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.
Big Good: Marshal Hulot is the benevolent overseer of his wayward brother's family - frequently rescuing them from ruin - and an all-around swell guy. It's really quite a thankless task, leading him to die not just in despair, but from it.
Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Valerie is a classic example. Bette, despite her offputting appearence, manages to pull this off very effectively: she brings the Hulot family to its knees, while they never imagine her as anything other than their kindest benefactor.
The Chessmaster: Valerie. She lines up various suitors to replace her dying husband, while at the same time aiding Bette in her revenge schemes. When she falls pregnant, she assures each of her suitors (at least initially) that he is the father. As smart as she is, though, she isn't as smart as she thinks: hence her downfall.
Christmas Cake: 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.
Cruel and Unusual Death: Valerie. Deliberately infected with a tropical virus, she dies slowly and in agony, with her looks utterly ravaged.
Dating Catwoman: Hector's dalliance with Valerie. Bette aims to invoke this by courting Marshal Hulot.
Gold Digger: 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.
Kavorka Man: 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. Of course, it isn't so much him they want, but rather his money.
Sibling Yin-Yang: Marshal Hulot is The Fettered and a man of great rectitude who looks after his relatives; his younger brother Hector is a philanderer and embezzler who never stops causing problems for his family.
Smug Snake: 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 Magnificent Bitch territory, but she's definitely overconfident. And lest we forget, she meets a gruesome end for messing with the wrong guy.
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
Villainesses Want Heroes: Bette tries to snag Marshal Hulot for a husband. Subverted if we consider her ulterior motives...
Villainous BSOD: Bette, when the Hulot family reconciles, despite her best efforts. She dies of a non-specific illness shortly thereafter.
Virgin Power: The narrative attributes Bette's ferocity and guile ("diabolical strength, or the black magic of the Will") to her (entirely unwanted) virginity.
Woman Scorned: There are definitely shades of this in 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.
Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: 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 Despair Event Horizon 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.