When and how did fiction start to depict people as having a layer of motivation hidden beneath the surface? It seems to have been the ancient Epicureans who invented the unconscious with their hypothesis that the striving for lasting fame is so strong and so irrational that it must derive from something else. They thought its origin was the fear of death. Also, from ancient times, we find inner struggle with forces that are parts of ourselves but dimly glimpsed or beyond voluntary control. So, in Saint Paul's "Letter to the Romans" (VII, 19) we find this: "For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do." In the Renaissance, Shakespeare shows a fine grasp on the unconscious. For instance, in Julius Caesar, he has Brutus say about himself: "poor Brutus, with himself at war / Forgets the shows of love to other men" (I, ii, 46), and Cassius offers him what, to psychoanalytic ears, is an interpretation of an unconscious wish. I think we can trace this stream of ideas into the English novels of the nineteenth century, particularly those of George Eliot.
But what of French novels? What of Balzac? I recently read Cousin Bette about the overt and hidden levels of Paris society between 1838 and 1845. In it, Balzac has depicted something akin to the unconscious. But it is not the Freudian unconscious, the constructive element of which is sex, and the destructive element of which he called (in a rather confusing way) the death instinct. Balzac was a Catholic, and his version is more like Saint Paul's, but with considerably more detail about what motivates us. In Cousin Bette he depicts three motivations.
(1) Eroticism between men and women, in which women display themselves as adorable. Their appearance is sometimes compared with works of Renaissance painting, and sometimes as provocative: "Her dress, of black velvet, seemed about at any moment to slip from her shoulders" (p. 183). Men are ineluctably drawn to women, and relationships are formed in which the men are pampered a bit and made to feel loved while the women are taken care of materially. Thus Valérie Marneffe is able to send off Baron Hulot at seven in the morning, "full of bliss—for he had found a girl's innocence and the most consummate devilry in his Valérie" (p. 154). Hulot contributes considerable monies to her, and pulls strings to obtain her husband a promotion.
(2) Money: this seems to act as kind of shadowy reflection of eroticism. It's not, for the most part, earned, but borrowed and obtained by cajolery. It's an object of desire and dubious exchanges.
(3) Status (like money) is very important. There is constant depiction of differences in status, but little about the striving for status as such. Rather, difference in status provokes envy.
These desires—erotic attachment, economic acquisitiveness, envy—stand in for the unconscious. They are not truly unconscious because when people accede to them they often feel sinful. But they make everything go. Balzac depicts a society the surface of which is like the face of a clock around which the hands are moved by an intricate and hidden mechanism, actuated by the spring of eroticism, the ratchet of acquisitiveness, and the flywheel of envy.
I think I feel much the same as Flaubert felt about Balzac when he said: "What a man he would have been had he known how to write!" (Robb, p. 422). I found two difficulties with Cousin Bette. The first was that it was difficult for me to take a strong interest in the characters who are depicted almost as caricatures, as types. The image of reading it that comes to me is of lying in bed, convalescent after an illness, staring at scenes projected onto the wall by a magic lantern. My second difficulty was to ask: "So where are you, Balzac, in all this?" I found only two moments in the book in which there was any kind of answer to this. One was on pages 215 and 216, in which Balzac writes with some passion about the work of the true artist "It means creating, bringing to birth, laboriously rearing the child [the work of art], putting it to bed every evening gorged with milk, kissing it every morning with the mother's never-spent affection." (Balzac was prolific and devoted to his writing, constantly revising.) His passage about the true artist is made as a comparison with his character Steinbock, who aspires to be a sculptor but because of his layabout proclivities becomes, instead, a "critic." The second place at which Balzac enters his novel is on page 269 where for a moment he abandons his omniscient view and joins the human species in a paragraph that starts: "We are all conscious of our own secret wrong-doing." Here, he emphasizes his idea of how desires operate in a hidden layer: secret, shameful, involuntary.
Perhaps Balzac's step was necessary so that it could be followed by steps made by others such as Flaubert and Proust who were influenced by him, and became able to depict deeper understandings.
Honoré de Balzac (1846). Cousin Bette (Marion Crawford, Trans.). London: Penguin (current edition 1965).
Graham Robb (1994). Balzac: A biography. London: Picador.