The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans is a long narrative in four volumes. The main character is not a courtesan, despite the novel’s title, but a brilliant criminal who manipulates other people’s lives to his own satisfaction. Only the first two volumes actually treat the vicissitudes of a prostitute’s life, the last two books being given over to the villain’s incarceration in prison and the conditions there.
The first part, The Way That Girls Love, opens at a fashionable masquerade ball in Paris in 1824. The attention of the gossiping masquers is arrested by the appearance of three figures: a handsome young man named Lucien de Rubempre; a mysterious caped man who follows the young gentleman intently; and the beautiful prostitute, Esther Cobseck, known as La Torpille (the torpedo), who accompanies Lucien and is in love with him. Esther, thinking that she is not recognized in her costume, is humiliated when she is identified by a group of rakes who gossip about her pruriently, and she leaves the ball in consternation.
Esther is then discovered by the sinister caped personage from the ball in her dreary quarters, where she has made a clumsy attempt at suicide. Her rescuer passes himself off as a Spanish priest, Carlos Herrera, and convinces her that she must enter a convent. Esther soon wastes away melodramatically in the convent, however, stricken by her passion for Lucien, who does not know where she is. The priest, whose interest in and ambitions for Lucien include marrying him to one of the daughters of the wealthy Duc de Grandlieu, placates Lucien by setting Esther up secretly in an apartment where the young man may visit her. After four years of this life, Herrera runs low on money. When a wealthy banker, Baron Nucingen, spies Esther and falls desperately in love with her, Herrera devises a scheme to swindle the Baron and use the proceeds to finance the purchase of property that will give Lucien the credibility he needs to win the Duc’s daughter.
The comic story of the bilking of Baron Nucingen makes up the second volume, How Much Love Costs Old Men. Many of its events revolve around the ludicrous efforts of three rogue policemen—Contenson, Corentin, and Peyrade—to execute the orders of the Baron in his efforts to track down and seduce Esther. Their counterparts are the three scamps in the employ of Herrera—his factotum, Paccard; Esther’s maid, Prudence Servien, best known as Europe; and Herrera’s indefatigably wily lieutenant, Asia, who is actually his aunt, Jacqueline Collin. Herrera himself, it is revealed, is an incorrigible criminal named Jacques Collin, alias Vautrin, who murdered the real Abbe.
The farcical twists and turns conclude with Esther’s committing suicide out of depression over the prospect of losing Lucien and having to give herself to the absurd but ardent Baron. She leaves 750,000 francs for Lucien, money she had coaxed out of the Baron, but Europe and Paccard find the bank notes and immediately abscond with them. Just before Esther dies, it is discovered that she is...
(The entire section is 1262 words.)