Read MEDITATION XIII - OF CATASTROPHES. of The Physiology of Marriage‚ Part II., free online book, by Honore de Balzac, on

The word Catastrophe is a term of literature which signifies the final climax of a play.

To bring about a catastrophe in the drama which you are playing is a method of defence which is as easy to undertake as it is certain to succeed.  In advising to employ it, we would not conceal from you its perils.

The conjugal catastrophe may be compared to one of those high fevers which either carry off a predisposed subject or completely restore his health.  Thus, when the catastrophe succeeds, it keeps a woman for years in the prudent realms of virtue.

Moreover, this method is the last of all those which science has been able to discover up to this present moment.

The massacre of St. Bartholomew, the Sicilian Vespers, the death of Lucretia, the two embarkations of Napoleon at Frejus are examples of political catastrophe.  It will not be in your power to act on such a large scale; nevertheless, within their own area, your dramatic climaxes in conjugal life will not be less effective than these.

But since the art of creating a situation and of transforming it, by the introduction of natural incidents, constitutes genius; since the return to virtue of a woman, whose foot has already left some tracks upon the sweet and gilded sand which mark the pathway of vice, is the most difficult to bring about of all dénouements, and since genius neither knows it nor teaches it, the practitioner in conjugal laws feels compelled to confess at the outset that he is incapable of reducing to definite principles a science which is as changeable as circumstances, as delusive as opportunity, and as indefinable as instinct.

If we may use an expression which neither Diderot, d’Alembert nor Voltaire, in spite of every effort, have been able to engraft on our language, a conjugal catastrophe se subodore is scented from afar; so that our only course will be to sketch out imperfectly certain conjugal situations of an analogous kind, thus imitating the philosopher of ancient time who, seeking in vain to explain motion, walked forward in his attempt to comprehend laws which were incomprehensible.

A husband, in accordance with the principles comprised in our Meditation on Police, will expressly forbid his wife to receive the visits of a celibate whom he suspects of being her lover, and whom she has promised never again to see.  Some minor scenes of the domestic interior we leave for matrimonial imaginations to conjure up; a husband can delineate them much better than we can; he will betake himself in thought back to those days when delightful longings invited sincere confidences and when the workings of his policy put into motion certain adroitly handled machinery.

Let us suppose, in order to make more interesting the natural scene to which I refer, that you who read are a husband, whose carefully organized police has made the discovery that your wife, profiting by the hours devoted by you to a ministerial banquet, to which she probably procured you an invitation, received at your house M. A ­z.

Here we find all the conditions necessary to bring about the finest possible of conjugal catastrophes.

You return home just in time to find your arrival has coincided with that of M. A ­z, for we would not advise you to have the interval between acts too long.  But in what mood should you enter?  Certainly not in accordance with the rules of the previous Meditation.  In a rage then?  Still less should you do that.  You should come in with good-natured carelessness, like an absent-minded man who has forgotten his purse, the statement which he has drawn up for the minister, his pocket-handkerchief or his snuff-box.

In that case you will either catch two lovers together, or your wife, forewarned by the maid, will have hidden the celibate.

Now let us consider these two unique situations.

But first of all we will observe that husbands ought always to be in a position to strike terror in their homes and ought long before to make preparations for the matrimonial second of September.

Thus a husband, from the moment that his wife has caused him to perceive certain first symptoms, should never fail to give, time after time, his personal opinion on the course of conduct to be pursued by a husband in a great matrimonial crisis.

“As for me,” you should say, “I should have no hesitation in killing the man I caught at my wife’s feet.”

With regard to the discussion that you will thus give rise to, you will be led on to aver that the law ought to have given to the husband, as it did in ancient Rome, the right of life and death over his children, so that he could slay those who were spurious.

These ferocious opinions, which really do not bind you to anything, will impress your wife with salutary terror; you will enumerate them lightly, even laughingly ­and say to her, “Certainly, my dear, I would kill you right gladly.  Would you like to be murdered by me?”

A woman cannot help fearing that this pleasantry may some day become a very serious matter, for in these crimes of impulse there is a certain proof of love; and then women who know better than any one else how to say true things laughingly at times suspect their husbands of this feminine trick.

