Sunday, May 18, 2008

Revenge. . . French style

I've been trying to read as much as possible, since everyone tells me I'll be too tired to read once I have this baby. I try to get a good mix of contemporary with classic, mostly so I can pack up only the books I have read and have room to leave the rest out. This last week, Balzac caught my eye. I had never read Balzac, and yet the book was claiming him as a genius (I'm pretty sure I had heard this somewhere else, as well). So I picked up Cousin Bette.
Cousin Bette is a poor, peasant relation, much uglier than her beautiful cousin who married a French nobleman (presumably, with money). However, Adeline's husband had a very bad habit that involved, much younger and prettier, and much more expensive, women. I have to admit, the plot seemed a bit thin to me. Bette is jealous because her cousin married up, then called her to Paris and gave her money to set up her own shop and tried to get her married. Um, yeah, I can see why she would be jealous. However, Adeline's young, and also beautiful, daughter, does steal the man Bette is in love with. This gives her justification to try to ruin this family. And she almost succeeds. She becomes best friends with Adeline's husband's current tart and they plot to destroy the family morally, financially, and reputationally (is that a word?). They do manage to bring the family down, but there is enough good in the family to overcome (except for the husband, who disappears). Bette dies bitter that she was unable to achieve her life goal. Ironically, the husband reappears and, while not finishing her work, does achieve to destroy his wife. So there you go, a simple tale of revenge.
However, upon closer reading (or just reading every line) one quickly realizes that this story is about the fall of the old French Empire and its nobility and the rise of the (classless) middle class (the book takes place in the 1840s). A little French history makes this story of revenge and its moral more clear. The newly rich little tarts are painted horribly, but not as bad as the old nobility who pay dearly for their youth, beauty, sex and their rich lifestyles. Cousin Bette does not succeed in revenge because she has aligned herself against the old nobility. Adeline's husband is destructive because he lacks the morals he should have as a noble.
The book is very readable, but I think it would make better reading for a French history class, rather than a literature class. The book really is more about a time period, than human nature, but is valuable as such. Next week, something more contemporary!

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