The Marriage Contract


Honore de Balzac



In the happy days of his youth a man, by the caprice of our
customs, is always lucky; he triumphs over women who are all ready to
be triumphed over and who obey their own desires. One thing after
another--the obstacles created by the laws, the sentiments and natural
defences of women--all engender a mutuality of sensations which
deceives superficial persons as to their future relations in marriage,
where obstacles no longer exist, where the wife submits to love
instead of permitting it, and frequently repulses pleasure instead of
desiring it. Then, the whole aspect of a man's life changes. The
bachelor, who is free and without a care, need never fear repulsion;
in marriage, repulsion is almost certain and irreparable. It may be
possible for a lover to make a woman reverse an unfavorable decision,
but such a change, my dear Paul, is the Waterloo of husbands. Like
Napoleon, the husband is thenceforth condemned to victories which, in
spite of their number, do not prevent the first defeat from crushing
him. The woman, so flattered by the perseverance, so delighted with
the ardor of a lover, calls the same things brutality in a husband...

He was one of those men made to receive happiness, rather than to
give it; who have something of the woman in their nature, wishing to
be divined, understood, encouraged...

like all women served by slaves, she lived as a great lady, knew nothing
of the value of money, repressed no whims, even the most expensive,
finding them ever satisfied by an adoring husband who generously
concealed from her knowledge the running-gear of the financial machine...

Madame Evangelista divined Paul's nature intuitively, and hid her own
from his perception. Paul was the very man she desired for a son-in-
law, for the responsible editor of her future power...
For her own personal ends, therefore, she looked to
Paul as a means of destiny, she proposed to employ the resources of
her own talent and knowledge of life to advance her son-in-law, in
order to enjoy through him the delights of power. Many men are thus
made the screens of secret feminine ambitions...

Paul was naturally captivated by this woman, who charmed him all the
more because she seemed to seek no influence over him. In reality she
was using her ascendancy to magnify herself, her daughter, and all her
surroundings in his eyes, for the purpose of ruling from the start the
man in whom she saw a means of gratifying her social longings. Paul,
on the other hand, began to value himself more highly when he felt
himself appreciated by the mother and daughter. He thought himself
much cleverer than he really was when he found his reflections and
sayings accepted and understood by Mademoiselle Natalie--who raised
her head and smiled in response to them--and by the mother, whose
flattery always seemed involuntary. The two women were so kind and
friendly to him, he was so sure of pleasing them, they ruled him so
delightfully by holding the thread of his self-love...

Fear, inspired by love is an infallible instrument by which to manage the
minds of women. Whoso loves, fears; whoso fears is nearer to affection
than to hatred...

women possess in an eminent degree the art of reading thoughts from
the play of countenance...

..said Solonet, "tell me what are the utmost
concessions you are willing to make."

"I wish to make as few as possible," she answered, laughing.

"A woman's answer," cried Solonet...

"Why don't you ask Monsieur le comte to make over 'hic et nunc' his
whole fortune to his future wife?" said Mathias. "It would be more
honest than what you now propose...

"The scene has been prepared between them as gamblers prepare the
cards to ruin a pigeon," thought the old notary. "Is this poor boy,
whom I saw born, doomed to be plucked alive by that woman, roasted
by his very love, and devoured by his wife? I, who have nursed these fine
estates for years with such care, am I to see them ruined in a single
night? Three million and a half to be hypothecated for eleven hundred
thousand francs these women will force him to squander!"

Discovering thus in the soul of the elder woman intentions which,
without involving crime, theft, swindling, or any actually evil or
blameworthy action, nevertheless belonged to all those criminalities
in embryo, Maitre Mathias felt neither sorrow nor generous
indignation. He was not the Misanthrope; he was an old notary,
accustomed in his business to the shrewd calculations of worldly
people, to those clever bits of treachery which do more fatal injury
than open murder on the high-road committed by some poor devil,
who is guillotined in consequence...

A lover is about as discreet as a cannon-ball...

that girl will spend the mines of Peru. Besides, see how she
rides a horse,--like the groom of a circus; she is half emancipated
already. Such girls make bad wives."...

