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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1723

First published: Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau, 1837 (English translation, 1860)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: Paris

Principal Characters:

Cesar Birotteau, a perfumer

Anselm Constance, his wife

Ferdinand du Cesarine ,...

(The entire section contains 1723 words.)

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First published: Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau, 1837 (English translation, 1860)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: Paris

Principal Characters:

Cesar Birotteau, a perfumer

Anselm Constance, his wife

Ferdinand du Cesarine, their daughter

Popinot, an assistant in the perfumery

Tillet, a discharged assistant

Pillerault, constance’s uncle

The Story:

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 with his own importance to realize that most of the government officials and minor nobility were laughing at him behind his back.

The ball marked the end of his rise to wealth. Meanwhile, Du Tillet looked for a way to get even with his former employer. Since his discharge he had become a shady financier and had acquired a reputation for moneymaking. Although no one suspected it, the money had come from the roguins. Roguin, the notary, and his wife had been estranged for some time, and the foolish husband had become infatuated with a famous courtesan, La Belle Hollandaise. By making love to both the wife and the courtesan, Du Tillet got funds from each, money originally earned by roguin.

Du Tillet set up Claparon, a dissolute drummer, as a dummy banker and began to work out his plot. Against the advice of his wife, Cesar was induced to join Roguin and Ragon in a land speculationventure, but the money paid to Claparon eventually reached the pockets of Du Tillet. Unfortunately, Cesar got no receipt for the three hundred thousand francs he turned over to Roguin for investment in the scheme.

Because the ball and the remodeling had cost Cesar more than he had expected, he was hard-pressed to meet his bills. Then Roguin absconded with part of the money which was supposed to have been invested in the land speculation. It was the final blow to Cesar’s financial standing. He began a dreary round of bankers and moneylenders, but no one would lend him money. Du Tillet hypocritically pretended sympathy for his plight and gave him a letter of recommendation to a famous banker. Du Tillet, however, signed his name in such a way that the banker knew that the recommendation meant nothing. Du Tillet, meanwhile, had bought cheaply Cesar’s holdings in the land speculation.

At last Cesar was forced to accept the inevitable. He told the whole story to his wife and began to go through the proceedings of bankruptcy under the guiding hand of old Pillerault. He gave up all of his assets, even his two watches, and his wife surrendered her jewelry. When the long process was over, the creditors were happy to realize sixty cents on the dollar. His disgrace was not as great as Du Tillet had hoped it would be, but as long as he morally owed money, Cesar refused to wear the red ribbon of the legion of honor.

He got a position in the government and lived with Pillerault. All of his salary went to pay back the remaining forty percent of his debts. Constance went to work as a bookkeeper with Popinot, whose business was prospering. Cesarine found a job with a draper. The two women also saved their salaries to pay off the debts.

Popinot and Cesarine had spoken of their love, but Cesar would not agree to a wedding until he had repaid all he owed. Popinot worked harder to increase his profits, for Cesar was still a silent partner in the Hazel Oil concern.

At last, the day came when cesar was completely free of all financial obligations. It was a proud day for him. The news reached the king, who was impressed by Cesar’s honesty. He gave the former perfumer six thousand francs from the royal purse as a mark of favor.

Celestin, one of Cesar’s old assistants, was now running the perfumery. He had kept the Birotteau’s apartment intact, and Constance was secretly arranging to move her family back into their old rooms. In addition, the banns for Popinot’s and Cesarine’s wedding had been published in secret. When the whole legal tangle was straightened out and Cesar had been readmitted to full citizenship, Pillerault went with him to the exchange. There Cesar was congratulated on every hand as an honest man. Du Tillet was forced to stand by and hear fulsome praise for the old enemy he had helped to ruin.

Old Pillerault then took cesar back to his old home. There they found a ball in progress. Constance and Cesarine were welcoming the same guests they had invited long ago.

The shock was too much for Cesar. As he was cordially greeted by the distinguished guests, his mouth filled with blood, and he collapsed. Constance called for the doctor and the priest, but already a film was covering her husband’s eyes. Constance pillowed his head on her breast while the priest held his hand. A blood vessel in his lungs had burst, and the aneurism stopped his breath. So died a commercial martyr.

Critical Evaluation:

Honore de Balzac’s approach to novel writing was, at least in part, scientific. He was fascinated by the unfolding or the sudden explosion of some vice, passion, or mania which threatened to transform or break up a normal life. In CESAR BIROTTEAU, the setting is bourgeois Paris, and the human being under the microscope is Cesar, a self-made man who, with the aid of some Parisian scoundrels, destroys himself. The novel shows that craving for success can become a mania as much as the craving for money or power or amorous conquest.

For Balzac, environment and heredity explained both character and fate. This novel is the tale of a parvenu, an “epic of the bourgeoisie,” as Balzac called it, but the protagonist is not satirized as much as analyzed and understood. Energy, more than intelligence, is responsible for Cesar’s success, yet when he fails because of overreaching, his honesty commands respect and admiration. Cesar learned the principal rule of city life, “each for himself,” but his innate integrity was stronger than this cynical philosophy.

In Balzac’s fiction, the events in the public and private lives of the characters are always linked with setting, specifically with architecture. When perfumer Cesar, deputy-mayor of Paris and recently appointed to the Legion of Honor, builds a ballroom and remodels his house, his fortunes begin to decline. Balzac’s imaginary world in CESAR BIROTTEAU is one in which rent and bills must be paid, creditors kept at bay, marriage contracts scrutinized, and money constantly found for pleasure and business; these things determine the pattern of life for Cesar and most of the characters. Cesar Birotteau is perhaps the supreme example in the Human Comedy of a man caught in the financial web. The novel is brilliantly structured, with the two balls as framework for the story of Cesar’s rise and fall, and the final brief moment of triumph.

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