Cousin Bette by Balzac: sombre, fantastical, plausible

Cousin Bette is a novel of opposites: of love and hatred, vice and virtue, good and evil, marriage and adultery, the past and the present, the old and the young, the rich and the poor, remembering and forgetting, decline and fall. With the ambition of 19th century novelists Balzac tried to capture all human life in La Comédie humaine, and he didn’t do badly.

As the introduction to the Cousin Bette says: “He takes everything in this sombre novel, to a fantastical, but plausible extreme.” I’d say that he goes beyond plausibility, but it doesn’t matter. As the introduction also says: “Cousin Bette seems to mark the point beyond which the novel must give way to theatre or to grand opera.” It is operatic in its passions and reach.

Cousin Bette herself is Machiavellian and evil in the style, as Balzac himself says, of Richard III and Iago. She is determined to bring down the family of which she is a poor part, and she succeeds in some ways; but despite machinations over years none of the family suspects. They think her saintly. I’m interested in such characters because I have to deal with one, and I need all the advice that great literature can give me. Where else can I go for advice?

As I’ve written in another blog, the struggle between vice and virtue–like a latter day Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which again is specifically referred to–is perhaps the major theme of the book. As with Paradise Lost, those filled with vice are more interesting than the virtuous. Ultimately vice wins out: the libertine baron is still going at the end (in his 70s and now living with a 15 year old girl), whereas his holy, spotless, virtuous wife has suffered and died. The book begins with another libertine offering to buy the baroness’s virtue, primarily to put one over on the baron who had stolen his mistress. The baroness declines but later tries to sell herself, but it’s too late.

A major theme of the book is how married love is not enough (for a Frenchman, we might think), and how a successful wife manages, an age old theme, to combine the Madonna and the whore. Balzac things that such women are very rare:

“Many married women, devoted to their duties and to their husbands, may well wonder at this point why strong, kindly men, so sympathetic to women like Madame Marneffe, don’t make their wives the subject of their fancies and their passions, especially when they are like Baroness Adeline Hulot. This is linked to one of the deepest mysteries of human nature. Love, when reason runs riot, the manly, serious pleasure of great hearts, and sensual pleasure, the vulgar commodity sold on the market-place, are two different aspects of the same thing. The woman who can satisfy those two great appetites of the two sides of human nature is as rare amongst her sex as great generals, great writers, great artists, and great inventors are in a nation.”

I took many marvellous quotes from the book, not as many as from Les Misérables, which is ultimately a superior novel, but then Cousin Bette is 500 pages long and Les Misérables 1500. You can read the quotes at:





One thought on “Cousin Bette by Balzac: sombre, fantastical, plausible

  1. Pingback: Quotes from Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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