Cousin Bette

Enhance understanding with a teaching guide for Balzac's Cousin Bette includes discussion questions and history about the time period.
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Updated on: January 3, 2001
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1) Some critics have claimed that Baroness Hulot's patient response to her husband's infidelities is a flat portrayal of the ideal wife, and have charged Balzac with an implicit endorsement of her passive, selfless stance. Given the circumstances of the novel, do you think her course of action, or inaction, is repugnant and totally inappropriate; and do you think that Balzac is approving or critical of her behavior?

2) Though Balzac had very ambivalent feelings about Napoleon, he is partly responsible for the creation of the Napoleonic myth. Do you think Balzac presents the members of the imperial army, particularly Baron Hulst, Marshal Hulot, and Uncle Johann Fischer, as the embodiment of noble values standing honorably against the changing times, or are they faulted for inflexibility and for idealizing a past founded on aggression and tyranny?

3) At the very center of the novel when Balzac philosophizes on art, he concludes that "constant labor is the law of art as well as the law of life." Cousin Bette obviously provides many negative examples of this proverbial statement, but are there any positive cases in which this applies?

4) When Balzac narrates the changing artistic and romantic fortunes of Count Wenceslas Steinbock, he implies that Bette's relationship with the sculptor was important, even indispensable to his early success. How does this episode, and the professional failures Steinbock encounters after leaving Bette, problematize our interpretation of her?

5) Although Balzac poignantly shows how the older generation is morally destroyed by the market economy of post-Napoleonic France, is Cousin Bette a convincing demonstration that the rule of money is inherently incompatible with the rule of morality?

6) Baron Hulot's son Victorin, who is clearly meant to represent the new bureaucracy, is vital to the survival of the Hulot family. What, if anything, does Balzac value in Victorin and his generation?


Les Chouans
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This tale of Royalist uprising against the post-revolutionary republic is rendered with characteristic passion and mastery of detail.

Cousin Pons
Translated by Herbert J. Hunt

The companion novel to Cousin Bette, Cousin Pons offers a diametrically opposite view of the nature of family relationships, focusing on a mild, harmless old man.

History of the Thirteen
Translated by Herbert J. Hunt

This trilogy of stories, purporting to be the history of a secret society, is a stunning evocation of all ranks of society.
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Old Goriot
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The Black Sheep
Translated by Donald Adamson

Two brothers struggle to recover the family inheritance in a novel that explores the devastation that poverty can bring.

Cesar Birotteau
Translated and Introduced by Robin Buss

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Eugenie Grandet
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The love of money and the passionate pursuit of it is brilliantly depicted in the story of Grandet and his obsession with amassing gold and achieving power.

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Ursule Mirouet
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This simple tale about the struggle and triumph of innocence reveals Balzac's lifelong fascination with the occult.

The Wild Ass's Skin
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