SubStance 56 (1988): 102-104. [This journal is available from the University of Wisconsin Press. Phone 608-224-3880. Visit the Web site: ]

Beizer, Janet L. Family Plots. Balzac's Narrative Generations. New Haven and London:
Yale University Press, 1986. Pp. 213.

[Reprinted with the permission of SubStance & the University of Wisconsin Press]

Janet L. Beizer's study of figures of paternity in Balzac's novels and of the broader implications which these figures suggest for nineteenth-century fiction is a model of skillful, close analysis by a carefully suspicious textual sleuth who convincingly delves beyond seemingly cut-and-dried surfaces to expose some surprising levels of signification. Divided into two major sections, "Visions" and "Revisions," this study first examines two texts of the "visionary" Balzac (El Verdugo and Une Passion dans le desert) in order to "delineate the basic interrelationships between family, narrative and language" (11) in Balzac's works; it then confronts problems of language and representation in the more "realist" Balzac with readings of the three novels constituting the Vautrin cycle (Le Père Goriot, Illusions perdues, and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes). Beyond its sound basis in scholarly research both of the Balzacian critical corpus and of more general theoretical concerns, Beizer's study proceeds with a psycho-rhetorical critical approach, i.e., by locating the various metaphoric and metonymic tropes and by linking their slides and transformations to the psychic zones of the Balzacian textual topography. It is this approach to which Beizer's study owes both its overall force and certain limitations.

In each analvsis, Beizer abandons commonplace readings of the narrative's familial and paternal figures in order to seek out a nodal point at the tale's textual core, a locus from which the plot and themes unravel and reveal the "latent story" under the "Manifest" or so-called "real" one (20). Thus, in El Verdugo, although critics have heretofore emphasized the importance of the text's second half, Beizer argues that this critical inattention results from "a textual occultation" (20) of particular elements of the tale, especially of Clara’s role. Beizer demonstrates that this character functions as a forbidden erotic object and serves as the "hinge" between the tale's two segments presenting not one crime, but two: Victor's "crime" of socially illicit erotic involvement with Clara, followed by Juanito's crime of parricide, two stories that stand "like a photograph and its negative, in an inverted relationship to each other" (33). Furthermore, in tracing the concomitant "erotic attitude of whoever is delivering the narrative," Beizer shows that Victor's expulsion from the text in part two corresponds to a break in the narrative voice (37), affirming that "we read in El Verdugo a story preoccupied with the drama of its own narration and the fate of its would-be narrator" (38). Yet, the figurative and literal deaths at the textual core of El Verdugo suggest that this tale "is exquisitely balanced between the paternal order it so steadfastly maintains and the impending doom of this order" since "it shows internal signs of a yet unconscious doubting of the father's law and its power to regulate" (43). According to Beizer, this "law of generations" is finally subverted by a "thread of perversity running through the text: that is, [the text] persistently makes known the fragility of the order of names it has methodically constructed" (46). But Beizer suggests that this "perversity" is not only linked to the plot's "metonymic and metaphoric scaffolding" (45-46), but also to the narrator's loss of mastery over representation in the tale's epilogue.

