Cousin Pons

by Honoré Balzac

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Marville’s house

Marville’s house (marh-VEEL). Home on Paris’s rue de Honoré of Monsieur Camusot de Marville, Sylvain Pons’s cousin-in-law and a presiding judge of the Royal Court of Justice. This house is described in scant detail. Although it faces north and presents a gloomy aspect to the street, it has a south-facing inner courtyard and an attractive garden. The novel emphasizes the house’s tranquillity and respectability, as befits the home of an important magistrate, and this is reflected in its furnishings—imposing green draperies, tapestries, thick carpets, and sober furniture. It is, however, an uncomfortable house to Pons, an elderly musician and amateur art collector, because it lacks works of art.

An upper floor of the house is rented to an old woman, but later Marville and his wife move there, leaving the lower floor to their daughter now married at last, with the mansion as part of her wedding dowry.

Pillerault’s house

Pillerault’s house. Home of Monsieur Pillerault on rue de Normandie in the Marais district of Paris. The building is a former town house, described as a lodge, an upper floor of which is rented to Pons and his friend and fellow musician Pons Schmucke. The building, in two parts, consists of three double-depth flats, plus three smaller flats, one of which Pons and Schmucke occupy. The house also contains a shop belonging to the ironmonger-turned-bric-a-brac dealer Remonencq.

The lodge is run by Madame Cibot and her husband, who are systematically defrauding its residents in numerous small ways in order to supplement their incomes. As the lodge keeper, Madame Cibot controls other people’s access to Pons when he becomes ill; she is also well placed to allow people to enter his rooms without his knowledge.

Remonencq’s shop

Remonencq’s shop (reh-moh-NANK). Curio shop of the rascally Remonencq, who is Madame Cibot’s accomplice. Originally a coffeehouse, the shop has not been altered since Remonencq took it over as a bare shell, with a kitchen, back premises, and a small bedroom, the attached flat being rented separately. After starting out as an ironmonger, Remonencq gradually changes trades. After initially filling his shop with cheap goods, he gradually stocks it with better quality antiques as he moves up in the world.

The shop’s location enables Remonencq to overhear information about the quality and worth of Pons’s art collection. After Madame Cibot becomes widowed, she marries Remonencq, who then accidentally poisons himself, leaving her to inherit the shop.

Magus’s house

Magus’s house. Home of the art collector Elias Magus on Paris’s Chaussée des Minimes. The house is an old mansion, in which an entire floor has been lavishly restored to accommodate Magus’s collection, with brocade curtains at the windows and expensive carpets on the floors. The ground floor is used as storage for works of art and contains an art restorer’s workshop. Magus’s daughter, Noémi, also has a suite of rooms in the house and is, like the treasures, closely guarded. Magus himself lives in two shabby, poorly furnished, and ill-kept rooms on an upper floor.

Pons’s flat

Pons’s flat. Rooms of Sylvain Pons in Marville’s house. Although the novel mentions bedrooms, a dining room, and a drawing room, it does not describe them. The only room described in any detail is the one housing Pons’s art collection. Originally panelled in white and gold, this room has colors that have softened to yellow and red. Its upper walls are covered with paintings, and its lower walls are lined with ebony sideboards containing many curios. Tables in the middle of the room display other valuable objects.

Poulain’s flat

Poulain’s flat (poo-LAN). Home on rue d’Orleans...

(This entire section contains 1010 words.)

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of Dr. Poulain. This is a small flat, consisting of two rooms and two bedrooms, plus a kitchen and a servant’s bedroom, part of a much larger building, a mansion during the time of the French Empire. It has remained untouched for forty years, and though tiny is expensive to rent. Nevertheless, it conveys an air of respectable poverty, of struggling to make ends meet, which is at odds with Dr. Poulain’s aspirations, to be a successful and wealthy man. It is no surprise, therefore, that when he learns that Pons’s art collection is worth a fortune, he determines to make some money for himself from Pons’s illness.

Fraisier’s flat

Fraisier’s flat. Home on rue de la Perle (“pearl”) of the rascally attorney Fraisier. Described as the “man of law,” Fraisier helps Madame Cibot in a complicated series of transactions designed to defraud everyone involved with the illicit disposal of Pons’s wealth, including Pons’s friend Schmucke, to whom he leaves the collection.

Much at variance with a street named “Pearl,” Fraisier’s home is in a house described as suffering from leprosy. The house’s stairwells are strewn with refuse that indicates that most of the occupants are engaged in manual work. The door of Fraisier’s flat is shabby and dirty from being handled by so many people. Inside, the metalwork is tarnished, the wood unpolished, and the legal files are covered in dust, reflecting Fraisier’s dubious moral character.

Topinard’s flat

Topinard’s flat (toh-pee-NAHR). Home of Monsieur Topinard and his family in Paris’s Cité Bordin; a flat with two rooms, a kitchen, and a small attic. Although they live in a shabby flat in a Parisian slum, Topinard and his wife keep their flat spotlessly clean, reflecting their good characters. Topinard is a supernumerary at a theater where Pons and Schmucke used to work. He inquires after the two men every day during Pons’s final illness but is not granted admission by Madame Cibot. When Schmucke is turned out of the flat, Topinard and his wife take him into their home and offer him their best room, their private bedroom. However, he refuses the offer and takes up residence in their attic, where he dies shortly afterward.


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Bertault, Philippe. Balzac and “The Human Comedy.” Translated by Richard Monges. New York: New York University Press, 1963. A general survey of Balzac’s novels that offers little in-depth analysis of individual works but usefully locates them in relation to Balzac’s major themes and interests. Includes a brief biographical sketch.

Hemmings, F. W. J. Balzac: An Interpretation of “La Comédie Humaine.” New York: Random House, 1967. Hemmings’ chapter 8, “The Dialectic,” presents an analysis of Cousin Pons, finding the late novel to be one of Balzac’s most pessimistic but also one of his most profound works.

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. Levin’s chapter 4, an influential overview of Balzac’s work, includes several specific references to Cousin Pons.

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, including Cousin Pons.

Wilkinson, Lynn R. “Le Cousin Pons and the Invention of Ideology.” PMLA 107, no. 2 (March, 1992): 274-289. Analyzes the complex relationships between ideology and representation in Balzac’s novel from a Marxist perspective. Includes a discussion of the influence of mechanical technology, especially the then-new science of photography, on literature.


Critical Essays