Cousin Bette

by Honoré Balzac

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 673


*Paris. Political, social, and cultural center of France, even more so in the nineteenth century than in the twenty-first. Cousin Bette is set entirely in central Paris—indeed, the claustrophobic settings of the characters’ scheming change only to the extent that the characters visit one another or move from one dwelling to another. In the mid-nineteenth century, as in the twenty-first, Parisians’ social status was often indicated by the location of their homes. In Cousin Bette, a change in living quarters represents a character’s move, deliberately or not, from one social or moral level to another. In Honoré de Balzac’s vision, the reign of King Louis-Philippe (who ruled France from 1830 to 1848) was characterized by the transcendence of material appearances over moral attributes.

Hulot home

Hulot home (ew-LOH). Located in a fashionable area of Paris (on the rue de l’Universite on the Left Bank of the Seine River.) The Seine literally and figuratively divides Paris. The novel opens with an important scene in which the Hulots are struggling to maintain signs of high status, but the descriptions of their furnishings indicate the extent to which their material—and moral—fortunes have declined. While the Baroness remains virtuous, her husband throws his money away on loose women.

Bette’s quarters

Bette’s quarters. Lisbeth Fischer (“Bette”) is Madame Hulot’s cousin. Although she moves several times during the story, at first she lives on the rue du Doyenné, on the Right Bank of the river. Bette lives in a shabby house in this dark, seedy, dangerous area, which reflects her loneliness and the dark quality of violence seen in her own character. She falls in love with one of her fellow tenants, a young artist. Baron Hulot’s future mistress, Valerie Marneffe, also lives here. Later, when Bette moves to more respectable quarters, in the rue Vanneau, Baron Hulot arranges for Valerie to live there as well. Thus develop Bette’s various roles in the novel, of go-between, procuress, confidant, and spy. She uses all her acquaintances and family members to satisfy her own longing for vengeance, status, and material comfort. Bette comes to have free access to the homes (and confidence) of all the major characters and pits them against one another. Her ultimate personal target of material and social success is Baron Hulot’s brother, Marshal Hulot—a hero of the Napoleonic Wars and one of the novel’s few admirable characters. She gains entry to the Marshal’s home, in the prestigious rue du Montparnasse, as his resident housekeeper, and eventually coerces him into marrying her.

Josepha Mirah’s home

Josepha Mirah’s home. Josepha, an actress, was one of Baron Hulot’s first concubines, and she used his money and influence in her quest for success and position. The luxury of her home near the Palais Royal, on the Right Bank of the Seine, stuns Baroness Hulot. The contrast between the opulence of what Josepha has earned by the sale of her honor and what the Baroness has been left with in defending her moral and Christian principles is a striking juxtaposition. The lesson is, then, that money buys status, immorality prospers in the Paris of King Louis-Philippe, and goodness and Christian conduct meet with pain and humiliation.

Passage du Soleil

Passage du Soleil (pah-saj dew soh-lay). Paris slum in which Baroness Hulot finds her fallen husband. Having changed his name more than once and fled the authorities because of acts of political corruption, Hulot has purchased a young girl (something he has done more than once). Balzac’s description of the neighborhood offers an interesting version of nineteenth century Parisian urban renewal. The Passage du Soleil is the scene...

(This entire section contains 673 words.)

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of property speculation; rents are rising, and the area’s poor are being forced out. Again, money matters a great deal in this city. At the novel’s end, in keeping with the story’s cruel pessimism, Balzac’s Baron returns home with his loving wife, leaving his distraught adolescent lover in the care of a friend.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 237

Hemmings, F. W. J. Balzac: An Interpretation of “La Comédie Humaine.” New York: Random House, 1967. Chapter 4, “The Cancer,” presents a comparative analysis of Cousin Bette, Eugénie Grandet, and Père Goriot as a trilogy of related studies centering on a father whose private obsession jeopardizes his family.

Levin, Harry. The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. A study of literary realism in France. Chapter 4, an influential overview of Balzac’s work, includes several specific references to Cousin Bette.

Maurois, André. Prometheus: The Life of Balzac. Translated by Norman Denny. Harmonds-worth, England: Penguin, 1971. The definitive biography by France’s premier literary biographer. A thorough, generally objective, and highly readable account of Balzac’s life. Provides detailed context for and some commentary on all of the major works.

Prendergast, Christopher. Balzac: Fiction and Melodrama. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1978. Argues for the importance of the conventions and devices of melodrama for the interpretation of Balzac’s analyses of French society. Contains a detailed analysis of Cousin Bette as well as an overview of previous critical work on the novel.

Stowe, William W. Balzac, James, and the Realistic Novel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Discusses the solutions Balzac and Henry James adopted in solving various problems of realistic fictional representation. Includes a comparative study of the dramatic elements in Cousin Bette and James’s The Wings of the Dove.


Critical Essays