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Encyclopedia > La peau de chagrin

La Peau de chagrin (1831) is a philosophical fantasy novel by Honoré de Balzac. The title is often translated as The Wild-Ass's Skin. Leopold I 1831 was a common year starting on Saturday (see link for calendar). ... Daniel Defoes Robinson Crusoe; title page of 1719 newspaper edition A novel (from French nouvelle Italian novella, new) is an extended fictional narrative in prose. ... Honoré de Balzac (May 20, 1799 – August 18, 1850) was a French novelist. ...


The novel is about a man who discovers a powerful talisman in an old curiosity shop (originally published in 1831, this may be the first usage of that device). The talisman is in the form of an animal skin (a shagreen, the skin of an onager or "wild-ass"). It grants any wish, but shrinks slightly with each use, and the user is doomed to die when it shrinks to zero. The main character is originally prolifigate with his wishes, but is quickly reduced to an ascetic existence where he must try very hard not to want anything - his wish will be instantly granted, but might also kill him. Talisman can refer to: An amulet sometimes believed to have mystical, and amazing powers The Talisman board game from Games Workshop Talisman - Sacred Cities, Secret Faith by Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval Talisman (band) - a hard rock band. ... Shagreen is a type of roughened untanned leather, formerly made from a horses back, or that of an onager (wild ass), and typically dyed green. ... Binomial name Equus hemionus Pallas, 1775 The Onager (Equus hemionus) is a large mammal belonging to the horse family and native to the deserts of Syria, Iran, India, and Tibet. ...

There is a double-meaning in the original title which is lost in translation: it is a play on the words shagreen (the animal skin talisman) and chagrin, meaning in French a sense of grief (a much sadder regret than is implied by the English meaning of the word).

Early in the novel, a character tries to explain to the main character his view of the dangers of the talisman (translated by Herbert J. Hunt):

I am going to reveal to you, in a few words, one of the great mysteries of human life. Man exhausts himself by two acts, instinctively accomplished, which dry up the sources of his existence. Two words express all the forms that these two causes of death can assume: will and power. Between these two terms of human action there is another formula which wise men cling to, and to it I owe my hapiness and long life. The exercise of will consumes us; the exercise of power destroys us; but the pursuit of knowledge leaves our infirm constitution in a state of perpetual calm. So desire or volition is dead in me, killed by thought.

See also

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