Essays in Honor of Sandy Petrey
5. Legality, Narrative Order, and Vagabondage in Balzac’s Ferragus
ARMINE KOTIN MORTIMER
The long opening paragraph of Ferragus (three and a half pages) begins with a kind of physiognomy of streets in Paris, which is described as a delicious monster for those strolling amateurs who know their Paris. The extended metaphor unfolds the monster into a creature with a head, tissue cells, a stomach, and other random body parts, until Balzac is obliged to make excuses for “ce début vagabond.”1 This self-reflexive comment provides an entry point into a reading of vagabondage in Ferragus, a story that errs and does not arrive at a desired or predictable outcome. Balzac wrote the novella, one of the three in the Histoire des Treize, in 1833, but the action takes place during the Restoration, in 1819. During the July Monarchy, as Sandy Petrey wrote, the novel, and in particular the Balzacian novel, “devoted itself to exploring the mechanisms through which reality goes away or comes thundering out of nowhere.”2 In Ferragus, the mechanism through which reality is both lost and reimposed is characterized by the rhetorical structure of error I am calling vagabondage. It is the semiotic figure of the novella’s mimesis, the discourse of its story. A semiotic reading identifies the signs of error; such a reading shows that the style corresponds to the subject matter: the matter is the description of Paris, the manner is as of a vagabondage through the text.3
The point is that Balzac always gives us the...
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