"In the first place, my dear child, the cause of the failure of
married women who desire to keep their husbands' hearts--and," she
said, making a parenthesis, "to keep their hearts and rule them is one
and the same thing--Well, the principle cause of conjugal disunion is
to be found in perpetual intercourse, which never existed in the olden
time, but which has been introduced into this country of late years
with the mania for family. Since the Revolution the manners and
customs of the bourgeois have invaded the homes of the aristocracy.
This misfortune is due to one of their writers, Rousseau, an infamous
heretic, whose ideas were all anti-social and who pretended, I don't
know how, to justify the most senseless things. He declared that all
women had the same rights and the same faculties; that living in a
state of society we ought, nevertheless, to obey nature--as if the
wife of a Spanish grandee, as if you or I had anything in common with
the women of the people! Since then, well-bred women have suckled
their children, have educated their daughters, and stayed in their own
homes. Life has become so involved that happiness is almost
impossible,--for a perfect harmony between natures such as that which
has made you and me live as two friends is an exception. Perpetual
contact is as dangerous for parents and children as it is for husband
and wife. There are few souls in which love survives this fatal
omnipresence. Therefore, I say, erect between yourself and Paul the
barriers of society; go to balls and operas; go out in the morning,
dine out in the evenings, pay visits constantly, and grant but little
of your time to your husband. By this means you will always keep your
value to him. When two beings bound together for life have nothing to
live upon but sentiment, its resources are soon exhausted,
indifference, satiety, and disgust succeed. When sentiment has
withered what will become of you? Remember, affection once
extinguished can lead to nothing but indifference or contempt. Be ever
young and ever new to him. He may weary you,--that often happens,--but
you must never weary him. The faculty of being bored without showing
it is a condition of all species of power. You cannot diversify
happiness by the cares of property or the occupations of a family. If
you do not make your husband share your social interests, if you do
not keep him amused you will fall into a dismal apathy. Then begins
the SPLEEN of love. But a man will always love the woman who amuses
him and keeps him happy. To give happiness and to receive it are two
lines of feminine conduct which are separated by a gulf."

"Dear mother, I am listening to you, but I don't understand one word
you say."

"If you love Paul to the extent of doing all he asks of you, if you
make your happiness depend on him, all is over with your future life;
you will never be mistress of your home, and the best precepts in the
world will do you no good."

"That is plainer; but I see the rule without knowing how to apply it,"
said Natalie, laughing. "I have the theory; the practice will come."

"My poor Ninie," replied the mother, who dropped an honest tear at the
thought of her daughter's marriage, "things will happen to teach it to
you--And," she continued, after a pause, during which the mother and
daughter held each other closely embraced in the truest sympathy,
"remember this, my Natalie: we all have our destiny as women, just as
men have their vocation as men. A woman is born to be a woman of the
world and a charming hostess, as a man is born to be a general or a
poet. Your vocation is to please. Your education has formed you for
society. In these days women should be educated for the salon as they
once were for the gynoecium. You were not born to be the mother of a
family or the steward of a household. If you have children, I hope
they will not come to spoil your figure on the morrow of your
marriage; nothing is so bourgeois as to have a child at once. If you
have them two or three years after your marriage, well and good;
governesses and tutors will bring them up. YOU are to be the lady, the
great lady, who represents the luxury and the pleasure of the house.
But remember one thing--let your superiority be visible in those
things only which flatter a man's self-love; hide the superiority you
must also acquire over him in great things."

"But you frighten me, mamma," cried Natalie. "How can I remember all
these precepts? How shall I ever manage, I, such a child, and so
heedless, to reflect and calculate before I act?"

"But, my dear little girl, I am telling you to-day that which you must
surely learn later, buying your experience by fatal faults and errors
of conduct which will cause you bitter regrets and embarrass your
whole life."

"But how must I begin?" asked Natalie, artlessly.

"Instinct will guide you," replied her mother. "At this moment Paul
desires you more than he loves you; for love born of desires is a
hope; the love that succeeds their satisfaction is the reality. There,
my dear, is the question; there lies your power. What woman is not
loved before marriage? Be so on the morrow and you shall remain so
always. Paul is a weak man who is easily trained to habit. If he
yields to you once he will yield always. A woman ardently desired can
ask all things; do not commit the folly of many women who do not see
the importance of the first hours of their sway,--that of wasting your
power on trifles, on silly things with no result. Use the empire your
husband's first emotions give you to accustom him to obedience. And
when you make him yield, choose that it be on some unreasonable point,
so as to test the measure of your power by the measure of his
concession. What victory would there be in making him agree to a
reasonable thing? Would that be obeying you? We must always, as the
Castilian proverb says, take the bull by the horns; when a bull has
once seen the inutility of his defence and of his strength he is
beaten. When your husband does a foolish thing for you, you can govern

"Why so?"

