At first glance, the English translation of the title might seem somewhat of a misnomer. Essentially, this work is a collection of four separate volumes that are essentially loosely joined together through one central theme and figure, i.e. the infamous Jacques Collin and his string of aliases from the priest Carlos Herrera, to Vautrin. Though one might think the “harlot” referenced in the English translation refers to the story’s professional courtesan, Esther Gobseck, this is not a true conclusion. The story is essentially a study of interactions amongst men and women in Parisian society—husbands, wives and lovers. In essence, all daughters of Paris when they fall in love—be they rich or poor—experience and inhabit the highs and lows of the courtesan. Love for these women is likened to an addiction which will eventually reach a crisis stage that threatens to take over reason, leading to ruination, madness or even death. In this crisis stage, the Parisian woman in love can conjure up untold amounts of strength...even ripping out the steel bars of a prison gate!
The pacing of these four volumes might be a detraction for some readers. In truth, the first two volumes describing the organizational workings of Parisian society read rather slowly. The interweaving of roles are numerous: husbands, wives and their lovers—equally accepting, understanding and supporting; the petty female jealousies felt by opposing friends and lovers vying for attention: old biddies like Diane de Maufrigneuse and Mme de Sérisy trying to recapture their youth by lusting after young virile men, who are engaged to their friends’ virginal daughters, and their plans to establish continued understandings with these male lovers after their marriage. Then, there is the male lover’s attempts at seeking pleasure—not just from his intended wife and older lover—but through the arms of his own established mistress. This web of corrupt intrigue that Balzac painstakingly weaves is phenomenal. It reminded me of Thackeray’s puppet theatre imagery that is the essence of Vanity Fair. Yet none of Balzac’s characters within these four volumes ever realize that they are being manipulated by a master puppeteer—though unlike Thackeray’s own role of “manager,” the role of the master in Balzac’s story is entrusted to the criminal mastermind, Jacques Collin.
It is only within the last two volumes that the reader is fully acquainted with Jacques Collin’s significant role. He is rather reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Frank Abagnale, Jr. in the film, Catch Me If You Can. The scam Jacques Collin has in play is wonderfully complex: the whole of Paris is within his control. It is so much fun to see how he pulls and tests the strengths of his power, fully aware of his own strength and Paris’ weaknesses. Though, Balzac is careful in not allowing him to appear infallible: Jacques Collin does have one weakness in the form of his protégée, Lucien de Rubempré, the protagonist of Lost Illusions. His plan is guided solely for the benefit of Lucien, assuring Lucien’s future happiness within Paris’ financial, political and social web.
Overall, despite the somewhat dull beginning, Balzac devised a masterful and entertaining conclusion to this 600 page work.