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  • ISBN: 9780140268218
  • ISBN10: 0140268219

Cousin Bette

by BALZAC

  • List Price: $10.95
  • Edition: 97
  • Publisher: 19,PENG
  • Publish date: 06/01/1998
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Description
In Balzac''s La Comedie Humaine we see the beginnings of history treated as a serious novelistic subject, a subject that would dominate much of 19th-century literature and find masterful expression in Tolstoy''s War and Peace. Knowledge of historical context is crucial to an understanding of Balzac''s thematic concerns as an artist, as well as to a basic understanding of his characters'' motives and fortunes. The Napoleonic Wars, Restoration, and 1830 Revolution, all events experienced by the young Balzac, were defining moments in the nation''s history and were readily invoked by intellectuals to explain the circumstances, national or domestic, of Balzac''s time. After Napoleon''s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, France restored the Bourbon regime under Louis XVIII and Charles X. The Restoration had managed to absorb the republican changes of the Revolution and Napoleon, but, when in 1829, King Charles X revoked the charter which guaranteed a free press among other things, the people, led by the middle class, staged a successful revolution. Charles abdicated, and, under the new King Louis-Philippe a constitutional monarchy was established which had to answer to the Chamber of Deputies, an institution equivalent to the British House of Commons. Composed mainly of wealthy middle class entrepreneurs, the Chamber of Deputies moved rapidly to divide the large family estates that dominated the nation''s feudal past and to base France''s economy on the principles of finance. This was the political and economic system under which Balzac labored as an artist, and one in which he saw the seeds of destruction for the glories of Napoleonic and dynastic France. Much of this history can be deduced from the details of Cousin Bette, and we can gather Balzac''s attitude about these historical changes in the novel''s nostalgic and apprehensive tone. Balzac, whose father was a supplier to Napoleon''s army, laments the Empire''s military defeat, but, more significantly, he mourns what he felt to be the loss of the noble values of its past. He believed France had become a nation of shopkeepers upholding the morality of self-interest and survival. The heroic past is remembered in Cousin Bette as a period of conjugal, social, and professional harmony. Baroness Adeline Hulot recalls that her husband''s infidelities began with the dissolution of the empire; and her daughter Hortense is said to be the product of "true love." Throughout the novel, the narrator, along with Hulot and other personages of the old guard, lament the changing times, the loss of the great hereditary estates, and, with them, the proper patrons of art. "Every-thing bears the stamp of personal interest," in a nation where the men are judged by the shrewdness of their speech not the bravery of their deeds; they are but "walking coffins containing the Frenchmen of former France." At the novel''s conclusion, Dr. Bianchon offers diagnoses not only of the ailing Baroness and Bette, but of the state itself. "Lack of religion and the encroachment of everything of finance" is to blame for all the social evils. "Noble disinterestedness, and talent, and service to the state, were thought worthy of esteem; but nowadays the law makes money the measure of everything." While Cousin Bette is an astute, and, at times, propagandistic, analysis of French social history, the novel is also a compelling portrayal of human, ahistorical passions, particularly of desire and vengeance. Hulot is the consummate slave to Eros, responsible for all the woe his family and comrades endure. Humiliated professionally and socially, he persists like some abstract figure of desire, taking on pseudonyms (all anagrams of his real name), attaching himself to one then another teenage mistress in ever more squalid corners of the city, reduced to nothing but his desire. Hulot is certainly repulsive as a human being, but there is something magnificent about his undeviating devotion to a single passion: sexual passion untarnished and undeterred by sentiment, by social life, by anything outside itself. In Bette, Balzac has added another masterful portrait to his gallery of human souls tyrannized by singular passions. Lisbeth Fischer, whose physical and moral ugliness is the antithesis to the saintly grace and beauty of her cousin Adeline, concentrates all her talents and energies onto the secret vengeance of the Hulot family. As she succeeds with her intricate machinations, the discrepancy between her humble status (despite her kinship to the Hulot family, she is referred to, like a servant, by her nickname "Bette") and the actual power she wields becomes almost grotesque. While there is something formulaic about this character driven by revenge, Balzac spends ample time on the causes of her hatred and jealousy; and in discussing her childhood, he anticipates Freud''s theories on early trauma and unresolved emotions, and the manifestation of these traumas as adult neuroses. Despite Balzac''s overt aims of discrediting the administration of King Louis-Philippe and the Chamber of Deputies in favor of a centralized monarchy and reinvigorated national church, Cousin Bette, in its series of well-drawn portraits, never fails to honor the infinite complexity of the human soul regardless of historical context. Balzac''s fidelity to the truth of his own manifold experience of life, fortunately, prevents him from furnishing simple political solutions to the crises of his time, and enables him to write with the moral courage and earnestness found only in his century''s finest works of literature.
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