Balzac had written more than seventy novels when he began La Cousine Bette, and populated them with recurring characters. Many of the characters in the novel, therefore, appear with extensive back-stories and biographical depth. For example, Célestin Crevel first appeared in Balzac's 1837 novel César Birotteau, working for the title character. Having accumulated a considerable fortune in that book, Crevel spends his time in La Cousine Bette enjoying the spoils of his labor. Another important recurring character is Marshal Hulot, who first appeared as a colonel in Les Chouans. In the years between that story and La Cousine Bette, he became the Count of Forzheim; in a letter to the Constitutionnel, Balzac described how Marshal Hulot gained this title. The presence of Crevel and Marshal Hulot – among others – in La Cousine Bette allows a continuation of each character's life story, adding emphasis or complexity to earlier events.
Other recurring characters appear only briefly in La Cousine Bette; previous appearances, however, give deep significance to the characters' presence. This is the case with Vautrin, the criminal mastermind who tutors young Eugene de Rastignac in Balzac's 1835 novel Le Père Goriot. When he resurfaces in La Cousine Bette, he has joined the police and introduces the Hulot family to his aunt, Mme. Nourrison, who offers a morally questionable remedy for their woes. Although Vautrin's presence in La Cousine Bette is brief, his earlier adventures in Le Père Goriot provide instant recognition and emotional texture. Elsewhere, Balzac presents an entire world of experience by including characters from a particular sphere of society. For example, several scenes feature artists like Jean-Jacques Bixiou, who first appeared in 1837's Les Employés and in many other books thereafter. The world of Parisian nightlife is quickly brought to mind with the inclusion of several characters from Les Comédiens sans le savoir (1846), and Bianchon appears – as always – when a doctor is needed.
Balzac's use of recurring characters has been identified as a unique component of his fiction. It enables a depth of characterization that goes beyond simple narration or dialogue. "When the characters reappear", notes the critic Samuel Rogers, "they do not step out of nowhere; they emerge from the privacy of their own lives which, for an interval, we have not been allowed to see." Some readers, however, are intimidated by the depth created by these interdependent stories, and feel deprived of important context for the characters. Detective novelist Arthur Conan Doyle said that he never tried to read Balzac, because he "did not know where to begin". The characterization in La Cousine Bette is considered especially skillful. Anthony Pugh, in his book Balzac's Recurring Characters, says that the technique is employed "for the most part without that feeling of self-indulgence that mars some of Balzac's later work. Almost every example arises quite naturally out of the situation." Biographer Noel Gerson calls the characters in La Cousine Bette "among the most memorable Balzac ever sketched".
Descriptions of Bette are often connected to savagery and animal imagery. Her name, for example, is a homophone in French for "bête" ("beast"). One passage explains that "elle ressemblait aux singes habillés en femmes" ("she sometimes looked like one of those monkeys in petticoats"); elsewhere her voice is described as having "une jalousie de tigre" ("tiger-like jealousy"). Her beastly rage comes to the surface with ferocity when she learns of Steinbock's engagement to Hortense:
La physionomie de la Lorraine était devenue terrible. Ses yeux noirs et pénétrants avaient la fixité de ceux des tigres. Sa figure ressemblait à celles que nous supposons aux pythonisses, elle serrait les dents pour les empêcher de claquer, et une affreuse convulsion faisait trembler ses membres. Elle avait glissé sa main crochue entre son bonnet et ses cheveux pour les empoigner et soutenir sa tête, devenue trop lourde; elle brûlait! La fumée de l'incendie qui la ravageait semblait passer par ses rides comme par autant de crevasses labourées par une éruption volcanique.
The peasant-woman's face was terrible; her piercing black eyes had the glare of the tiger's; her face was like that we ascribe to a pythoness; she set her teeth to keep them from chattering, and her whole frame quivered convulsively. She had pushed her clenched fingers under her cap to clutch her hair and support her head, which felt too heavy; she was on fire. The smoke of the flame that scorched her seemed to emanate from her wrinkles as from the crevasses rent by a volcanic eruption.
