Cousin Bette, Honoré de Balzac’s final masterpiece, is one of the last novels of his huge, unfinished project, La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1885-1893, 1896), and, together with Le Cousin Pons (1847; Cousin Pons, 1880), belongs to the Scenes from Parisian Life segment. The book presents some of Balzac’s most somber visions of human depravity but also emphasizes loyalty and devotion. Balzac wrote Cousin Bette during the winter of 1846 under the greatest possible pressure from his indebtedness and emotional strain; the strain, coming on top of many years of arduous work, may finally have broken the novelist’s strength. It is one of Balzac’s longest novels and one of the most perfectly organized and most densely constructed. None of the digressions or the padding that he sometimes used to lengthen stories is present. All the different characters in the tale—the black “angel” Bette, the debauched Hulot, the ambitious Valérie Marneffe, and her scheming husband—interact like the pieces of a vast machine grinding toward the inevitable, ironic conclusion.
Balzac saw society as a unit, a great drama with endless links and relationships. This theme is everywhere evident in Cousin Bette. All social levels are portrayed and are interwoven beneath the surface by the threads of human emotions. Hatred ties Bette to the Hulots, passion ties Baron Hulot to Madame Marneffe, ambition connects M. Marneffe to the baron, love ties Hortense to Steinbock, and debt ties Steinbock to Bette. The tangle is at once extremely complicated and entirely plausible. Amazingly enough, Balzac was able to keep not only the threads of this novel in his head but also the threads for the entire series of novels, which included nearly three thousand named characters.
Balzac believed that individuals’ antecedents, environment, and upbringing shape their destiny. In this, he anticipated the realist school and such naturalists as Émile Zola. Balzac saw that apparently trivial changes or new conditions had the capacity to bring out latent possibilities in a person and to alter the entire course of that person’s life. In his novels and stories, Balzac emphasized the importance of his characters’ physical surroundings, the towns and streets and houses in which they lived, the rooms that seemed to trap them, the clothes and gestures that gave them away, and other minutiae of life. In Cousin Bette, the descriptions of Paris range from the run-down neighborhood near the Louvre, in which Bette lives, to the shabby elegance of the Hulots’ establishment. Everything is vividly detailed, explained, and placed in context. Nothing exists in isolation.
The place of women in society is reflected on many levels in Cousin Bette . Bette earns her own way with her needlework and always has. Valérie uses her beauty to further her unscrupulous husband’s career and ends up being kept by rich men. Hortense, Bette’s cousin, is bred to be a wife and must find a husband or be a burden to her family; she knows this, but she also knows that her father must provide her with a dowry and that she alone is not sufficient to acquire a man’s name and place in society. Hortense’s mother, Adeline, suffers her husband’s indiscretions in silence because there is no socially acceptable recourse. The women must all resort to intrigue and deceit to accomplish anything in the society dominated and controlled by males. Bette is the most independent of the women and the most ruthless, but her efforts—whatever their motivation—are all clandestine. Whatever success she has is possible only because nobody is aware of it. People do not suspect her because she is a...
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woman, plain and no longer young, characteristics that render her almost invisible.
In Cousin Bette, as in so many of Balzac’s novels, the contrast between the provinces and Paris is an ever-present theme. Bette’s peasant shrewdness and her lack of sophistication give the novel its momentum; she is a provincial fighting to make her way in the jungle of Paris. The reader cannot help but feel that Balzac admires her ruthless, astute maneuvering. Balzac was always fascinated by the themes of the individual in conflict with society and of the rebel or criminal personality. His villains often were more vigorous and interesting than his virtuous people, and Cousin Bette is no exception. She is one of Balzac’s most intriguing and complex characters, totally unlikable yet hypnotic in her power. Her individuality is symbolized by the way in which she stubbornly reduces her hand-me-down garments from their urban fashion to countrified, colorless rags; she makes the clothes conform to her self-image. Shy and wild, vicious and hard, only her highly developed will keeps Bette from physically attacking her beautiful and resented cousin, Adeline. From the beginning, the reader knows that Bette is capable of anything. Resentment grows within her until it possesses her and changes her into a monster. The countrywoman’s pride will not stop short of complete revenge. Yet, strangely enough, she is content with a secret revenge. It does not matter to her if the Hulots never know that she is the instrument of their ruin. The silent satisfaction is enough for this peasant spinster.
After a long and detailed preparation and exposition in which Balzac establishes the characters and their setting, the pace of the novel increases and the tension mounts to a climax that is as inevitable as that of a classic tragedy. The Hulots and Valérie, Marneffe and Steinbock, all pay the consequences of their sins; all of them let an obsession rule their life. Only Bette emerges triumphant, for she is victorious even after death.