Honoré de Balzac’s Gay Anti-Hero


Robert W. Mack


NEARLY 200 YEARS AGO, the French novelist Honoré de Balzac created a remarkable character, Vautrin, a charming, hyper-masculine master criminal, and a man who loves men. In three of Balzac’s most popular novels an important part of the plot turns on Vautrin’s love for an exceptionally handsome, much younger man: 21-year-old Eugène de Rastignac in Père Goriot, twenty-year-old Lucien de Rubempré in the climactic scene of Lost Illusions and in A Harlot High and Low, and 27-year-old Théodore Calvi (nicknamed “Madeleine”), who doesn’t appear until the end of the last book, when Vautrin is around fifty, but who had also been involved with Vautrin a decade before, at the age of eighteen.

          There are, to be sure, no sex scenes: Vautrin does not sleep with Eugène, may or may not have slept with Lucien, and clearly consummates a relationship only with his fellow criminal Théodore. But these novels contain some remarkable plot twists, several of which this essay will spoil. Readers who prefer a wholly fresh experience are encouraged to stop after this paragraph and read Balzac for themselves. [1] Far from dry “classics,” you will find larger-than-life characters and plots as dramatic—as melodramatic—as the soapiest daytime drama. You will also have to plow through some slow passages as Balzac sets up the next bout of breakneck action, and you will have to forgive an occasional caricature. But you will be rewarded with a broad, rich, and sympathetic perspective on 19th-century French life, and on human nature itself.

          The three young men in whom Vautrin takes an interest [2] are all strikingly attractive. Lucien is described most glowingly:


He had his abundant, silky fair hair waved and perfumed, so that it streamed down in glistening curls. On his brow shone the audacity which he drew from the sense of his own worth and the future which lay before him. His woman’s hands were carefully manicured, his almond-shaped finger-nails pink and well-shaped. His white, rounded chin offered a gleaming contrast to his black satin collar. Never did a more attractive-looking young man step down from the ‘mountain’ of the Latin quarter. [He was] handsome as a Greek god. [3]


Eugène is similar to Lucien in appearance and in many other respects. They both come from the same provincial town, their families are both poor but titled, and they both come to Paris to seek fame, fortune, romance and entry into Parisian high society. Eugène in Père Goriot is based on Balzac as a young man. At the start of the book the striking claim is made that “[T]his drama is not fictional, it’s not a novel. All is true.”[4]  Eugène eventually rejects Vautrin’s temptations, but at the end of Lost Illusions Lucien accepts a similar proposition. A Harlot High and Low explores the fatal consequences.

          The third young man is of a different type: “Théodore Calvi, a young Corsican, sentenced to life imprisonment for eleven murders, at the age of eighteen, thanks to influence which had been dearly bought, had been [Vautrin’s] chain mate from 1819 to 1820.” [5] I submit that Vautrin did not pay “dearly” just for the pleasure of young Calvi’s conversational skills. This is certainly what the other prisoners think, since they refer to Théodore as Vautrin’s “queen”—helpfully defined in an earlier passage as “the third sex.” [6] And when Vautrin vows to save the young man’s head from the gallows a witty prisoner remarks, with a smile, “For the sake of its breeches!” [7]

          At 27, on the eve of his scheduled hanging, Théodore is still handsome but distinctly rougher than the other two young men:


Théodore Calvi, a young man of sallow complexion, fair-haired, with deep-set, ambiguously blue eyes, well-proportioned, of prodigious muscular strength beneath that lymphatic air which is often found in those from the South, would have displayed the most attractive physiognomy but for arched eyebrows and a somewhat low forehead, sinister in their effect, but for red lips of a savage cruelty, and but for a muscular habit in which is revealed that irritability peculiar to Corsicans, the explanation of their readiness to kill in a sudden quarrel. [8]


Vautrin himself first appears as a strikingly masculine fellow lodger with Eugène in a dreary Paris boardinghouse:


[T]he forty-year-old with dyed side-whiskers ... was one of those about whom ordinary people say: “Now that’s really somebody!” He was broad-shouldered, with a well-developed chest and bulging muscles, and thick, square hands, the knuckles decorated with great tufts of flaming red hair. His face, scored by premature wrinkles, showed signs of a toughness that belied his good-natured, easy-going manners. ... Like a stern judge, his glance seemed to pierce to the bottom of every issue, every conscience, every emotion. ... Bursts of sharp-tongued wit ... might have led you to suppose he bore some hidden grudge against the whole social structure, and that deep at the bottom of his life there lay some carefully hidden mystery. [9]


          Vautrin’s attraction to men is referred to on a few occasions as a “secret,” but it is well known to the Paris police,[10] as well as to fellow criminals, and Vautrin shows no embarrassment in sharing it with the objects of his affection. He declares to Eugène:


