Study Guide

César Birotteau

by Honoré Balzac

César Birotteau Summary

Summary (Essentials of European Literature)

Cesar Birotteau was a strong peasant lad employed by ragon in his perfumery. He ran errands, cleaned and nailed boxes, and submitted to the gibes and impositions of the other employees. He often was tired out after the day’s work, but his strong constitution and peasant stubbornness made him persist in learning his trade. His life was a little easier after ursule, the picard cook, began to look after his needs.

Cesar, influenced by ragon and his wife, became a royalist. As a member of the guard, he fought in some of the street skirmishes against napoleon. When he was wounded in the thigh, rumor said that Bonaparte himself had fired the shot. This wound was Cesar’s claim to distinction; he never wearied of telling the tale of his military exploits.

Cesar was twenty years old when he met Constance Pillerault, a shop girl in a nearby store. By patient attendance and much admiration, Cesar won her hand with the approval of her uncle and guardian, a well-to-do ironmonger. His own modest savings and her dowry enabled him to buy a controlling interest in the perfumery. By the time he was twenty-one years old, the peasant boy possessed a wife and a business, and when his daughter cesarine was born he counted himself a happy man.

In spite of his rather narrow outlook, Cesar was an honest businessman who treated his employees well. Only once did he have any trouble. Du Tillet, his chief assistant, tried to seduce Constance and then stole three thousand francs. Cesar made up the loss and discharged du tillet. Although he tried to temper justice with kindness, he made a deadly enemy in Du Tillet.

Working with vauquelin, a chemist, Cesar discovered a new bleaching agent and began to market his discovery both as a paste and as a lotion. By judicious advertisements of his perfumes and cosmetics, he began to prosper. With increasing sales and with constance to guard the cash register, Cesar soon had the reputation of being a rich man. Anselm Popinot, his new assistant to replace Du Tillet, was lame, but he was a hard worker and much attracted to Cesarine.

Again by chance, Cesar learned that hazel oil had been used by the ancients in dressing the hair, and vauquelin assured him that the oil was harmless as long as it was applied to the scalp. Cesar saw in his new discovery an opportunity to increase his sales further. He set up a new company, with Popinot in charge, to extract the oil from hazelnuts and to enter the oil in competition with the macassar hairdressing, popular at the time. Because of Popinot’s shrewdness and industry and his willingness to stint himself for his employer, the new company prospered.

After the restoration, cesar was made a deputy-mayor; from that time on, he thought of himself as a public figure. His self-esteem grew even greater when he was decorated with the legion of honor. To celebrate these honors, he decided to remodel his house and to give a grand ball. Constance, however, was opposed to the great expense. She had vague premonitions of disaster from Cesar’s dreams of magnificence, but she finally allowed her husband to go ahead with his plans. The ball was a great social success, and Cesar thought little of the cost as he listened to the compliments of his guests. He was too puffed up...

(The entire section is 1340 words.)