Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716
César Birotteau (say-ZAHR bee-rah-TOH), a self-made man who at the peak of his success mistook it for the beginning, and whose downfall resulted from his lack of judgment of the jackals in the business world. A peasant in appearance and manners, of straightforward honesty and perseverance, César Birotteau is a man in love with his own wife, devoted to his lovely daughter, loyal to his good friends, and gentle even to those who despise and misuse him. His noble character is revealed through adversity, and he dies following his exoneration from the debts of his bankruptcy. As a manufacturer of perfume and as a manager of a business, he is canny, even ingenious, but in dealing with the world of finance he is an infant sustained finally by his brave wife and daughter.
Constance Birotteau, his beautiful and devoted wife, who is not only wiser than her husband but more resourceful as well. Endowed with a fine physique and constitution, Mme. Birotteau manages all of the business for the family and even has a presentiment concerning their over-extended credit. As kind and honest as her husband but with more will power and intelligence, she never succumbs to pride of possession or the desire for prestige in social life. She never fails to back her bungling husband, however, and she works and saves toward this end. In spite of attempts on her honor, she is a heroine of dimensions only hinted at in her husband.
Césarine (say-zah-REEN), their beautiful daughter, who combines in her person all the good traits of her parents. Robbed of her dowry by an ironic blow of fortune, she refuses to be humbled. Instead, she uses adversity as a means to attain her deepest ambitions: the love of a devoted and fine young man, a home free from social pretense, and an independence from all that a large dowry implies of social position and prestige. Her touching sacrifices for her parents, her loving attention to their needs and wishes, and her sincerity in all catastrophes make her a strange contrast to most of Balzac’s wealthy daughters, who typically repay devotion with ingratitude.
Anselm Popinot (poh-pee-NOH), Birotteau’s son-in-law, a young peasant with a club foot who in a few years elevates himself from the humble position of apprentice to the rank of perfumer by honesty, hard work, imagination, and daring. He has a remarkable character and evenness of disposition that will not allow him to make sentimental errors of such proportions as would have made the Birotteau fortunes irretrievable. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, he refuses to add his small profits to the sinking capital of his benefactor. Instead, he builds a new business into an enterprise that saves both family fortune and honor, and he becomes the husband of Césarine.
Ferdinand du Tillet
Ferdinand du Tillet (dew tee-YAY), a reprobate who as apprentice to César Birotteau makes advances to Constance and steals three thousand francs from the firm. Not content to repay good with evil, he makes it his life’s work to ruin the man who so generously forgives him his offenses. A real villain, du Tillet uses his experience in knavery, learned at Birotteau’s expense, to seduce and abduct, and he parlays his sins into a fortune and a secure position in corrupt society.
M. Pillerault (pee-yuh-ROH), an ironmonger, the uncle and benefactor of Constance as well as the firm friend and financial adviser of Birotteau. A noble and self-effacing gentleman of the old order, the elderly tradesman remains true to his nephew and other friends who have been ruined by a thieving notary. Admirable in his business principles, he firmly sustains his family.
Roguin (roh-GAN), a dishonest notary, du Tillet’s tool in his scheme to ruin César Birotteau. Persuaded to invest in a land-speculation venture, Birotteau turns three hundred thousand francs over to Roguin, but he gets no receipt for his money.
Claparon (klah-pah-ROHN), a dummy banker also involved in du Tillet’s plot.
La Belle Hollandaise
La Belle Hollandaise (ah-lawn-DAYZ), a courtesan loved by Roguin.
Vauquelin (va-kuh-LAN), a chemist who aids Birotteau in the expansion of his business in the days of his prosperity.
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