Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1262
The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans is a long narrative in four volumes. The main character is not a courtesan, despite the novel’s title, but a brilliant criminal who manipulates other people’s lives to his own satisfaction. Only the first two volumes actually treat the vicissitudes of a prostitute’s life, the last two books being given over to the villain’s incarceration in prison and the conditions there.
The first part, The Way That Girls Love, opens at a fashionable masquerade ball in Paris in 1824. The attention of the gossiping masquers is arrested by the appearance of three figures: a handsome young man named Lucien de Rubempre; a mysterious caped man who follows the young gentleman intently; and the beautiful prostitute, Esther Cobseck, known as La Torpille (the torpedo), who accompanies Lucien and is in love with him. Esther, thinking that she is not recognized in her costume, is humiliated when she is identified by a group of rakes who gossip about her pruriently, and she leaves the ball in consternation.
Esther is then discovered by the sinister caped personage from the ball in her dreary quarters, where she has made a clumsy attempt at suicide. Her rescuer passes himself off as a Spanish priest, Carlos Herrera, and convinces her that she must enter a convent. Esther soon wastes away melodramatically in the convent, however, stricken by her passion for Lucien, who does not know where she is. The priest, whose interest in and ambitions for Lucien include marrying him to one of the daughters of the wealthy Duc de Grandlieu, placates Lucien by setting Esther up secretly in an apartment where the young man may visit her. After four years of this life, Herrera runs low on money. When a wealthy banker, Baron Nucingen, spies Esther and falls desperately in love with her, Herrera devises a scheme to swindle the Baron and use the proceeds to finance the purchase of property that will give Lucien the credibility he needs to win the Duc’s daughter.
The comic story of the bilking of Baron Nucingen makes up the second volume, How Much Love Costs Old Men. Many of its events revolve around the ludicrous efforts of three rogue policemen—Contenson, Corentin, and Peyrade—to execute the orders of the Baron in his efforts to track down and seduce Esther. Their counterparts are the three scamps in the employ of Herrera—his factotum, Paccard; Esther’s maid, Prudence Servien, best known as Europe; and Herrera’s indefatigably wily lieutenant, Asia, who is actually his aunt, Jacqueline Collin. Herrera himself, it is revealed, is an incorrigible criminal named Jacques Collin, alias Vautrin, who murdered the real Abbe.
The farcical twists and turns conclude with Esther’s committing suicide out of depression over the prospect of losing Lucien and having to give herself to the absurd but ardent Baron. She leaves 750,000 francs for Lucien, money she had coaxed out of the Baron, but Europe and Paccard find the bank notes and immediately abscond with them. Just before Esther dies, it is discovered that she is the niece and heir of the wealthy discount broker, Gobseck, and that he has died and left her seven million francs. Unfortunately, when Europe goes to give Esther the happy news, the maid finds her mistress already dead. The result of these confusing developments is that both Lucien and Collin are arrested for complicity in theft and murder.
In How Much Love Costs Old Men, Honore de Balzac writes at length about the history and customs of the French penal system before settling down to the subject of Lucien and Collin in prison. The authorities immediately suspect the true identity of the bogus priest but cannot prove it. The examining magistrate, Monsieur Camusot, cannot break Collin’s story, but the much weaker Lucien is quickly tricked into admitting everything. Just as Camusot learns the truth, however, he finds himself in difficulties with various prominent society ladies with whom Lucien has had affairs. Some harbor grudges from old slights and are eager to see Lucien suffer, but two of them—the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse and the Countess Serisy—still love Lucien and are tormented at the thought of their private love letters becoming known. These two influential ladies want Lucien released, and their interest in the case makes Camusot regret his success in the interrogation of the hopeless dandy. Lucien’s distress at his plight leads him, however, to commit suicide in his cell, setting up the denouement of the fourth book, in which the scheming priest is pitted against the authorities.
The opening sections of volume 3, The End of Bad Roads, reveal Balzac’s interest in the penal system. He describes at great length the procedures by which accused persons are processed and interrogated, and even includes a brief essay on criminal law under the French Code, with an account of the history, structure, and uses of the Palais de Justice. As part of his preoccupation with prisons and prison life, Balzac later writes a fascinating essay on prison slang, a discussion that leads to philosophizing about the social role of thieves and prostitutes. In this same context, he remarks that the criminal population and the police population both number sixty to eighty thousand individuals, and he explains much of his purpose when he adds, “The antagonism between all these people who reciprocally seek and evade each other constitutes an immense duel, eminently dramatic, sketched in these pages.”
Balzac also explains something of the politics and sociology of the underworld in his brief disquisition on the society called the Grand Fanandels, an elite society of gang chiefs with private fortunes which served the everyday felon as “the court of appeal, the academy, the house of peers.” The Grand Fanandels created the order of the Ten Thou’, so called because none of them would take on an operation promising less than ten thousand francs. These discussions of the criminal milieu contribute greatly to developing an ambience and often satisfy the reader who is surfeited with melodrama.
The title of volume 4, The Last Incarnation of Vautrin, alludes to the name by which Collin, alias the Abbe Herrera, had been known in a previous novel, Le Pere Goriot (1835; Daddy Goriot, 1860; better known as Pere Goriot). When Collin learns of Lucien’s suicide and reads his friend’s farewell letter, he is prostrated. He soon regains his interest in life, however, because of a conversation with the hardened rogues in the prison yard. (This section, incidentally, becomes the occasion for an absorbing essay by Balzac on the language and behavior of prisoners.) Meeting a group of old lags, many of whom know him from the past and acknowledge him as Dodgedeath, their informal leader, he is stunned to find out that his long-lost companion and the object of his pederastic love, Theodore Calvi, is in the prison and about to be hanged. Collin recovers his bravado, contrives a furtive meeting with Calvi, and begins to scheme to save Calvi’s life. While the master criminal is playing a cat-and-mouse game with Bibi-Lupin, a former convict made police chief, his confederate, Asia, is also working on his behalf. In a complicated finale, Collin creates a strategy based on the power he has by virtue of having the ladies’ love letters to Lucien and on the money he collects from a complicated scam worked on one of his fellow prisoners. With all of his designs successful, Collin—alias Dodgedeath, alias the Abbe Herrera, alias Vautrin—assumes the respectable role of Bibi-Lupin’s deputy.