When a husband surprises his wife engaged in even innocent conversation with her lover, his face still calm, should produce the effect mythologically attributed to the celebrated Gorgon.

In order to produce a favorable catastrophe at this juncture, you must act in accordance with the character of your wife, either play a pathetic scene a la Diderot, or resort to irony like Cicero, or rush to your pistols loaded with a blank charge, or even fire them off, if you think that a serious row is indispensable.

A skillful husband may often gain a great advantage from a scene of unexaggerated sentimentality.  He enters, he sees the lover and transfixes him with a glance.  As soon as the celibate retires, he falls at the feet of his wife, he declaims a long speech, in which among other phrases there occurs this: 

“Why, my dear Caroline, I have never been able to love you as I should!”

He weeps, and she weeps, and this tearful catastrophe leaves nothing to be desired.

We would explain, apropos of the second method by which the catastrophe may be brought about, what should be the motives which lead a husband to vary this scene, in accordance with the greater or less degree of strength which his wife’s character possesses.

Let us pursue this subject.

If by good luck it happens that your wife has put her lover in a place of concealment, the catastrophe will be very much more successful.

Even if the apartment is not arranged according to the principles prescribed in the Meditation, you will easily discern the place into which the celibate has vanished, although he be not, like Lord Byron’s Don Juan, bundled up under the cushion of a divan.  If by chance your apartment is in disorder, you ought to have sufficient discernment to know that there is only one place in which a man could bestow himself.  Finally, if by some devilish inspiration he has made himself so small that he has squeezed into some unimaginable lurking-place (for we may expect anything from a celibate), well, either your wife cannot help casting a glance towards this mysterious spot, or she will pretend to look in an exactly opposite direction, and then nothing is easier for a husband than to set a mouse-trap for his wife.

The hiding-place being discovered, you must walk straight up to the lover.  You must meet him face to face!

And now you must endeavor to produce a fine effect.  With your face turned three-quarters towards him, you must raise your head with an air of superiority.  This attitude will enhance immensely the effect which you aim at producing.

The most essential thing to do at this moment, is to overwhelm the celibate by some crushing phrase which you have been manufacturing all the time; when you have thus floored him, you will coldly show him the door.  You will be very polite, but as relentless as the executioner’s axe, and as impassive as the law.  This freezing contempt will already probably have produced a revolution in the mind of your wife.  There must be no shouts, no gesticulations, no excitement.  “Men of high social rank,” says a young English author, “never behave like their inferiors, who cannot lose a fork without sounding the alarm throughout the whole neighborhood.”

When the celibate has gone, you will find yourself alone with your wife, and then is the time when you must subjugate her forever.

You should therefore stand before her, putting on an air whose affected calmness betrays the profoundest emotion; then you must choose from among the following topics, which we have rhetorically amplified, and which are most congenial to your feelings:  “Madame,” you must say, “I will speak to you neither of your vows, nor of my love; for you have too much sense and I have too much pride to make it possible that I should overwhelm you with those exécrations, which all husbands have a right to utter under these circumstances; for the least of the mistakes that I should make, if I did so, is that I would be fully justified.  I will not now, even if I could, indulge either in wrath or resentment.  It is not I who have been outraged; for I have too much heart to be frightened by that public opinion which almost always treats with ridicule and condemnation a husband whose wife has misbehaved.  When I examine my life, I see nothing there that makes this treachery deserved by me, as it is deserved by many others.  I still love you.  I have never been false, I will not say to my duty, for I have found nothing onerous in adoring you, but not even to those welcome obligations which sincere feeling imposes upon us both.  You have had all my confidence and you have also had the administration of my fortune.  I have refused you nothing.  And now this is the first time that I have turned to you a face, I will not say stern, but which is yet reproachful.  But let us drop this subject, for it is of no use for me to defend myself at a moment when you have proved to me with such energy that there is something lacking in me, and that I am not intended by nature to accomplish the difficult task of rendering you happy.  But I would ask you, as a friend speaking to a friend, how could you have the heart to imperil at the same time the lives of three human creatures:  that of the mother of my children, who will always be sacred to me; that of the head of the family; and finally of him ­who loves ­[she perhaps at these words will throw herself at your feet; you must not permit her to do so; she is unworthy of kneeling there].  For you no longer love me, Eliza.  Well, my poor child [you must not call her my poor child excepting when the crime has not been committed] ­why deceive ourselves?  Why do you not answer me?  If love is extinguished between a married couple, cannot friendship and confidence still survive?  Are we not two companions united in making the same journey?  Can it be said that during the journey the one must never hold out his hand to the other to raise up a comrade or to prevent a comrade’s fall?  But I have perhaps said too much and I am wounding your pride ­Eliza!  Eliza!”

