Home > 19th Century, Balzac Honoré de, Classics, French Literature, Molière, Novel, Theatre > “What the devil was he doing in that galley?”

“What the devil was he doing in that galley?”

La Cousine Bette, by Honoré de Balzac. (1846)

I said in my previous post about La Cousine Bette that theatre was everywhere in the novel. I’m not a specialist of Molière or of Shakespeare but when I was reading La Cousine Bette I had this persistent feeling of reading theatre. If I’m not a expert, I do enjoy watching plays and I believe this impression came from the type of characters, the form of the novel itself with its 132 chapters as short as scenes and in particular moments or dramatic tools used by Balzac.

The characters seem to be inspired by Molière or Shakespeare.  

The Baron Hulot corresponds to the character mocked in Molière’s plays, like Argan in Le Malade Imaginaire, Orgon in Tartuffe or Harpagon in L’Avare. These characters are ridiculous old men led by a passion (money) or manipulated by impostors (Tartuffe, Diafoirus). They are wealthy and other characters try to put their hand on their money. 

Valérie Marneffe is the deceitful and interested character of Molière’s plays. She’s married to an ill man much older than her. Her marriage looks like the one between Argan and Béline in Le Malade Imaginaire. In this play, the young Béline patiently waits for the death of her old and sick husband to inherit his fortune. In several Molière’s plays, an old man is married or plans to marry a pretty woman much too young and too beautiful for him. (Like Harpagon with Marianne in L’Avare)  

Hortense is the typical character of the virtuous and loving daughter who marries a young man for love, like Angélique in Le Malade Imaginaire or Elise in L’Avare.  

Crevel reminded me of Monsieur Jourdain in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The main character of this play is a rich bourgeois who wants to be a gentleman and takes classes to acquire the skills of a gentleman (clothes, speech, dancing…) Crevel is like him as Valérie teaches him how to speak, how to behave, what to wear. He is thankful for all the good advice she gives him and never realises that he is ridiculous. Exactly like Monsieur Jourdain in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.  

M. Marneffe, who tries to confuse him with a complicated speech, is cut off by the Prince of Wissembourg with a

– Trêve de discours à la Sganarelle, “No more of Sganarelle speeches,”

Sganarelle is the valet in Les Fourberies de Scapin. He’s the character that invents a fake kidnapping on a Turkish galley to get some cash from the old Géronte. Hence the famous phrase “Mais que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?” (“What the devil was he doing in that galley?”)  

I don’t think Lisbeth’s character exists in Molière. Hatred isn’t a feeling he wrote about. Envy, lust, greed, fake devotion to religion, yes. Hatred and evil, no, except in Dom Juan perhaps. I thought she may come from Shakespeare and indeed Balzac compares her to Iago:

Et Mme Marneffe avait eu peur en trouvant tout à la fois un Iago et un Richard III dans cette fille, en apparence si faible, si humble et si peu redoutable. And Madame Marneffe had been terrified to find this old maid a combination of Iago and Richard III., so feeble as she seemed, so humble, and so little to be feared.

I can’t tell, I haven’t read or watched Othello. There will be another reference to Othello later:

– Je ne puis pas vous le dire ici, devant tous ces Iagos… , dit le baron brésilien. “I cannot tell you before all these Iagos,” said the Brazilian.

Like in Molière, the male characters are weak or desperately in love when the female characters are angelic or manipulating.

Balzac uses theatre references to make comparisons.


Il jeta sur Mme Hulot un regard comme Tartuffe en jette à Elmire. He gave such a look at Madame Hulot as Tartuffe casts at Elmire
“La femme est le potage de l’homme”, a dit plaisamment Molière par la bouche du judicieux Gros-René. “Woman is soup for man,” as Moliere says by the mouth of the judicious Gros-Rene.

