The Magic Skin


La Comédie humaine (The human comedy) is the promethean project, conceived by the great French writer Honoré de Balzac (1799−1850), which sought to represent contemporary society and man in their entirety through novels and short stories. Many characters appear in several of the stories that make up the larger endeavor, and events and situations echo each other from one story to the next. Presented here is La Peau de Chagrin (The magic skin), the second novel in the cycle, in the original edition published by Gosselin in 1831. It is the story of young Raphaël, who receives a piece of shagreen from an old antique dealer. The shagreen makes Raphaël’s wishes come true, but it shortens his life as it does so. After a failed relationship with a cold and greedy woman, Raphaël becomes rich and falls in love. Unable to rid himself of his talisman, he retreats from society, falls sick, and dies in the arms of his beloved. Raphaël faces a cruel dilemma in the novel: he can either satisfy his desires but thereby shorten his life, or he can live a long life devoid of any excitement and desire, meticulously controlling his emotions. Unable to make a choice, he dies, feeling defeated. For many readers, the piece of shagreen was seen as the symbol of a society consumed by money, where everything was counted and calculated. This complex novel was interpreted in various, and sometimes contradictory, ways. It was also Balzac’s first big literary success, after which he went on to become one of the most recognized writers of his era.

Last updated: July 8, 2015