Often described as Balzac's masterpiece, ''Cousin Bette'' is a powerful tale of love, betrayal and family breakdown.

Lisbethe Fischer, aka Cousin Bette to her family, is an unatractive middled aged woman who lives a life of a commoner while her much more attractive cousin Adaline lives a life of splendor and wealth, married to wealthy Baron Hector Hulot. However, despite Bette's envy, things are not what they appear in regards to the happy facade: Hector is a womanizing jerk that has wasted his fortune on women (including Valerie, a young beautiful bureaucrat's wife that Bette befriends) and who treats his wife like crap.

Bette's life is a life of quiet desperation until she meets a suicidal young artist named Wenceslas Steinbock. Nursing the poor artist back to health after interrupting a failed suicide attempt, Bette falls for him only to watch as her niece Hortense steal him away. The loss of her lover drives Bette to madness as she vows to ruin her family, with Bette recruiting the femme fatal Valerie into her scheme. However, a rival to the Hulot family exists that threatens Bette's revenge scheme, not to mention the fact that the Baron is quite shameless in his vices, adding to Bette's plight as she seeks to avenge wrongs.

Part of Balzac's "Comedie Humaine" series of works, the novel was written largely as a response to the rise of the serialized novel, which Balzac despised. At the time, Balzac was undergoing health problems and had largely vanished from the public eye and his decision to serialize the novel was his attempt to remain relevant in the literary world.

In 1998, the novel was made into a movie starring Jessica Lange and Hugh Laurie. The movie takes great liberties with the story, replacing Valerie with a courtesan named Jenny and having Adaline die in the opening moments of the story, in order to establish Bette into her cousin's world and to set up the feud between Hector and Bette.

----
!! This novel provides examples of:

