Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.