Now what the deuce would you expect a woman to answer?  Why a catastrophe naturally follows, without a single word.

In a hundred women there may be found at least a good half dozen of feeble creatures who under this violent shock return to their husbands never perhaps again to leave them, like scorched cats that dread the fire.  But this scene is a veritable alexipharmaca, the doses of which should be measured out by prudent hands.

For certain women of delicate nerves, whose souls are soft and timid, it would be sufficient to point out the lurking-place where the lover lies, and say:  “M.  A ­z is there!” [at this point shrug your shoulders].  “How can you thus run the risk of causing the death of two worthy people?  I am going out; let him escape and do not let this happen again.”

But there are women whose hearts, too violently strained in these terrible catastrophes, fail them and they die; others whose blood undergoes a change, and they fall a prey to serious maladies; others actually go out of their minds.  These are examples of women who take poison or die suddenly ­and we do not suppose that you wish the death of the sinner.

Nevertheless, the most beautiful and impressionable of all the queens of France, the charming and unfortunate Mary Stuart, after having seen Rizzio murdered almost in her arms, fell in love, nevertheless, with the Earl of Bothwell; but she was a queen and queens are abnormal in disposition.

We will suppose, then, that the woman whose portrait adorns our first Meditation is a little Mary Stuart, and we will hasten to raise the curtain for the fifth act in this grand drama entitled Marriage.

A conjugal catastrophe may burst out anywhere, and a thousand incidents which we cannot describe may give it birth.  Sometimes it is a handkerchief, as in Othello; or a pair of slippers, as in Don Juan; sometimes it is the mistake of your wife, who cries out ­“Dear Alphonse!” instead of “Dear Adolph!” Sometimes a husband, finding out that his wife is in debt, will go and call on her chief creditor, and will take her some morning to his house, as if by chance, in order to bring about a catastrophe.  “Monsieur Josse, you are a jeweler and you sell your jewels with a readiness which is not equaled by the readiness of your debtors to pay for them.  The countess owes you thirty thousand francs.  If you wish to be paid to-morrow [tradesmen should always be visited at the end of the month] come to her at noon; her husband will be in the chamber.  Do not attend to any sign which she may make to impose silence upon you ­speak out boldly.  I will pay all.”

So that the catastrophe in the science of marriage is what figures are in arithmetic.

All the principles of higher conjugal philosophy, on which are based the means of defence outlined in this second part of our book, are derived from the nature of human sentiments, and we have found them in different places in the great book of the world.  Just as persons of intellect instinctively apply the laws of taste whose principles they would find difficulty in formulating, so we have seen numberless people of deep feeling employing with singular felicity the precepts which we are about to unfold, yet none of them consciously acted on a definite system.  The sentiments which this situation inspired only revealed to them incomplete fragments of a vast system; just as the scientific men of the sixteenth century found that their imperfect microscopes did not enable them to see all the living organisms, whose existence had yet been proved to them by the logic of their patient genius.

We hope that the observations already made in this book, and in those which follow, will be of a nature to destroy the opinion which frivolous men maintain, namely that marriage is a sinecure.  According to our view, a husband who gives way to ennui is a heretic, and more than that, he is a man who lives quite out of sympathy with the marriage state, of whose importance he has no conception.  In this connection, these Meditations perhaps will reveal to very many ignorant men the mysteries of a world before which they stand with open eyes, yet without seeing it.

We hope, moreover, that these principles when well applied will produce many conversions, and that among the pages that separate this second part from that entitled Civil War many tears will be shed and many vows of repentance breathed.

Yes, among the four hundred thousand honest women whom we have so carefully sifted out from all the European nations, we indulge the belief that there are a certain number, say three hundred thousand, who will be sufficiently self-willed, charming, adorable, and bellicose to raise the standard of Civil War.

To arms then, to arms!