"Because, my child, marriage lasts a lifetime, and a husband is not a
man like other men. Therefore, never commit the folly of giving
yourself into his power in everything. Keep up a constant reserve in
your speech and in your actions. You may even be cold to him without
danger, for you can modify coldness at will. Besides, nothing is more
easy to maintain than our dignity. The words, 'It is not becoming in
your wife to do thus and so,' is a great talisman. The life of a woman
lies in the words, 'I will not.' They are the final argument. Feminine
power is in them, and therefore they should only be used on real
occasions. But they constitute a means of governing far beyond that of
argument or discussion. I, my dear child, reigned over your father by
his faith in me. If your husband believes in you, you can do all
things with him. To inspire that belief you must make him think that
you understand him. Do not suppose that that is an easy thing to do. A
woman can always make a man think that he is loved, but to make him
admit that he is understood is far more difficult. I am bound to tell
you all now, my child, for to-morrow life with its complications, life
with two wills which MUST be made one, begins for you. Bear in mind,
at all moments, that difficulty. The only means of harmonizing your
two wills is to arrange from the first that there shall be but one;
and that will must be yours. Many persons declare that a wife creates
her own unhappiness by changing sides in this way; but, my dear, she
can only become the mistress by controlling events instead of bearing
them; and that advantage compensates for any difficulty."...

When she sees my diamond at her throat and my ear-rings
in her ears she will have one of those little enjoyments of vanity
which contribute so much to a woman's happiness and make her so gay
and fascinating. Nothing saddens a woman more than to have her vanity
repressed; I have never seen an ill-dressed woman who was amiable or

"If you had had children your wife would not have dissipated your
fortune; she would have stayed at home and looked after them."

"If you were right, dear friend," said Paul, frowning, "I should be
still more unhappy than I am. Do not aggravate my sufferings by
preaching to me after my fall. Let me go, without the pang of looking
backward to my mistakes."...

Your wife, dear friend, is, I believe I may say, in the fullest
application of the word, a fashionable woman. She thinks of
nothing but her social success, her dress, her pleasures; she goes
to opera and theatre and balls; she rises late and drives to the
Bois, dines out, or gives a dinner-party. Such a life seems to me
for women very much what war is for men; the public sees only the
victors; it forgets the dead. Many delicate women perish in this
conflict; those who come out of it have iron constitutions,
consequently no heart, but good stomachs. There lies the reason of
the cold insensibility of social life. Fine souls keep themselves
reserved, weak and tender natures succumb; the rest are
cobblestones which hold the social organ in its place, water-worn
and rounded by the tide, but never worn-out. Your wife has
maintained that life with ease; she looks made for it; she is
always fresh and beautiful. To my mind the deduction is plain,--
she has never loved you; and you have loved her like a madman.

To strike out love from that siliceous nature a man of iron was
needed. After standing, but without enduring, the shock of Lady
Dudley, Felix was the fitting mate to Natalie. There is no great
merit in divining that to you she was indifferent. In love with
her yourself, you have been incapable of perceiving the cold
nature of a young woman whom you have fashioned and trained for a
man like Vandenesse. The coldness of your wife, if you perceived
it, you set down, with the stupid jurisprudence of married people,
to the honor of her reserve and her innocence. Like all husbands,
you thought you could keep her virtuous in a society where women
whisper from ear to ear that which men are afraid to say.

No, your wife has liked the social benefits she derived from
marriage, but the private burdens of it she found rather heavy.
Those burdens, that tax was--you! Seeing nothing of all this, you
have gone on digging your abysses (to use the hackneyed words of
rhetoric) and covering them with flowers. You have mildly obeyed
the law which rules the ruck of men; from which I desired to
protect you. Dear fellow! only one thing was wanting to make you
as dull as the bourgeois deceived by his wife, who is all
astonishment or wrath, and that is that you should talk to me of
your sacrifices, your love for Natalie, and chant that psalm:
"Ungrateful would she be if she betrayed me; I have done this, I
have done that, and more will I do; I will go to the ends of the
earth, to the Indies for her sake. I--I--" etc. My dear Paul, have
you never lived in Paris, have you never had the honor of
belonging by ties of friendship to Henri de Marsay, that you
should be so ignorant of the commonest things, the primitive
principles that move the feminine mechanism, the a-b-c of their
hearts? Then hear me:--

Suppose you exterminate yourself, suppose you go to Saint-Pelagie
for a woman's debts, suppose you kill a score of men, desert a
dozen women, serve like Laban, cross the deserts, skirt the
galleys, cover yourself with glory, cover yourself with shame,
refuse, like Nelson, to fight a battle until you have kissed the
shoulder of Lady Hamilton, dash yourself, like Bonaparte, upon the
bridge at Arcola, go mad like Roland, risk your life to dance five
minutes with a woman--my dear fellow, what have all those things
to do with LOVE? If love were won by samples such as those mankind
would be too happy. A spurt of prowess at the moment of desire
would give a man the woman that he wanted. But love, LOVE, my good
Paul, is a faith like that in the Immaculate conception of the
Holy Virgin; it comes, or it does not come. Will the mines of
Potosi, or the shedding of our blood, or the making of our fame
serve to waken an involuntary, an inexplicable sentiment? Young
men like you, who expect to be loved as the balance of your
account, are nothing else than usurers. Our legitimate wives owe
us virtue and children, but they don't owe us love.