 … and Shakespeare  

– Savez-vous l’anglais ?- Oui. Avez-vous vu jouer Macbeth, en anglais ?- Oui.- Eh bien, mon fils, tu seras roi ! c’est-à-dire tu hériteras ! dit cette affreuse sorcière, devinée par Shakespeare et qui paraissait connaître Shakespeare. “Do you know English?”“Yes.”“Well, my son, thou shalt be King. That is to say, you shall come into your inheritance,” said the dreadful old witch, foreseen by Shakespeare, and who seemed to know her Shakespeare.
Nous devons quatre termes, quinze cents francs ! notre mobilier les vaut-il ? That is the question ! a dit Shakespeare. “We owe four quarters’ rent, fifteen hundred francs. Is the furniture worth so much? /That is the question/, as Shakespeare says.”
C’était enfin la Tempête de Shakespeare renversée, Caliban maître d’Ariel et de Prospero. In fact, it was the converse of Shakespeare’s Tempest — Caliban ruling Ariel and Prospero.

Some scenes sound like scenes in Molière or Shakespeare plays.

Le Malade Imaginaire and the doctors.

Other scenes reminded me of Molière, especially the ones involving physicians. I couldn’t help thinking of famous scenes in Le Malade Imaginaire with Doctor Purgon and Doctor Diafoirus.  

Le docteur Bianchon, le docteur Larabit, le professeur Angard, réunis en consultation, venaient de décider l’emploi des moyens héroïques pour détourner le sang qui se portait à la tête. Doctor Bianchon, Doctor Larabit, and Professor Angard had met in consultation, and were prepared to apply heroic remedies to hinder the rush of blood to the head.

The doctors try to cure their patients but seem helpless when the disease is a bit exotic.

Handling three lovers.

The scene (chapter 46) in which Valérie is in Bette’s room and needs to conceal to her three lovers the existence of the others is particularly molieresque I couldn’t help thinking of Le Malade Imaginaire, when Argan hides to listen to Béline or Tartuffe when Elmire hides Orgon to make him understand that Tartuffe is an impostor. It is also very “théâtre de boulevard”, with lovers hiding in closet and wives trying to get husbands out of the room. Hiding in closets or behind curtains and faking an illness are so linked to theatre in my mind that I couldn’t help imagining the room as a theatre setting. 

Behaving like actors on a stage.

The moment in Chapter 90 when Valérie convinces Crevel not to give Adeline 200 000 francs reminds me of Molière’s style. She uses hypocrite love words such as “mon minet”, pouts, makes faces, speaks silly like an actress on a stage. And indeed, she is playing a role:

Et elle frôla le visage de Crevel avec ses cheveux en lui tortillant le nez.- Peut-on avoir un nez comme ça, reprit-elle, et garder un secret pour sa Vava – lélé – ririe !…Vava, le nez allait à droite ; lélé, il était à gauche ; ririe, elle le remit en place.- Eh bien, je viens de voir… Crevel s’interrompit, regarda Mme Marneffe.- Valérie, mon bijou, tu me promets sur ton honneur… , tu sais, le nôtre ? de ne pas répéter un mot de ce que je vais te dire… And she swept her hair over Crevel’s face, while she jestingly pulled his nose.“Can a man with a nose like that,” she went on, “have any secrets from his /Vava–lele–ririe/?”And at the /Vava/ she tweaked his nose to the right; at /lele/ it went to the left; at /ririe/ she nipped it straight again.“Well, I have just seen–” Crevel stopped and looked at Madame Marneffe.“Valerie, my treasure, promise me on your honor–ours, you know?–not to repeat a single word of what I tell you.”

Can’t you imagine actors on a stage rather than real persons in a room? It made me think of Toinette toying with Argan in Le Malade Imaginaire. This particular scene also reminded me how Mrs Ferrars convinces her husband he needs not give to his stepmother and stepsisters all the money his father asked him to give on his death bed. (Sense and Sensibility) 

Romeo and Juliet: the poison.

When I read about the death given through a disease but with a possible antidote, I thought about Romeo and Juliet.  

L’un de mes nègres porte avec lui le plus sûr des poisons animaux, une terrible maladie qui vaut mieux qu’un poison végétal et qui ne se guérit qu’au Brésil : je la fais prendre à Cydalise, qui me la donnera ; puis, quand la mort sera dans les veines de Crevel et de sa femme, je serai par delà les Açores avec votre cousine, que je ferai guérir et que je prendrai pour femme. Nous autres sauvages, nous avons nos procédés !… One of my negroes has the most deadly of animal poisons, and incurable anywhere but in Brazil. I will administer it to Cydalise, who will give it to me; then by the time when death is a certainty to Crevel and his wife, I shall be beyond the Azores with your cousin, who will be cured, and I will marry her. We have our own little tricks, we savages!

