Sketch of the Parisian antique dealer as Moses. Image from Maison de Balzac / Roger-Viollet, via museosphere.paris.fr.
Giving the Antique dealer such a pivotal role in the The Magic Skin while also leaving the character nameless is symptomatic of France’s ambivalence and suspicion as to the revolutionary Jewish emancipation of 1791 and the growing importance of certain Jewish figures in upper levels of French society. This ambivalence and suspicion comes across in Balzac’s treatment of the Antique dealer. He appears to admire the judicious sagacity of the biblical Jew in the form of Moses, while also fearing the mystical powers and knowledge of the ancient Jewish tradition, and finally coveting the imagined, magical wealth of gold, silver, worldly treasures, and masterpieces of art. Balzac’s Antique dealer is certainly not the first nor the last Jewish character penned into the pages of his vast Comédie humaine, but he does show some essential stereotypes that French society pinned to the Jewish figure, such as occult power, endless wealth, and a particular manner of dressing.
As many Jews of France quickly assimilated to French culture in the early half of the nineteenth century, the peculiar clothing stereotype became obsolete and unrealistic, while stereotypes concerning wealth and power became more prominent. When representing the mysterious Jewish figure in later works, Balzac replaces the nameless Antique dealer with such characters as Jean-Esther Gobseck, the Baron de Nucingen, and Elie Magus. These characters continue to incarnate the Jewish stereotypes of occult power and great wealth that Balzac attaches to his Antique dealer, but they are no longer distinguishable by their particular clothing. Dressed as any other Frenchman of the time, the assimilated Parisian Jew was often seen as all the more menacing because one might have confused him for a wealthy aristocrat.
In my work as the 2014-15 Richard M. Willner Memorial Scholar at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, I am exploring the various expressions of Jewish figures in nineteenth-century French literature. Nineteenth-century France, especially Paris, is a curious place for the Jewish figure. Novels, short stories, poems, and other literary forms in nineteenth-century France bear witness to the precarious position in which the Jews of France find themselves in Parisian society. Recently emancipated and taking advantage of the benefits of French citizenship, but not truly accepted by the greater Catholic population still harboring discriminatory opinions against the Jewish people, the Jews of France were stuck between complete assimilation and eventual conversion or fidelity to the religion of their ancestors and potential total social ostracism. Looking at the work of authors such as Honoré de Balzac, Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola, and Marcel Proust, it is my belief that an exploration of their treatment of Jewish characters will tell us how a society in the throws of great transformation attempts to deal with the difficulties of an emerging modern nation.
Source: Honoré de Balzac, The works of Honoré de Balzac, Philadelphia, Avil Publishing Company, vol. 1, 1901.
Christina Sztajnkrycer (Sutton) is the 2014-15 Richard M. Willner Memorial Scholar at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies. She is a third-year PhD student in the Department of French and Italian Studies, having earned her MA from the University of Washington in 2011. In her studies, she became interested in the recurrence of Jewish characters in 19th-century French fiction centered on the rapidly evolving Parisian society. Fascinated by the intrinsically linked histories of France and French Jews of the 19th century, Christina is now working on the representation of Jewish identity in French and Francophone fiction of the larger 19th century. The literature Christina is studying spans from the 1789 French Revolution all the way to the arrival of the North African French-speaking diaspora in France in the 1950s.