Love, my dear Paul, is the sense of pleasure given and received,
and the certainty of giving and receiving it; love is a desire
incessantly moving and growing, incessantly satisfied and
insatiable. The day when Vandenesse stirred the cord of a desire
in your wife's heart which you had left untouched, all your self-
satisfied affection, your gifts, your deeds, your money, ceased to
be even memories; one emotion of love in your wife's heart has
cast out the treasures of your own passion, which are now nothing
better than old iron. Felix has the virtues and the beauties in
her eyes, and the simple moral is that blinded by your own love
you never made her love you.

Your mother-in-law is on the side of the lover against the
husband,--secretly or not; she may have closed her eyes, or she
may have opened them; I know not what she has done--but one thing
is certain, she is for her daughter, and against you. During the
fifteen years that I have observed society, I have never yet seen
a mother who, under such circumstances, abandons her daughter.
This indulgence seems to be an inheritance transmitted in the
female line...

For you, this blow ought to be like the brand on the shoulder of a
galley-slave, which flings him forever into a life of systematic opposition
to society. You are now freed of one evil; marriage possessed you; it
now behooves you to turn round and possess marriage...

After thirty-five years of slumber, my highly-respected mother woke up
to the recollection that she had a son who might do her honor. Often
when a vine-stock is eradicated, some years after shoots come up to
the surface of the ground; well, my dear boy, my mother had almost torn
me up by the roots from her heart, and I sprouted again in her head. At
the age of fifty-eight, she thinks herself old enough to think no more
of any men but her son. At this juncture she has met in some hot-
water cauldron, at I know not what baths, a delightful old maid--
English, with two hundred and forty thousand francs a year; and,
like a good mother, she has inspired her with an audacious
ambition to become my wife. A maid of six-and-thirty, my word!
Brought up in the strictest puritanical principles, a steady
sitting hen, who maintains that unfaithful wives should be
publicly burnt. 'Where will you find wood enough?' I asked her. I
could have sent her to the devil, for two hundred and forty
thousand francs a year are no equivalent for liberty, nor a fair
price for my physical and moral worth and my prospects. But she is
the sole heiress of a gouty old fellow, some London brewer, who
within a calculable time will leave her a fortune equal at least
to what the sweet creature has already. Added to these advantages,
she has a red nose, the eyes of a dead goat, a waist that makes
one fear lest she should break into three pieces if she falls
down, and the coloring of a badly painted doll. But--she is
delightfully economical; but--she will adore her husband, do what
he will; but--she has the English gift; she will manage my house,
my stables, my servants, my estates better than any steward. She
has all the dignity of virtue; she holds herself as erect as a
confidante on the stage of the Francais; nothing will persuade me
that she has not been impaled and the shaft broken off in her
body. Miss Stevens is, however, fair enough to be not too
unpleasing if I must positively marry her. But--and this to me is
truly pathetic--she has the hands of a woman as immaculate as the
sacred ark; they are so red that I have not yet hit on any way to
whiten them that will not be too costly, and I have no idea how to
fine down her fingers, which are like sausages. Yes; she evidently
belongs to the brew-house by her hands, and to the aristocracy by
her money; but she is apt to affect the great lady a little too
much, as rich English women do who want to be mistaken for them,
and she displays her lobster's claws too freely.

She has, however, as little intelligence as I could wish in a
woman. If there were a stupider one to be found, I would set out
to seek her. This girl, whose name is Dinah, will never criticise
me; she will never contradict me; I shall be her Upper Chamber,
her Lords and Commons. In short, Paul, she is indefeasible
evidence of the English genius; she is a product of English
mechanics brought to their highest pitch of perfection; she was
undoubtedly made at Manchester, between the manufactory of Perry's
pens and the workshops for steam-engines. It eats, it drinks, it
walks, it may have children, take good care of them, and bring
them up admirably, and it apes a woman so well that you would
believe it real...

In France the husband who shoots his rival becomes at once respectable
and respected. No one ever cavils at him again...
Now hear me: kill Vandenesse, and your wife trembles, your mother-
in-law trembles, the public trembles, and you recover your
position, you prove your grand passion for your wife, you subdue
society, you subdue your wife, you become a hero. Such is France...