This trick sounded like tools to make the action progress in plays. 

Balzac intervenes as a writer and gives instructions like indications in theatre plays.   

La scène par laquelle commence cette sérieuse et terrible Etude de mœurs parisiennes allait donc se reproduire, avec cette singulière différence que les misères prophétisées par le capitaine de la milice bourgeoise y changeaient les rôles. So the scene with which this serious and terrible drama of Paris manners opened was about to be repeated, with this singular difference –that the calamities prophesied then by the captain of the municipal Militia had reversed the parts.

See the vocabulary: “scene”, “drama”, “open”, “parts”, like for theatre. In the following quote I saw the instructions written by a playwright to help the director:  

En ce moment, le maréchal Hulot entra dans l’antichambre et sa voix se fit entendre. La famille comprit l’importance du secret, et la scène changea subitement d’aspect. Les deux enfants se relevèrent, et chacun essaya de cacher son émotion. Just then Marshal Hulot’s voice was heard in the anteroom. The family all felt the importance of secrecy, and the scene suddenly changed. The young people rose, and every one tried to hide all traces of emotion.

 Comparisons with theatre are used to describe a scene, a feeling, an attitude.

Crevel aurait voulu descendre dans la cave par une trappe, comme cela se fait au théâtre. Crevel only longed to vanish into the cellar, through a trap, as is done on the stage.

 Sometimes, replies or dramatic tools sound like theatre:

– Monsieur, nous allons fermer l’appartement, la farce est jouée, et vous remettrez la clef à M. le maire. “Now we will lock up; the farce is played out, and you can send your key to Monsieur the Mayor.”


Cachez-vous là, vous entendrez tout. Cette scène se joue aussi souvent dans la vie qu’au théâtre. Hide there, and you will hear everything. It is a scene that is played quite as often in real life as on the stage.

Again, words linked to comedy: “farce”, “stage”.  

And I have many examples, it would be boring to show them all. I can’t imagine people talking like that in real life. That’s partly why I didn’t love La Cousine Bette. I thought the dialogues theatrical, exaggerated like phrases of a play, when the actors speak loudly and articulate so that the spectators in the last row can still follow the plot.  It sounded fake, overplayed and it prevented me from feeling anything for the characters. I should have pitied Hortense, but I couldn’t. I looked at them like a spectator from a balcony in a theatre or like a child who observes ants in a box.

PS : I know the style of this post is even more clumsy than my usual English but I lack the vocabulary to describe precisely what I mean.

  1. April 7, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    I didn’t have the sense of reading theatre, but as you know my version had no chapters just
    between sections. Was Balzac influenced by Moliere?


    • April 7, 2011 at 10:57 pm

      I’m sure reading it with * between sections and no chapters with ‘silly’ titles was better.

      Before reading La Cousine Bette, Balzac wasn’t associated to Molière in my mind. But in this particular book, yes, that’s the point I’m making and I didn’t invent the quotes I typed. Molière remains the model for comedy and his characters are well-known and part of popular culture. (An “Harpagon” is a way to say “A Miser”, a Tartuffe is an hypocrit…) I felt he was refering to stereotyped characters from popular theatre, whose best representant is Molière. It was maybe a way to reach the readers of his feuilleton.
      That was mostly during the 2 first thirds of the novel, until the ruin of Hulot. Then I thought that the narrative was more “novel” than “theatre” (and more Balzacian in the sense of the image I had of his work) and there were less comical effects. I’ve never had this impression in the other books by Balzac I’ve read.


      • April 7, 2011 at 11:19 pm

        I’m going to go back and reread the into to The Chouans to see if there’s any mention of Moliere.


        • April 7, 2011 at 11:27 pm

          I think you’d better look for Walter Scott in the Chouans. I don’t remember it to be funny. I re-read what you wrote about Cousin Bette on Kimbofo’s blog : for me Bette takes every kindness badly because from infancy her family used her as a work force and never considered her as a person. Like servants she’s part of the house but as important as furniture. Everything outside of that pattern seems unnatural to her.