“I’ll leave you my fortune. Is that being a real friend? But I’m very fond of you, I really am. I have a positive passion to dedicate myself to someone else. I’ve already done it, you know. You see, my young friend, I live on a plane far more exalted than other men are even aware of. ... A man’s everything, or else he’s nothing. [Certain men are worthless, but] a man like you is a god, not just a machine covered with skin, but a theater where fine feelings spout and grow—and feelings are all that matters, as far as I’m concerned. ... Well, for a man like me, who’s dug around in the world as thoroughly as I have, there’s only one real emotion, and that’s the friendship of one man for another.” [11]


Vautrin then refers to the inseparable protagonists of a 17th-century play by Thomas Otway that he also describes, in the disguise of Abbé Carlos Herrera, to Lucien de Rubempré near the end of Lost Illusions:


“Have you pondered over Otway’s Venice Preserved? Have you understood the deep friendship between man and man which binds Pierre to Jaffeir, makes them indifferent about women and alters all social relationships for them?” ...

          “Let’s get down to facts, my boy,” he went on, putting his arm round Lucien’s waist. “I’m forty-six. I’m a nobleman’s natural child, and so I have no family; and yet I have a heart. But learn this, write it down in your impressionable brain: man is terrified of solitude. ... Man’s first thought ... is to have someone whose destinies are wrapped up in his. To satisfy this urge, a vital one, he brings all his strength, all his might, all his energy into play. ... I want to love a creation of my own, shape it, mould it to my purposes so that I may love it as a father loves his progeny.” [12]


In both cases Vautrin describes his affection in fatherly terms, which is perhaps to be expected in view of the two-decade difference in age. Indeed, after Lucien’s death, Vautrin describes his relationship with the younger man during the four years in which they lived together as having been motherly: “That dear child told me all, every evening, when he came in; I put him to bed, as a serving woman puts her brat to bed; and I made him tell me everything ... Ah! Never did a good mother tenderly love her only son as I loved that angel.” [13]

          Alongside the nurturing aspect of Vautrin’s feelings is a strong desire to gain control over these young men, both for its own sake and so as to wield power in the wider world through them. Each relationship starts with a large sum of cash. Vautrin tries to enmesh Eugène in a criminal scheme, and very nearly succeeds: “In his heart of hearts, [Eugène] had completely surrendered to Vautrin, not stopping to inquire why that extraordinary man felt so friendly to him or where such an association might lead. Only a miracle could have pulled him back from the abyss into which he had stepped.” [14]

          The miracle that saves Eugène is Vautrin’s arrest, but Lucien is not so lucky. At the point of jumping into the river Charente (because he has ruined his family and best friend), he meets Vautrin, disguised as a Spanish priest, who makes him an extraordinary offer: “I’ve fished you out of the water, brought you back to life, and you belong to me as a creature belongs to its creator ... the body to the soul! My strong arm will maintain you on your road to power, and yet I promise you a life of pleasure, honour and continuous festivity. ... You’ll never lack for money. ... In short, I shall live in you!” [15] At first Lucien is skeptical, but his resistance melts when Vautrin offers him a small fortune in gold coins: “‘Father, I’m yours!’ said Lucien, dazzled at the sight of this torrent of gold.” [16] He explains in a letter to his sisters, accompanying the money he owes them: “Instead of committing suicide, I have bartered my life. I belong to myself no longer. I’m nothing more than the secretary of a Spanish diplomat. I’m his creature. I’m beginning a terrible existence all over again. Perhaps I should have done better to drown myself.” [17]

          A Harlot High and Low depicts Lucien’s life as Vautrin’s “creature” and his eventual suicide, which Oscar Wilde referred to as “One of the greatest tragedies of my life.” [18] Vautrin expected both Eugène and Lucien to continue having sex with women and to marry. While declaring his own exclusive interest in men, he doesn’t ask them to reciprocate fully. In contrast, he expected Théodore Calvi to renounce women, and fumes when he learns that Théodore had been condemned to death for a crime he committed with a female accomplice. Théodore explains that he only got involved with a woman because Vautrin wasn’t around, and that, “if I want to live now, it’s more for you than for her.” [19]  Only near the end of the last book do we learn why Vautrin had not been there for Théodore: 


Jacques Collin was looking for his Corsican friend [Théodore] in the neighborhood of Rochefort when he met Lucien on the banks of the Charente. The young hero of the bandits and the maquis ... had then been naturally sacrificed to the new idol.

          Life with Lucien, a young man without police record, guilty even to his own mind only of the very slightest transgressions, rose, furthermore, fair and splendid like the sun of a summer day; whereas with Théodore, Jacques Collin had foreseen no other outcome than the scaffold, at the end of a series of inevitable crimes. [20]


Vautrin “naturally” chose pleasure over loyalty. Plus ça change...

          In many ways Vautrin resembles a familiar type of contemporary gay man. His exclusive interest in men is a settled aspect of his personality and has both sexual and romantic aspects. Even the parental dynamic in his relations with much younger men—but all over eighteen—is by no means unknown today. His extreme masculinity would be the envy of the most macho of modern gay men. Nevertheless, Vautrin does not fit perfectly with our categories. He sees his preference for other men as a fundamental fact of life that he is privileged to have discovered due to his superior intellect, experience, and maturity. He considers himself to be one of an elite minority who share the benefits of this knowledge, and would reject out of hand the idea that his parentage or upbringing somehow inculcated him with a fixed sexual orientation.

