Cousin Bette Summary

Honore de Balzac

Cousin Bette

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Cousin Bette Summary

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Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac, or La Cousine Bette in French, was written and published in 1846. The novel takes place in the mid-nineteenth century and is about a woman named Bette, who lives in Paris and plots the destruction of her extended family.

The first third of the book is devoted to the history of the main characters. The story opens with Adeline Hulot, who is married to Baron Hector Hulot. A rich performer named Célestin Crevel is trying to seduce her, however, his attentions are not motivated by love or adoration for Adeline. He had been fond of a singer named Josépha Mirah, who became entangled in an affair with Baron Hulot during a contest. Célestin hopes to have an affair with Adeline to exact revenge on the Baron.

Meanwhile, the Baron’s daughter, Hortense, is on the hunt for a husband. The Hulots’ son, Victorin, is already married—to Célestin’s daughter, Celestine. After Adeline rejects Célestin’s seductive efforts, he abandons his endeavor and turns his attention elsewhere. The eponymous Bette, also known as Lisbeth, is Adeline’s cousin. She’s envious of Adeline because she married a successful Baron, whereas Bette isn’t married at all. Not only is she poor, but she doesn’t have Adeline’s physical beauty.

That doesn’t mean she hasn’t had the opportunity to marry; Bette has refused a number of middle-class suitors. Now forty-two years old, she’s on the verge of becoming bitter in the face of her cousin’s marital success. One day, Bette stops Wenceslas Steinbock from committing suicide. Wenceslas lives in the apartment above Bette’s. She cares for him in a maternal way until he recovers. Around this time, she also makes another new friend—Valérie. Valérie’s husband, Monsieur Marneffe, is a clerk in the War Department.

Meanwhile, Josépha rejects Baron Hulot in favor of another man who has a large fortune. The Baron is devastated, for a little while at least, until he meets Valérie and falls in love with her. He gives her gifts upon gifts, ultimately settling upon her and her husband a gorgeous and expensive house. He has worked with Valérie’s husband at the War Department. Because he’s spent so much on the Marneffes, and on Josépha before them, the Baron is heavily in debt and now faces financial insolvency. He panics and gets his uncle, Johann Fischer, to embezzle money from the War Department. While the Baron is relieved to have money coming in again, at the end of this first third of the book, Bette is faced with unhappiness again when Hortense and Wenceslas marry.

Emotionally distraught, Bette swears she will have her revenge on Adeline’s family. Working together with Valérie, she gets the Baron to spend even more money. She also persuades Valérie to seduce Célestin and watches in amusement as both Célestin and the Baron compete for Valérie’s company. Bette even helps Valérie lure Wenceslas into her bedroom; when Hortense learns of his betrayal, she leaves him. By now, Hortense and Wenceslas have had a son, and Hortense takes him and goes to live with Adeline. Meanwhile, Valérie professes her love for a Brazilian Baron—Henri Montès de Montéjanos. She continues to promise all five men with whom she’s involved that they have her heart.
Baron Hulot’s brother, “le maréchal,” which translates to “the Marshal,” arrives and hires Bette to keep his house. They become fond of one another, and he discovers Baron Hulot’s indiscretions. He promises Bette that he’ll marry her if she gives him details of his brother’s adultery, which Bette is all too eager to provide. Not only does she want to marry le maréchal for her own sake, but it would spell trouble for Baron Hulot. However, when the Baron’s brother discovers that he’s been embezzling money from the War Department, he’s overcome by shame and falls ill, thus ruining Bette’s hopes of marriage.

Valérie, meanwhile, becomes pregnant and tells each of the five men—her four lovers and her husband—that he is the father of her child. However, the child is stillborn, and her husband dies shortly afterwards. Baron Hulot and Célestin are both delighted when they hear that Valérie’s husband has passed because they each think that she will favor them and no one else. After her mourning period passes, Valérie chooses Célestin to be her next husband, because of his fortune, and the two marry. Baron Montès is enraged by this, and he plans to poison both Valérie and Célestin. He’s successful in administering an exotic poison from Brazil, and they both die slow and painful deaths.

Later, the Prince of Wissembourg visits Victorin Hulot, and brings with him good economic news. Before le maréchal passed away, he arranged for the Baron’s debts to be repaid. He also arranged for Adeline to work with a Catholic charity. Baron Hulot, meanwhile, has disappeared and Adeline spends all of her spare time seeking him out in brothels. Finally, she discovers him—he’s been living with a fifteen-year-old prostitute. She beseeches him to return to his family and he agrees even though he wants to take the girl home with him.

As the Hulots are reunited, Bette becomes enraged. That anger eats at her until she passes away. After Bette’s funeral, Adeline overhears the Baron trying to seduce Agathe, a kitchen maid. She dies, and Baron Hulot marries Agathe.