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Literature / Cousin Bette

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Often described as Honoré de 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 unattractive middle 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:

  • Adult Fear: In a way, Adeline's relationship to Hector. Finding out about your significant other's chronic unfaithfulness is already pretty bad. But to have it happen after twelve years of blissful married life must be a horror. To think that the person you love and trust the most can change so drastically even after so much time is somehow scarier than them showing their true colours fairly early.
  • Affably Evil: Crevel.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Valerie's death-bed repentance (coupled with the gruesome nature of her death) lend themselves to sympathy. Bette to a degree.
  • All-Loving Hero: Adeline counts as a deconstruction: her infinitely forgiving nature seems to make betrayal easier for Hector, undercutting the family as a whole.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Or at least major Jerkasses.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Played straight with Adeline and Hortense (who form a contrast with the ugly and evil Bette). Pointedly averted with Valerie and the other Gold Diggers (not to mention Hector).
  • Beauty Is Bad: A very handsome fellow in his youth, according to backstory, Hector is nonetheless a Dirty Coward who creates a litany of problems for his family.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted in Valerie's case.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Bette and Valerie
  • 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.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family
  • 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.
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Break the Cutie: This is Hortense's story arc. She has to endure not only the collapse of her own family, but also her husband's affair with Valerie.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Wenceslas - his artistic talent could have taken him to great heights had he been more diligent.
  • Butt-Monkey: 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. He doesn't take it lying down by the end.
  • The Casanova: Hector is a deconstruction and perhaps a subversion: his conquests come at great cost to him and his family. Which brings us to:
  • Character Title
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Death by Despair: Both Marshal Hulot and Bette.
  • Deus ex Machina: Valerie's death may be considered this for the Hulot family. The young, healthy woman who has a personal-vendetta-by-proxy against the Hulots, and who can manipulate any man to get what she wants, just happens to have a "savage" ex-lover who is crazy enough to kill her, and he just happens to have access to this exotic weapon of murder which will give the victim enough time and incentive to ruminate over all her past sins and promptly decide to redeem herself by leaving almost all her fortune to the people whom she had, up until that point, considered her enemies.
    • Further the sinister Madame Nourrisson, who pops up seemingly out of nowhere to make all of these pieces fall into place and then disappears just as silently.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Montes!
  • The Dog Bites Back: Montes on Valerie: see entry above.
  • The Dragon: Crevel assumes this role on account of marrying Valerie.
  • Evil Makes You Ugly: Inverted: Bette's ugliness is the cause of much of the drama in her life that led to villainhood.
  • Fat Bastard: Crevel: a petty, covetous and devious piece of work.
  • Femme Fatale: Valerie. Zigzagged with The Vamp, as causing harm to every guy she meets seems often like her only objective. Then again, she seems genuinely repentant on her deathbed.
  • The Fettered: Marshal Hulot.
  • Funny Foreigner: Shades of this in both Steinbock and Montes. This is a 19th-century French author we're talking about, after all.
  • The Ghost: Jenny Cardine.
  • 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.
  • The Ingenue: 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.
  • Karma Houdini: While allowances should be made for all the humiliation and manipulation he went through, it's still a bit disturbing that Montes literally gets away with murder (and a remarkably gruesome one at that).
  • 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.
  • Love Dodecahedron: And how!
  • Love Makes You Evil: 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 stupid.
  • Love Martyr: Adeline.
  • Meaningful Name / Punny Name: Bette is a soundalike for "bête", French for "beast".
  • Morality Pet: Wenceslas was this to Bette until he went off with Hortense and things soured: 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 (none the wiser, of course, to the havoc she's wreaking on his family.)
  • More Deadly Than the Male: Valerie's belief, and seemingly played out in her scheming. Ultimately subverted.
  • Nice Guy: Marshal Hulot (Hector's older brother) is this, making his death the book's main Tear Jerker. Adeline and Hortense are female examples.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Bette is red to Valerie's blue. Marshal Hulot is the blue to Hector's red.
  • The Resenter: Bette towards the Hulot family (Hortense especially). Crevel towards Hector.
  • Revenge: A prime motive for Bette, among others.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum / Sadistic Choice: Crevel's attempts to solicit sex from Adeline seem doomed for failure. 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 rejects and taunts her, gloating over his victory.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Beautiful!: Valerie (and, of course, the other Gold Diggers mentioned above). And Hector in his salad days (later to be replaced by Screw the Rules, I Have 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.
  • Start of Darkness: Bette's abandonment by Wenceslas.
  • The Stoic: Adeline. Painfully so. She bears Hector's many infidelities without complaint.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Bette and Valerie, respectively, are one of fiction's stand-out villainous examples.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Deconstructed savagely in the case of Valerie and her first/late husband. She married him for money and has most likely never been faithful to him.
  • The Unfettered: Bette.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Jenny Cardine: the cause of much of the Hulot family's financial woes, as well as Crevel's grudge against Hector.
  • Villain Protagonist: Or Villain Title Character in any case.
  • Villainous Breakdown: 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
  • 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.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: If you can stomach calling Hector a hero, then yeah, he shows ever increasing levels of depravity throughout the story - 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.
  • 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.


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