Short summary - The Wild Ass's Skin - The Skin of Shagreen - Honoré de Balzac

French literature summaries - 2021

Short summary - The Wild Ass's Skin - The Skin of Shagreen
Honoré de Balzac


At the end of October, a young man, Raphael de Valentin, entered the building of the Palais Royal, in whose gaze the players noticed some terrible secret, his facial features expressed the dispassionateness of a suicide and a thousand disappointed hopes. Lost Valentin squandered the last Napoleon and in a daze began to wander the streets of Paris. His mind was consumed by a single thought - to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Seine from the Royal Bridge. The thought that he would be the booty of the boatmen during the day, to be valued at fifty francs, disgusted him. He decided to die at night, "in order to leave an unidentified corpse to a society that despised the greatness of his soul." Walking carelessly, he began to look at the Louvre, the Academy, the towers of the Cathedral of Our Lady, the towers of the Palace of Justice, the Pont des Arts. To wait for the night, he went to the antiquities store to ask the price for the works of art. There, a thin old man appeared before him with an ominous mockery on his thin lips. The shrewd old man guessed about the mental anguish of the young man and proposed to make him more powerful than the monarch. He handed him a piece of shagreen leather, on which the following words were engraved in Sanskrit: “Possessing me, you will possess everything, but your life will belong to me <...> Desire - and your desires will be fulfilled <...> With every desire, I will decrease how are your days ... ”

Raphael signed a contract with the old man, whose whole life was to preserve the energy not wasted in passions, and wished, if his fate did not change in the shortest possible time, that the old man would fall in love with the dancer. On the Pont des Arts, Valentin accidentally met his friends, who, considering him an outstanding person, offered a job in the newspaper in order to create an opposition "capable of satisfying the dissatisfied without much harm to the national government of the citizen king" (Louis-Philippe). Friends took Raphael to a dinner party at the foundation of the newspaper at the home of the richest banker Tayfer. The audience that had gathered that evening in the luxurious mansion was truly monstrous: “Young writers without style stood next to young writers without ideas, prose writers hungry for poetic beauties - next to prosaic poets <...> There were two or three scientists created in order to dilute the atmosphere of the conversation with nitrogen, and several vaudevilleists, ready at any moment to sparkle with ephemeral sparkles, which, like the sparks of a diamond, do not shine or warm. " After a hearty supper, the audience was offered the most beautiful courtesans, subtle imitations of "innocent timid maidens." Courtesans Akilina and Euphrasia, in a conversation with Raphael and Emil, argue that it is better to die young than to be abandoned when their beauty fades.

A woman without a heart

Raphael tells Emil about the reasons for her mental anguish and suffering. From childhood, Raphael's father subordinated his son to severe discipline. Until he was twenty-one, he was under the firm hand of a parent, the young man was naive and thirsty for love. Once at the ball, he decided to play for his father's money and won an impressive amount of money for him, however, ashamed of his act, he hid this fact. Soon, his father began to give him money for maintenance and share his plans. Raphael's father fought for ten years with Prussian and Bavarian diplomats, seeking recognition of the rights to foreign land holdings. His future depended on this process, to which Raphael was actively involved. When the decree on the loss of rights was promulgated, Raphael sold the land, leaving only an island of no value, where his mother's grave was located. A long reckoning began with creditors, which brought my father to the grave. The young man decided to stretch the remaining funds for three years, and settled in a cheap hotel, doing scientific work - "The Theory of Will". He lived from hand to mouth, but the work of thought, occupation, seemed to him the most beautiful work of life. The hostess of the hotel, Mrs. Gaudin, took care of Raphael like a mother, and her daughter Pauline provided him with many services that he could not refuse. After a while, he began to give lessons to Polina, the girl turned out to be extremely capable and quick-witted. Having gone headlong into science, Raphael continued to dream of a beautiful lady, luxurious, noble and wealthy. In Polina, he saw the embodiment of all his desires, but she lacked the salon gloss. "... a woman - be she attractive, like the beautiful Elena, this Galatea of Homera, - cannot win my heart if she is even a little dirty."

