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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Vautrin is a character from the novels of French writer Honoré de Balzac in the La Comédie humaine series. His real name is Jacques Collin. He appears in the novels Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot, 1834/35) under the name Vautrin, and in Illusions perdues (Lost illusions, 1837-43) and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (Scenes from a Courtesan's Life, 1838-44), the sequel of Illusions perdues, under the name of Abbé Herrera. In prison, he got the nickname Trompe-la-Mort (Tricks-death), because he was very careful never to commit a crime that could result in a death sentence.



By the time the Comédie humaine series begins, Jacques Collin is an escaped convict and criminal mastermind fleeing from the police. The character first appears in the La Comédie humaine series using the name of Vautrin, so he is usually referred to in literary criticism under this name. Balzac was inspired to the character by Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857) a former criminal who later became chief of the Paris police.


In Father Goriot, set in 1818, Collin lived under the name of Vautrin in the House Vauquer. He is described as a cynical man, who likes to crack jokes, speaks rather intimately with everyone, and seems to know everything have been everywhere. He also is very adept in repairing locks. However, the police are on his tracks: The then-chief of the Sûreté, one Bibi-Lupin, confronts two other inhabitants of the House Vauquer, telling them that Vautrin is really the escaped convict Jacques Collin, and still has ties to the criminal underworld. Bibi-Lupin asks them to help arrest Vautrin, but they need proof that he really is Jacques Collin. He gives them a drug that will knock Vautrin unconscious, so they can search on his shoulders for the branded letters T.F., which stand for "Travaux forcés" (hard labor). The plan works, and Collin is arrested and imprisoned in Rochefort. Later, it is revealed that Collin escapes prison disguised as a guard escorting another prisoner.

Some years later, in the novel Illusions perdues, one Abbé Carlos Herrera stops Lucien de Rubempré from drowning himself in the Charente. He strikes a pact with Lucien: He will make him rich and successful, but Lucien has to obey him without questions. The novel ends there.

In Splendeurs et misères de courtisanes, set in 1830, Herrera and Lucien have moved to Paris. Here we quickly learn that Herrera is really Collin. Lucien falls in love with one Esther Gobseck, but so does the Baron Nucingen. Collin realizes that they can get a lot of money out of Nucingen if he becomes Esther's lover. This plan works for some time, until Esther has to sleep with Nucingen, and kills herself. Because she leaves all her money to Lucien, and her suicide note is not discovered, Lucien and Herrera are suspected of having killed her, and are arrested.

The police suspect Herrera of being Collin, but can't prove it. Collin pretends that he is Lucien's father, but under questioning, Lucien cracks and reveals Herrera's true identity. Lucien subsequently hangs himself.

Three of Collin's former partners in crime are also in prison, but Collin convinces them to treat him as Abbé Herrera. He learns from them that his friend Théodore Calvi is currently awaiting execution, and that another of the men, La Pouraille, also has no hopes of escaping the death sentence. Collin uses his ingenuity to twist the facts and prove Calvi innocent (even though Calvi is in fact guilty), and saves La Pouraille too. This involves giving himself up: like his historical model Eugène François Vidocq he offers to serve as an informer to the prosecutor. After he manages to treat the madness of one of Lucien's former mistresses (she became mad after learning about Lucien's death) with one of Lucien's letters, his offer is accepted.

A small note informs us that Collin remained chief of the Sûreté for fifteen years and retired in 1845.


Tempter, criminal and nemesis

Vautrin is a seductive, enigmatic and complex character, not easily classified, not even as a villain. He is a well-built, strong man, about forty years old at the time he first appears in the series. Vautrin has a strong criminal energy and is ruthless in obtaining his purposes, manipulating people and sometimes even resorting to murder. He tries to realize his dreams of power and wealth first through Eugène de Rastignac and later through Lucien de Rubempré. In some respects, Vautrin/Collin/Abbé Herrera recalls the tempting devils in "pact with the devil" themes like Faust. He promises both young men fame, power and wealth and proposes to become their mentor. Yet, Vautrin's plans with them are thwarted: Rastignac is far too independent to need a mentor, and Lucien is too dreamy, romantic and feeble to be able to realize Collin's dreams.


The complexity of Vautrin's character is increased by the fact that he is obviously homosexual. Thus, his attraction towards Rastignac and especially towards Lucien is also erotic/sentimental in character, though it apparently remains platonic. The fact that he is not only bound to them by his hunger for power, but also by emotional ties considerably increases the psychological tension of the novels and makes Collin's character more humane. Though he can often act as a real villain, his love, especially for Lucien, is obviously genuine. Love even makes him sacrifice himself: He was first condemned to twenty years hard labour for a fake that a young "friend" of his committed and for which Vautrin, even though he was entirely innocent, took the blame. He does not claim so himself, the then-chief of the Sûreté, Bibi-Lupin, informs the reader of this fact. Vautrin had another young friend in prison, Théodore Calvi, nicknamed Madeleine. The goal of all his efforts of rehabilitation towards the end of Splendeurs et misères de courtisanes is eventually just to save "Madeleine" from the guillotine.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Vautrin" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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