* AffablyEvil: Crevel.
* AlasPoorVillain: [[spoiler:Valerie's]] death-bed repentance (coupled with the [[NauseaFuel gruesome nature]] of her death) lend themselves to sympathy. [[spoiler:Bette]] to a degree.
* AllLovingHero: Adeline counts as a deconstruction: her infinitely forgiving nature seems to make betrayal easier for Hector, undercutting the family as a whole.
* AristocratsAreEvil: Or at least major [[{{Jerkass}} Jerkasses.]]
* BeautyEqualsGoodness: Played straight with Adeline and Hortense (who form a contrast with the ugly and evil Bette). Pointedly averted with Valerie and the other [[GoldDigger Gold Diggers]] (not to mention Hector).
* BeautyIsNeverTarnished: [[spoiler:Averted in Valerie's case.]]
* BigBadDuumvirate: Bette and Valerie
* BigGood: Marshal Hulot is the benevolent overseer of his wayward brother's family - frequently rescuing them from ruin - and an all-around swell guy. [[spoiler:It's really quite a thankless task, leading him to die not just ''in'' despair, but ''from'' it.]]
* BigScrewedUpFamily
* BitchInSheepsClothing: Valerie is a classic example. Bette, despite her [[{{Gonk}} offputting appearence]], manages to pull this off ''very'' effectively: [[spoiler:she brings the Hulot family to its knees, while they never imagine her as anything other than their kindest benefactor.]]
* [[spoiler:BittersweetEnding]]
* BreakTheCutie: This is Hortense's story arc. She has to endure not only the collapse of her own family, but also [[spoiler:her husband's affair with [[FemmeFatale Valerie]]]].
* BrilliantButLazy: Wenceslas - his artistic talent could have taken him to great heights had he been more diligent.
* ButtMonkey: Despite his place among the wealthiest of Brazilians, Montes is often at a loss to understand Parisian society. He is on the receiving end of many jibes and is a plaything to Valerie. [[spoiler:[[WhosLaughingNow He doesn't take it lying down by the end.]]]]
* TheCasanova: Hector is a deconstruction and perhaps a subversion: his conquests come at great cost to him and his family. Which brings us to:
** CasanovaWannabe: Hector beds almost every woman in the story. Why is he a "wannabe", then? [[spoiler:[[GoldDigger They're all bleeding him dry.]]]]
* CharacterTitle
* TheChessmaster: Valerie. She lines up various suitors to replace her dying husband, while at the same time aiding Bette in her revenge schemes. [[spoiler:When she falls pregnant, she assures each of her suitors (at least initially) that [[WhosYourDaddy he is the father.]]]] As smart as she is, though, she isn't as smart as she thinks: [[spoiler:hence her downfall.]]
* ChristmasCake: Bette (albeit an atypical one, in that there's no indication of her ever having been attractive). Her ongoing solitude is a large part of what makes her so bitter.
* CruelAndUnusualDeath: [[spoiler:Valerie. Deliberately infected with a tropical virus, she dies slowly and in agony, with her looks utterly ravaged.]]
* DatingCatwoman: Hector's dalliance with Valerie. Bette aims to invoke this by [[spoiler:courting Marshal Hulot]].
* DeathByDespair: [[spoiler:Both [[BigGood Marshal Hulot]] and [[BigBad Bette]].]]
* DisproportionateRetribution: [[spoiler:Montes!]]
* TheDogBitesBack: [[spoiler:Montes on Valerie: see entry above.]]
* TheDragon: Crevel assumes this role on account of [[spoiler:marrying Valerie.]]
* EvilMakesYouUgly: Inverted: Bette's ugliness is the cause of much of the drama in her life that led to villainhood.
* FatBastard: Crevel: a petty, covetous and devious piece of work.
* FemmeFatale: Valerie. [[ZigZaggingTrope Zigzagged]] with TheVamp, as causing harm to every guy she meets seems often like her only objective. [[spoiler:Then again, she seems [[DeathEqualsRedemption genuinely repentant on her deathbed]].]]
* TheFettered: Marshal Hulot.
* FunnyForeigner: Shades of this in both Steinbock and Montes. This is a 19th-century French author we're talking about, after all.
* TheGhost: Jenny Cardine.
* GoldDigger: Josepha and Jenny Cardine are the most obvious examples. It's also on Valerie's extensive portfolio of villainous traits.
* {{Gonk}}: Bette. Her appearence is described in greater detail than any other character's and it's made clear that she's quite frightful to look at. This is the source of much of the drama that led up to villainhood.
* HotGuysAreBastards: A very handsome fellow in his youth, [[InformedAttractiveness according to backstory]], Hector is nonetheless a DirtyCoward who creates a litany of problems for his family.
* TheIngenue: Hortense.
* {{Jerkass}}: Most characters! The minor ones especially so - the major antagonists at least see a bit of nuance. Marshal Hulot, Adeline and Adeline's children are the only clear exceptions.
* KarmaHoudini: [[TheDogBitesBack While allowances should be made for all the humiliation and manipulation he went through]], it's still a bit disturbing that [[spoiler:Montes ''literally'' gets away with murder (and a remarkably gruesome one at that).]]
* KavorkaMan: Crevel. While perhaps not ugly per se, he's significantly overweight and never commended for his looks. Nonetheless, his list of conquests rivals Hector's. [[spoiler:Of course, it isn't so much ''him'' they want, but rather his money.]]
* LoveDodecahedron: And how!
* LoveMakesYouEvil: It sure did for Bette: see Woman Scorned below. While "evil" and "love" may both be putting it a bit strongly, Hector's insatiable lust makes him a {{Jerkass}} and [[LoveMakesYouStupid stupid.]]
