Cousin Bette

by Honoré Balzac

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Characters Discussed

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Baron Hector Hulot d’Ervy

Baron Hector Hulot d’Ervy (ehk-TOHR ew-LOH dehr-VEE), a councilor of state, an officer of the Legion of Honor, and a hopeless profligate whose rise in government circles has been accompanied by a series of scandals bringing distress to members of his family. After some years of happy married life, he turned from his beautiful, devoted wife and began to associate with the most notorious courtesans in Paris; now he is incorrigible. Not only does he dissipate the family fortune in his gradual degradation, but he also sullies the family honor and causes the deaths of his honorable brother and his wife’s uncle as the result of unwise speculations and the misappropriation of state funds. His great charm, wit, and good manners go for nothing finally; when he returns to his family, he seduces a kitchen maid and marries her after his wife’s sudden death. Within the course of the novel, his conquests number six—an actress, a singer, the wife of a vile traducer, two young girls, and the peasant whom he finally marries.

Baroness Adeline Hulot

Baroness Adeline Hulot (ahd-LEEN), née Adeline Fischer, Baron Hulot’s devoted, long-suffering wife. In spite of her husband’s many offenses, she trusts in God and the mystery of His ways. She maintains her dignity under compromising circumstances, even to the extent of enlisting the aid of one of her husband’s mistresses at a time of crisis. Her final blow is her discovery that her husband has promised to make a kitchen servant a baroness as soon as his ailing wife dies. The shock kills her.

Lisbeth Fischer

Lisbeth Fischer (leez-BEHT), called Cousin Bette, the cousin of Baroness Hulot and the family old maid. Although envious of her cousin’s place in the world, she hides her avariciousness and resentment so well that the Hulots often turn to her for comfort in times of trouble. Although she insists that she is proud of her independence and financial security as an employee of a firm of embroiderers, she is nevertheless a lonely person, and she takes as her lover a talented young Polish sculptor, Count Wenceslas Steinbock, whom she has saved from suicide. When Steinbock falls in love with Adeline’s daughter, charming Hortense Hulot, and marries her, Cousin Bette plans a subtle revenge. Her malice leads her to introduce Steinbock and Baron Hulot to her friend Madame Valérie Marneffe. Her plan succeeds when both men become infatuated with that beautiful but heartless woman. Though her spite and scheming are undone in the end, Adeline and Hortense are never aware of the plot she has set in motion to destroy their happiness, and she remains good-hearted Cousin Bette, the family eccentric.

Victorin Hulot

Victorin Hulot (veek-toh-RAN), the son of Baron Hulot and his wife. His father’s escapades and disgrace turn Victorin into a man of responsibility and integrity, and he rebuilds the family fortune.

Célestin Hulot

Célestin Hulot (seh-lehs-TA[N]), the wife of Victorin Hulot and the daughter of Monsieur Crével, a wealthy retired perfumer.

Monsieur Crével

Monsieur Crével (kray-VEHL ), a wealthy man who admires and imitates the manners of Napoleon. Smarting because Baron Hulot has stolen his mistress, he attempts to seduce Adeline Hulot but is repulsed. Later, he disrupts the marriage that has been arranged between Hortense Hulot and Counselor Lebas when he reports that Baron Hulot will not be able to give his daughter a proper dowry. Through Cousin Bette, he also meets Valérie Marneffe and becomes the Baron’s rival for the coquette’s charms. He marries Valérie after her...

(This entire section contains 1190 words.)

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husband’s death, but his happiness as the husband of so charming a woman is short-lived; he and his wife die a short time later of a mysterious disease.

Valérie Marneffe

Valérie Marneffe (vah-lay-REE mahr-NEHF), the illegitimate daughter of a marshal of France and the wife of an obscure government clerk. Unfaithful to her husband, she is as famous for her infidelities as she is for her beauty. At first a pawn in Cousin Bette’s scheme to be revenged on the Hulot family, she soon takes matters into her own hands and cleverly plays one lover against another, as when she informs Baron Hulot, Steinbock, Crével, and her cuckold husband that each is the father of the unborn child whose real father is the dashing Baron Montès Montejanos. After the deaths of her stillborn child and her husband, she marries Crével; her scheme is to inherit the retired perfumer’s fortune and then marry Montejanos. Not aware of her intentions and wildly jealous, Montejanos apparently causes the death of the Crévels by infecting them with a loathsome and incurable tropical disease.

Monsieur Marneffe

Monsieur Marneffe, a minor government clerk. An acquiescent cuckold, he never interferes in his wife’s affairs, but he is not above using her infidelities to advance himself in his work. His death leaves her free to marry a wealthy widower.

Baron Montès Montejanos

Baron Montès Montejanos (moh[n]-TEHS moh[n]-teh-zhah-NOH), a gallant Brazilian nobleman, the only man Valérie Marneffe truly loves. Not knowing that she hopes to secure a fortune by marrying Crével, he is greatly disconcerted on hearing the news and swears revenge against Valérie for her supposed infidelity to him.

Le Maréchal Hulot

Le Maréchal Hulot (mah-ray-shahl), Baron Hulot’s older brother, a man of distinguished military service and great personal honor. Cousin Bette gains his confidence and becomes his housekeeper. A short time later, the banns for their marriage are published. Although the government scandal involving his brother is hushed up, the old man insists on making restitution by paying his entire fortune into the state treasury. He then takes to his bed and dies three days later. His death is a blow to Cousin Bette, for it is the indirect result of her own intrigue involving Baron Hulot and Valérie Marneffe, and it ends her hope of outranking through marriage her Cousin Adeline’s position in society.

Johann Fischer

Johann Fischer (zhoh-AHN), Adeline Hulot’s uncle and her husband’s accomplice in his scheme to defraud the government. Arrested for his dishonest activities, Fischer commits suicide.


Josepha (zhoh-zeh-FAH), a singer at the Opera and at one time Crével’s mistress. When Baron Hulot takes the beautiful young Jewess away from him, Crével tries to seduce the baron’s wife.

Dr. Bianchon

Dr. Bianchon (byah[n]-SHON), the physician who attends the Crévels during their fatal illness.

Agathe Piquetard

Agathe Piquetard (ah-GAHT pee-keh-TAHR), the kitchen maid whom Baron Hulot marries after his wife’s death.

Counselor Lebas

Counselor Lebas (leh-BAH), a lawyer at one time betrothed to Hortense Hulot. To get revenge on the Hulots, Crével causes the engagement to be broken off when he tells Lebas that the baron cannot supply an adequate marriage portion for his daughter.


Carabine (ka-rah-BEEN), the demimondaine at whose intimate supper party Baron Montès Montejanos learns Valérie Marneffe is to marry Crével.




Critical Essays