When she learns that her cousin Adeline has been welcoming Steinbock into the Hulot home, Bette swears revenge: "Adeline! se dit Lisbeth, ô Adeline, tu me le payeras, je te rendrai plus laide que moi!" ("'Adeline!' muttered Lisbeth. 'Oh, Adeline, you shall pay for this! I will make you uglier than I am.'") Her cruelty and lust for revenge lead critics to call her "demonic" and "one of Balzac's most terrifying creations". Because of her willingness to manipulate the people around her, Bette has been compared to Iago in William Shakespeare's play Othello. Her fierce persona is attributed partly to her peasant background, and partly to her virginity, which provides (according to Balzac) "une force diabolique ou la magie noire de la volonté" ("diabolical strength, or the black magic of the Will").
In a letter to Mme. Hanska, Balzac indicated that he based the character of Bette on three women from his life: his mother, Mme. Hanska's aunt Rosalie Rzewuska, and the poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. Balzac had a tumultuous relationship with his mother for most of his life, and he incorporated some of her personality (particularly her "obstinate persistence in living", as one critic calls it) into Bette. Rosalie Rzewuska disapproved of Mme. Hanska's relationship with Balzac; biographers agree that her cold determination was part of the author's recipe for Bette. Elements taken from Marceline Desbordes-Valmore are more complex; she faced many setbacks in life and she and Balzac became friends after she left the theatre to take up poetry.
Bette's co-conspirator in the destruction of the Hulot family is beautiful and greedy Valérie Marneffe, the unsatisfied wife of a War Department clerk. They develop a deep friendship, which many critics consider an example of lesbian affection. Because of their relationship and similar goals, the critic Frederic Jameson says that "Valérie serves as a kind of emanation of Bette".
Valérie is repulsed by her ugly husband and has gone five years without kissing him. She explains bluntly that her position as a married woman provides subtleties and options unavailable to the common prostitute who has one set price; after Marneffe dies, Valérie jockeys for position between Hulot and Montés (while also sleeping with Steinbock), then discards them all to marry Crevel, who offers the most wealth. She amuses herself by mocking her lovers' devotion, and this wickedness – not to mention her gruesome demise – has led some critics to speculate that she is actually the focus of Balzac's morality tale.
In one important scene, Valérie models for Steinbock as Delilah, standing victorious over the ruined Samson. With obvious parallels to her own activities, she describes her vision for the piece: "Il s'agit d'exprimer la puissance de la femme. Samson n'est rien, là. C'est le cadavre de la force. Dalila, c'est la passion qui ruine tout." ("What you have to show is the power of woman. Samson is a secondary consideration. He is the corpse of dead strength. It is Delilah—passion—that ruins everything.")
Although Balzac did not draw specifically from the women in his life to create Valérie, parallels have been observed in some areas. The tumultuous end of his affair with Louise Breugniot and the advantage she gains from his devotion to Mme. Hanska is similar in some ways to Valérie's manipulation of Steinbock. Critics also connect the pride and anguish felt by Balzac during Mme. Hanska's pregnancy and miscarriage to the same emotions felt by Baron Hulot when Valérie conceives and loses her child. Although he never ascribed to Mme. Hanska any of the traits in Valérie's treacherous character, he felt a devotion similar to that of Hulot. He once wrote to her: "je fais pour mon Eve toute les folies qu'un Hulot fait pour une Marneffe, je te donnerai mon sang, mon honneur, ma vie" ("I commit for [you] all the follies that a Hulot commits for Madame Marneffe; I give you my blood, my honor, my life").
Hector and Adeline Hulot
Baron Hector Hulot is a living manifestation of male sexual desire, unrestrained and unconcerned with its consequences for the man or his family. As the novel progresses, he becomes consumed by his libido, even in a physical sense. When Valérie tells him to stop dyeing his hair, he does so to please her. His financial woes and public disgrace lead him to flee his own home; by the end of the book he is an elderly, decrepit shell of a man. Baron Hulot is so overcome by his taste for female flesh that he even asks his wife – without irony – if he can bring home his fifteen-year-old mistress.
