The Misfit of the Family

Balzac and the Social Forms of Sexuality

Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: Published: August 2003

Author: Michael Lucey

Gender and Sexuality > Queer Theory, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

In more than ninety novels and novellas, Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) created a universe teeming with over two thousand characters. The Misfit of the Family reveals how Balzac, in imagining the dense, vividly rendered social world of his novels, used his writing as a powerful means to understand and analyze—as well as represent—a range of forms of sexuality. Moving away from the many psychoanalytic approaches to the novelist's work, Michael Lucey contends that in order to grasp the full complexity with which sexuality was understood by Balzac, it is necessary to appreciate how he conceived of its relation to family, history, economics, law, and all the many structures within which sexualities take form.

The Misfit of the Family is a compelling argument that Balzac must be taken seriously as a major inventor and purveyor of new tools for analyzing connections between the sexual and the social. Lucey’s account of the novelist’s deployment of "sexual misfits" to impel a wide range of his most canonical works—Cousin Pons, Cousin Bette, Eugenie Grandet, Lost Illusions, The Girl with the Golden Eyes—demonstrates how even the flexible umbrella term "queer" barely covers the enormous diversity of erotic and social behaviors of his characters. Lucey draws on the thinking of Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu and engages the work of critics of nineteenth-century French fiction, including Naomi Schor, D. A. Miller, Franco Moretti, and others. His reflections on Proust as Balzac’s most cannily attentive reader suggest how the lines of social and erotic force he locates in Balzac’s work continued to manifest themselves in twentieth-century writing and society.


“This original and significant work provides a wonderful reading of French novelist Honoré de Balzac. . . . Lucey’s Misfit of the Family will change the way we read not only French realism but also the construction of intimacy and privacy in the making of Western modernist aesthetics.” — Catherine Nesci , Modern Philology

"The Misfit of the Family highlights the rich history and sociology that literature can provide in our discussions about sexualities and the social forms they take." — Carla Freccero, GLQ

"[A] significant contribution not only to the study of the representation of sexuality in Balzac but also to work on the dynamic interrelation between hegemonic and non-hegemonic (if still subaltern) sexual cultures." — Owen Heathcote , Modern and Contemporary France

"[A]n urgent and compelling argument which is exceptionally well versed in Balzacian criticism. . . ." — Nicholas White , Journal of European Studies

"It is difficult not to be impressed with this study, both in its breadth and in its patient examination of a heretofore much neglected component of Balzac's oeuvre, that of the portrayal of same-sex relations in La Comédie humaine. . . . In opening our eyes to the historical contingencies of same-sex relations in Balzac's opus, Michael Lucey succeeds in bringing the constituent works to life, and in so doing has made a significant contribution to both Queer studies and the domain of Balzac criticism." — Scott Lee, Dalhousie French Studies

"Michael Lucey's The Misfit of the Family is one of those wonderful books to come along now and then that give us a fresh new perspective on texts long known and deeply studied. . . . A reading of this book will open new doors to understanding Balzac's complex social universe." — Dorothy Kelly , Nineteenth-Century French Studies

"The historical scholarship seems impeccable. . . . [T]he volume includes many interesting insights and implicitly suggests the need for further study of the Balzacian theme of sexuality in all its forms." — A.H. Pasco, Choice

“Michael Lucey’s Balzac is not the Balzac they taught you in college, or even in graduate school. His resourceful readings introduce us to a social universe to which oddballs and misfits are entirely germane because queerness is its norm. Now I understand why Proust so loved Balzac and what Baudelaire learned from him: that the bizarreness of beauty offers a clue to the form of heroism that is truly characteristic of the modern age.” — Ross Chambers, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan

"Michael Lucey's fine literary analysis, rigorous theorization of sexualities, attention to culture as a contested field, and nuanced historiographical reconstructions show how Balzac’s Comédie humaine, long viewed as the domain of social climbers thrusting aside residual forms of sociabilities, in fact offers a panorama of ‘misfits’ negotiating the instabilities and faultlines of the family as it is being reinvented in post-Revolutionary France. Lucey's compelling reflection on how literature is emmeshed with the historical construction of private life reveals queer paradigms as central to a genealogy of French modernity." — Margaret Cohen, New York University

“The Misfit of the Family is an impressive fruition of theory precisely mobilized to decipher as never before the remarkable flowering of queer sexualities in Balzac’s epochal œuvre. We come to see why sexuality is so often liminal, marking as it does those crucial points where one form of capital wants conversion into another. Readers of this remarkable book will not be able to ignore the astonishing machinery of queer sexuality in the formative decades of our modernity.” — James Creech, Miami University


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Price: $28.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Michael Lucey is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Gide’s Bent: Sexuality, Politics, Writing.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Preface xiii

Introduction: Balzac and Alternative Families 1

1. Legal Melancholy: Balzac's Eugénie Grandet and the Napoleonic Code 31

2. On Not Getting Married in a Balzac Novel 65

Interlude: Balzac and Same-Sex Relations in the 1830s 82

3. Balzac's Queer Cousins and Their Friends 124

4. The Shadow Economy of Queer Social Capital: Lucien de Rubempré and Vautrin 171

Epilogue: Vautrin's Progeny 225

Notes 239

Works Cited 289

Index 303
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3193-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3156-8
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