The Chouans

Les Chouans is a novel by Honoré de Balzac published in 1829 by Urbain Canel .

Begun in the autumn of 1828 and almost finished at Fougeres , in the house of General Gilbert de Pommereul , who was the guest of Balzac and who always remained his friend, the novel was first entitled The Guy , then The Chouans or Brittany thirty years ago , before becoming provisionally The Last Chouan . The first edition in 1829 in Urban finally bore the title The Last Chouan or Brittany in 1800 , a reference to the Last of the Mohicans by James Cooper , published three years 1 . In 1834, at Editions Vimont, the title changed again for Les Chouans or Brittany in 1799 . In the Furne edition of 1845 , Les Chouans appears in volume xiii of La Comédie humaine in the Scenes section of the military life .

Although a great admirer of Walter Scott , whom he has pastiched under various pseudonyms in his early works, Balzac considers his first writings as “junk” , a term he uses in a letter to his sister Laure Surville 2 and that He will maintain until the appearance of The Skin of sorrow .

The Chouans marks a decisive turning point in Balzac’s work and yet, the author will make the self-criticism in the preface of the first edition of the novel. It evokes the weariness of the public “today satiated with Spain, the East, the tortures, the pirates and the history of France walter-scottée 3 “. Balzac goes so far as to describe this first work as “one of his first crusts ” 4 .


In 1799, under the Consulate , Breton peasants armed themselves for the return of the king and against the republican troop of the commander Hulot . An aristocrat, Marie de Verneuil , is sent by Joseph Fouché to seduce and capture their leader, the Marquis de Montauran , known as “the Guy”. She must be helped by a skilful, ambitious and unscrupulous policeman, Corentin .

However, she falls in love with her target. Against Corentin and against the chouans who hate her, she will do her best to marry the Marquis. Deceived by Corentin, who makes him believe that the marquis loves his mortal rival, Madame du Gua, she orders Commander Hulot to destroy the rebels. Discovering deception too late, she sacrifices herself to try, without success, to save her husband.

Balzac and writing Chouans

In 1829, Balzac declared that the chouannerie bathes in an atmosphere where two convictions “allow themselves everything, as formerly the Catholics and the Protestants”: it is a civil war of partisans who do not go without crimes and without looting. The novel thus paints the impossibility of compromise between chouans and revolutionaries.

It was designed much more like painting an atmosphere than a historical novel. The author says that the novelist who works as a historian must not make “history a charnel house, a gazette, a civil status of the Nation.” On the contrary, it must restore the spirit of an era or an event.

However Balzac has consulted historical works, War of the Vendeans and Chouans , Jean-Julien Savary , History of the French Revolution , Adolphe Thiers , which proves that it is documented in a scholarly way.

He even went to Fougères in September 1828 where he lived at the home of General Gilbert de Pommereul to carry out research on the spot.

In the novel, the most barbaric scenes still depict the Chouans, which suggests that Balzac was closer to the Jacobins (Republicans) that chouans 5 . This violence is, for the author, a form of religious fanaticism, the ferocity of the counter-relying on credulity 6 . Their excesses take on an epic and tragic dimension, which Balzac stages through his painting of the clergy in the person of Father Gudin, who galvanizes the troops.

Jean Chouan’s troubled character inspired him with two contradictory characters: Pille-Miche, who was guillotined in 1809 in the latest novel by La Comédie humaine , The Envers of Contemporary History , and Marche-à-Terre, which grew rich in trade in 1816.

Classification and clichés: the genre of the novel

At once drama, tragedy, love story, political novel, historical novel, Chouans defies the rankings, according to many critics. Among these, Maurice Ménard wonders about the labels that could be affixed to this “historical 7 ” novel :

“The work defies the rankings. Last of the novels of youth or first true Balzac ? Adventure novel? Poetic novel? Historical novel at Walter Scott or Lukacs 8 ? Political novel perhaps? But what policy? Still liberal, in accordance with Balzac’s prevailing opinions before 1830? Or anti-liberal, marked by the turn of 1832? Novel of the centralizing ideology, contemptuous for the Breton ethnic group, this bunch of “savages”, or novel fascinated by “barbarism” and giving speech, poignant, hopeless, to this silent people? And then, what reconciliation for the love story and the story of war? […]. “

Criticism of the second half of the xx th century made a drastic reinterpretation of Chouans, who had been found, according to André Vanoncini, in light of the fashionable novels of the time 9 . ” The Chouans have been freshly welcomed by critics. In spite of some favorable opinions on the truth of the characters and the originality of the descriptions, the majority of the enumerators reproach Balzac with a tangled intrigue and a luxuriant style. Such a judgment is explained to the extent that he considers Chouans as an unconvincing illustration of the historical novel to Walter Scott. ” Comparing recovery tirelessly and without nuance until Gaëtan Picon orJulien Gracq 10 comes to bring an angle of study substantially different from the usual clichés to this “original novelistic algebra where poetry and combinatorics […] reinforce each other ” 11 .

The Chouans can also be read as a modern espionage novel where the spy Marie falls in love with her target as it does in the novels of Ian Fleming in our time. As in any novel by Balzac, situation and characters can be transposed, transported some two hundred years later without losing their truth.

Notes and references

  1. ↑ The Scanff Yvon, ” Fifteen days in the desert. Tocqueville and the “wilderness”  [ archive ] “, Studies , 2006/2 (Volume 404), p. 223-233.
  2. ↑ April 2, 1822, Correspondence , vol.  I , p.  158 .
  3. ↑ The Pléiade, Gallimard, 1981, in 12 volumes, t.  X , p.  54 .
  4. ↑ Letter to Baron Gerard, Correspondence , vol.  II , p.  515 .
  5. ↑ When in 1828 (under the Restoration) Balzac wrote his book, he is a liberal pro-blue. When in 1845 (under the monarchy of July) he corrects him, he is a defender of the throne and the altar. Roger Pierrot, “Notice” in Honore de Balzac, The Chouans , Gallimard, 1972, coll. “Classic folio”, p.  483 .
  6. ↑ “If they were not so raw, they would not fight against their interests. Gallimard, coll. “Classic folio”, p.  280 .
  7. ↑ Introduction to the book Chouans , p.  7 and 8 , and passim , of p.  9 to 49 , Flammarion GF, 1988.
  8. ↑ György Lukács is the author of the essay The Historical Novel . He sees in Walter Scott the founder of the historical novel “of classical form”. And he sees in the author of the Chouans the one who best understood Scott’s lesson. Lukács is also the author of Balzac and the French realism , Maspero, 1967.
  9. ↑ [  [ archive ] Balzac ‘s Human Comedy , instructions for Les Chouans .
  10. ↑ The narrow waters , quoted by Maurice Menard, introduction to the book The Chouans , p.  7 and 8 , and passim , p.  9 to 49, Flammarion GF, 1988.
  11. ↑ Ibid.

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