Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

The Human Comedy: Chronicles of 19th-Century France

Home / Sets / Social Types

Social Types

THE CODIFICATION OF SOCIAL TYPES An enthusiast of theories of characterization and classification, Honoré de Balzac believed the human world was made up of “social species” analogous to the animal species of the natural world. Like many of his contemporaries, Balzac was interested in physiognomy, the theory of a correspondence between physical traits—facial features in particular—and moral traits. He was also interested in a pseudoscientific branch of medicine called phrenology, which involved the study of skull shapes. Protuberances or bumps on the skull were seen as indicators of character traits and intelligence. In his series Les Bosses (Bumps), Gavarni takes a humorous approach to phrenology, imagining a wide array of physical bumps and their corresponding moral traits. The novels of La Comédie humaine, like the caricatures of Daumier and Gavarni, performed a didactic function. They showed readers and viewers the kinds of social types and situations to avoid and the ones to emulate. In their codification and conceptualization of contemporary types, writers and artists also set the terms through which the social history of 19th-century France would be understood. As the Irish poet Oscar Wilde quipped: “The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac.”

  1. Robert Macaire

  2. Les Bosses

  3. Bluestockings and Advocates of Divorce

  4. Joseph Prudhomme