Obsession in I[Cousin Bette]

Honore De Balzac’s Cousin Bette is a novel about obsession, but what makes the premise so fantastic is the manner in which each obsession is related to the others. The characters are obsessed with art, but the bourgeois universe of post-Napoleonic Paris is unoriginal. The middle class do not spend their money on beautiful things anymore. The middle class hoards money, and what is spent is spent on shabby recreations of great art – pieces that these individuals believe will bring them the appearance of status. In the French middle class everything has become a copy of something that was already a copy. There is no originality in everyday life. When copying is regularly practiced, there is no appreciation for the work and sweat that a true artist puts into a single painting or sculpture. That is where the true “art” is – in the work put into an original piece, not simply in the aesthetic appearance of a piece of art. When the prince wants the mold for Wenseslas’ clock destroyed, it is because he values what is unique. He values the way the artist held the clock as he made it, and turned it in his hands as though it were worth something. Most of all, he values its originality. The bourgeois society is “chintzy” because it only copies the aristocratic society, and with far less class and beauty. Balzac, it appears, has an extraordinary reverence for art. The obsession with great works of art is the least evil of all his fetishes. Cousin Bette also reveals a startling obsession with women and female beauty. Valerie, in particular, possesses a degree of beauty that can drive any man to obsession. Balzac repeatedly compares her to great works of art: her skin is like porcelain, or marble; her eyes are like emeralds. She is naturally gorgeous, but what makes her truly goddess-like is her skill in cultivating her own beauty. The detail with which Valerie articulates the facets of her appearance is astounding: from her use of the “beauty spot” to the skill she demonstrates when performing a tea service, she is charming and elegant in all respects. Valerie is, in essence, a living piece of art: she is the most desirable commodity in all of the novel, more beautiful even than “the almighty franc.” Perhaps the most obvious obsession cultivated in the novel is the obsession with money. Every important character is in great need of it, or has an identity drawn from having or getting it. Great sums are amassed in gifts or debts, and Balzac calculates the sums for us so that we might experience the impact of the insurmountable tally for ourselves. The point, it appears, is that all exchanges having to do with money are grand in every respect. The sums themselves are quite extravagant, and the emotions present on either side of the transaction are equally grand. To most of Balzac’s characters, each exchange of money is a matter of life or death, honor or dishonor, love or chastity. The exchange of money is one of the most charged interactions between the characters in Cousin Bette. In addition, nearly every time that there is a monetary transaction, money is spent in exchange for art, love, or both. Wenseslas must sell his art; others must possess it. Valerie must sell her love; others must acquire it. The men of the novel expend their worth in order to wallow in their superficial desire to be young, handsome, important, and most of all loveable. The men – and most notably Baron Hulot – attempt to make more of themselves by spending vast amounts of money that they do not have. Baron Hulot feels slighted and impotent because he is outdone by the Duc d’Herouville in his efforts to win Josepha’s affections (however false they may be). As a result, his conquest of Valerie, while partly fueled by true lust and passion, is driven by his need to lick his own wounds and soothe his hurt ego. By constantly pulling funds from what seems like a bottomless well, he is creating for himself the appearance of being a man with extraordinary power. In giving what he does not have, the Baron shows what unbounded passion he is capable of, and in Balzac’s world, passion is a sign of wealth and manhood in itself. The exchange between money and sex is maintains its moral acceptability through the implementation of a woman’s beauty. In Balzac’s world, the only thing that separates a woman from being a courtesan and a whore is the skill with which she is able to command her own beauty and sexual desirability. Valerie puts an enormous amount of thought into the way she presents herself. To society, she presents herself as charming and wholesome. Valerie maintains the appearance of a normal spouse to Monsieur Marneffe, and cultivates the appearance of a good and innocent Parisian wife. Valerie knows that one of the things that makes her so desirable is her facade of innocence and respectability, just as the unspoiled sixteen-year-old, Olympe Bijou (another jewel), is appealing largely because of her naivete and untainted beauty. The women of the bourgeois each have their own particular manner of accentuating their beautiful – and therefore powerful – traits. Valerie revels in wearing a bow in her hair to remind a man of her garter, or donning a rose in just the right place to draw a man’s eye lower. The bourgeois men seem to be incapable of such subtleties. It is only the very rich who are able to make art out of their end of the sexual transaction. Monsieur Crevel and Baron Hulot, for instance, are quite clumsy with social graces, as can be seen when they give money to Valerie by simply handing it over. She even accuses Monsieur Crevel of “making love in relays” by handing over, bit by bit, just enough to keep Valerie attached to his affections. For the Duc d’Herouville to give her “the papers for a thirty-thousand-franc annuity in a white paper bag full of sugared almonds” is to make art out of his own end of the transaction. To possess Valerie’s great beauty (or Josepha’s, or Jenny Cadine’s) the recipient must have something of value to give in return. In the case of the old scoundrels Baron Hulot and Monsieur Crevel, they cannot give youth or beauty, so they must hand over tremendous amounts of money. Only the very rich, it seems, are completely successful in Balzac’s world. Valerie is attracted to power almost as much as she is attracted to money. Baron Hulot does not have money, but he has a well-known name and social influence. Crevel is just a retired perfume salesman, but he has his profits and his capital. These men, however, although they have such strong identities on their own, lose all of their power in her company. It is impossible, it appears, to make love to the masterpiece that Valerie is; only she can make love to them. She has what Hulot and Crevel want, but cannot find anywhere else. They have what she wants, but could get from any number of different men. In the balance, Valerie wins every time. In Balzac’s world, money wins every battle, and is trumped only by art in its greatest expression.