story was the better of the two. The style of the first was pretentious and entirely false. Both stories showed a naivety of style and plot, and since we know de Sade was anything but naive, I extrapolate a general lack of “genius” per your quote.

      • I’ve read Philosophie dans le boudoir. Pompous and dirty. I’m not easily offended but here it was crude without a purpose. The philosophy bits were boring and the porn chapters uninteresting and repetitive.
        I’m curious about your review.

        • I’ve read Philosophie dans le boudoir. Pompous and dirty.

          I basically agree, but the essay it contains, Yet Another Effort if You Would Truly be Free, Frenchmen! is the only thing by Sade that I found substantive and interesting in any way at all, albeit repetitive. The narrative that surrounds it is the usual ‘bump and grind’ a la de Sade.

          • Sade is one of those people I think you have to read, but in the final evaluation, HE was a lot more interesting that his writing. Have you seen the Daniel Auteuil film, Sade?

  8. I’m interested in your Sade review. I only read Justine and it was quite boring, repetitive indeed. I liked Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im Pelz. Bad comparison, not the same era, but still it is tempting to pair them…

  9. Decidedly not the same class either. i had first read de sade and for weird reaons thought it would be similar just with an opposite approach but luckily it was so different. No, I didn’t that book.

  10. <>

    Just one more year to go! I’m looking forward to it… 🙂

  11. How strange! I thought I had copied & pasted a quote from Balzac in my post above, but it seems ti have disappeared. Well, here it is again:

    On the other hand, a man at fifty-two is more formidable than at any other age.

  12. … a man at fifty-two is more formidable than at any other age.

    Is it downhill from there, or does it keep getting better? I have a personal interest in this…

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