Honore de Balzac had a talent for exposing French social life, particularly in relation to families. Through Cousin Bette, Father Goriat and Lost Illusions, Balzac expressed his belief that modern society, with greed, corruption and temptation, threatened the basic family structure, making families into monetary units of far less importance than they had been in previous days.
In Cousin Bette (Balzac, 1991), the main character, Lisbeth "Bette" Fischer, is a homely, middle-aged spinster who has lived her whole life in envy of her pretty cousin Adeline, who is married to Baron Hector Hulot DErvy, a prestigious military and government official who does not make a lot of money and is a complete womanizer. Hector has a slew of mistresses, despite his wife's loyalty and devotion to him. Their daughter, Hortense, develops a crush on Bette's "boyfriend," Wenceslas Steinbock, a young Polish sculptor, and marries him, convinced that his dreams of becoming a rich artist will someday come true. Bette, still wounded by her years as the homely cousin, decides that the Hulot family has upstaged her too many times and concocts an elaborate revenge scheme.
She preys on Hector's weakness for pretty women. One night, Hector meets a beautiful young woman in Bette's apartment building and immediately makes the moves on her. The beautiful woman is actually Bette's good friend, Valerie Marneffe, whose husband works in Hector's department. Bette decides to use Valerie as bait to seek revenge on the men who have deceived her and their wives. She convinces Valerie to seduce Hector, his friend Monsieur Crevel, and Steinbock. She then extorts a great deal of money from them, and marries Crevel, a wealthy retired businessman.
In the beginning of the story, the Hulot family fortune has been dramatically reduced by Hector's mistress. He spends all his money on her, leaving Adeline and Hortense with very little. Hortense constantly teases Bette about her "lover," Steinbock, who lives above Bette's apartment. Bette treats the sculptor like she would a son but adores him nonetheless. Hortense plots to meet Steinbock and the pair fall in love at first sight.
Bette developed a hatred toward the Hulot family because they never truly emabraced her as a family member. When she finds out about Hortense's engagement to Steinbock, which the couple tried to keep a secret, she plots to destroy the whole family. Bette knows Hector's weaknesses and preys upon them.
In Cousin Bette, Balzac describes the greed and guilty passion that motivated Parisian social disease. Illness, misfortune and death run rampant throughout his book, and appear to be more a social situations than physical problems. Adeline and Hulot's brother both die from what appears to be broken hearts and exhaustion. Marneffe and Crevel die terrible deaths in what seems to be karma for their sins. Cousin Bette is essentially the story of a man who destroys his life and the lives of his family members because of his weakness for pretty, young women. He does not ruin his life all on his own, however; he does so with the assistance of Bette, a cousin full of secret hatreds and seeking vengeance.
The setting of Cousin Bette is Paris in the mid-1800s, during an era when jealousy, revenge and greed ruled the city, according to Balzac. Balzac describes sin as something that feeds off other sins. In this light, a sinful man can use the weaknesses of another sinful man to avenge a perceived wronging.
Adrienne, at one point in the story, demonstrated Balzac's disgust with the modern family values, as she remembers that her husband's infidelities started with the dissolution of the empire; and her daughter Hortense was the product of "true love." Balzot mourns the loss of the great hereditary estates, and, with them, important family values.
Father Goriot, in a nutshell, is the story of a man dedicate his life to his daughters and dies a miserable death once they have forsaken him (Balzac, 1999). His daughters Anastaria and Delphine are married into a rich family. They are ashamed of their father and visit him only when they need money. The novel largely takes place in the boarding house Vauquer, an old, dingy home run by a greedy and mean proprietress. Eugene Rastignac, the arch criminal Vautrin in disguise, the doctor Horace Bianchon, and Goriot all live at this borading house. Goriot, once a wealthy manufacturer of pasta, has been reduced to poverty after spending all of his money to satisfy his greedy daughters.
In 1819 France was attempting to retrieve its past as a monarchy, although the Revolution and the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte as French emperor had made this impossible (Carnage, 2002). New fortunes had been established, and the new nobility created by Napoleon vied with the older, established families for power and prestige. Impoverished noblemen sold off their titles to the newly rich, and money emerged as the single source of power. The inhabitants of the boarding house reflect and symbolize the new materialism and its destructive forces."
The young Rastignac is supported by his parents, who sent him to Paris to study law. Rastignac, an ambitious man, realizes that in Paris a glorious career and wealth are more likely to come from success among the women of high society than hard work at a trade. He decides to pursue a life in Paris' high society. His aristocratic name gives him an easy start and his poor family back home in the country gives him some more of their hard-earned money after he deceives them.
Rastignac sets his sights on one of Goriat's daughters, who is already involved with Maxime de Trailles and married to an impotent man. Rastignac then seeks one of his distant relations, Madame Beausant, one of the Grand Dames of Parisian society. He manages to gain entrance to some important high society parties.
Delphine de Nucingen, the wife of the rich banker Nucingen, and the daughter of Rastignac's fellow boarder Goriot, has just been dumped by her lover, de Marsay. Rastignac develops a relationship with her, hoping to use this high society woman as a stepping stone to wealth and power. He dotes over her, taking care of all the tasks that her husband does not like to do, such as accompanying her to parties and the theatre, and listening to her problems and complaints. Delphine's father Goriot favors Rastignac over her stingy banker husband Nucingen, and provides the two of them with an apartment, to be used as a love-nest.
The criminal in disguise, Vautrin, offers to help Rastignac become a prominent member of society. Rastignac, untrusting of Vautrin, declines his offer. Vautrin tells him that he the brother of Victorine Taillefer, who also lives at their boarding house, was shot and killed in a duel, leaving the family inheritance to his sister whom Vautrin hopes to marry to Rastignac providing him with a small fortune. Towards the end of the novel, Vautrin is arrested at the boarding house and his unseemly criminal body is exposed.
Although Balzac's characters are highly believable and real, they are nearly all possessed by their own particular type of monomania (Carnage, 2002). Their very one-sidedness serves to expose qualities that in reality would probably be obscured within the morass of a person's total personality. They all seem more active, vivid, and highly developed than their living models could be. What was mediocre in life Balzac made sublime in his writing by persistently deepening the shadows and heightening the luminosity. He gave to the usurer, the courtesan, and the dandy the grandeur of epic heroes."
At the end of the tale, Goriot lays on his death bed, and Rastignac begs her to go to him instead of the party she has been invited to, which would be her first big entrance into high society. Delphine decides to go to the party, her father dies, and Rastignac is one of the only people who attend Goriot's funeral. His daughters are too busy to attend. Goriot has given all his money to his children, so he doesn't have enough for a proper burial. On his death bed Goriot finally realizes his daughters' egoism when they do not visit him. Still, he forgives his daughters. Rastignac pays the expenses of the burial, even though he is poor.
From the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery, Rastignac challenges Parisian society and then goes home to eat breakfast with Madame Nucingen, who he hopes will be the key element in his rise wealth and power.
Balzac stresses in his novels that the family unit had been destroyed by material greed and the bourgeois. "Another aspect of Balzac's extreme realism lies in his attention to the prosaic exigencies of everyday life (Carnage, 2002). Far from leading idealized lives, Balzac's characters are obsessively embroiled in a materialistic world of business transactions and financial crises. More often than not such matters form the crux of their existence; avarice, in particular, is one of his most common themes. In his dialogue, Balzac…