Once in winter, Rastignac took him into a house “where all of Paris had been” and introduced him to the charming Countess Theodora, the owner of eighty thousand livres of income. The Countess was a lady of twenty-two years old, enjoyed an impeccable reputation, had a marriage behind her, but did not have a lover, the most enterprising red tape in Paris suffered a fiasco in the struggle for the right to possess her. Raphael fell in love with Theodora, she was the embodiment of those dreams that made his heart flutter. Parting with him, she asked him to visit her. Returning home and feeling the contrast of the situation, Raphael cursed his "honest respectable poverty" and decided to seduce Theodora, who was the last lottery ticket on which his fate depended. What sacrifices the poor seducer did not go to: he in an incredible way managed to get to her house on foot in the rain and maintain a presentable appearance; with the last money he took her home when they returned from the theater. To provide himself with a decent wardrobe, he had to conclude an agreement to write false memoirs, which were to be published under the name of another person. One day she sent him a note with a messenger and asked him to come. Appearing at her call, Raphael learned that she needed the patronage of his influential relative, the Duke of Navarren. The madman in love was only a means to the realization of a mysterious case, which he never found out about. Raphael was tormented by the thought that the reason for the countess's loneliness could be a physical disability. To dispel his doubts, he decided to hide in her bedroom. After leaving the guests, Theodora entered her apartment and seemed to have removed the usual mask of courtesy and friendliness. Raphael did not find any flaws in her, and calmed down; falling asleep, she said: "My God!". Delighted Raphael built a lot of guesses, suggesting what such an exclamation could mean: "Her exclamation, whether meaningless, or deep, or accidental, or significant, could express happiness, and grief, and bodily pain, and concern" ... As it turned out later, she just remembered that she had forgotten to tell her broker to exchange the five percent rent for three percent. When Raphael revealed to her his poverty and all-consuming passion for her, she replied that she would not belong to anyone and would agree to marry only the duke. Raphael left the Countess forever and moved to Rastignac.

Rastignac, playing at a gambling house with their joint money, won twenty-seven thousand francs. From that day on, friends embarked on a revelry. When the funds were wasted, Valentin decided that he was a "social zero" and decided to die.

The narrative returns to the moment when Raphael is in the Tayfera mansion. He takes a piece of pebbled leather from his pocket and expresses his desire to become the owner of two hundred thousand annual income. The next morning, the notary Cardo informs the public that Raphael has become the rightful heir to Major O'Flaherty, who died the day before. The newly made richer looked at the shagreen stone and noticed that it had decreased in size. A ghostly chill of death washed over him, now "he could do everything - and did not want anything anymore."


One December day, an old man came to the luxurious mansion of the Marquis de Valentin, under whose leadership Raphael-Monsieur Porrique had once studied. The old devoted servant Jonathan tells the teacher that his master leads a reclusive life and suppresses all desires in himself. The venerable old man came to ask the marquis to solicit the minister for the restoration of him, Porrique, an inspector at a provincial college. Raphael, tired of the old man's long outpourings, accidentally said that he sincerely wishes that he would be able to achieve restoration in office. Realizing what was said, the marquis flew into a rage, when he looked at the shagreen, it noticeably decreased. In the theater, he once met a dry old man with young eyes, while in his gaze now only echoes of outdated passions were read. The old man led Raphael's acquaintance, the dancer Euphrasia, by the arm. To the questioning look of the Marquis, the old man replied that now he is happy as a young man, and that he misunderstood being: "All life is in one hour of love." Looking at the audience, Raphael fixed his gaze on Theodora, who was sitting with another admirer, all the same beautiful and cold. A beautiful stranger sat in the next chair with Raphael, capturing the admiring glances of all the men present. It was Polina. Her father, who at one time commanded a squadron of mounted grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, was taken prisoner by the Cossacks; he was rumored to have escaped and reached India. When he returned, he made his daughter the heiress of a millionth fortune. They agreed to meet at the Hotel Saint-Quentin, their former home, which kept the memories of their poverty, Pauline wanted to hand over the papers that Raphael bequeathed to her when he moved.

