Cousin Bette Summary
by Honoré Balzac

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Cousin Bette Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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A brilliant and vivid portrait of the Paris of Louis-Philippe, Cousin Bette is a portrait of hidden rage and hatred directed against a prominent but vulnerable family. Hector Hulot has done well during Napoleon I’s wars, proving himself an efficient chief transport officer and winning the beautiful and noble—if peasant—Adeline Fischer as his wife. Adeline and her sister, the jealous Lisbeth, thin, dark, and ugly, are taken by Hulot to the Paris of the Emperor Napoleon, where Bette, as she is called, nurses her hatred and resentment of her sister. Bette saves Wenceslas Steinbock, an expatriate Polish count and talented sculptor, from suicide. She forms an odd half-maternal relationship with him, and she responds with carefully concealed rage when Hulot’s daughter, Hortense, wins the handsome Pole as husband. Bette then forms a pact with mercenary Valérie Marneffe, recently installed mistress of the aging Baron Hulot, against the Hulot family. If Valérie can be compared with Becky Sharp in English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848), then Bette is a portrait of venomous malice whose only parallel is William Shakespeare’s Iago in Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622, revised 1623). She sets out to destroy the family that has patronized and slighted her.

Like Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet’s father, Hulot is a monomaniac. His obsession is women, who are more important to him than even the necessities of life, his honor, and the happiness of his family. Valérie persuades him that he is the father of her child. Steinbock, now also Valérie’s lover, is told he is the father, too, as are the rich retired businessman Célestin Crevel and Montès de Montéjanos, a Brazilian aristocrat and Valérie’s first love. Hortense accidentally learns of her husband’s infidelity, leaves him, and weeps with Adeline, to the secret joy of Bette.

Hulot asks his wife’s uncle, Johann Fischer, to go to Algeria, now in the process of colonization by the French, and take grain from the Algerians in order to sell it to the French army at considerable profit. However, instead of sending Hulot the money he had anticipated, Fischer is obliged to ask for 200,000 francs to avert disgrace when the plot is discovered. Financially broken, asked to shoot himself by his superior in the War Department, and ostracized by his upright brother who dies of the disgrace, Hulot leaves his home to avoid creditors.

He hides himself in obscure quarters of Paris and lives with a succession of working-class mistresses, occasionally accepting money from Bette, who keeps her knowledge of his whereabouts from Adeline. His wife, however, accidentally finds him in the course of her charitable work and the two are reconciled. Bette dies of a combination of tuberculosis and grief, mourned by all as the family’s good angel.

The senescent baron, however, is soon pursuing the kitchen maid, whom he makes a baroness after Adeline dies of the shock of the discovery. Meanwhile, Valérie has been poisoned by the betrayed Montéjanos and Steinbock has returned to Hortense.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

One day in the summer of 1838, M. Crevel calls on Adeline, the Baroness Hulot, to offer to make her his mistress, but she refuses him. M. Crevel swore to be revenged on Baron Hulot, who stole his former mistress. The baron, however, spent his fortune in the process and is now unable to give his daughter Hortense a satisfactory dowry. Hortense forgets her sorrow over her own marriage prospects by teasing Adeline’s cousin Lisbeth, or Cousin Bette, about her lover. Cousin Bette is the old maid of the family, and her lover is a sculptor and Polish refugee named Count Steinbock. The attachment between them is that of mother and son, but Cousin Bette is wildly jealous of his other friends.

That evening, the baron’s older brother, Colonel Hulot, and his son and daughter-in-law, Victorin and Célestine, come for dinner. Célestine, the daughter of M. Crevel, does not share her...

(The entire section is 1,700 words.)