  2. April 7, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    BTW, what was the name of the Elizabeth George novel you recommended?


    • April 7, 2011 at 11:00 pm

      What Came Before He Shot Her. I prefer the French title “Autopsie d’un meurtre”.


    • April 8, 2011 at 3:06 am

      Scott was mentioned in the preface to the Chouans, but I know there were other names–Just looked in my copy but it just mentions various Gothic authors ie Radcliffe and Lewis


  3. April 8, 2011 at 10:00 am

    I’m just about to start reading this with Yahoo Balzac group so I’m saving this review until I’ve read the book.


    • April 8, 2011 at 10:04 am

      Great, I’m interested in your thoughts about it. What version do you have ? One with the 132 chapters or one with * between sections ?


  4. April 8, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    Honestly, if I had read this novel like this, I think I would not have liked it at all but I never made the connection. I’m not saying you are wrong at all, I just didn’t read it like this and understand why you were not too keen. It sounds as if the moment you detected it the whole reading was overshadowed by it. Interesting. I looked again and my copy has no chapters at all.


    • April 8, 2011 at 3:55 pm

      “It sounds as if the moment you detected it the whole reading was overshadowed by it.”
      Thanks for understanding me. That’s exactly what happened and I’m sorry I didn’t like it better because it is really a great great novel. Perhaps I should re-read it later, in paperback. (and pay attention to the edition I buy)


  5. April 8, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    I honestly dread re-reading it now. I wasn’t going too any day soon (not much of a re-reader) but you never know.


  6. April 9, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    That’s interesting – thanks for that. The last Balzac novel I read (in English, of course) was Illusions Perdues, which contains a very vivid depiction of the world of writers and journalists in Paris. And what emerges is a marked dichotomy between the Classicists (whose heroes were Racine & Corneille), and the Romantics, whose hero was, unambiguously, Shakespeare. It is interesting that both factions had dramatists, not novelists, as their heroes.

    I get the impression that Shakespeare, with his disregard for the classical unities of time and place, and who was happy to mix together the tragic and the comic, was a huge influence on the Romantics: people such as Hugo or Berlioz idolized Shakespeare. On the other hand, the classicist Voltaire (who was of course, of the previous century) preferred the aesthetics of Racine & Corneille, and famously referred to Shakespeare as a “barbarian”.

    Over the course of the 19th century, the novel probably overtook the play as the principal literary medium, but at the time Balzac was writing (1830s and 1840s), I’d guess it was probably drama rather than the novel that was regarded as the form that set literary standards. (I’m not sure about this – I’m only guessing.) I do get the impression that Balzac was, on the whole, a comic author (I’m using the term “comedy” in a broad sense: Balzac did, after all, entitle his series of novels “La Comédie Humaine”), and it does seem entirely reasonable that a French comic writer should regard Molière as a sort of benchmark for his own art.


    • April 10, 2011 at 8:21 pm

      Thank you for your comment, it’s very interesting. I don’t know if what I wrote is right. It’s just the thoughts I had when I was reading.
      Yesterday I heard a radio program about La bataille d’Hernani (Balzac was there too). They described the dichotomy between the Classicists and the Romantics; what you say in your comment is aboslutely right.
      Personally, I’d rather watch a Shakespeare play than a Corneille or Racine. Their long monologues in alexandrins make my eyelids heavy.

      Balzac wrote plays too but they are not considered as masterpieces. Voltaire would have wanted to be Corneille or Racine but wasn’t a great playwright either.

      “it does seem entirely reasonable that a French comic writer should regard Molière as a sort of benchmark for his own art.” That’s what I wanted to say. Thanks for putting it in proper English.


  7. April 13, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Very interesting – you have definitely proved your point there! I am just starting to work my way through Comedie Humaine but have only read two so far – I will soon be starting Splendeurs et Misères des courtisanes which I believe follows on from Lost Illusions which I enjoyed very much.


    • April 13, 2011 at 8:54 am

      Thank you.
      I haven’t read Lost Illusions and Spendeur et misère des courtisanes but I will some day. I’ll pay attention and read your review.


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