Finding himself at home, Rafael looked longingly at the talisman and made a wish for Pauline to love him. The next morning he was overwhelmed with joy - the talisman did not diminish, which means that the contract was violated.

Having met, the young people realized that they love each other with all their hearts and that nothing hinders their happiness. When Rafael once again looked at the shagreen, he noticed that it had shrunk again, and in a fit of anger threw it into the well. What will be will be, - decided exhausted Raphael and healed in perfect harmony with Polina. One day in February, the gardener brought the Marquis a strange find, "the size of which now did not exceed six square inches."

From now on, Raphael decided to look for a means of salvation from scientists in order to stretch the shagreen and prolong his life. The first to whom he went was Mr. Lavril, "priest of zoology." When asked how to stop the narrowing of the skin, Lavril replied: “Science is vast, but human life is very short. Therefore, we do not pretend to know all the phenomena of nature. "

The second, to whom the marquis turned, was the professor of mechanics Planchet. An attempt to stop the shagreen narrowing by acting on it with a hydraulic press was unsuccessful. Shagreen leather remained safe and sound. The stricken German struck the skin with a blacksmith's hammer, but not a trace of damage remained on it. The apprentice threw the leather into the coal furnace, but even from it the shagreen was taken out completely unharmed.

Chemist Jafe broke a razor, trying to cut the skin, tried to cut it with an electric current, exposed it to a voltaic column - all to no avail.

Now Valentin no longer believed in anything, began to look for damage to his body and called doctors. For a long time he began to notice signs of consumption, now it became obvious to him and Pauline. The doctors came to the following conclusion: "To break the window, a blow was needed, but who did it?" They attributed leeches, diet, and climate change. Raphael smiled sarcastically in response to these recommendations.

A month later, he went to the waters in Aix. Here he faced gross coldness and disdain from those around him. He was avoided and almost to his face declared that "since a person is so sick, he should not go to the water." Confronted with the brutality of secular treatment led to a duel with one of the brave brave men. Raphael killed his opponent, and the skin tightened again.

After leaving the waters, he settled in the rural hut of Mont-Dora. The people with whom he lived deeply sympathized with him, and pity is "the feeling that is most difficult to bear from other people." Soon Jonathan came for him and took his master home. Polina's letters, which she gave to him, in which she poured out her love for him, he threw into the fireplace. Bianchon's opium solution put Raphael into artificial sleep for several days. The old servant decided to follow Bianchon's advice and amuse the master. He called a full house of friends, a magnificent feast was planned, but Valentin, who saw this spectacle, was in a fierce anger. After drinking a portion of the sleeping pills, he fell asleep again. Pauline woke him up, he began to beg her to leave him, showed a piece of skin that had become the size of a "periwinkle leaf", she began to examine the talisman, and he, seeing how beautiful she was, could not control himself. “Polina, come here! Pauline!" He shouted, and the talisman in her hand began to shrink. Polina decided to tear her breasts to pieces, strangle herself with a shawl in order to die. She decided that if she killed herself, he would be alive. Raphael, seeing all this, got drunk with passion, rushed to her and died immediately.


What happened to Polina?

On the steamer City of Angers, a young man and a beautiful woman admired a figure in the fog over the Loire. “This light creature, now an undine, now a sylph, hovered in the air, - so the word that you are looking for in vain hovers somewhere in the memory, but it cannot be caught <...> One might think that this is the ghost of the Lady, depicted by Antoine de la Sal, wants to protect his country from the invasion of modernity. "