* LoveMartyr: Adeline.
* MeaningfulName / PunnyName: Bette is a soundalike for "''bÍte''", French for "beast".
* MoralityPet: Wenceslas was this to Bette [[spoiler:until he went off with Hortense and things soured: [[KickTheMoralityPet Bette's subsequent treatment of him cements her status as a villain.]]]] Bette is this to Hector: she's one of the few women he doesn't pursue, but he shows genuine concern for her at numerous points [[spoiler:(none the wiser, of course, to the havoc she's wreaking on his family.)]]
* MoreDeadlyThanTheMale: Valerie's belief, and seemingly played out in her scheming. [[spoiler:Ultimately subverted.]]
* NiceGuy: Marshal Hulot (Hector's older brother) is this, [[spoiler:making his death the book's main TearJerker.]] Adeline and Hortense are female examples.
* RedOniBlueOni: Bette is [[color:red:red]] to Valerie's [[color:blue:blue]]. Marshal Hulot is the [[color:blue:blue]] to Hector's [[color:red:red]].
* TheResenter: Bette towards the Hulot family [[spoiler:(Hortense especially).]] Crevel towards Hector.
* {{Revenge}}: A prime motive for Bette, among others.
* ScarpiaUltimatum / SadisticChoice: Crevel's attempts to solicit sex from [[IncorruptiblePurePureness Adeline]] seem doomed for failure. [[spoiler:They gain some traction, however, when the Hulot family's finances end up in the red. Adeline is therefore forced to choose between faithfulness to her husband and financial security. When she finally gives in, Crevel just [[MoralEventHorizon rejects and taunts her, gloating over his victory.]]]]
* ScrewTheRulesImBeautiful: Valerie (and, of course, the other [[GoldDigger Gold Diggers]] mentioned above). And Hector in his salad days (later to be replaced by ScrewTheRulesIHaveMoney).
* SiblingYinYang: Marshal Hulot is TheFettered and a man of great rectitude who looks after his relatives; his younger brother Hector is a philanderer [[spoiler:and embezzler]] who never stops causing problems for his family.
** FoolishSiblingResponsibleSibling: ''Not'' respectively.
* SmugSnake: Valerie. Her snideness in accusing the genuinely devout Adeline of hypocrisy and fanaticism will likely make you want to throttle her. The sheer number of guys she manages to string along may by some accounts put her into MagnificentBitch territory, but she's definitely overconfident. [[spoiler:And lest we forget, she meets a [[KarmicDeath gruesome end]] for [[BewaretheNiceOnes messing with the wrong guy]].]]
* StartOfDarkness: Bette's abandonment by Wenceslas.
* TheStoic: Adeline. [[StoicWoobie Painfully so.]] She bears Hector's many infidelities without complaint.
* TomboyAndGirlyGirl: Bette and Valerie, respectively, are one of fiction's stand-out villainous examples.
* UglyGuyHotWife: Deconstructed savagely in the case of Valerie and her [[spoiler:first/late]] husband. She married him for money and has most likely never been faithful to him.
* TheUnfettered: Bette.
* UnwittingInstigatorOfDoom: Jenny Cardine: the cause of much of the Hulot family's financial woes, as well as Crevel's grudge against Hector.
* VillainProtagonist: Or Villain Title Character in any case.
* VillainousBreakdown: Oddly enough, Bette's villainy ''begins'' with quite a horrifying one!
--> The peasant-woman's face was terrible; her piercing black eyes had the glare of the tiger's; her face was like that we ascribe to a pythoness; she set her teeth to keep them from chattering, and her whole frame quivered convulsively. She had pushed her clenched fingers under her cap to clutch her hair and support her head, which felt too heavy; she was on fire. The smoke of the flame that scorched her seemed to emanate from her wrinkles as from the crevasses rent by a volcanic eruption
* VillainessesWantHeroes: [[spoiler:Bette tries to snag Marshal Hulot for a husband. Subverted if we consider her ulterior motives...]]
* VillainousBSOD: [[spoiler:Bette, when the Hulot family reconciles, despite her best efforts. She dies of a non-specific illness shortly thereafter.]]
* VirginPower: The narrative attributes Bette's ferocity and guile ("diabolical strength, or the black magic of the Will") to her (entirely unwanted) virginity.
* WhatTheHellHero: If you can stomach calling Hector a hero, then yeah, [[SerialEscalation he shows ever increasing levels of depravity throughout the story]] - [[spoiler:culminating in his embezzling from the state and shacking up with girls who today would be considered minors]]. And it doesn't pass without comment from his family.
* WomanScorned: There are definitely shades of this in [[spoiler:Bette's treatment of Wenceslas -- calling in his debts in hope of having him imprisoned -- once it becomes clear that he's with Hortense. Then again, it's likely that Hortense is the primary target of Bette's revenge and Wenceslas is a proxy]].
* WoobieDestroyerOfWorlds: The likeliest reading of Bette. Having been plain while her cousin Adeline was beautiful, Bette was beaten and neglected while her cousin was pampered. Having failed to find a well-off suitor (the only sort for whom one could settle in those days), Bette had to do menial work for a living while Adeline led a (seemingly!) ideal life as a baroness. Bette finally crossed the DespairEventHorizon when the man she loved made clear his intention to marry her attractive young cousin Hortense (significantly, Adeline's daughter) and wants nothing but the family's destruction from then on.
* YourCheatingHeart: Hector, Valerie and [[spoiler:Wenceslas.]]
----