          Vautrin’s sexuality and gender expression are even more at odds with the ideas of the time, decades before the term “homosexual” was coined. Balzac describes a construction of same-sex attraction that could be considered a precursor of homosexuality as an identity. During a tour of a Paris prison the director points “with an expression of disgust” to a building he identifies as the “queen’s quarters” [the term in French criminal argot is “tantes” or “aunts.”]. When the person he is showing around asks what this means the governor replies, “That’s the third sex...” [21] This terminology, which evidently required no further explanation, implies an identity that is deviant with respect to both sexuality and gender. Vautrin himself, however, is never referred to in these terms. To the contrary, he is totally masculine, physically and intellectually powerful, and respected and liked by all. Indeed, Vautrin might be seen as Balzac’s rebuttal to the idea that same-sex attraction is necessarily linked to effeminacy. Lucien is another counter-example. His youthful beauty and artistic sensitivity are often described in feminine terms—Vautrin goes so far as to say that he ought to have been born a woman[22]—but Lucien’s sexual tastes appear to be firmly oriented toward the opposite sex.

          Vautrin is such a sympathetic figure that it is easy to overlook the fact that he is also a master criminal, escaped convict and cold-blooded murderer. He justifies his rejection of society by condemning its cruelty and hypocrisy in terms that would not be altogether out of place in the works of Ayn Rand.[23] Yet within the criminal world he is the most honorable of thieves, their banker. And he yearns, on behalf of his surrogate sons, for the money, power, and social status that only society can confer. In the end, Vautrin settles his “lover’s quarrel” with polite society and is named the head of France’s counterpart of Scotland Yard (based on a real case). [24] Vautrin “goes straight” as to crime, but not as to sex! Part of the deal is a full pardon for his young “queen” Théodore, whom Vautrin takes into his “service.” [25] In Balzac’s vision, society embraces Vautrin as the guardian of public order and, discreetly, as a man who loves men.

[1]  For readers of English I suggest the Norton Critical Edition of Père Goriot and the Penguin Classics translations of the other two novels.  For readers of French the Pléiade edition of La Comédie humaine is definitive, but I recommend the Livre de Poche Classiques paperback editions of Le Père Goriot, Illusions perdues and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. 

[2] Yet another young protégé plays a minor role in Père Goriot:  Colonel Franchessini, “a singularly handsome young man of whom [Vautrin] was very fond, a young Italian with a taste for gambling…”  Goriot, p. 129.

[3] Illusions, pp. 252-3.

[4] Goriot, p. 6.  “All is true.” is in English, referencing an alternative title for Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.

[5] Harlot, p. 427. 

[6] Harlot, pp. 453-4. 

[7] Harlot, p. 472.  Balzac had previously mentioned the French argot term for breeches (which implies the idea of something climbed up, or “mounted”)  but shied away from explaining that it referred to anal sex: “Une culotte est une montante; n’expliquons pas ceci!”  Courtisanes, p. 532.  His translator was even more prudish, rendering this line as:  “Breeches do, indeed, go up and down.”  Harlot, p. 441.

[8] Harlot, p. 474.

[9] Goriot, pp. 14-16.

[10] A policeman tells the two lodgers who betray Vautrin:  “‘Death-Dodger [Vautrin] would never let a woman get anywhere near him,’ said the detective.  ‘Let me tell you a secret: he can’t stand women.’”  Goriot, p. 131. 

[11] Goriot, p. 125.

[12] Illusions, pp. 654-5.

[13] Harlot, pp. 513-4.

[14] Goriot, p. 133.

[15] Illusions, p. 650.

[16] Illusions, p. 656.

[17] Illusions, p. 673.  This may be another instance of the translator eliding a suggestive element of the original text since I would translate, “Je suis plus que le secrétaire d'un diplomate espagnol, je suis sa créature.” As “I am more than the secretary of a Spanish diplomat, I am his creature.”

[18] In “The Decay of Lying” (1889), reprinted in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, edited by Richard Ellmann, New York: Random House, 1969, p. 299.

[19] Harlot, p. 476.

[20] Harlot, p. 427-8.

[21] Harlot, p. 453-4.

[22] Harlot, p. 514.

[23] Goriot, p. 79-90.

[24] Eugène François Vidocq was a fugitive from French justice who eventually became the first chief of the Sûreté, in 1812.  There is no indication, however, that he shared Vautrin’s sexual orientation. 

[25] Harlot, p. 553.  For further reading I suggest A history of gay literature: the male tradition, by Gregory Woods, pp. 145-8 (1998), Vautrin and Same-sex Desire in Le Père Goriot, Berrong, Richard M., Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Volume 31, Number 1&2, Fall-Winter 2002-2003, pp. 53-65, and Balzac du coté de Sodome, Berthier, Philippe, L'Année balzacienne (1979), 147-77.