Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1454
Sylvain Pons (seel-VAN pohns), usually called Cousin Pons but sometimes referred to as “The Parasite,” an elderly musician whose twin passions are art and food. Born ugly, with a massive head and a huge nose, he was at one time a composer of popular songs and several operas; he now makes a modest living as an orchestra conductor and music teacher. He dresses shabbily and constantly dines out at the tables of his distant relatives in order to save money for the purchase of new objects for his valuable art collection. Naïve, greedy in his love of food, perfectly harmless, and shyly affectionate, he plans to leave his collection to Cécile Camusot, the daughter of a cousin-in-law once removed. Denied his relatives’ house after he proposes an unfortunate match for his favorite, he takes to his bed, never to recover. While dying, he learns the ways of the world. He tries to thwart his selfish relatives and grasping housekeeper by making a false will leaving his entire collection to the state, with a provision that Schmucke, his only true friend, will receive from the government a lifetime pension. His plans fail because Schmucke, who by another will is his only heir, innocently allows himself to be defrauded of his inheritance. A brilliant collector and amateur art connoisseur, Cousin Pons is the victim of a campaign carried on by his doctor, a rascally lawyer, his relatives, his housekeeper, and a rival art collector.
Herr Schmucke (shmewk), a pianist, the only close friend of Cousin Pons. Unselfish in his devotion, he becomes the victim of the greedy Camusots, who, bringing a suit to break their relative’s will, break the old musician’s spirit also and put him in his grave. Schmucke possesses such delicacy of manner and personal integrity that he will not fight to claim the fortune that is rightfully his.
Monsieur Camusot de Marville
Monsieur Camusot de Marville (kah-mew-zoh deh marh-VEEL), Cousin Pons’s cousin-in-law and one of the presiding judges of the Royal Court of Justice in Paris, who has added the name of the family estate to his own in order to distinguish him from his father. A just man, he is ungenerous in his treatment of his distant relative only because his wife, who detests Cousin Pons, blames the old musician for their daughter’s loss of a suitor. He willingly joins in the plan to get possession of Pons’s estate because it will provide a handsome dowry for the daughter and add considerably to the family fortune. He is one of the few who understands the true nature of Cousin Pons, and on one occasion he attempts to effect a reconciliation after his wife, daughter, and servant have insulted the elderly musician.
Madame Amélie Camusot de Marville
Madame Amélie Camusot de Marville (ah-may-LEE), an ambitious, socially proud woman who receives Cousin Pons at her table with great reluctance. During one of his calls, she and her daughter plead a previous engagement and insultingly tell him that he will be compelled to dine alone. Her attitude toward the old man softens somewhat when Cousin Pons introduces to the household a wealthy German banker, Frédéric Brunner, whom he has proposed as a possible match for Cécile Camusot; however, the banker, who considers Cécile a nonentity and her mother a dry stick, is not impressed by the Camusots and refuses to consider an alliance with them. Mme Camusot, convinced that Cousin Pons has planned the whole affair to humiliate his relatives, becomes more virulent than ever in her attitude toward him and forbids him her house.
Cécile Camusot (say-SEEL), the red-haired, plain-spoken, but not unattractive daughter of the Camusots, still unmarried, to her mother’s distress, at the age of twenty-three. In an attempt to please his relatives, Cousin Pons suggests a match between her and Frédéric Brunner, a young millionaire banker of German descent, but Brunner is cautious and critical and refuses to consider Cécile as his wife. After all legal entanglements have been resolved, she inherits the fortune represented by Cousin Pons’s art collection. She marries Vicomte Popinot.
Madame Cibot (see-BOH), the portress at Cousin Pons’s lodgings and his housekeeper. Called in to nurse Cousin Pons during his last illness, and inspired by tales of legacies left by bachelor lodgers to deserving housekeepers, she plans to secure a part of Pons’s art collection for herself after she has heard a report of its value. Her scheming involves her with Monsieur Frasier, a rascally lawyer; Dr. Poulain, Pons’s physician; Remonencq, an unscrupulous dealer in bric-a-brac, and Elie Magus, a famous art collector who buys some of Pons’s most valuable paintings at ridiculously low prices after she is able to convince innocent Schmucke that funds are needed to provide for his sick friend. When Pons rallies sufficiently to realize what has happened, he makes two wills in an effort to outwit Madame Cibot. In the first, she is mentioned as one of his heirs. In the other, the collection is left to his friend Schmucke without reservation. Offered one hundred thousand francs to destroy the first will, Madame Cibot tries unsuccessfully to do so. Remonencq, also eager to share in Pons’s estate, helps to poison Cibot as a step toward marrying the widow. The dealer also dies after drinking a glass of vitriol intended for his wife, and Madame Remonencq becomes the sole proprietress of an art shop.
Monsieur Remonencq (reh-moh-NANK), a rascally dealer in curios and cheap art objects. Taken into Madame Cibot’s confidence, he helps Elie Magus, a celebrated art dealer, swindle Schmucke in the purchase of eight paintings from Pons’ art collection. Hoping to carry his partnership with Madame Cibot a step farther, he poisons her invalid husband’s barley water and marries the widow. He himself dies after drinking a glass of vitriol he intended for his wife.
Monsieur Frasier (freh-ZYAY), the shyster lawyer who directs the legal wrangle that follows the death of Cousin Pons. A cadaverous, ailing, unscrupulous man, he makes Madame Cibot his tool while working in the interest of the Camusot family. He persuades Madame Camusot de Marville to contest the will on the ground that Schmucke had exercised undue influence over his sick friend. Brokenhearted by this accusation, Schmucke lets the estate go unchallenged to the Camusots and dies a short time later. Frasier is appointed to the post of justice of the peace as his reward for handling the legal battle with shrewdness and dispatch.
Dr. Poulain (poo-LAN), the physician who attends Cousin Pons during his last illness. Having heard that the sick man’s art collection is extremely valuable, he repeats this information to Madame Cibot and advises her to feather her nest while there is time. He sends her to consult his legal friend, Monsieur Frasier, and thus draws the conniving lawyer into the affair. Frasier tells him that he will be made the head of a hospital if Pons dies intestate.
Elie Magus (ay-LEE mah-GEWS), an impassioned amateur art collector covetous of Cousin Pons’ art treasures. His desire to corner the art market causes him to join in the plot to swindle Schmucke and buy some of Pons’ best pictures at a low cost.
Comte Popinot (poh-pee-NOH), a prominent figure in political circles. He treats Cousin Pons kindly, and the old musician frequently dines at his house.
Vicomte Popinot, a hero of the July Revolution. Though not enchanted by Cécile Camusot’s charms, he eventually marries her and shares in Cousin Pons’ legacy.
Frédéric Brunner (fray-day-REEK brewn-EHR), called Fritz, a wealthy young German banker. Cousin Pons proposes him as a possible husband for Cécile Camusot, but nothing except the resentment of the girl’s mother results from his attempt at matchmaking.
Gaudissart (goh-dee-SAHR), the proprietor of the theater where Cousin Pons conducts the orchestra. He tries without success to protect Schmucke’s interests in the matter of the contested will.
Topinard (toh-pee-NAHR), a supernumerary at the theater to whom Cousin Pons had given five francs every month. He takes Schmucke into his own poor lodgings after Frasier has evicted him and nurses the German until his death.
Madeleine Vivet (vee-VAY), a scrawny spinster, lady’s maid, and housekeeper to Madame Camusot. Ambitious to become Madame Pons, she is disappointed when he pays no attention to her charms or her savings. She never misses an opportunity to ridicule the old man or play malicious tricks on him.
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