While it’s certainly more sensational and attention getting, I don’t like this literal translation of the title of Balzac’s novel. The original title of the book is Le Peau de Chagrin
. When considering the title in French, “chagrin” has both a literal and figurative connotation, which supports the sentiments evoked in the novel. “Chagrin” or shagreen—the leather hide of an onager whose magical properties cause the protagonist Raphael to become a Faustian-like figure, leading to the “chagrin” or disquietude and disappointment of all who know, esteem and love him.
Unlike many of Balzac’s tales of Parisian life, this story is allegorical in subject and tone. The fact that it’s different is probably one of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much. Symbolism abounds in this tale, from the depicted Tristram Shandy
reference of the curvy line in the Preface—if I remember correctly from Sterne’s novel, a representation of the joys of man’s freedom—to the contrasting image of the skin itself—a symbol of the degradation and corruption of a man’s soul, comparable to Dorian Gray’s painting in Oscar Wilde’s subsequent novel.
I love that this story plays with the idea of man creating and living his own heaven and hell on Earth—one of my favorite themes in literature. Raphael is in charge of his own destiny. He actively chooses the “easy” path and embarks upon a life of dissipation, not really wanting to recognize the potential salvation in front of him. The various paths he chooses to take and the resulting effects of these choices are emphasized through Balzac’s intimate narration. Actually, this story is very personal compared to other stories of his that I’ve read. And in that sense, the intimacy Balzac develops assumes a sensational quality. But Balzac isn’t really writing a magical tale here—the skin is essentially an outward manifestation of the degradation of Raphael’s soul. Balzac illustrates this well.
Overall, this is an excellent novel. The ending is shockingly melodramatic, but it perfectly complements the intimate nature of the story.