In the following chapters, this psycho-rhetorical sleuthing situates the narrator and the problem of representation at the heart of textual occultation. In Une Passion dans le desert, the soldier's story diverts the reader from a "suppressed text" in which the narrative authority is undermined by a narrator yielding to "God as ultimate authority." But, as Beizer observes, since this is a "God whose name has become an empty signifier, the concept of difference and the possibility of representation in language begin to be undermined" (98). Then, in the second section, Beizer traces the rhetorical and thematic clues that indicate a disintegration of "the structure of the family romance as a guarantor of family stability, a sanction of desire's fulfillment through fantasy and an affirmation of the ordering power of narrative language" (120). In Le Père Goriot, the homology of the Goriot/Rastignac/Delphine and the Vautrin/Victorine/Rastignac relationships reveals "a welter of tangled threads which superimpose paternity, conjugality, incest and homosexuality" and finally suggests not only the failure of paternity through the impossible quest for the father, but also the failure of language in an ongoing signifying disturbance culminating in what Beizer calls the "semiotic breakdown" of the novel's final scene (134-139). Suggesting an analogy between "linguistic disturbance, or aphasia, and sexual impotence, or castration (which) underlies many of Balzac's narrative patterns," Beizer then studies the subsequent volumes of the Vautrin cycle by following "a dialectic of fecundity and sterility, incarnation and disincarnation, representation and ideality, expression and expressive blockage" (144). At the heart of this matrix lies the "case history" of Lucien de Rubembré which reveals yet another web of "occulted patterns," "incest, hermaphroditism, homosexuality, and correlatively, implied disruptions of sexual and familial paradigms" (155). And these sexual metaphors correspond to an aesthetic problematic, "a dual dialectic whose poles are logorrhea and silence, on the one hand and promiscuity and castration on the other" (175). Beizer concludes that Balzac's "strange hymn to language," La Comédie humaine, is really a call to silence "doubled by a whispered fear that nothing but language separates the ineffable from the unmeaning, the absolute from the void; that the silence can never be filled to saturation, but must be sought, designated, and emphatically, incessantly spoken" (179).

While her arguments are certainly original and convincing, Beizer's occasional lapses of insight can be attributed to the limits of her critical strategy, which I have referred to as a "psycho-rhetorical methodology." Specifically, one notes the, "absent presence" (to use one of Beizer's formulations) both of explicit mention of the Freud-Jakobson-Lacan connection and of an articulation of the rhetoric of the dream-work underlying her analysis. Although it might be argued that readers are now likely to be quite familiar with such material, it is surprising-given the otherwise complete research apparatus of this study-that Beizer does not provide at the very least a passing reference in the notes to the distance or proximity between her own critical stance and preceding psycho-rhetorical "generations." However, as critical starting point, she does emphasize the importance of Barthes' often quoted finale of' the "Introduction à I'analyse structurale des récits" (the significance of the little human's simultaneous "invention," near age three, of speech, narrative and Oedipus), and thereby indicates a second, more crucial limitation of her study. For Beizer's insistence on Freud's "Family Romances" as the best means to envisage the implications of the paternal metaphor in Balzac is, finally, to limit severely the possible conclusions of her textual investigation which, after setting forth the clues of each "case" for seemingly impartial examination by reader and sleuth alike, finally returns to the predetermined conclusion that "Oedipus did it" (especially in the study's first section; cf. 7, 30-33, and 90-92). Yet, the grip of this Oedipal trap becomes harder and harder to justify as the study portrays the disintegration of authority which characterizes the Vautrin cycle. Beizer foregrounds the second section with the suggestion that due to Balzac's "disposition of the family romance, ... as we pass from the contes to the novels, we already know what story is being told" (108), i.e., the "oedipal dilemma," But the subsequent analysis reveals in fact the deterioration of predominant Oedipal triangulation as the forces of socio-sexual decay clearly emerge not only in the relationships between protagonists, but as Beizer frequently argues, in the very tenuous relationship of authority between the narrator and his text. Thus, if the Oedipal configuration indeed dominates to some extent the tales of the "visionary" Balzac, Beizer offers examples of slippage which, on the contrary, suggest that the figures of paternity in his later work, from Foedora's incarnation as "la Société" onward, must submit to a socio-sexual overcoding, to "an unregulated circulation of women, an uncontrolled flow of money, a mad proliferation of familial and social relations" (132), that exceed the fixed and foreseeable limits of the "oedipal scherna."

However, these reservations should not overshadow my assessment of this study's importance. Professor Beizer's work derives its strength not only from the sharpness of its author's critical acumen, but also from her constant regard for its readers through clear and witty formulations of critical problems and through precise framing devices provided both on the "edges" of the study ("Introduction" and "Afterword") and within each chapter (extended references to Homer, Rabelais, Borges as well as to numerous works of the Balzacian corpus). And that this is the author's first critical volume bodes well for the future "trajectory" which she suggests in the final pages (183-186), extending this study to other nineteenth-century novels that depict the displacement of the paternal metaphor and of narrative mastery.

Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University