Adeline Hulot, on the other hand, is mercy personified. Like her cousin Bette, she comes from a peasant background, but has internalized the ideals of 19th-century womanhood, including devotion, grace, and deference. She reveals in the first scene that she has known for years about her husband's infidelities, but refuses to condemn him. Adeline's forgiving nature is often considered a significant character flaw. Some suggest that she is partly to blame for Hulot's wandering affection. C.A. Prendergast, for example, calls her forgiveness "an inadequate and even positively disastrous response" to her situation. He further suggests that Adeline, by choosing the role of quiet and dutiful wife, has excised from herself the erotic power to which the Baron is drawn. "[O]ne could at the very least offer the tentative speculation that Hulot's obsessional debauchery is in part the result of a certain poverty in Adeline, that the terrible logic of Hulot's excess is partially shaped by a crucial deficiency in his wife." Others are less accusatory; Adeline's nearly infinite mercy, they say, is evidence of foolishness. Critic Herbert J. Hunt declares that she shows "more imbecility than Christian patience", and David Bellos points out that, like her husband, she is driven by passion – albeit of a different kind: "Adeline's desire (for good, for the family, for Hector, for God) is so radically different from the motivating desires of the other characters that she seems in their context to be without desire ..."
Balzac's inspiration for the characters of Hector and Adeline remain unclear, but several critics have been eager to speculate. Three officers named Hulot were recognized for their valor in the Napoleonic Wars, and some suggest that Balzac borrowed the name of Comte Hector d'Aure. None of these men, however, were known for the sort of philandering or thievery exhibited by Baron Hulot in the novel. Instead, Balzac may have used himself as the model; his many affairs with women across the social spectrum lead some to suggest that the author "found much of Hulot in himself". Balzac's friend Victor Hugo, meanwhile, was famously discovered in bed with his mistress in July 1845. The similarity of his name to Hector Hulot (and that of his wife's maiden name, Adèle Foucher, to Adeline Fischer) has been posited as a possible indication of the characters' origins.
The Polish sculptor Wenceslas Steinbock is important primarily because of Bette's attachment to him. He offers Bette a source of pride, a way for her to prove herself worthy of her family's respect. When Hortense marries Steinbock, Bette feels as though she has been robbed. Prendergast insists that the incident "must literally be described as an act of theft".
Steinbock's relevance also lies in his background and profession, illustrating Balzac's conception of the Polish people, as well as himself. Having spent more than a decade befriending Mme. Hanska and visiting her family in Poland, Balzac believed he had insight into the national character (as he felt about most groups he observed). Thus, descriptions of Steinbock are often laced with commentary about the Polish people: "Soyez mon amie, dit-il avec une de ces démonstrations caressantes si familières aux Polonais, et qui les font accuser assez injustement de servilité." ("'Be my sweetheart,' he added, with one of the caressing gestures familiar to the Poles, for which they are unjustly accused of servility.")
Critics also consider Steinbock important because of his artistic genius. Like Louis Lambert and Lucien Chardon in Illusions perdues, he is a brilliant man – just as Balzac considered himself to be. Before he is nurtured and directed by Bette, however, Steinbock's genius languishes under his own inertia and he attempts suicide. Later, when he leaves Bette's circle of influence, he fails again. Thus he demonstrates Balzac's conviction that genius alone is useless without determination. Bellos organizes Steinbock and Bette into a duality of weakness and strength; whereas the Polish artist is unable to direct his energies into productive work, Bette draws strength from her virginity and thus becomes powerful by denying the lust to which Steinbock falls prey. Steinbock's drive is further eroded by the praise he receives for his art, which gives him an inflated sense of accomplishment. One critic refers to the artist's downfall as "vanity ... spoiled by premature renown".