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...
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